It may be harder to wean official San Francisco from its unhealthy preoccupation with foul language. My household donnybrook was nothing compared with a half-year-old City Hall fuss called Decorumgate, in which people old enough to know better have become ceaselessly, publicly obsessed with curse words.
It began last November, when centrist Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier sponsored a censure motion against leftist Supervisor Chris Daly, who had said, "Fuck off," to a landlord advocate. The motion failed after Daly supporters packed the Board of Supervisors chambers. After the vote, Alioto-Pier brought herself to tears explaining how hurtful swearing can be. Daly apologized.
Two months later, Daly told his colleague Supervisor Jake McGoldrick during a public hearing, "I'll kiss your ass, right after I kick it."
McGoldrick later publicly announced that the two had hugged and made up. The episode further consolidated Daly's edgy reputation as an uncompromising fighter.
In May, the board considered another bad-language-related resolution, this time seeking to censure Joe O'Donoghue, a foulmouthed political sniper who heads the local Residential Builders Association. A builder in O'Donoghue's organization had said an expectant bureaucrat had "pregnancy brain." And O'Donoghue had published on his personal Web site light verse suggesting, sans evidence, that Mayor Gavin Newsom might be secretly homosexual.
"We must make every possible effort to maintain basic decorum and integrity," a newspaper quoted Supervisor and Board President Aaron Peskin, the resolution's sponsor, as saying. The board voted to condemn, thus entering into official city annals this novel text:
"WHEREAS, On or around Thursday, February 10th, Joe O'Donoghue, the Executive Director of the Residential Builders Association of San Francisco, published a poem ...."
Not long after, Peskin was overheard in a bar saying the word "fucking" and "goddamned" to a bureaucrat who runs San Francisco's schools. Sensitive to Decorumgate-era mores, the San Francisco Chronicle reported this as news. Peskin was subsequently quoted in a political pamphlet calling the bureaucrat an "idiot." The Chronicle advanced the story further, citing the pamphlet and phoning Peskin for the following quote: "I would like to formally go on the record extending an apology for that inappropriate behavior and statement."
In the latest Decorumgate episode, Wade Randlett, a political operative hired by San Francisco tycoons to try to make City Hall more business-friendly, recently sent out e-mail spam inviting recipients to click a hyperlink that lambasted Chris Daly; the resulting clicks automatically generated 300 faxes to City Hall. This meant some hapless bureaucrat had to photocopy a pile of identical "letters" and put them into City Hall's "submissions and communications" file, which nobody reads.
Daly is a leftist who's roundly disliked by business tycoons.
"I believe, and I think the public believes, that people who have full-time salaries paid by taxpayers should be expected to have a higher level of behavior," said Randlett, who has a peculiar ability to speak with a straight face regardless of the bollocks coming out of his mouth.
"Daly uses the same language. Peskin uses the same language. If that level of hypocrisy doesn't matter, nothing matters. It's Katie-bar-the-door. It's do anything you want to do," he said.
My goodness gracious sakes alive -- will this nonsense ever stop?
If our city fathers and mothers are to ever quit fretting about curse words and get back to the business of managing San Francisco, they need to visit with Social Grace, SF Weekly's wise and tactful etiquette columnist.
Alioto-Pier, Peskin, Daly, Randlett, and the rest seem too wrapped up in feelings of being slighted to do the adult thing and consult Social Grace themselves. So I've written some questions on their behalf, which Social Grace has generously agreed to answer.
If this isn't sufficient to wean our city's political insiders from obsession with foul language, perhaps it's time to take them off the teat. The public one, that is.
Dear Social Grace,
Somebody I work with said a swear word to someone else I work with. It made me so sad I cried. Should I sponsor a resolution before the Board of Supervisors of the City and County of San Francisco censuring him? The last time I did this, he said he was sorry, then later said another swear. How do I stop him from cursing?
Supervisor Michela Alioto-Pier
Dear Supervisor Alioto-Pier,
I feel your pain: You and I agree that cursing is not very nice! However, I think we should also acknowledge that some careers (for instance, sportswriter or politician) will expose one's ears to more bad words than others (etiquette expert or nun, say). It is by no means wrong to expect -- or demand, in some cases -- an apology when a colleague misspeaks, especially in the workplace. And I will join you in agitating for political decorum. But I gently suggest that a politician should try, if she can, to ignore language that doesn't pertain to her, so that she may focus on more important matters.
Dear Social Grace,
A man I don't like very much, named Joe, wrote a poem that wasn't nice. I got my friends to pass an official city resolution condemning Joe and his poem. Joe then called me an "angry dwarf." What should I do?
Supervisor Aaron Peskin
Dear Supervisor Peskin,
It's not always easy to tell the difference between dangerous, inflammatory speech and nasty but harmless name-calling, is it? I suggest that you try a little bit harder. In this situation, you should do nothing -- unless, well ... OK, my advice is this: Generally speaking, one should respond to name-calling critics only when one worries they are correct -- or at least partially so. I'll wager that your resolution got this not-so-nice poem more publicity than its author was able to muster for it. If you tell enough people that "So-and-So called me such-and-such," some of them will wonder whether So-and-So is right.
Dear Social Grace,
A friend of mine works with a man named Chris who said a swear word. She cried. The man who said the swear word has a friend named Aaron. Aaron tattled on a different man named Joe, because Joe said bad things about someone else. But Aaron swears and says mean things, too. I don't think that's fair. I sent 300 faxes to City Hall tattling on Chris. Should I tattle on Aaron, too?
Dear Mr. Randlett,
If I didn't know we were talking about politics, my response to you would be a standard, advice-columnist "mind your own business" sort of line. Actually, I think that'll be my response even though we are talking about politics: Sir, I don't understand how this concerns you at all.
Dear Social Grace,
I know cursing isn't polite. But every time I curse, people make a really big deal about it, and that makes lots of people come to my work to say they like me. This makes it easier to get what I want. And I only want what's right. Is cursing OK when it makes people like me?
Supervisor Chris Daly
Dear Supervisor Daly,
If people like you only because you use foul language, then they are the wrong sort of people. Please consider that not all attention is good attention -- it's better to go unnoticed, I'd say, than to be noticed for an unpleasant personality trait. And using swear words does not truly help a politician get his message across. In fact, cursing obscures his message. People are so busy being shocked (or titillated, as the case may be) that they don't really pay attention to what he's saying. Aim for powerful language instead of offensive language. Even better, strive to be noticed for what you do, instead of what you say.