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The Ethics of “Let’s Go, Brandon”

photograph of Biden on phone in Oval Office

On Christmas Eve, Joe and Jill Biden were taking holiday phone calls as a part of an annual tradition of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) to celebrate Christmas by “tracking” Santa Claus on his trip around the globe; at the end of one conversation, the Bidens were wished “Merry Christmas and ‘Let’s Go, Brandon’” by Jared Schmeck, a father calling with his children from Oregon. In recent months, after a crowd at a NASCAR event chanting “F**k Joe Biden” was described by a reporter as saying “Let’s Go, Brandon” (seemingly referring to the winner of the race), the sanitized slogan has been wholeheartedly adopted by people seeking to (among other things) express dissatisfaction with the current president. Plenty of others have offered explanations about the linguistic mechanics of the coded phrase (for what it’s worth, I think it’s an interesting example of a conventional implicature), but this article seeks to consider a different question: did Schmeck do something unethical when he uttered the phrase directly to Joe Biden?

There’s at least two factors here that we need to keep distinct:

  1. Did Schmeck do something unethical by uttering the phrase “Let’s Go, Brandon”?
  2. Did Schmeck do something unethical by uttering “Let’s Go, Brandon” directly to Joe Biden?

The first point is an interesting question for philosophers of so-called “bad” language, often categorized as profanity, obscenity, vulgarity, or other kinds of “swear” words. It’s worth considering why such pejoratives are treated as taboo or offensive in various contexts (but, depending on various factors, not all contexts) and scores of philosophers have weighed in on such debates. But, arguably, even if you think that there is something unethical about using the word ‘f**k,’ the utterance “Let’s Go, Brandon” side-steps many relevant concerns: regardless of what Schmeck meant by his utterance, he technically didn’t say a word that would, for example, get him fined by the FCC. After all, there’s nothing innately offensive about the terms ‘let’s,’ ‘go,’ or ‘Brandon.’ In much the same way that a child who mutters “gosh darn it,” “what the snot,” or “oh my heck” might expect to dodge a punishment for inappropriate speech, saying “Let’s Go, Brandon” might be a tricky way to blatantly communicate something often considered to be offensive (the dreaded “f-word”) while technically abiding by the social prohibition of the term’s utterance.

This move — of replacing some offensive term with a vaguely similar-sounding counterpart — is sometimes referred to as “denaturing” profanity with a euphemism (including even with emoji): for example, the phrases “what the frick?” and “what the f**k?” are not clearly substantively semantically different, but only the latter will typically be censored. However, over time, this kind of “minced oath” often ends up taking on the conventional meaning of the original, offensive term (in a process that it is itself sometimes described as a “euphemism treadmill”): that is to say, at some point, society might well decide to bleep “frick” just as much as its counterpart (although, actually, social trends largely seem to be moving in the opposite direction). Nevertheless, although “Let’s Go, Brandon” is only a few months old, its notoriety might be enough to already suggest that it’s taken on some of the same offensive qualities of the phrase that it’s meant to call to mind. If you think that there’s something unethical about uttering the phrase “F**k Joe Biden,” then you might also have a reason to think that “Let’s Go, Brandon” is likewise problematic.

Notably, the widespread use of “Let’s Go, Brandon” in many places typically opposed to profanity — such as churches, airplanes, and the floor of the House of Representatives — suggests that people are not treating the phrase as being directly vulgar, despite its clear connection to the generally-offensive ‘f**k.’

Which brings us to the second point: was Schmeck wrong to utter “Let’s Go, Brandon” directly to Biden on Christmas Eve?

Again, it seems like there are at least two factors to consider here: firstly, we might wonder whether or not Schmeck was being (something like) rude to Biden by speaking the anti-Biden slogan in that context. If you think that profanity use is simply offensive and that “Let’s Go, Brandon” is a denatured form of profanity, then you might have a reason to chastise Schmeck (because he almost said a “bad word” in an inappropriate context). If Schmeck had instead directly uttered “Merry Christmas and ‘F**k Joe Biden,’” then we might at least criticize the self-described Christian father (whose small children were with him on the call) as being impolite. But if, as described above, the meaning of “Let’s Go, Brandon” is less important than the technical words appearing in the spoken sentence, then you might think that Schmeck’s actual utterance is more complicated. Initially, Schmeck suggested that he simply intended to make a harmless, spur-of-the-moment joke (a claim that is admittedly less-credible by Schmeck recording the conversation for his YouTube page and in light of Schmeck’s later comments on Steve Bannon’s podcast) — without additional context, interpreting the ethical status of the initial utterance might be difficult.

