The Sunday Magazine

Michael's essay: Public vulgarity is nothing new, and vulgar words aren't all equal

“What Samantha Bee said about Ivanka Trump was crude, hurtful and unwarranted. It was name-calling in the traditional sense. Calling a black American an ape, runs much deeper.”
Actress Roseanne Barr (left) tweeted derogatory statements about Obama's senior advisor Valerie Jarrett on May 29, 2018. Comedian Samantha Bee (right) made vulgar remarks about Ivanka Trump on her television show on May 31, 2018. (VALERIE MACON/AFP/Getty Images, Charley Gallay/Getty Images for TBS/Turner.)

The New Testament tells us that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on that fateful Passover sitting on an ass.

The dictionary describes a hole as "a hollow place in a solid body or surface."

Two perfectly acceptable English words. But if I were to conjoin them and use the resultant vulgarism to describe some high personage, I would be out of work by the end of the day.

Things we might say about someone in private — when broadcast to the wider world —  can end careers, destroy reputations and cause untold pain.

The latest eruption of bad language involves two American comedians, Samantha Bee and Roseanne Barr.

In the one case, Barr compared a prominent African American woman to an ape.

In the second case, Bee referred to the daughter of Donald Trump with a common term used to describe the female pudenda.

Barr was fired and her top-rated comedy show was cancelled.

Supporters of the president demanded that the same punishment be handed out to Bee, and at the same time, criticized the left as being a cabal of hypocrites.

Interesting that the very same word turned up on t-shirts referring to Hillary Clinton at several Trump campaign rallies.

The Barr comment, clearly racist, has a long history of ascribing simian characteristics to black people.

Bee's language, on the other hand, reflects the feeling that the c-word is the ultimate derogatory term to label a woman.

We live in an age of apology and apoplexy. Anyone can say anything about anyone else, as long as the subsequent apology is presented in close proximity to the offence.

Our privacy has been ripped from us by the internet, so that almost anything we say will be taken down and used against us. Social media — that great democratizing force which would create universal amity, goodwill and understanding — has turned out in practice to be an endless catalogue of hate, obscenity and violent name-calling.

Politicians and people who follow politics closely are dismayed by what they call a lack of civility in public discourse. They talk of an earlier time, halcyon days, when debate was not a blood sport, and men and women in politics behaved with probity and politeness.

None of that is true, of course. We've had political name-calling and coarse rhetoric going back to Periclean Athens.

Who can forget 1971, when Pierre Elliott Trudeau told a Newfoundland MP to f--k off. 

Pierre Trudeau responds to accusations of mouthing profanities to another MP in 1971

Digital Archives

50 years ago
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau swears he didn't use any four-letter obscenities. 2:14

Or when John Diefenbaker called Flora MacDonald, "the finest woman ever to walk the streets of Kingston."

Or when a Tory backbencher called Sheila Copps, a slut. Or when another Tory backbencher called black NDP member Howard McCurdy, "sambo."

In the US, negative campaigning really began in 1800, when Thomas Jefferson ran against John Adams for the presidency. One newspaper warned that if Jefferson was elected, "murder, rape, robbery, adultery and incest will be openly taught and practiced."

What Samantha Bee said about Ivanka Trump was crude, hurtful and unwarranted. It was name-calling in the traditional sense.

Calling a black American an ape, runs much deeper. For centuries, it has been used to dehumanize slaves and the descendants of slaves. It plays to the worst elements in many Americans, about how they see their fellow citizens who are black.

Samantha Bee stepped across the line of courtesy, good taste and good manners

Roseanne Barr gave comfort to the bigots and the racists.

It was a lynching without the rope.