Recently, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand swore during a speech at the Personal Democracy Forum at New York University. She said, “If we’re not helping people, we should go the f**k home.” And later on, talking about President Trump, she added, “Has he kept his promises? F**k no.”
There was a fair amount of scolding on line from people (mostly right-wingers) who felt that it was inappropriate. Of course, the left wing criticized candidate Trump for saying, repeatedly, on the campaign trail, that he would “bomb the s**t out of ISIS.”
What’s appropriate behavior? Is there a double standard involved – it’s OK if the people I agree with swear, and not OK if people from the other party swear? Are women less likely to swear – and more likely to get criticized – another kind of double standard?
This sort of talk, and emotional outbursts more generally, used to be enough to derail or even kill a career. When Ed Muskie cried in public in 1972 about nasty things that William Loeb of the Manchester Union Leader said about his wife, in a move now generally accepted to have been a dirty trick from the Nixon Committee for the Re-election of the President, aptly known as CREEP, the tears ended Muskie’s campaign.
Candidate and now President Trump’s many vulgarities have both helped lead to and are symptomatic of a general coarsening of the political rhetoric.
But a new low was reached when his just-appointed Communications Chief, Mr. Anthony Scaramucci, delivered an expletive-and-vulgarity-laden rant to a New Yorker reporter on the eve of his taking on the new position.
Did Mr. Scaramucci go too far, or is it just another step toward some sort of authentic, vulgar public discourse that we should have been having all along? Of course, he was fired by the new Chief of Staff, General Kelly, just ten days into his tenure as communications chief. So maybe even the Trump White House felt his language went too far.
If so, then good. I think we need to hold a real line. I don’t think public speech that is generally accessible to all, including children should contain profanities and vulgarities. Private talk is a different matter. I think both Senator Gillibrand and President Trump’s White House should clean up their acts, remember that they are role models for generations of Americans (and people around the world), and avoid the F-bombs.
What about professional public speaking? More and more now I hear speakers using coarse language casually in speeches. Indeed, the field was blown wide open by Gary Vaynerchuk, who uses as many F-bombs as a Mafioso chief in an R-rated movie. Gary has been hugely successful, and so many people who might otherwise have not gone so far, now swear with abandon.
Once again, I think we need to consider the context. I don’t think the current lack of standards is OK, and I’m going to go out on a limb and say Vaynerchuk, while admirable in many ways, and hugely successful, should clean up his act.
Audiences vary. What is appropriate in front of some is not in front of others. Speakers should research their audiences, their events, and their venues carefully, and avoid cursing when children might be present, when the values of the organization won’t countenance it, or when the speech is available to be widely studied and imitated by the public, including students, thanks to TED and Youtube and the Internet in general.
If you think that sounds hopelessly stuffy and puritanical, then I ask you, how young does an audience have to be before you’d censor yourself? Would you curse up a storm in front of ten-year olds? Six-year olds? Infants? No? Then you have to agree to draw the line somewhere.
Finally, no matter where you end up drawing the line, rhetorical effectiveness argues against the Vaynerchuk style of relentless swearing. For an F-bomb or an occasional “s**t” to have the kind of rhetorical punch that you no doubt desire, then it needs to be rare, and delicately applied, like a strong spice dropped into a stew. If you add too much, the dish becomes unpalatable.
One of the most famous speeches of the twentieth century was the Reverend Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” oration to nearly half a million people on the Mall in Washington DC in 1963. What would the effect have been if he had said “I have a f**king dream”?
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