Politics isn’t church-talk

Rhetoric: Beto Swears

Sometimes I talk about politics.

On Aug 11, 2022, Texas gubernatorial candidate Robert “Beto” O’Rourke swore at a man attending one of his campaign events.
More specifically, a man heckled O’Rourke during an event in Mineral Wells. This heckling came as laughter when O’Rourke addressed the murder of children at Uvalde. O’Rourke swore in response (The Dallas Morning News, 2022).
The reaction to the event was more interesting than the event itself. People on the left and the right admonished O’Rourke for his swearing. Dustin Jones tacitly condemned O’Rourke in a column for NPR (Jones, 2022). By comparison, Mike LaChance condemned O’Rourk in a column for American Lookout (LaChance, 2022).
Some of the swearing reactions are people responding to the rattling of their perception of O’Rourke. Jack Shafer may have summed up this general perception when he asserted that O’Rourke had “youth pastor energy” (Shafer, 2019). This is not a literal statement – O’Rourke has never worked as a youth pastor. But he carries that kind of vibe for some people. So, O’Rourke’s swearing is surprising as a youth pastor swearing at church in front of a group of children.
This says more about the commenters than it does about O’Rourke. Voters are not children, and political campaigns are not church services (Goodtimes, 2012). That has always been true of American elections (Feuerherd, 2016).
Basil Bernstein discussed speech codes in “Class, Codes, and Control Volume I.” His research described elaborated codes and restricted codes. Bernstein writes that working-class language is a restricted code.” Language usage is an elaborated code among upper/leadership classes. That style connects with formal situations (Bernstein, 1971). People can swear in restricted code. You cannot swear in elaborated code and have it still be elaborated code. When O’Rourke swore – or swears as he has done so before and since Mineral Wells – he stopped talking like a politician. He started showing passion. He started showing a visceral intensity. Elaborated code – or how politicians speak – is calculated and sterile. It is possible to use swearing in a calculated way. But, swearing is not sterile.
Displaying passion shows humanity – so breaking out of sterile political speech is not a problem. Showing that humanity is something many voters find appealing (Schlueter, 2016).
Demonstrating passion can be dangerous (Goldhammer, 2016). However, it is at least engaging. So what if it is dangerous? Politics is like riding a skateboard – and you can’t be careful on a skateboard (King, 1986). If you are too careful at either, then you are not engaged.
All that to say, it’s fine that O’Rourke swore. It’s the least offensive thing to happen in the election.
Bernstein, B. (1971). Class, code and control volume I: Theoretical studies toward a sociology of language. London and Boston: Routledge.
Feuerherd, P. (2016, July 4). The First Ugly Election: America, 1800. Retrieved from JSTOR Daily: https://daily.jstor.org/first-ugly-election-america-1800/
Goldhammer, A. (2016, June 14). Privilege, Passion, and Politics. Retrieved from The American Prospect: https://prospect.org/world/privilege-passion-politics/
Goodtimes, J. (2012, October 24). A Brief History of Campaign Mudslinging, From 1796 to Today. Retrieved from City Life: https://www.phillymag.com/news/2012/10/24/presidential-campaign-dirty-politics-mudslinging/
Jones, D. (2022, August 11). Weighing the pros and cons of Beto O’Rourke dropping an f-bomb on a heckler. Retrieved from NPR: https://www.npr.org/2022/08/11/1117026657/beto-f-bomb-heckler-pros-cons-political-future-texas-governor
King, S. (1986). IT. New York: Viking Press.
LaChance, M. (2022, August 11). TEMPER TEMPER: Beto O’Rourke Swears At Man Who Laughed At Him In Meeting. Retrieved from American Lookout: https://americanlookout.com/temper-temper-beto-orourke-swears-at-man-who-laughed-at-him-in-meeting-video/
Schlueter, N. (2016, February 24). The Politics of Passion: A Lesson from The Federalist Papers. Retrieved from The Public Discourse: https://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2016/02/16524/
Shafer, J. (2019, March 14). The Semigoguery of Beto O’Rourke. Retrieved from Politico: https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2019/03/14/beto-o-rourke-semigoguery-225810/
The Dallas Morning News. (2022, August 11). Beto O’Rourke curses at a gun control heckler while discussing the Uvalde shooting. Retrieved from The Dallas Morning News YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gyxSw7-BsQE&ab_channel=TheDallasMorningNews

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