As the longest-standing resident Huck critic at NRO, I might be an unlikely one to rush to Mike Huckabee’s defense. But I see nothing inherently wrong with anything Huckabee said about “frequent F-bombs” and “gratuitous” profanity at work — and, contra the wonderful Katherine Timpf, I don’t think he said anything demeaning toward women. In fact, some of us down South see it as an indication of respect for women — which I will explain momentarily. (I do agree with Timpf that it’s probably not the sort of conversation we want to dominate a presidential campaign, but I think it’s a perfectly reasonable cultural comment for a radio host to make.)
Let’s unpack what Huckabee said. Timpf is absolutely right to explode the idea that the Arkansan was making no distinctions between the genders. Of course he was. The relevant question, as we shall see, is whether the distinction — or as many people seem to suggest, any distinction — is demeaning, or “inflammatory.”
Here’s how Timpf described it:
On Friday morning, the former governor of Arkansas said during an Iowa radio appearance that, “In the South, or in the Midwest, there in Iowa, you would not have people who would just throw the F-bomb and use gratuitous profanity in a professional setting.” “In New York, not only do the men do it, but the women do it,” Huckabee said. “My gosh, this is worse than locker-room talk,” he continued. “As we would say in the South, that’s just trashy.”
First, the question is what Huck’s “that” refers to, in “that’s just trashy.” Taken as a whole, it does seem pretty clear that what is particularly trashy is not that women do it, but that anybody uses “gratuitous” profanity in a professional setting. And some of us who were raised to be polite would agree. It’s not that we’re perfect or that we don’t sometimes err and let loose a random “curse word.” As many have noted, there are no better words to use when one hits one’s thumb with a hammer or spills coffee on a brand-new tie. What’s objectionable to those of old-fashioned mores (we prefer “ordinary decency” to “old fashioned,” actually) is the “gratuitous” and casual use of profanity, especially outright obscenities, as if the words themselves were acceptable in ordinary conversation, as if they were unexceptional modifiers or exclamations such as “remarkable!” or “oh, my!”
For those of us who still admit to such antiquated values (which is probably, outside of the East and West Coasts, a still-sizable minority), anytime anybody in a professional or other somewhat formal setting uses profanity in a gratuitous fashion, it certainly is trashy. Actually, better words than “trashy” would be “unprofessional,” “unproductive,” “distracting,” “offensive,” and “obnoxious.”
The question then arises as to why one would make any distinction between men and women with regard to using these words.
If one looks at it from a set of values that doesn’t see it as objectionable at all, then to make any gender distinction here is to indicate that it’s something men can be allowed, but not women. It’s as if they see it as a matter of prerogative, something liberating. Looked at in that way, one can understand interpreting Huck’s remarks as saying that it is trashier for women to use such language than for men to do so, because of course only men should be allowed such freedom.
But that is not what Huckabee was saying, because those aren’t the values he is expressing. Instead, he is asserting that casual use of obscenities such as the “F-bomb” is trashy, period. By then expressing surprise that women also engage in such practices, he isn’t saying that women shouldn’t be allowed such leeway, but that women are usually better than that — that it’s a mark of the superior temperament or self-control that is often claimed as a virtue more common in women than in men. It’s not that it is trashy only for women, not men, to use such language, but that the use of such casual obscenity even by women is a mark of how far the entire culture has fallen. In this light, making the distinction is paying a compliment to women, not demeaning them.
Now I already see critics jumping through their skin in anger at my suggesting that there are any differences of that sort between men and women.
On the other hand, many (probably most) of the same people who make such objections are the ones most likely to assert that we need more women in public office because women have greater sensibilities than men — that they are more concerned with the plight of the poor, more prone to negotiation than to conflict, more attuned to the needs of children, et cetera. In short, they are saying that women are naturally better at certain things than men are.
This, of course is exactly what Huckabee was saying, just in a different context.
So it seems that their gender-based distinctions are acceptable, but ours aren’t. It’s only sexist to make distinctions when they say it’s sexist.
To repeat, Huckabee’s point is not that it is uniquely trashy for women to curse, but that it is surprising that women would act as offensively as some men do — and a sign of broader societal decline.
Huckabee’s cornpone act — his God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy schtick — may be not just grating but actually demeaning to southerners, by exacerbating simplistic stereotypes of us. And if he insists on running for president, he only hurts his own cause with comments such as these, which make him even more of a merely regional candidate rather than a national one.
Yet as a comment on the culture, however inelegantly expressed, Huckabee’s complaint was right on target. And his gender distinction therein, much like the courtesy of holding the door for a lady, is hardly an insult, but a nod to civilizing virtue.
— Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review. Follow him on Twitter: @QuinHillyer.