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Have we caught up with James T. Kirk’s observation on profanity? Maybe not quite.

In light of the fracas regarding Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s use of a term to describe President Trump that can’t be spoken on broadcast news, a term that starts with “mother” and ends with a variation of the f-word, I’ve recalled some dialogue from the film “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.” In the movie, 23rdcentury-born characters Spock and Adm. James T. Kirk are navigating 1986 San Francisco when Kirk is nearly hit by a car and is called a “dumb ass” by the car’s driver. Kirk, a creation of deep feelings, responds with a “well, a double dumb ass on you!” Afterward, Spock calmly tells Kirk that “the use of language has altered since our arrival.” Kirk then asks Spock if it is the profanity he notices. Spock says yes, and Kirk replies, rather memorably, that “well, that’s simply the way they talk here. Nobody pays any attention to you unless you swear every other word.”

This sequence often comes back to me when minor or major celebrities make news for spouting language that has generally been considered unfit for use in dignified society within the past century or so. The immense outrage that has erupted in the wake of Tlaib’s comments includes that from those who have condemned her words and the congresswoman herself to hell, as well as from those who have said few go nuts and many think it is refreshing when men use similar words (e.g., former Vice President Joe Biden after the passage of the Affordable Care Act, Trump himself upon more than a few recorded occasions, or Beto O’Rourke while conceding the U.S. Senate seat in Texas). Many who found Tlaib’s language to be vulgar and unacceptable were nearly apoplectic when she forcefully defended her description. Similar reactions occurred following the double utterances by former Canadian Prime Minister Kim Campbell that Trump is indeed the term employed by Tlaib. Campbell, a frequent Trump critic long known for more candid communication, seems nowhere near ready to apologize for her comments, despite calls from some in Canadian media and political circles that she revert to Stereotypical Canadian Polite and do so.

An under-discussed question

Fiery and far from ended though the backlash may be over the propriety/impropriety of such language, there is another ember in this cauldron that is rather under-discussed by most of social media and the cable talk shows. I think that bit concerns the idea as to whether communication in general has just gotten so profane, so full of coarse language that we are now at a point where nothing is really out-of-bounds anymore and no one can do anything about matters anyway.

I’m far from being in the realm of former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who famously said in 1964 that when it came to obscenity, he knew it when he saw it. But I’d say we have reached the point where almost anything anyone might say is now tolerable, and not terribly obscene, for a good many people. Anyone living within the past several decades or so who has gone to a movie, a bar, or a children’s soccer game, or spent time on social media might agree, as terms such as badass, LMFAO, and much more are encountered on a constant basis.

No matter which side we might take on such language, I think it is safe to say that most of us don’t want to go all the way back to the false etiquette and repression represented in, say, many of the more unrealistic movies and television programs of the 1950s. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that rough language can be particularly effective when it is used at times that really call for such verbal sandpaper. Especially when it is added to a powerfully and carefully constructed statement or argument.

Mary Stanik

Mary Stanik

Lunch line effectiveness

Here is an example of such. I had a friend at university, a middle-aged woman who could have made Queen Elizabeth II seem like a pirate’s barkeep. But one day, as we were getting some lunch, another student (who could have been sent by Central Casting as the snobby, rich college boy) called the cafeteria worker a stupid (expletive deleted) because he felt he hadn’t been given enough fries. My friend, and I quote, said: “Listen, you pathetic little (term used by Tlaib and Campbell). Marie displays more intelligence and dignity in her pinky than you or your arriviste father could ever buy with your family’s declining fortune.” My friend’s carefully arranged updo moved not a hair, her Hermes scarf was not aflutter. Marie and many others on the line laughed and the Central Casting character turned scarlet and stumbled away with his insufficient fries. And then my friend quietly said she needed more ice in her Coca-Cola.

Whether we have already become a society where no one pays any attention to us unless we swear every other word (as Adm. Kirk thought) is obviously subject to debate. But as we debate, maybe a good many of us also should seriously consider the words of one who was not known to shy from what was considered salty language in the 19th century, those of one Mark Twain, who once said: “Under certain circumstances, urgent circumstances, desperate circumstances, profanity provides a relief denied even to prayer.”

Mary Stanik, a writer and public-relations professional, lives in St. Paul. She is the author of the novel “Life Erupted.”


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Comments (21)

  1. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/10/2019 - 09:17 am.

    Certain sectors of society have always indulged in discourse that would be considered outside the pale by “polite” society. In older show business circles, “mo********er” was sometimes regarded as a term of endearment.

  2. Submitted by Greg Smith on 01/10/2019 - 11:12 am.

    I always found profanity as a sign of intellectual laziness.

  3. Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/10/2019 - 11:53 am.

    Well done on the Star Trek reference. That’s a great line in funny sequence, and totally appropriate to the discussion.

    Double dumb ass on you!

    • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 01/10/2019 - 02:32 pm.

