The Scientific Case for Calling the President a Motherf*cker
Emma Byrne on the Rhetorical Power of Profanity
It was a bold move for a rookie player: “When your son looks at you and says, ‘Mama, 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 motherfucker.’” And with that, the first Muslim woman in Congress handed off the mic.
Watching from across the Atlantic, I am fortunate enough to enjoy a slight sense of detachment from whatever the stable genius in the White House is doing, but after the horror show of the last two years, Rep. Rashida Tlaib’s remarks gave me a frisson of joy, rhetorically as well as politically. That is how you use a swear word.
Swearing is the most powerful form of language we have. When researching my book Swearing is Good for You, I was amazed by the number of scientific studies devoted to the strength of swearing. There’s a mass of serious scientific research that goes back to the supposedly uptight Victorians, and it has taught us plenty about the way our brains process language and emotions.
Take, for example, the effect of swearing on pain: if you use a curse word you are likely to be able to keep your hand in ice water about 50 percent longer than if you use a neutral word. When we swear we feel stronger, have more stamina, and send subtle social messages about liking and belonging. Swearing acts on our body to get the blood pumping and change how amped-up we feel, whether we hear the words or use them. Unlike their blander cousins, swear words weave a whole web of cognitive connections, well beyond the parts of the brain that we usually use for language. In most right-handed westerners, the left side of the brain does most of the donkey work for speaking and understanding, but research shows that patients who have had catastrophic injuries to the left side of the brain, leaving them almost entirely speechless, can still swear fluently. To swear well you need to be able to draw on the brain’s resources in the right hemisphere and the structures responsible for our emotions.Unlike their blander cousins, swear words weave a whole web of cognitive connections, well beyond the parts of the brain that we usually use for language.
And therein lies the power of Rep. Tlaib’s final word. Science shows that this kind of language delivers a one-two punch to the thoughts and feelings. It signals trust and a sense of belonging. It fosters closeness and suggests a greater degree of authenticity.
What’s more, by refusing to play nice, to submit to the tropey narrative of what we expect from women and mothers, Rashida Tlaib’s words make us sit up and take notice. Watching the video, it seems like an off-the-cuff remark, but rhetorically it’s perfect. The opening sets up an intimate vision of a mother talking with her son. Her son is proud, respectful. She is caring (“Baby…”) and strong (using her son’s words to remind us that she’s just beaten the bullies). And then it ends on that epithet. Rhetorically and scientifically it is perfect—the setup, escalation, and twist works on our brains to be memorable, powerful, and persuasive. I want Rep. Tlaib to be my mom.
At the risk of bathos, compare that to Trump’s infamous Access Hollywood tape, in which he graphically described making unwanted advances on one woman and outright assaulting others. While it also had plenty of swearing, it’s a fine example of how strong language, when used poorly, can intensify feelings of disgust and revulsion. Trump’s repulsive conduct goes far beyond the language he uses when he thinks he’s off the air, but language makes us human, and the way he uses language has always revealed that Trump is a particularly troubling one.
In these remarks, he’s inconsistent as to whether he’s a desperate wannabe-lothario or an unstoppable harassment machine. He swings from self-pity to braggadocio (“I couldn’t get there,” but apparently “when you’re a star, they let you do it”). The swearing is almost lost among this unappetizing swamp of sentiment and boast.
But if Trump respects neither language nor logic, Rep. Tlaib seems to have an instinct for the power of words, and the feelings of her constituency. She knows how to evoke the pain of the bullied, the yearning for justice, and the hunger for a long-overdue comeuppance. And her deployment of the same slapdown used by John McClane is the perfect evocation of that playground hero we longed to be.
Legally and politically, the journey to impeachment is unlikely to be as straightforward as blowing the bad guy out of the window. Neurologically, though, it just feels so good to say. Three words with seemingly unlimited power.
Impeach the motherfucker.