Remember as children we were told to be polite, courteous and to never use “bad” words either at home or in public? Especially never, ever in public.
It was difficult. When you hated a teacher and wanted to use an expletive to express your feelings, you wished you could do so without your mother hitting the roof. And all through life, you had to restrain yourself, turn the other cheek, keep a stiff upper lip and so on. And all you wanted to do was scream insults.
Now you can. You can be rude, abusive and crude and it’s alright. All you are doing is getting things off your chest. It doesn’t matter if you are a politician. You can let it all hang out. And you don’t have to apologise.
So what is this all about? Take the case of Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte. At first glance, they appear to have very little in common.
The blandly fresh-faced Rutte is not yet 50 years old and reportedly still takes his weekly laundry to his stepmother. Duterte at 71 is a firebrand politician whose ruthless campaign to wipe out the drugs trade has upset many at home and abroad.
Both, however, have been in trouble recently for using the F word in public. And with their coarse language, both have spotlighted the rise and rise of offensive and abusive language in the public sphere.
Donald Trump, the man who could soon be president of the United States, has of course perfected the art of being offensive to all and sundry. “Mexicans are rapists, Muslims are terrorists” and Hillary Clinton is so many nasty things it is difficult to keep track.
Here in Europe, Eastern European leaders and populists like Marine Le Pen, leader of the xenophobic Front National in France, breathe fire and venom against all and sundry but especially against Muslims.
Boris Johnson, the erstwhile leader of the Leave Europe campaign in Britain famously said Hillary Clinton had “dyed blonde hair and pouty lips, and a steely blue stare, like a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital”. He said Obama was against Brexit because as a “part-Kenyan” he had an “ancestral dislike” of Britain.
Interesting stuff. But let’s linger for a moment on Rutte and Duterte. The Dutch prime minister, criticised by some for being too close for comfort to the Dutch populist and Muslim-hater Geert Wilders, recently reacted to footage showing a group of men attacking journalists and their cars at a demonstration against the coup attempt in Turkey in July by saying: “My first reaction would be: Go away. Go back to Turkey. ‘Pleur op’ I would say in Haags”, he said, using the expression for “f… off” in the local dialect in The Hague.
As everyone knows by now, Duterte has of course jolted EU-Asia relations by telling the European Union to “f… off” after officials and parliamentarians in Brussels criticised the Filipino President’s brutal policy of extrajudicial killings of drugs suspects in his war against drugs.
Rutte has had the grace to say his remarks did not represent the position of the government, adding plaintively: “This is a personal opinion. I am not prime minister 24 hours a day.” Duterte, of course, is too macho to say sorry.
Instead, the Filipino President blasted the EU and the European Parliament for harbouring “guilty feelings” over the atrocities Europe had committed in the past. He also called Europeans “hypocrites”.
The EU has responded with dignity, saying relations with the Philippines remain strong and friendly. And of course the still-28 nation bloc is in good company. The Filipino leader has also lashed out at US President Barack Obama and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon as well as Trump who he described — rightly — as a “bigot”.
Those shouting out the insults say it’s time to stop being politically correct. And since the Brexit referendum, opinion polls say there has been an increase in hate crimes and racial slurs in Britain.
So what is happening? Why the sudden burst of rudeness in public life? Why, as Simon Kuper of the Financial Times underlined in a recent article is “The Age of Diplomacy Ending”? Why are personal insults becoming the norm in affairs of the state?
Well, for one, politicians have to grab public attention. Being nice and mellow doesn’t get you noticed in today’s tough, dog-eat-dog world. To be noticed by a public used to the crudeness of reality TV, politicians have to be loud and rude. They have to be make things simple. And what’s simpler than a nice, coarse insult?
It’s not just about the public — it’s also about getting the attention of a fickle media. Journalists do not care about nice people doing nice things. It’s the bad boys and girls and the villains who get the spotlight.
So talk tough, ooze venom and get it all off your chest. Say it like it is. Be as rude and tactless as you like. Call a spade, a spade. Diplomacy in the 21st century is certainly not for the faint-hearted.