Liberal Democrats Senator David Leyonhjelm may think it’s cool to tell Australian citizens to “go fuck themselves”, however he might be proving more about his essential ineffectiveness than merely forgetting his manners.

Recent interactions on Twitter between Leyonhjelm and several Australian constituents have raised some cyber eyebrows. As a libertarian in support of looser gun laws, he tweeted a controversial cartoon depicting gun regulation as being nonsensical.

An enraged user, @deliciouslybad, responded in part by saying, “Children are being massacred en masse in their fucking schools and you think this is ‘appropriate?’”, throwing in an expletive insult for good measure. To this tweet, the Leyonhjelm responded simply: “GFY” (internet slang for “go fuck yourself”).

In another instance, when a user tweeted the Senator, “You will bring guns back into mainstream Australia over my dead body,” she too was met with a lazily deadpan “GFY”.

Associate Professor of Linguistics at Macquarie University Dr Annabelle Lukin notes that “profanity is distinctive, and garners attention”. Dr Lukin goes on to say that when it comes to marginal politicians, using controversial language “is a mechanism to give themselves some kind of power”.

Perhaps Leyonhjelm is actually more tactical than vulgar?

While profanity and jocular insults have long been part of Australian political discourse, this has generally been between politicians themselves. Most of us remember when former ALP leader Mark Latham created much amused tittering by describing the opposition as a “conga line of suckholes”.

Prior to that, the cutting snark of former prime minister Paul Keating reduced future PM John Howard to a “little desiccated coconut” amongst other things. His incisive wit was brutal and became legendary. Dr Lukin describes him as a “very accomplished rhetorician”, and in fairness, his barbs made question time actually worth watching.

But those comments were not made to the general public. As the social media age ripens and Twitter becomes the go-to for political debate, it’s now very easy for voters to interact directly with their elected officials. It’s also very easy for those in power to slip up, or to gain notoriety with controversial tweets

When it comes to social media, Dr Lukin suggests that “these platforms encourage the creation of discourse that is linguistically shallow (that is, lacking detail, development and coherent ‘texture’)”. Curiously, a Lancaster University study in 2004 found that the word “fuck” was used “considerably more in speech than in writing”. It may well be that social media is creating a hybrid form of dialogue, sitting somewhere between actual and written speech.

With the unlikely political anomaly that is Donald Trump at the helm of the so-called civilised West, one wonders if his vulgar dialogue has infected our own political circus. When the President of the United States calls African American football players “sons of bitches” and refers to entire continents as “shithole countries”, it’s hardly surprising one of our own begins to emulate this kind of headline-grabbing pugnaciousness.

Though the Australian election cycle is considerably shorter than that of the United States, Leyonhjelm may well be appealing to his base, Trumpian style. Indeed, several puzzled Americans encountered his tweets and expressed surprise that an Aussie could sound so very much like Trump. Though, in fairness, Trump hasn’t used abbreviated expletives towards the general public thus far (A+ for restraint there, President Trump).

Meanwhile in Australia, Senator Snippy took a swipe back at one user who challenged his use of “GFY”, tweeting “so what you are saying is, hurling ad hom [sic] abuse at me is public discourse? Sick weirdo”.

Leyonhjelm may well be right in that “hurling abuse” at him is now public discourse, as ironic as his tweet may have been. Dr Lukin herself warns of the effects of social media on public discourse. “The more we all engage in these forms, the more habituated we become to these forms of language, and this will change the overall nature of our public discourse in profound ways,” she says.

Do we still expect someone in Leyonhjelm’s position to rise above insults and respond in a calm and professional manner?

Despite whatever perceived political capital may be gained via rhetorical notoriety, there is a fundamental trap within its usage. Politicians will likely always swear at each other, as will constituents at them. But we are hovering over a dangerous moral chasm if they begin to curse back at us.

Twitter facilitates exchanges that would have been impossible decades ago. However, there is arguably still a moral imperative for our representatives to actually represent us well to the world.

Senator Leyonhjelm did not respond to a request for comment for this piece, however he is a fierce advocate of free speech.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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