Politicians and Profanity

Profanity is not commonly considered part of the political lexicon. Swearing is even labeled “impolitic.” But politicians are a saltier bunch behind closed doors, when they boss around staffers or try to negotiate with the other side. In public though, politicians are expected to leave the potty mouth behind. But should they?

This subject came to mind yesterday after Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter appeared on MSNBC and labeled Wayne LaPierre’s absurd proposal as a “completely dumbass idea.”

I saw the interview live while writing an article and running the TV in the background, but I absolutely looked up when I heard Michael Nutter call out LaPierre.

I doubt Michael Nutter intended to use that phrase to express his true feelings for the NRA proposal on live TV, but the honesty of the moment enhanced its effect. Not only does occasional profanity help the audience identify with the politician, it also punctuates the message by breaking the established code language of political coverage. The audience expected Nutter to say something like, “seriously flawed idea,” or “ill-conceived proposal.” That language would wash over the audience as par for the course and certainly not generate any media coverage the next day.

Politicians should embrace the occasional use of profanity to highlight key points. J.D. Rothwell first suggested the study of profanity as a rhetorical strategy in 1971. Rothwell posited five situations where profanity may be used:

  1. to create attention;
  2. to discredit someone or something;
  3. to provoke confrontations;
  4. to provide a type of catharsis for the user; and,
  5. to establish interpersonal identification.

Nutter’s verbal slip succeeded on multiple counts, notably creating attention, discrediting LaPierre, and building identity with the audience. But the slip was also as cathartic for Michael Nutter as it was for the frustrated audience. Some of the most powerful invocations of profanity involve these cathartic moments. Subjects that create public outrage demand politicians who recognize the gravity of the moment. President Obama generated some buzz in the wake of the BP oil spill by telling NBC that he was studying the spill to figure out “whose ass to kick.” A measured response risks appearing weak and complacent.

So while I assume Michael Nutter did not intend to drop the “dumbass” line, it worked. Politicians crafting talking points should take note of the context of their statements and consider spicing it up with some colorful metaphors.

2 comments for “Politicians and Profanity

  1. Zingerific
    December 27, 2012 at 3:26 pm

    I think it’s important to note that Rothwell’s situations (with the possible exceptions of 3 and 5) don’t work if profanity becomes commonplace.

    • December 27, 2012 at 3:32 pm

      True, though I don’t think there’s much risk of politicians adopting widespread profanity and the fact that profanity is widespread among the common public does not necessarily diminish the impact of hearing a government official join us proles in its use.

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