‘Impeach the motherf*****’: Can the subaltern curse?

Why is it that a curse word uttered by Representative Rashida Tlaib caused so much outrage in the US?

Rashida tlaib Reuters
US Representative Rashida Tlaib looks up into the gallery during the first session of the new Congress at the US Capitol in Washington January 3, 2019 [File: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters]

“People love you and you win,” Representative Rashida Tlaib, the newly elected Democratic US Representative of Michigan, was captured in a video saying to an enthusiastic audience of her supporters: “And 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 going to go in there, and we’re going to impeach the motherf*****.”    

The blunt comment gave the US liberal establishment a jitter: “Impeachment was always going to hang heavily over a divided Washington,” the New York Times reported, “but it took little more than 24 hours this week for a freshman House Democrat’s exuberant, expletive-laden impeachment promise to upend the bonhomie of a new Congress and prompt President Trump, by his own telling, to ask the newly elected speaker if Democrats planned to impeach him.”

New House Democrat Rashida Tlaib profanely vows to impeach Trump (1:52)

The Republicans, of course, went off at Ms Tlaib. But some of her own Democratic colleagues were also offended. “I don’t really like that kind of language,” Democratic US Representative of New York and Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Jerrold Nadler,  was reported to have said. “But more to the point, I disagree with what she said. It is too early to talk about that intelligently. We have to follow the facts.”

The question was far less about the impeachment part and far more the expletive part. But why the offence? What had the young representative done, or said, to be more precise? What lies under this thin veneer of bourgeois politesse?  

Cursing, taboo, and euphemism

The study of cursing is indeed a fascinating field. In his book Why We Curse: A neuro-psycho-social theory of speech (1999), Dr Timothy Jay, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, writes:

“Curse words have been only of brief and passing interest to psychologists and linguists. The absence of research on emotional speech has produced theories of language that are polite but inaccurate. […] Curse words are words we are not supposed to say; hence, curse words themselves are powerful. The words contain and are produced by social practices. The articulation of a curse word thus has incorporated into it social rules about gender, identity, race, power, formality, prohibition, etc”

Since Dr Jay’s landmark book of cursing was published, a number of other studies have emerged, including the recent Cursing, Taboo, and Euphemism (2018) by Professor Zhuo Jing-Schmidt, a scholar of applied linguistics at the University of Oregon.

“Cursing is a universal and enduring human activity,” Professor Jing-Schmidt informs us, “as such it provides a window into human ethology, psychology, and culture. It is inherently related to taboo and its symbiotic other – euphemism.”

According to her, other scholars have “observed a correlation between the degree of acceptability of taboo actions and that of taboo words denoting those actions. Thus, the dirty words f***, s***, p***, and fart are in descending order of acceptability just as the infractions they refer to are on a scale of repulsiveness.”

A few particular taboos

I am not a scholar of this fascinating field, but as a regular multilingual curser (in English, Persian, and Arabic – depending on who, what, or when I’m cursing), I am a curious student of its findings. But it seems to me the issue of cursing is not just what we say but who says it. In the case of Representative Tlaib, the expletive “impeach the motherf*****” coming from her is particularly offensive to the ruling elite in the United States for the following six interrelated reasons:

First, she is a woman; second, she is a woman of colour; third, she is a Muslim woman of colour; fourth, she is an Arab Muslim woman; fifth, she is a Palestinian Arab woman; and sixth, she is all of those as a new member of the US House of Representatives.

All of these factors come into play to disturb and rattle the dominant masculinist racist white supremacy culture (liberal or conservative) into which she has walked so valiantly.

To prove my point, I draw your attention to a similar expletive President Donald Trump uttered freely on a different occasion. “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners,” Trump said back in September 2017 to the euphoric delight of his supporters when attacking NFL players who kneeled in protest during the national anthem, “when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a b**** off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!'”

The same people who are now aghast at Representative Tlaib having used the curse word were utterly delighted when Trump used it. But why? The answer is simple. Trump is a man. He is a white man. He is a Christian white man. He is a European (as opposed to Palestinian Arab) Christian white man. And finally, he is an older white Christian European white man who is the president of the United States of America.

The return of the repressed

In uttering a heartfelt curse with precise syncopation and precision, Representative Tlaib broke so many taboos that the entire white masculinist establishment of the US political culture would not tolerate digesting it. The moment was as cathartic for all the marginalised communities in the US as it was unnerving to the ruling elite.

Curse words are sponge words. They absorb the inexplicable, they speak the unspoken. This particular expletive uttered by a Palestinian woman in the heart of this dysfunctional empire, is the defiant cry of her people. With that the return of the Freudian repressed, where the denied, the denigrated, and the camouflaged stages a sudden and abrupt comeback as “derivatives of the unconscious”, as Freud would say, or as parapraxes or “misperformances”. These are words, gestures, or above all decidedly shocking expletives that give sudden form to amorphous anger or desires.  

That cat of “impeach the motherf*****” is now out of the bag of bourgeois politesse. We ordinarily experience such cathartic moment vicariously in art too. In our cinema, no other actor on planet earth can curse as Joe Pesci does in Martin Scorsese’s Casino (1995) or theorise it as wholeheartedly as the late comedian George Carlin did.

But there is a rhetorical elegance to what Warren Beatty’s character does in his Bulworth (1998), that will do the entire political culture of the US lots of good if the new US Congress were asked to sit politely down and watch it and learn why a subaltern is driven to curse.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.