I'm a bit confounded by the uproar surrounding Elizabeth May's speech at this year's Parliamentary Press Gallery Dinner. Yes, the leader of the Green Party was working blue. Yes, she dropped what we are now euphemistically calling "the f-bomb," when she said that Omar Khadr had "more class than the whole [bleeping] Cabinet."
You would think, from the reaction that followed, that she had dropped an actual bomb on Ottawa and not the linguistic equivalent of a Nerf bullet. You might assume that she had been addressing a bunch of medieval nuns at vespers and not a boozy party of journalists and spin doctors, such was the prissiness of the hand-wringing that followed.
If you look up Ms. May's speech on the CBC website, it will come with a caveat: "Warning: graphic language." A similar advisory appears alongside the terrifying footage of the avalanche that devoured the base camp at Mount Everest, taken by German climber Jost Kobusch. Not, "warning: this video contains imminent death," or "terrifying wall of snow may haunt your dreams," but "warning: profane language." I'd say if there were ever a moment for profanity, it's when death stares you in the eye. Or the Ottawa press gallery.
It says something about our cultural squeamishness around swearing that there are warnings on videos that contain explicit language, but not explicit violence. On YouTube you can watch footage of 12-year-old Tamir Rice being shot to death by police in Cleveland, or of Eric Garner, who died after being choked by police in Staten Island, with no similar warning preparing you for the disturbing content within. Language, to this day, contains powerful taboos.
That was evident this week in the controversy that raged over men shouting a loathsome epithet at a female broadcast journalist live on air, a years-old trend that may finally have jumped the shark. In that case, the profanity wasn't light-hearted: It was a direct threat, aimed at an individual.
Language is performance, which every adult realizes. We write our own scripts to define the roles we play. There is a time and a place for the word that Pierre Trudeau translated as "fuddle-duddle." When you're being threatened with death by a mountain full of snow, yes; when you're speaking in public at a dinner where irreverence is served along with the wine, perhaps; when you're harassing a person trying to do her job, no. No [expletive deleted] way.
A word spoken in private, or between friends, or at campaign headquarters, does not have the same impact as the same word spoken in public. Politicians learn this lesson early. When President Barack Obama decided to chew out reporters in a "profanity-laden" tirade, he did it in private, off the record, not at a Rotary Club meeting.
When Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor of California, and wanted to tell a political rival to do something rude and physiologically impossible to himself, he didn't say it out loud. He put it in a note, as an acrostic, so that it was spelled out by the first letter in each line. (You could argue that he was fighting fire with fire: The political rival, state assemblyman Tom Ammiano, had told Gov. Schwarzenegger to "kiss my gay ass.")
You may wonder why I, a person so potty-mouthed that my swear jar contains more money than the Ontario treasury, am dancing around this word. In fact, I'm so potty-mouthed that my daughter tried to make a bargain with me late last year. She said, "If you can stop swearing for one month, you can swear all you want on Christmas Day." Let it never be said that I am raising my children without religion.
Kids have a keener nose for hypocrisy than candy, so it is no use giving her the same justifications I tell myself: that profanity is a linguistic bonding exercise; that it can actually lessen pain, according to one academic study; and that, according to American researchers of taboo words, .5 per cent of the words we use everyday are expletives.
I may be potty-mouthed, but my employer isn't. The Globe and Mail, like many other legacy media outlets, frowns on profanity – though exceptions are sometimes granted, with the permission of a senior editor, for expletives contained in direct quotes. The Globe's style guide makes a useful point: "Our relationship with our readers is a public one, and in public everyone deserves, and expects, the courtesy of being considered capable of being offended by vulgarity."
That may change, as the language and common standards change. In his book F**k: An Irreverent History of the F-Word, Rufus Lodge points out that even the most forbidden words eventually lose their ability to shock: "For centuries, any reference to God's wounds enjoyed terrifying cultural power." Zounds was the z-bomb of its day. Now you can go around zounding all you want. Zounds, it's hot out. A pox on your zounding ticket.
The z-bomb was eventually defused. The f-bomb has shown remarkable staying power as a taboo, but I'm hoping we'll be able to do the same for it one day. It's a useful word to have around.