Commentary Magazine

Confusing the Profane for Sacred

AP Photo/ Evan Vucci

Befitting our post-literate political age, in which the American president and his courtiers actively deride expertise and activists across the political spectrum reject thoughtfulness in favor of ornery truculence, Donald Trump’s style of reasonably communicative grumbles seems to be supplanting more formal forms of language. The all-consuming presidential cult has now sunk its hooks into the American Dialect Society. The nearly 130-year-old organization of linguists, lexicographers,  and grammarians revealed that 2017’s “word of the year” was “fake news,” a label the president applies to anything of which he disapproves—demonstrable or dubious—that finds its way into a journalist’s copy. But ADS saved a saucier “word of the year” for the internet crowd, and it far better exemplifies the rapid deterioration of the national discourse.

ADS votes on a variety of subcategories to accompany its overall word of the year, handing out awards for most useful and creative new constructions ranging from the world of politics to slang. It was in the digital space, however, where this organization of scholars perhaps inadvertently identified how rapidly American political rhetoric is putrefying. With a bullet, the ADS deemed the digital word of the year “s***post.”

This is not a more evocative way of describing garden soil. In an online context, posting s*** is precisely what it sounds like. ADS defined their digital word of the year as the act of publishing “worthless or irrelevant online content intended to derail a conversation or to provoke others.” In other words, being a deliberately provocative jerk.

It’s not as though the English language lacks for words that describe inflammatory agitation for its own sake, nor does the rump caucus of aggressive malcontents on Reddit merit this kind of attention. It’s hard, however, to blame ADS for succumbing to the urge to debase the discourse further. They aren’t creating a trend but identifying one. The coarsening of the national conversation is not a bottom-up phenomenon; it’s coming from the top down.

Ever a sucker for the approval of the room, Donald Trump frequently appealed to prurience and profanity on the campaign trail. The president of the United States began the year of his election alluding in no uncertain terms to the size of certain elements of his anatomy from a presidential debate stage. He drew the biggest applause on the campaign trail by previewing how he would sue the “a** off” of his various enemies, bomb or beat the “s***” out of ISIS, dismissing the latest scandals involving his campaign as “political “bulls***,” and lovingly calling his own supporters “motherf******.”

All the while, both the press and Trump’s fanbase ate it up; here was an unconventional politician abandoning the effete Olympian pretenses that render American presidents so inaccessible. Donald Trump is an every man, who thinks and speaks like the people he intends to govern! This is contempt masquerading as dispassion and impartiality. It lowers the standards of conduct to which not only the president but the public should aspire. Unfortunately, it appears as though everyone learned the wrong lessons from Donald Trump’s presidential victory.

Democrats, too, have confused profanity for passion. In a phenomenon too ubiquitous to be anything other than a strategy, Donald Trump’s political opponents decided to spend 2017 conspicuously swearing.

Newly minted Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez introduced himself to the voters by declaring that Republicans “don’t give a s*** about people.” “They call it a skinny budget,” said Rep. Beto O’Rourke. “I call it a sh***y budget.” According to a review of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s New  York Magazine profile by Politico’s Alex Caton, the New York senator managed to rattle off “one ‘f***,’ two ‘f***ings,’” and “one ‘bulls***.’” Sen. Kamala Harris rebutted Rep. Raul Labrador’s contention that Americans do not die for want of health insurance with one simple question: “What the f*** is that?”

“The shift seems to be a reaction, at least in part, to Trump’s crass tone as a candidate, which may have paved the way for a new age of political incorrectness,” PBS reporter Jessica Yarvin suggested. She added that language like the kind deployed by America’s so-called political authorities is certainly “angrier” and perhaps, therefore, “more authentic.”

Nonsense. There’s nothing authentic about what these Democrats are doing; quite the opposite, in fact. Donald Trump was never a particularly angry person on the campaign trail, though he effectively marshaled the sentiments of those who were. The anonymous online hoards that casually deploy vulgarity and abusive language on the Internet haven’t developed a novel maieutic method; they’re antisocial cretins. Everyone knows it, too. But the demands of the populist moment have led the arbiters of civil discourse to pretend as though the use of expletives is uncommonly brilliant. After all, no one wants to be deemed out of touch.

The coarsening of the culture isn’t something to be celebrated. Those who reject vulgarity and boorishness in their political leaders aren’t unsophisticated rustics or bitter cultural revanchists. They’re adults, and they deserve to be treated as such.

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