Cussing from the stump: lob a bomb or keep it clean?

A recent Associated Press story covering a rash of obscenities uttered by East Coast politicians caught my attention because the swearing was deliberate and spoken in public, G-rated settings.

Our culture is certainly familiar with (and usually forgiving of) the slip-of-the-tongue, heat-of-the-moment swearing. Indeed, many (if not most) people swear. Some more than others, some more often they’d like to admit, and some only in the most extreme circumstances. Linguists note the human tendency to swear has been around as long as any we’ve had voice boxes — vulgarities are depicted in writings going back 5,000 years and oral traditions likely included similar indecencies.

With media reporting in Twitter time, however, we are likely to see more reports of these accidental and spontaneous utterances by politicians.

Politicos cussing with malice aforethought, however, presents a very different issue: will our culture tolerate the intentional use of vulgar language by politicians in civic discourse? What adequately justifies, if anything does, profane speech in a civic context—an overall coarsening of popular culture from reality-TV and social media? A desire to appear as and connect with the “average Joe?”

More reasons than not to keep it clean. While profanities may elicit a positive, rah-rah response from some, far more reasons exist against lobbing obscenities at G-rated crowds.

1.    We expect more and better from public figures. While few can deny having uttered an occasional expletive, the electorate holds public officials and politicians to higher standards. They are expected to behave, speak well, be proper, act morally and ethically, do good, and above all, represent the best for the people. Swearing in public fulfills none of these expectations.  

2.    There are other words and ways to achieve the communications objective. If the communications objective is to express an idea with particular flair, emphasis or emotion, the English language contains approximately 750,000 words to choose from. Here presents an opportunity to be selective with the vast choices and engage the audience with smart, thoughtful words.  

If the objective is to appear authentic and to develop a strong connection with the audience, plain, simple English works just fine — especially when backed with authenticity in motive and spirit. There is no better way to appear authentic than by being authentic.

3.    Foul language is not a reputation enhancer. Cussing on the stump is unlikely to engender a more favorable opinion of politicians by the American people. Generally speaking, politicians need to rehabilitate their damaged reputations – not conduct themselves in a manner that causes further degradation. Indeed, polls show that a vast majority of Americans think politicians focus on the wrong thing (swear words, perhaps?) and a majority have little or no confidence in the men and women who seek or hold elected office. Politicians would do well to consider the linguistic tactics that serve to build and strengthen their standing in the communities in which they serve.

4.    Non-profane word choices will promote civility towards others. No doubt, politics have never been nastier.  As such, there’s never been a better time to start promoting civility towards each other by careful and thoughtful word choices. The civility that is reflected to us by our politicians might just have a positive impact on the civility that the citizenry extends to one another.  

Consider civic discourse if the U.K. Parliament House of Commons courtesies and conventions:

. . . Members should not be addressed as ‘you’ but should be referred to as ‘the honourable Member for [constituency]’, ‘my honourable friend’ or ‘the honourable Member opposite’. Privy Councillors are ‘Right Honourable’…..

While the British Parliament is not without its own challenges, the labels assigned to colleagues and rivals matter. For example, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie may be a gifted public speaker, but his public label of a lawmaker as “one arrogant S.O.B.” leaves room for improvement.

I’m not naively suggesting that if politicians followed the U.K. Parliament conventions and courtesies, American politics suddenly would become civil and pleasant. After all, the British Parliament in practice is not a model of civility and decorum, with speakers regularly and openly heckled by their opponents. But the ability to convey acrid criticisms while avoiding unparliamentary language is a point of pride for the Brits—as Winston Churchill famously used the phrase “terminological exactitude” to mean “lie.”

The House of Commons convention that encourages responsible free speech exemplifies what is lacking at times in American political discourse:

Members should bear in mind Erskine May’s dictum that “good temper and moderation are the characteristics of Parliamentary language”. It is important that exercise of the privilege of freedom of speech is tempered with responsibility. 

Lincoln, Kennedy, and Regan are remembered as great communicators because their words inspired and uplifted the civic discourse and their speech echoes in the American consciousness long after they have gone.

Perhaps the Honorable Governor from New Jersey and his cussing brethren may consider how their oratory will be remembered, if at all, and find value in bringing back some good temper and moderation to future public discourse.  

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