Obscenity’s Not Just a Set of Words

January 9, 2019 by Leonard Pitts

As a general rule, I don’t curse a lot.

I’ve found that I can usually express myself effectively enough without it. And it’s always seemed to me that foul language, used ubiquitously, loses its primary value, i.e., its ability to shock or to state a thing with force. How seriously should anyone take the F-bomb you drop after being passed over for promotion when you are also known to drop F-bombs because the store runs out of Frosted Flakes?

I know this places me outside the norms and mores of this era that, where language is concerned, is something of a free-fire zone. And that’s fine. I just wanted to contextualize my response to last week’s exuberant vow from newly sworn Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib. In case you missed it, she promised to “impeach the motherf—–.” Meaning, of course, Donald Trump.

Those words have made her the latest darling of the political left; indeed, you can already buy T-shirts emblazoned with her battle cry. But from where I sit, Tlaib is just the latest in a lamentable and bipartisan line of political leaders dropping verbal litter into the public square. I am old-fashioned enough to regret the coarsening of our political dialogue and to believe the privilege of public office obligates one to speak to our better angels, not our worst.

That said, I’m less vexed by Tlaib’s words than by the right-wing response thereto. Many Republicans seem to have caught the vapors at being subjected to such an ungentle expression. You had Deputy Press Secretary Hogan Gidley lamenting her “nasty, ridiculous, outrageous rhetoric.” You had Rep. Kevin McCarthy chiding Democrats for “foul language.” And did Donald Trump (!) really call Tlaib’s statement “disgraceful”?

Lord, give me strength.

For any Trump acolyte, much less the so-called president himself, to deride anyone for saying a bad word is an act of hypocrisy truly Brobdingnagian in scale. Trump, after all, has been a veritable Vesuvius of invective and insult from the day he first oozed onto the political scene. The man who spoke of grabbing women “by the pussy,” who called NFL players “sons of bitches,” who derided 17 percent of humanity as living in “shithole” countries, does not get to lecture anyone, anywhere at any time on inappropriate language.

Moreover, Republicans might want to look in the mirror before they complain about anything being obscene. The word is defined by Merriam-Webster as that which is “abhorrent to morality or virtue.” And that might as well be the official slogan of the Grand Old Party.

Because obscenity is not just a set of words. It is also a set of attitudes and actions.

As a direct result of GOP attitudes and actions, we live in a country where programs to feed the hungry face deep cuts while we give tax breaks to billionaires, immigrant children are snatched from their families and lost in a labyrinthine system, voting rights are stolen from vulnerable people, the government watches supinely as the planet overheats and mentally deranged people purchase assault weapons while children as young as preschool age practice active-shooter drills.

But we should be outraged at the bad word a little known congresswoman said? No.

In their attitudes and actions, Republicans routinely curse the Constitution, profane America’s ideals and vituperate its values. So for as much as one could do without Rashida Tlaib’s potty mouth, it’s hardly the most offensive thing in our political lives. A far greater obscenity plays out every single day in headlines of preventable calamity, tragedy, degradation and loss.

And in too many Republicans who just don’t give a damn.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.



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