On cursing in public, an organizing perspective

At a celebration after being sworn into the House of Representatives for her first term of office, Rep. Rashida Tlaib made the following statement:

 “When your son looks at you and says, ‘Momma, look you won, bullies don’t win,’ and I said, ‘Baby, they don’t,’ because we’re gonna go in there and we’re gonna impeach the motherfucker.”

A Muslim who has seen her people targeted for arrest, torture and deportation by an administration full of racist white nationalists, I understand Rep. Tlaib’s comment and how it was expressed.

I have a very bad tendency to drop curse words into all kinds of conversations. During my senior year in high school, I was nominated for “Biggest trench mouth” at the annual awards show–despite not being that accomplished or well known in my school. In other words, the one thing that people knew about me was that I swore a lot. Thank god I didn’t win!

I have carried this tendency into adult life and have frequently been called out for my salty language. It hasn’t helped that for twenty years I worked in an office of community organizers. Organizers are already accustomed to being outcasts in society, so the niceties of public life were not rigidly applied and no repercussions existed for cursing. “Fuck” was the go-to adjective, adverb and/or general expression of disbelief in our office banter.

I have sworn in a church hallway while arguing with U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer about Pell Grants for the incarcerated ( I was in support BTW.) I have dropped the F-bomb in a public meeting while addressing the President of the Syracuse Common Council (Not about him, but rather some city policy, he was a very thoughtful and polite individual.) I am no stranger to the surprise and awkward silence that follows one of my outbursts.

So, far be it for me to criticize Rep. Tlaib for her language. I also do not believe that Rep. Tlaib should apologize for the use of one word. Her opponents will not believe the apology is sincere and her most ardent supporters do not really care.

The one suggestion I will make to Rep. Tlaib is to remember this moment and think about how you should and should not make use of cursing. Your current position totally changes how your public utterances are framed in the media. The moment that you utter such a strong epithet, all discussion about the topic you addressed will cease and the story will become your language and the pearl-clutchers demanding an apology.

If you had said “we’re going to impeach this racist hatemonger” the story in the papers the next day is framed in a totally different way. The question from the opponents is “Prove it!” and we have more than enough evidence to win that fight.

I would reserve the use of the word motherfucker and other blunt, to the point language for issues that no one is talking about and the press has seemingly given up on. The shock value of the langiage may be enough to get an issue on the radar–no guarantees, but it may be worth a shot if all hope is seemingly lost. What the fuck do you have to lose?

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