The colorful one-liner Stephen Colbert fired off about Vladimir Putin’s little Putin and President Trump’s mouth wasn’t particularly funny, nor was it characteristic of Colbert’s usual comedic style. Perhaps the saddest thing about the joke was the implicitly homophobic subtext to it, which suggests that oral sex between men is degrading.
Colbert is better than this, and that he felt he needed to go there gives us a good sense of how ferociously competitive the anti-Trump humor market is today. But it also is part of a larger struggle: to break through the noise of a society that is hyper-communicative and feels itself in crisis. Well beyond the confines of late-night comedy, people are embracing a notion of language as performance and combat, and reaching for words that have more punch, more bite and often more overt vulgarity. This was obviously what Anderson Cooper was aiming for when he referenced defecation in a contentious exchange with a prominent Trump surrogate on CNN.
Profanity, which is a perennial cause of controversy in popular culture, is now sweeping through the “resistance” communities that oppose Trump. Of course, this moment feels extreme and unprecedented, but the embrace of profanity is a trap. It can only lead to exactly the sort of degradation — of language, discourse and thinking — that those who use it decry.
In the hours after the firing of FBI chief James B. Comey, or the “Trump leaked to the Russians” story, or the “Comey left a memo” headlines, Facebook and Twitter feeds lighted up red with variations on “WTF?”Although the left is no stranger to vulgarity (it is a staple of street protest), these comments were coming not just from the temperamentally foulmouthed, but also from your former calculus professor, your well-mannered great aunt in Boca Raton and that nice librarian whom you friended for his great book suggestions.
Sometimes they come emblazoned on red or magenta backgrounds, or in large typeface, or accompanied by GIFs from famous movies. But they feel odd as a community bonding exercise of the dignified left. The gesture is strangely self-dramatizing: People curse to demonstrate that they, too, have reached the cracking point. There is an implicit sense of martyrdom: “Even I, who abhor this kind of thing, must now be foulmouthed.”
Leaders of the Democratic Party, eagerly chasing these semantic developments, have taken up the new argot, too. Trump’s profanity-laced presidential campaign may explain Democratic National Committee Chairman Thomas Perez’s casual embrace of vulgarity. “They call it a skinny budget, I call it a sh---y budget,” he recently told a crowd in Portland, Maine.
Anxiety about profanity in public life is cyclical and often exacerbated during major political campaigns. The number of Republicans vying for the presidential nomination in 2016 likely added to the general coarsening of language on the right. Trump both used vulgar language and delighted in its use by his adoring crowds. “Trump that b----!” was the unofficial motto of a campaign that made misogyny its semiofficial ideology.
Although neither the right nor the left is innocent in the embrace of profanity, they tend to use it differently. On the right, salty language establishes authenticity. On the left, the use of vulgarity seems more desperate, born of a need to keep up with the competition in a media environment that thrives on both pithiness and shock.
But it is also driven by nagging worries about “the new normal.” Trump has defined political discourse as a gunfight, so it makes no sense to show up with a knife. In that sense, the strategic embrace of profanity is related to a range of other norms that are collapsing in political and social life, including the gutting of the filibuster and the coarsening of chants at major-league sports games.
Norms don’t exist in isolation but are interconnected and bound by a sense that every room has its rules, from the smallest to the largest. Humans have an imperfect but visceral sense of when the social order has broken down, when the old rules are suspended and only a fool would play by them. These are the sensors that help us decide when we continue to wait in line, or rush the airline gate agent because everyone else is. But they also help us distinguish between the need for protest and the need for revolution; between when it is appropriate to speak truth to power and when it is necessary to shout power out of the room.
The resistance, by indulging profanity, has taken the bait and fallen into a trap. The current crisis, which has come from the right, in the form of a man who thrives on creating crisis, threatens to drag language with it into the abyss. The essence of Trump’s crude rhetoric is a sense of grievance, that someone is always about to get the better of him, or us. For Trump, the social norms are always just breaking, so the response is always to rush the line. The use of profanity doesn’t just register outrage at Trump, it also adds to the general level of crisis — and that’s the danger of it.
In 1989, Trump took out a full-page newspaper ad to attack five teenage boys — four African Americans and a Latino — who had been falsely accused of raping and beating a white woman in Central Park. The advertisement included a curious anecdote about cursing: “When I was young,” Trump wrote, “I sat in a diner with my father and witnessed two young bullies cursing and threatening a very frightened waitress. Two cops rushed in, lifted up the thugs and threw them out the door, warning them never to cause trouble again.”
It may seem odd that Trump, a bully who uses foul language and who has boasted of sexually harassing women, remembers this as a defining moment in his sense of right and wrong, and law and order. But there is a classic Freudian map to this anecdote: Cursing is the anarchic and uncivilized id, while the superego (associated with the father) is represented by the cops, and the ideal of an earlier, more orderly New York.
The danger of allowing norms to collapse is the threat of those cops in the background. Trump the vulgarian brings with him, Janus-faced, Trump the authoritarian. It is a classic maneuver of political demagoguery: create crisis to justify crisis measures. And it operates on all levels, including on the level of language. If we indulge the invitation to speak in a degraded way, we enable degraded thinking. It is a kind of entrapment.
There aren’t many good arguments against cursing that don’t involve old and outdated ideas about class and elitism. Language, we are told, is constantly evolving, so why stand in its way? But there is at least this argument, an old one, and perhaps one you heard from your grandparents: Swearing is a lazy way to talk. It is a poverty of language. It is a substitute for thinking. The world may be entirely consumed by crisis, but language must stand apart.