      Such colorful metaphors! Can I say ‘double dumb ass on you’ in Minnpost comment threads from here on out? This is my go-to mock insult I use in daily life. Clearly, childhood memories hold strong.

      Trump reminds me of the punk on the bus… only with a weaker vocabulary and less glorious hair.

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/10/2019 - 04:08 pm.

        I was a little worried the Minnpost editors wouldn’t let it through, but its in the story and now in both of our published comments.

        We’ll have to see if it flies in response to a non-Star Trek related comment.

  4. Submitted by Bob Barnes on 01/10/2019 - 12:48 pm.

    I don’t get the reference to the 50s… that time period seemed like a pretty polite era in our nation. I think a lot of these kinds of issues come up because we are so advanced. We don’t have to worry about our food supply or cutting firewood to stay warm all winter or toiling away in the fields all summer. We have too much time on our hands and choose not to use it productively. We haven’t had any real tech or scientific breakthroughs in 30+ years. Nothing groundbreaking for sure.

    We should not just accept people acting or talking this way. We should hold ourselves to a higher standard and be more polite in general. We certainly shouldn’t allow a politician get away with acting like this in front of the whole world, regardless of which party they belong to.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/10/2019 - 01:01 pm.

      “We haven’t had any real tech or scientific breakthroughs in 30+ years. Nothing groundbreaking for sure.”

      Who is this “we?” It has been only 28 years since the development of internet protocol and HTML. In the past 30 years, science has discovered the Higgs-Boson, confirmed the existence of dark matter, and sequenced the human genome. Biomechanical engineers have developed an artificial hand that can be controlled by thoughts, and artificial intelligence is developing into a force that will change how humans interact with technology..

      “We certainly shouldn’t allow a politician get away with acting like this in front of the whole world, regardless of which party they belong to.”

      Is that why you’ve been so resolute in condemning the vulgarity spewed by President Trump?

      • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/10/2019 - 04:48 pm.

        I think the mistaken belief that there hasn’t been any significant technological advancement over the last 30 years (solar and wind power efficiency?) contributes considerably to Mr. Barnes’s worldview.

      • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 01/10/2019 - 08:26 pm.

        Trump’s vulgarity was recorded off the record. He didn’t say it in public, nor did he expect it to be repeated in public. He has never spoken in vulgarities in public.

        There’s your difference.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 01/11/2019 - 09:42 am.

          Your average bull would resent having his excrement compared to that comment.

          What did the Goniff-in-Chief call NFL players who kneel during the national anthem?

          What did he say he was going to do to ISIS, bombing-wise?

          How did he refer to the Chinese, when he said he wanted to tax them 25%?

          Let’s face it: there are two real differences here. The first is that Rep. Tlaib is a young woman of color who chose to run for Congress rather than pursue a career as a soft-core porn model. The second is that conservatives are incapable of criticizing Trump in any other than the mildest, most dismissive terms.

          The vulgarity and the insults are all part of the gravy, Mr. Senker. You would be more convincing if you condemned either public or private vulgarity when it is not directed at the “wrong” target.

        • Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 01/11/2019 - 10:35 am.

          Careful Curtis…..that word ‘never’ has a history of haunting.

        • Submitted by Pat Terry on 01/11/2019 - 02:31 pm.

          Hmmm. Lets see what I can come up with in 30 seconds on Google:

          • Submitted by Curtis Senker on 01/11/2019 - 04:14 pm.

            Had not seen any of that. I stand corrected. I don’t approve of Trump’s use of vulgarities and I dont approve of Tlaibs use of vulgarities.

        • Submitted by Kathleen Castrovinci on 01/17/2019 - 02:32 pm.

          Calling African-American NFL players who took a knee “Sons of Bitches” was Trump being POLITE in public? Surely you jest.

          When Trump insults others like Elizabeth Warren, Maxine Waters, Hillary Clinton, and others, in public and at his rallies,it is the same as swearing. It is vulgar and has no place. For Donald Trump eschews the norms and makes up rules that apply to him only and his crowd loves it.

    • Submitted by Matt Haas on 01/12/2019 - 10:23 pm.

      Let me guess, you rail against the vagaries of ” political correctness” with reckless abandon though, right. Because everyone knows curse words are FAR more damaging than racial slurs, xeno/homo/islamo phobic comments and unvarnished misogyny.

  5. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 01/10/2019 - 11:43 pm.

    I hope that the Representative enjoys her 15 minutes of fame. Unless she delivers on her promise, that will be her last memorable effort. Will there be a MeToo for potty mouths?

  6. Submitted by Noel Martinson on 01/11/2019 - 07:59 am.

    Nice article. One aspect that could be explored further is the way many kinds of profanity also serve as tacit expressions of prejudice. For example racist profanity is largely taboo unless you identify as member of the race involved. Yet for terms related to misogyny, misandry, and some forms of gender-ism it seems to be more broadly acceptable. Perhaps the success of the MeToo and LGBTQ movements will include more of these other terms becoming taboo. Don’t worry, there will still be plenty of profane words left to choose from should you desire it.

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