But, secondly, we would do well to remember that Joe Biden is the President of the United States and some might suppose that uttering offensive speech (whether overtly or covertly) insufficiently shows the office of the POTUS the respect that it deserves. Conversely, we might easily deny that the office “deserves” respect simpliciter at all: the fact that Biden is an elected politician, and that the United States boasts a long tradition of openly and freely criticizing our political leaders — including in notable, public displays — absolves Schmeck from ethical criticism in this case. You might still think that it is a silly, disingenuous, or overly-complicated way to make an anti-Biden jab, but these are aesthetic (not ethical) critiques of Schmeck’s utterance.

In a way, Schmeck seems to have evoked something like this last point after he started receiving criticisms for his Christmas Eve call, arguing that he was well within his First Amendment rights to freely speak to Biden as he did. Indeed, this claim (unlike his initial characterization of the comment as having “meant no disrespect”) seems correct — even as it also fails to touch our earlier question of whether or not Schmeck’s actions were still impolite (and therefore subject to social reactions). It is fully possible to think that Schmeck did nothing illegal by spiking the NORAD Santa Tracker with a political pseudo-slur, even while also thinking that he did something that, all things considered, he probably shouldn’t have done (at least not in the way that he did it). It bears repeating: the First Amendment protects one’s ability to say what they generally want to say; it does not prevent potential social backlash from those who disagree (and also enjoy similar free-speech protections).

All things considered, though he’s reportedly considering running for office, Jared Schmeck’s fifteen minutes of fame have likely passed. Still, his Santa-based stunt offers an interesting look at a developing piece of applied philosophy of language: regardless of the ethical questions related to “Let’s Go, Brandon,” the phrase is certainly not going anywhere anytime soon.

Pride Parades and Respectability Politics

photograph of rainbow flag with silhouette figures crowded beneath it

Every June, the LGBT community celebrates inclusiveness, the right to self-expression, and the radical politics of queer love. Every June, the LGBT community also engages in the same circular discourse about what pride parades should look like, and what subcultures within the community deserve the recognition and visibility afforded by a parade. The most controversial aspect of pride for many (both inside and outside the community) is the prevalence of kink paraphernalia, “kink” meaning any expression of fetishistic sexuality. This usually takes the form of men in revealing full-leather BDSM outfits, those bogeymen of conservative pearl-clutchers. Almost every year, members of the LGBT community debate whether or not kink should be allowed at pride, though for some reason, the debate has flared up this year with unusual intensity. Perhaps we can blame a viral tweet from a leftist YouTuber, declaiming kink and BDSM at pride, or perhaps the absence of pride parades last year has made queer activists re-examine the existential foundations of the event.

In a recent op-ed for The Independent, gay journalist Skylar Baker-Jordan lays out the most prevalent arguments against the inclusion of kink and BDSM at pride, citing consent as a major issue:

“As Pride is held in a public space and is a public event, it should be open to the public while also following the standards of public decency. Overtly sexualized displays . . . breech [sic] the boundaries of good taste and decency even as Pride stretches what is and is not acceptable. It alienates members of our community who are modest, who have ethical or philosophical objections (as many feminists do), who have children, or who simply do not want to participate in your sex life as unwilling voyeurs. BDSM and kink displays deter many of us from attending . . . Pride should be for everyone in the LGBT community.”

