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, 23rd–century-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.
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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