COLUMN — Justin Trudeau dropped an F-bomb in public, and we are supposed to be offended.
In truth, some people are, but others just yawn. The degree of outrage often has as much to do with political leanings or hair envy (OK, maybe that’s just me) as anything else.
It goes back to 1971, when Justin’s father, Pierre, was accused of mouthing the words “[bleep] off” at an opponent in the House of Commons. Pierre shrugged off the accusation by saying he might have said “fuddle duddle.” A national brouhaha ensued nonetheless.
The next year, when an election campaign brought Pierre (and my parents brought me) to a packed high school auditorium in Kamloops, intrepid newspaper reporter John Pifer stepped up to the microphone (this was in the days when journalists were allowed to question the prime minister without being shot) and dredged up the affair: “Do you think it proper for a man in your position to be using obscenities in the House of Commons?”
Trudeau’s eyes flashed. “Nobody actually heard me say anything in the Commons,” he replied. “They saw my lips move. Some people thought my lips moved like this.” He then clearly mouthed the words that would have had our mothers reaching for the soap had they been uttered by us.
Except nobody grabbed the prime minister by the ear and made him eat Irish Spring. Instead, they cheered like it was Triplets Nite at the Red Lion. That Pierre, what a guy.
Now, this was the Interior, where politics were always a little rough and ready. (As a 10-year-old, my dad took me to an all-candidates forum where a totally awesome fistfight broke out. Later, as a young reporter covering a provincial byelection, I got to watch the Maoist and Marxist-Leninist candidates get in a snarling, belly-bumping faceoff at a peace march.) Still, the reaction differed remarkably from the one Trudeau had received just a year earlier.
Gradually, the F-word has become more politically palatable. By 1991, when then prime minister Brian Mulroney was accused of calling a Liberal MP an “f—ing bastard” in Parliament, it was just a one-day story.
By 2004, Republican vice-president Dick Cheney felt safe enough to say he had absolutely no regrets for growling “go f— yourself” to a Democrat on the Senate floor. (But then Cheney always was a loose cannon, or at least a loose shotgun. Fun fact: When it comes to shooting Americans on U.S. soil, Cheney still leads al-Qaida 1-0.)
That brings us to today and the current vice-president, Joe Biden, who by reputation goes through life using language more commonly associated with Courtney Love barking her shins on the coffee table. Appropriate for a potential president? No, but we should worry more about him using A-bombs than F-bombs.
Given all that, much of the criticism that followed Trudeau Junior’s use of the word at a weekend boxing match (where, gosh, no one has ever heard foul language) smacked of manufactured outrage. Of all the stuff to come out of Trudeau’s mouth, this wasn’t the most worrisome, given the venue.
The problem is that the venues keep changing. Most people adjust their language to the setting, but some deem more and more settings — on the bus, at the hockey game, in the pulpit — to be appropriate.
Even the staid old Canadian Press Stylebook, the bible of Canadian journalism, has said obscenities may be used judiciously, though not with “the prissy device of replacing some letters of the offensive words with hyphens.”
Well, the Canadian Press can shove it up its Funk and Wagnalls.
We at the Times Colonist are clinging to our hyphens, have only spelled out the F-word nine times in 156 years. The National Frigging Post, by contrast, has done so on 333 occasions. Your TV spat it out five times in the past 10 minutes, and that was just Sesame Street. The Wolf of Wall Street used it a record 506 times and earned the Oscar nominations to prove it.
When is the word offensive? When it offends the listener. Act accordingly.
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