The problem, as he sees it, is accessibility. Muslims who identify as LGBT, for example, might not feel fully comfortable at an event where kink is out in the open, and a community that prides itself on inclusiveness ought to take that discomfort into account. Baker-Jordan is also right that there is a long anti-kink feminist tradition. Audre Lorde, Judith Butler, and Alice Walker (to name a few) have all written against BDSM, and their arguments were compiled in the controversial 1982 anthology Against Sadomasochism. However, Baker-Jordan doesn’t seem interested in probing the ethical or philosophical motivations of those who wear leather to pride events; only the anti-kink objectors are allowed any intellectual depth or moral sense. He falls back on extremely subjective terms like “good taste and decency,” which have long been utilized by conservative critics of the LGBT community to reinforce hegemonic systems. As Alex Abad-Santos explains for Vox,

“Queer history is often about resistance to norms and embracing radical existence, so engaging in respectability politics — the idea that marginalized groups need to behave or act in a certain way to validate the compassion shown toward them — flies in the face of those goals.”

Baker-Jordan further argues that the “struggle for lesbian, gay, and bisexual equality was always about gaining parity with straight people and straight couples, of having our relationships recognized as equally valid and legitimate. It has never been about our sex lives.” Many parts of this assertion are fundamentally untrue. For one thing, kink has been a visible component of pride since the 1960’s, and the woman who spearheaded the first pride parade in early-1970’s New York City was herself affiliated with kink. Furthermore, Baker-Jordan arguing that sex has nothing to do with LGBT rights is a bit like arguing that the struggles of the civil rights movement were about social and legal equality, but had nothing to do with the color of Black people’s skin. The very thing that sets the community apart from mainstream society is elided, which only serves to homogenize and de-radicalize a subversive group.

Baker-Jordan goes on to say that members of the LGBT community are an “identifiable class of individuals discriminated against in law and culture based on shared characteristics: their sexual orientation and gender expression.” Kink and BDSM, he argues, are preferences rather than orientations, and leather is an aesthetic that (while important to many members of the LGBT movement) is not inherently queer in itself. But BDSM is an incredibly psychologically and historically complicated niche of human sexuality, and boiling it down to a preference or fashion trend feels reductive. Kink is a form of sexual expression that has long been viewed as deviant, and for that reason is very important to many members of the LGBT community. Queer anthropologist Janie Lawson explains in an interview with Vice that the

“BDSM or kinky communities recentre sex around pleasure, not reproduction. It’s no coincidence that the leather scene is so closely associated with radical, transgressive queerness – the gay leather aesthetic emerges post-World War II in America and it’s been part of queer culture ever since. That kinky, leather aesthetic has been part of queer politics and queer protest since the 1960s.”

Many are troubled by pieces like Baker-Jordan’s, which reframe the important concepts of consent and accessibility (both of which are crucial to feminist, disabled, and queer thought) in service of socially conservative ends. This year, New York City decided to ban police officers from marching at the annual pride parade, and many pride organizers are having conversations about “rainbow capitalism,” or the commodification of LGBT issues by large corporations looking to make a buck. Clearly there are still questions about what pride should be and who it should be for, but excluding a large and historically important portion of the community from the event in the name of “respectability” ultimately serves no one.

On Speaking Up in Polite Company

photograph of place settings at table for Christmas dinner

One of the less joyous aspects of a typical holiday season is breaking bread with family members whose views one finds not merely wrongheaded, but abhorrent. When they choose to air those views around the table, one faces a dilemma: speak up or quietly endure? As with so many choices we encounter in our daily lives, philosophy can help us sort out the good arguments for acting from the bad.

There are three basic positions one could take on this issue: that we always ought to speak up, that we never ought to speak up, and that we sometimes ought to speak up. I will consider these positions in turn, arguing that the last is probably the correct one.

There are at least four arguments for always speaking up. The first is that if you don’t speak up, you are a hypocrite. The second is that if you don’t speak up, then you are choosing to do what is “polite,” rather than what is morally required. But the norms of politeness are always trumped by moral norms, so one ought to always speak up. The third argument is that we are naturally inclined not to speak up, so the best policy — the policy that will ensure that we do the right thing most often — is to always speak up. Finally, the fourth argument is that it is always possible to speak up diplomatically, thereby mitigating any harm that might be done by speaking up.

