In August 2022, while dealing with QAnon conspiracy theorists who had descended on her city, mayor Diane Therrien of Peterborough, Ont. responded in a less than diplomatic way. She tweeted at them to "fuck off, you fuckwads."
Nearly overnight, Therrien became the best-known mayor anywhere in the country. Her tweet went viral and was widely commented on in national news, and even made headlines in international papers. The discussion, of course, focused entirely on her choice to use a swear word, not once, but twice.
Most reactions seemed positive to her choice of words. She was praised for "telling it like it is" and for "saying what we are all thinking." At the same time, much of the commentary made certain assumptions about her emotional state - most notably, that she was tweeting out of frustration.
Swearing in politics
This framing is not surprising. The idea that swearing functions as an emotional release valve has become well-known in the past decade: a 2009 study which is often cited in the popular press, emphasizes the cathartic effect of swearing.
In addition, Anglo-Canadian society expects politicians to take on public personas that preclude using vulgar or "unparliamentary" language. Swearing is normalized for blue collar work sectors, or in environments like sports teams and bars - places where you can let go of rigid behaviour rules. But when politicians swear, they are often seen as overcome by emotion and in breach of expected norms. What else could explain such a social gaffe, such inappropriate-to-context speech?
As linguistic anthropologists, we examine language in its social contexts and consider the cultural meanings of how it's used. We wonder what this narrative of emotional release might be obscuring about the social impacts of taboo words.
Consider another notable example. In 2018, Romeo Saganash, an Indigenous NDP MP, said in parliament that Prime Minster Justin Trudeau "doesn't give a fuck" about Indigenous rights. Saganash quickly apologized (though he has continued to stand by the sentiment) after the Speaker of the House noted that this was very clearly "unparliamentary language."
In a CBC interview, he described feeling "exasperat[ed]" and "fed up." Yet, in the same interview, he revealed that he had, in fact, planned to make this statement in the House of Commons. As he put it, "I showed my question to them [his seatmates] just to apologize in advance to them - to them at least - but no one else knew." In other words, his statement was planned in advance: a purposeful social intervention.
The power and purpose of performative language
Saganash, like Therrien, was not swearing willy-nilly, nor was he the victim of an uncontrollable outburst of emotion. Their transgressions were not accidental. To understand the force of these utterances, it is helpful to consider them performative speech occurring in response to the language and actions of others.
Performative speech refers to the way certain forms of speaking constitute meaningful social action. The easiest way to understand these is through what language scholar J.L. Austin called "explicit primary performatives."
For example, an officiant "pronounces" two people to be married, and therefore they are. A new president takes an oath to assume the full power of the office. These strong performatives require certain contextual conditions in order to be effective: a random person saying the oath of office doesn't automatically become the president.
Taboo language falls into the category of performatives, but their power rests on the sense that they cannot be said. The proscription on using certain kinds of words defines the moral and political meaning of different spaces and relationships. As we avoid taboos, we collectively set boundaries on how we understand a wide range of social phenomena.
In other words, by agreeing that the word "fuck" is prohibited or restricted, we create conditions in which saying it accomplishes something powerful. When politicians swear, the performativity of "fuck" is heightened; it becomes all the more transgressive.
Language as a response to actions
By saying that emotion is the underlying reason Saganash and Therrien uttered a taboo word, the general conversation misses the mark. It fails to realize that uttering a taboo word - violating the norm - is precisely what is being accomplished.
Furthermore, while framing taboo as emotional reaction situates both instances of swearing as reactive, they might better be understood as responses.
Saganash's now viral comment was made in response to the government's position on the Trans Mountain pipeline:
Notice the mirroring effect: Saganash's violation of parliamentary language occurs in response to a violation of Indigenous rights.
In parallel fashion, when asked about QAnon conspiracy theorists, Therrien commented:
Note that she frames her swearing as deliberately mirroring the "disrespect" of the protesters, not as an expression of her feelings.
In both cases, they are responding in kind to other transgressions. These speakers recognize the actors they are responding to with their taboo violations as the ones who initiated the transgression of social norms: building a pipeline through Indigenous territory, or by enacting citizens' arrests over public health protections.
Next time a politician surprises us with a carefully placed f-bomb, remember that while they may be frustrated, there could be more to the story. When we focus on their emotional state, we lose sight of what they are trying to accomplish with their performative speech.
Authors: Sarah Shulist - Associate Professor of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, Queen's University, Ontario | Hannah McElgunn - Assistant Professor, Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures, Queen's University, Ontario