Yeah, I mean, I don’t want to get too political. Every Tom, Dick, and Harry’s got their hot take on Donald Trump, so I want to keep things focussed on language: grammar, etymology, stuff like that. Hang on, let me just have a quick look at Twitter before I write… He’s said what!?…
On Friday, Donald Trump, somehow President of the United States, weighed in on the controversial issue of professional American-football players protesting against racial injustice and police inequality towards African Americans. He naturally employed all the gravitas and diplomacy one would expect of his office, and said the following:
Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired. He’s fired.’
Again, this is the level of discourse we have to deal with. Is son of a bitch a phrase we should expect the President of the United States to use? Personally, I don’t think so. The origins of bitch to refer to a female dog go so far back that it’s hard to pinpoint its exact origin (because we’ve domesticated dogs for so long, though it more than likely comes from Old Norse). It began to be used as an insult for a woman pretty early on, about the 15th century. Curiously, not long afterwards, it could be used in a complimentary, playful sense to refer to a man, just as we might refer to a roguish rake as an old dog nowadays.
It’s an unusual display of the sexism that’s long been inherent in our language. And perhaps it shows a little ambiguity in the way we think of man’s best friend too. Dogs can be friendly, loyal, charming, and cheeky (“male”), but also aggressive, selfish, and emotional (“female”).
So the word bitch has a long history as a pejorative term. And in fact, the term son of a bitch is almost as old. Old Norse had a word bikkju-sonr, literally meaning son of a bitch. I think for most people, son of a bitch is probably worse than just bitch, as it’s referring to the person’s mother, who probably isn’t there to defend herself. Though as Colin Kaepernick’s mother demonstrated, in the age of Twitter, it’s a little easier to fight back against the kind of obnoxious bully who would publicly call people sons of bitches for protesting peacefully (again, just to remind you, this person is actually the President of the United States):
OK, it’s pretty clear that the term is not a nice one, but is it wrong for the President of the United States to use it? I absolutely believe it is wrong. I know I’m usually a supporter of people using whatever form of English they like, and I don’t like to make distinctions between proper English and other forms, as doing so often reinforces existing unequal power structures (this is how we should talk, and that’s how they talk!)
But, Donald Trump is, again, inexplicably, the President of the United States. Now of course most of us expect someone in such a position to display a certain degree of formality and nuance in their language, and of course Donald fails to meet this expectation at every opportunity. I’d imagine though, many of his supporters admire him for his apparent no-nonsense approach to language (even though a lot of what he comes out with is literally nonsense). They see him as a straight talker, not afraid to tell it like it is (even if most of what he actually says is untrue).
But is that what you want from a president? A president is a public servant. His job is to ensure the welfare of the American people, including the peaceful NFL protesters. I think he therefore has a responsibility to avoid using language he knows will be insulting on a personal level, especially when the protests are peaceful, justified, and dealing with a crucial issue of inequality in his country.
But really, what can I expect from him at this stage? Evidence of deliberate choice of words? A sense of racial equality? Basic human empathy? I think he’s given us a clear sense of what type of person he is again and again, through his actions and his words. And analysing his language is no fun at all. There’s no challenge to it. There’s no careful parsing of his deliberate use of certain words or grammatical structures to subtly indicate his thoughts, or to subliminally sway people’s opinions: you’d expect that with someone with basic rhetorical abilities. No, instead, peaceful protesters are sons of bitches, and neo-Nazis are very fine people. It’s like shooting a big orange carp in a barrel. It’s just depressing, but I can’t help myself.
Even hateful individuals like this chap display a great deal more subtletly than Trump:
And that’s not subtle at all! It’s intriguing though how it reveals that so many of the old racist attitudes towards African Americans still exist today. Why should a black millionaire be ungrateful? That assumes that they were given their fortune, and should be grateful for it, even though people like Stevie Wonder and NFL players have earned their money through their talent. Yet a white millionaire like Trump is never asked to be grateful, even though he was given $1 million by his father. It’s an old racist tactic: use superficially reasonable language (who doesn’t think people should be grateful?) while simultaneously creating double standards for different racial groups. And then of course there’s the inclusion of another, to somewhat subtly suggest that many or all black millionaires are ungrateful, without directly saying it.
Again, none of this is particularly subtle, but at least some racists are aware that directly stating their beliefs isn’t socially acceptable, so they make feeble attempts like Joe Walsh did to seem reasonable. Trump though… well, at this stage I don’t want to criticise his use of language. I genuinely think he may have some sort of linguistic impediment, because his vocabulary is so incredibly limited, even for someone who doesn’t read. But like I said, he’s hard to ignore, being, inexplicably, the President of the United States.
For the record, I entirely support the players’ protests, as even from my European perspective, there is clear discrimination in the United States against African Americans, and this isn’t helped by a president who hasn’t even addressed why the players are protesting. But considering he fails to condemn white supremacists because they support him, that’s sadly not surprising. I’m also somewhat surprised that the protests could be considered offensive. They’re not actively disrespecting the national anthem or the flag. In fact, kneeling seems a particularly respectful form of protest. But again, I’m aware that the national flag is much more revered in the United States than its counterparts are in Europe (not that we actively disrespect flags either: we just don’t really talk about them or do anything with them), and with the national anthem being about the flag, I suppose I can almost understand people seeing protests during the national anthem as disrespectful. Almost.
Still though, it’s necessary to see that flags and songs are just symbols of a nation, and people’s first concerns should be the treatment of the people of that nation: liberty and justice for all, after all. Sadly, with a president who doesn’t actually seem to believe in the idea of equality of liberty and justice, such protests will probably continue for some time.