We are two and a half years into a pandemic. There is a war raging in Ukraine. Prices of food and other everyday items are creeping up, straining the wallets of Canadians.
Oh, and the prime minister may have said f—– (rhymes with trucker, clucker or even shucker) in the House of Commons.
“May have” because it’s not entirely clear as of this writing. It was not picked up by the Commons live stream and the deputy Speaker says he didn’t hear it, though a handful of other MPs say they did. The keepers of the official record say it was too loud to tell.
But the incident this week, during a question period exchanged over whether a military plane had surveilled protesters during Ottawa’s “Freedom Convoy” — an assertion Justin Trudeau called “dangerously close to misinformation” — highlighted the enduring power of profanity.
Throwing fuel on the fire was Trudeau himself, by dangling a comparison to his father, another prime minister once accused of lobbing an F bomb at opposition members in the House of Commons, some 40 years (and a whole different sensibility about profanity) ago.
All these years later in the hallowed halls of Parliament, language is still ostensibly held to a higher standard — and retains, to the ears of some, its ability to offend.
Given the current state of public and political discourse, it almost doesn’t matter whether the prime minister said it or not, says Lisa Young, a political scientist with the University of Calgary.
The ready-made anger toward Trudeau, some of which flowed online and elsewhere after the Commons incident, comes with a whole lot of posturing — “It’s a way to express much more generalized frustration with the prime minister and the political status quo.”
There is a reason why an F bomb on Parliament Hill hits different than one down the street, or why politicians are arguably held to a different standard than truck owners with F– Trudeau stickers blazoned across the back window.
“You expect a certain amount of dignity and respect for the institution when you are the head of government,” as Alex Marland, author of “Brand Command: Canadian Politics and Democracy in the Age of Message Control” puts it.
“If it was a backbencher who said it in a private setting, would we be talking about this? Do not.”
As long as Canada has had a Parliament, there have been rules about you can say. You can’t accuse anyone of lying or imply that someone else is being dishonorable. And you can’t swear, though how that’s defined has been a moving target.
Some choice phrases that have gotten parliamentarians in trouble?
According to a 2011 book called “Fascinating Canada,” in 1878, it was calling someone “a bag of wind”; in 1890, the word “blatherskite” — meaning someone who talks a lot without making any sense — was ruled off-base; and, in 1967, someone got in trouble for calling another “a pompous ass.”
Of course, it’s another word, the one comedian George Carlin called the one of the most interesting in the English language, the sole term referred to as the “f word,” that tends to get people into trouble these days.
Alberta’s Jason Nixon was reprimanded in April for accusing another MLA of calling him a “f–ing liar.” (An insult he followed up with “that’s why your career is over, Todd.”) Also last month, British Columbia Premier John Horgan dropped his own f– it in response to heckling from the opposition, leading him to apologize for ““ intemperate comments.”
But of course, it was Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s alleged F bomb in 1971 that his son referenced this week. At the time, the elder Trudeau refused to confirm the words he’d mouthed, and asked instead, “What is the nature of your thoughts, gentlemen, when you say ‘fuddle duddle’ or something like that?”
When asked what the younger Trudeau had said, MP John Barlow told the House, “It was not fuddle-duddle.”
And while it might be Trudeau’s fate to be forever compared to his father, times have changed, says University of Calgary political scientist Lisa Young.
“The difference here is probably that swearing in public was much more of a taboo in 1971. … If you think back to then, it was inconceivable that foul language would be used on television and there were no streaming services to get around that,” she says.
“So, you know, in some ways, I think it’s probably less newsworthy today than it was when Trudeau the elder used the language.”
As society in general has gotten more comfortable with profanity, there has been an uptick in deliberate usage on the campaign trail, she says. Swearing can make you seem really passionate about something, or even look more approachable, she says.
“But using this kind of language in the legislature or in Parliament, is much less likely to be that calculation,” she says. He wasn’t speaking and it was in violation of the rules. “I think it was a slip up, if this happened.”
A 2009 study in NeuroReport had volunteers plunge their hands into icy water to determine that swearing may actually alleviate pain. Trudeau’s remarks came, after all, at a time when temperatures were running high, two and a half years into a global pandemic.
Put another way, as Mark Twain once said, “In certain trying circumstances… profanity furnishes a relief denied even to prayer.”
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