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January 16, 2019

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Not all swear words are spoken equally

Last Thursday, newly elected Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., spoke at the People’s Swearing-In, a party celebrating the progressive women who make the 2019 congressional class so distinctive. Tlaib praised her fellow freshman Sharice Davids, the Native American lesbian and former mixed-martial-arts fighter from Kansas. “When people like us do run for office and don’t change anything about us, we win,” she said to cheers.

Then she spoke about what her victory meant to her son, who told her it showed that bullies — like President Donald Trump — don’t win. “And I said, ‘Baby, they don’t,’ ” Tlaib recalled. “Because we’re going to go in there, and we’re going to impeach the mother.” Though of course, as you surely know by now, “mother” wasn’t the whole of what she said.

To judge by the media freakout that followed, you’d have thought Tlaib had threatened to grab the president by his genitals and deport him to a country full of excrement. It was astonishing, both the straight-faced audacity of Republicans feigning outrage over profanity, and the gormless clucking of pundits comparing Tlaib’s swearword to Trump’s violent misogyny and racist demagogy.

The whole tempest was so monumentally stupid that I was tempted to ignore it, particularly since it’s starting to blow over. But it’s worth trying to figure out what the uproar was really about, since it could be a sign of the kind of media coverage this brash new group of representatives, particularly female representatives, might be in for.

It certainly wasn’t about the profanity itself. In 2004, Vice President Dick Cheney delighted conservatives by effectively telling Sen. Patrick Leahy, on the Senate floor, to go copulate with himself. (“It’s sort of the best thing I ever did,” Cheney later boasted to right-wing comedian Dennis Miller.) In October, Kanye West used the same term as Tlaib in the Oval Office, and few pretended to be scandalized.

Some commentators accused Tlaib of adopting a Trumpian mode of discourse, but this misunderstands why Trump’s words are offensive. When Trump called athletes who knelt to protest police brutality “sons of bitches,” the problem was bigotry, not salty language. When he was caught boasting about sexually assaulting women, the issue wasn’t that he used a slang term for female anatomy. It’s Trump’s foul actions and ideas, not his swearing, that make him a walking obscenity.

A few opiners insisted that the real affront lay in Tlaib’s threat of impeachment. But it’s not a secret that a lot of Democrats want to see Trump removed from office; on Thursday, Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., reintroduced an impeachment resolution in the new Congress.

So why the fainting fit over a bad word? I suspect it has something to do with the very phenomenon Tlaib was celebrating. The new Congress looks very different from any that’s come before. Forty-two of the new members are women, while 24 are people of color. Two of them, Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., are Congress’ first Muslim women. This new face of American political power makes a lot of people uncomfortable.

Conservative scholar Daniel Pipes explicitly connected Tlaib’s Palestinian heritage to her use of what he called “the most vulgar term in the history of Congress,” tweeting that “Americans now get to enjoy a version of what #Israelis face.” But even people who aren’t overtly bigoted can be triggered by foul-mouthed women.

My friend Rebecca Traister has a section about female politicians and dirty words in her recent book, “Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger.” “Like anger itself, cursing has been discouraged in women, as it is considered unladylike and masculinizing,” she wrote. “But in fact it’s useful precisely because it is an outlet for all that pent-up anger.”

Tlaib, of course, is far from alone in her fury. It’s felt by many of the women who powered the resistance; Tlaib’s words to her son reminded me of all the mothers who’ve told me how agonizing it was to explain the triumph of Trump, the ultimate bully, to their children. Anger seems to help propel some of the women contemplating presidential runs, and a few of them, like Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris, have been known to drop the occasional profanity themselves. The hysteria over Tlaib’s four-syllable word is like a warning to them, and to all the women just starting their careers on the national stage, not to show how livid they really are, to stay in line.

In June 2016, Time magazine ran a column headlined, “Why Donald Trump Is Smart to Swear.” It described Trump’s curses as a “canny rhetorical strategy,” noting that studies “have shown that people who swear are more likely to be believed.” As the piece acknowledged, such a strategy was not available to Hillary Clinton, who is known to swear in private, but rarely in public. “The rules about what constitutes appropriate language are stricter for women than they are for men,” it said.

For her reticence, Clinton was derided as phony, controlled and inauthentic. When it comes to balancing poise and indignation, women politicians can’t win. The rest of us, however, can tell the finger-waggers to go Cheney themselves.

Michelle Goldberg is a columnist for The New York Times.