Dirty Hands and Filthy Words

          The Gettysburg Address is not laced with expletives. When Abraham Lincoln delivered the speech on the eve of the namesake battle over one hundred years ago, he didn’t sprinkle in a few forbidden words for added emphasis. Instead, the lasting power of the speech lies in its precision, powerful brevity, and seamless eloquence.

          Back in 2012, some may have wondered why Lincoln delivered such a clean speech – this was the year that director Steven Spielberg came out with a Lincoln biopic that depicted the leader as one who was prone to the profane. The film notably incorporated enough obscene language for movie review sites to point out its frequent mentioning of words such as “shit” and “goddamn.”

          Whether the film accurately portrays Lincoln’s choices in diction remains controversial. In his article on the subject, Paul Bond seeks out historian David Barton to settle the issue once and for all. Barton, contrarily to Spielberg’s interpretation, states that Lincoln was so intolerant of profanity that during the Civil War, soldiers who used foul language were court-martialed.

          It’s hard to think of a great political figure throughout history who has dared to utilize profanity, at least in the public sphere. When considering what we value in our historical heroes, we rarely associate them with cursing, as the use of expletives is often correlated with vulgarity. However, for some, the most recent election cycle marks a shift in the American public’s perception of explicit language and who gets to use it. In the past, the absence of profanity in the political discourse of great leaders implied the public’s intolerance of explicit language. Yet, with some of the recent presidential campaigns being so uninhibited, it’s hard to imagine that the same extent of intolerance that existed once, still exists today. Do we truly value prudence in our political leaders if we have elected into the highest public office a man who uses the word “fuck” – and its many variations – as freely as a poorly behaved middle-schooler?

          On the one hand, we think of someone who disregards basic rules of etiquette as being unfit to lead and represent our country. Cursing has often been associated with a lack of self-awareness and rudeness. The taboo that envelops the practice is so strong, that recent studies give evidence to a real negative emotional and physiological reaction that occurs when we hear swear words.

          At the same time, we also tend to view those who incorporate expletives into their rhetoric as being more honest. Whereas the more “official” social reaction to cursing is negative, the more subconscious and less regulated reaction appears to be rather positive.  Those who use stronger words are not afraid to break unwritten social rules for the sake of expressing their true, honest feelings. Simply put — they tell it like it is. This creates an ideal situation for the politician who utilizes profanity in his or her rhetoric, as the candor surrounding the use of expletives undermines the stereotype that politicians are untrustworthy, and gives the politician an honest quality that Americans value greatly.

          The bad-mouthed politician’s distaste for social rules and rigidity may also be appealing. Watching a politician on TV and hearing them use words that you may use in your daily life – or at least when you deem the situation appropriate – may indirectly allow you to feel a degree of comfort and relatability to the politician, regardless of the leader’s position of power. In this case, the power of expletive rhetoric is so strong that when it is properly employed, it is able to transcend barriers of class and authority. The idea that one can become “a man of the people” simply through how one speaks, provides insight into the weight that words carry in politics.

          One can look towards General George S. Patton’s speech to the Third Army to further understand the relationship between political profanity and perceived relatability. When Patton gave his speech in 1944 – prior to the invasion of France by the allied powers – he made reference to the “bastards” on the opposing side quite liberally. His claim that “Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser” is emboldened by mentions of “son-of-a-bitches” and “cocksuckers.” The usage of such uninhibited diction was well received by Patton’s soldiers; but, it was far too unprofessional for his fellow officers. Though Patton’s speech may have been deemed inappropriate by his peers, it had a positive impact on those for whom it was truly meant for. The utility of these “foul” words proved to be of greater value in its effectiveness over its offensiveness, and in the end, what mattered most was its ability to motivate. When the soldiers saw their General (a man who could otherwise be unreachable in his immense power) speaking in the same way that they did, it is likely that they subconsciously saw themselves in him. With their leader offering them a sense of equality and relatability, the soldiers were able to take his words to heart and turn them into solid, successful action.  

          The aggressive nature of profanity thus becomes a tool for motivation, especially in the context of politics and war. It is easy to make claims that you will be tough on crime, immigration, rogue states, and the like. However, when you deliver these claims with a tone that reflects the strong nature of these actions, your rage seems more genuine. Similarly, the likelihood that you will follow through appears to be greater because of the impassioned tone that you use to discuss your actions. Candidates who employ these risky rhetorical techniques have mastered the balance between coming off as honest and simultaneously willing to get their hands dirty.