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Choice Words

<ir="ltr" id="docs-internal-guid-4c0a21ad-e8e4-60b3-3fea-f5a157384220">My old high school orchestra director would sometimes invoke the late comedian George Carlin when he talked and became aware of the dated language he used. Half-defensive, half-joking, he referred to a bit Carlin did in 1990, in which Carlin listed off in swift succession every imaginable kind of slur and identity-based insult–including some so dated I had never heard of before. Carlin argued at the end of the bit, which my director quoted, “They’re only words. You can’t be afraid of words that speak the truth, even if it’s an unpleasant truth…” It’s a statement that would require much more explanation and reflection today, so it seems, in an age where his style of humor would be out of place, to put it nicely. Carlin would know about words: another bit of his about “seven dirty words” led to a Supreme Court ruling in 1978 that explains the “bleeping” out of those very seven dirty words on television.

Carlin’s take on words–“only words”–comes to mind today, considering my evolving understanding of the nature of language, especially swearing. It was in 7th grade when I started using “colorful” language, never having said “damn” or “hell” until then. Using them, and many more swear words later, became a badge of badassery, which I still enjoy wielding to this day. It’s fascinating how disarming it can be to hear and use them, the shock and surprise, the laughter that ensues. How used to swearing I had become over the years! The swears are “only words,” right?

Which brings me to consider a well-known swearer on the global stage. In September, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte infamously said the Tagalog phrase “putangina’mo” of President Obama, in remarks ahead of a regional summit in Laos. Literally, it translates as “your mother is a whore.” (Spanish speakers can see the cognate embedded.) Most news outlets translated it as “son of a bitch” – as if the word “whore” was not shocking enough. The remarks resulted in the cancellation of a formal meeting with Obama. Although Duterte did apologize, I would think his memory to be short when it comes to being uncouth. Just this month, Duterte said in a press conference that Obama “can go to hell,” in response to the U.S. government’s refusal to sell weapons to Duterte’s government. His uncouthness no longer surprises me. It is unnerving to have learned in May this year that the land of my birth – to which I still hold citizenship – had elected a very problematic president. I wish I had known about overseas registration earlier; I could have voted. Calling him the “Trump of the East” is an oversimplification. A seasoned politician of modest upbringing, he’s in a league of his own, what with thousands dead in an escalating drug war, and his threats to upset the balance of power in the South China Sea.

Despite all of this, when the news of his swearing came out, I admit that I felt admiration for those remarks, as poor a decision as they were. Before swearing, he said, “I am a president of a sovereign state and we have long ceased to be a colony. I do not have any master except the Filipino people, nobody but nobody. You must be respectful. Do not just throw questions.” Had Duterte not followed this up with swearing, one could come away with some understanding for his animosity towards Obama, symbolizing for him the figurehead of the almighty United States, the former colonizer. I find that many of us may not have learned – or tend to forget – that the Philippines was once an American colony. Here we have Duterte, taking on the role of standing up to the classic image of American imperialism, on behalf of his people. That framework appealed to me viscerally: nobody ever speaks to the President of the United States like that! It was defiant and assertive, and with the swearing? He is certainly aware of shock value – badassery in its appealing, brute form.

And yet these prefacing words are inseparable from the insult. It was still a poor lapse of judgment, unproductive in statecraft. Insults and swears can make rhetorical points but they become hot air, of little substance towards action and real talk. One must remember too what Carlin said in that bit about words: “It’s the context that counts.” Working with others is surely not the place to be unnecessarily uncooperative and mean if you desire progress. Not to mention that words of defiance to the former colonizer will never excuse Duterte from answering to the extrajudicial killings of the drug war.

Moreover, how could I actually feel pleased about Duterte’s remarks, anyway? Regardless of your feelings about civility in today’s heated political and social climate, there must be a space for conversing productively. And even with the collective power dynamic between Duterte and Obama, their interaction is still one between individuals, bound to the same kinds of rules we’re raised with, of respect and sincerity. These are values I want to uphold – admiration for Duterte’s remarks is plainly dissonant. I may not forswear swearing anytime soon (pun intended), but there is little to no proper context for talking like an asshole when you are trying to work with someone, no matter your place in the world.

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