The hypocrisy argument leads with a false premise and then begs the question. It is simply not the case that if you don’t speak up, you’re a hypocrite. A hypocrite is someone who makes a pretense of conformity to some value or norm for illegitimate reasons. (This is why hypocrisy is a term of opprobrium.) Even if not speaking up always involved making a false impression that one agrees with some sentiment or adheres to some norm, one’s reasons for not speaking up need not be illegitimate. For example, maintaining familial tranquility for the sake of others is not always an illegitimate reason. In any case, the argument also assumes that being a hypocrite is always a morally bad thing. But hypocrisy can be morally justified, at least all-things-considered. For example, it may be permissible for a sexist employer to hire well-qualified female employees in order to impress a progressive female colleague. Here, the employer’s hypocrisy is arguably justified by the good results it produces.

The politeness argument simply assumes that the norms of politeness are not moral norms. But in many cases, etiquette supports morality. The requirement to be courteous, for example, seems to derive its force and legitimacy from the clearly moral requirements to show basic respect or to be kind. As Karen Stohr argues, the conventions of etiquette are the primary means by which we express our moral attitudes and carry out important moral goals. So, in choosing to do what is polite, one does not always depart from the norms of morality. If politeness requires not speaking up, that may be because it is the morally right thing to do.

The claim that always speaking up is the best policy may well be true. After all, most of us are probably seriously biased in favor of not speaking up. So, adopting an inflexible policy of always speaking up may maximize our chances of doing the right thing. But from the fact that the policy of always speaking up will most often lead us to do the right thing it does not follow that speaking up is always the right thing to do. In general, we are sometimes justified in adopting moral policies if they lead us to do the right thing most often, even if they sometimes lead us morally astray. For example, if I know that I am a bad sport at tennis, I may adopt a policy of sprinting away from my opponent after a loss to keep myself giving him the middle finger. This policy will lead me to refrain from doing the wrong thing most of the time, and so may be the one I ought to adopt, even though there may be instances where my opponent richly deserves the finger.

The fourth argument, that we are always able to speak up diplomatically, can help us see a bit more clearly what speaking up involves. It seems to me that it is impossible to speak up diplomatically. Diplomats try to finesse conflict to the point that it ceases to appear to be conflict. Speaking up means, at minimum, making one’s opposition to another person’s views as clear as possible. So, far from always being able to speak up diplomatically, we are in fact not speaking up if we try to do it diplomatically. What we should perhaps aim at is speaking up civilly, but this just means that we should speak up with politeness or courtesy, by showing basic respect to our opponent. This is different from finessing our conflict with our opponent, and even civil opposition can be highly inflammatory in certain contexts.

The arguments for always speaking up appear to be flawed in various ways. On the other hand, the arguments for never speaking up seem to be even worse. Some people will point out that speaking up will rarely change one’s opponent’s mind. This may well be true, but rarely changing one’s opponent’s mind is not the same as never doing so. More fundamentally, for the argument to work, it must assume that the only purpose of speaking up is to change one’s opponent’s mind. In fact, it seems to me that the reason one should speak up is primarily to signal to others that one does or does not support some sentiment, norm, or value, which may give them comfort, strength, or the courage to voice their own views. For example, if a family member voices strong contempt for homosexuality in front of one’s gay cousin, signaling that one does not agree with that contempt can let the cousin know that she is not alone or unloved, and may empower others in the family to confront the homophobe. The signaling function of speaking up is why I earlier claimed that speaking up means making one’s opposition to another person’s views as clear as possible: one must send a clear signal of one’s opposition in order to comfort or encourage others.

We come, then, to the conclusion that we sometimes ought to speak up. But when should we do it? The answer in abstract is deceptively simple, even simplistic: when doing so would bring about more good than any other option realistically available. In saying this, I am doing nothing more than applying the moral doctrine of consequentialism to a practical problem. Consequentialism tells us that we ought to judge an action’s rightness by its consequences, and I see no reason why this philosophy does not capture every morally relevant feature of the problem of speaking up.

In saying that the right thing to do with respect to speaking up is whatever brings about the most good, however, I am not necessarily recommending that people try to perform a consequentialist calculus whenever they face such situations. In practice it may be difficult to know which options available to us will do more good than others. Our epistemic limitations, together with our own biases against conflict, are reasons why we might be justified from a consequentialist point of view in adopting a policy of always speaking up — even if sometimes this policy will lead us to speak up when doing so will not bring about the most good.