It is by now all over the news that in the Michigan State House of Representatives, the Speaker of the House barred Rep. Lisa Brown from speaking for “violating the decorum of the House.” It’s made the news of course because the violation was using the word “vagina,” a word that is so disgusting and fearsome that one legislator said “It was so offensive, I don’t even want to say it in front of women. I would not say that in mixed company.”
This made national headlines, turning the Michigan State Legislature into the laughing stock of rational thinking people across the globe. The banned lawmaker protested by performing the Vagina Monologues on the Michigan Capitol Building steps to supporters. And the backlash must have had some effect; what was initially reported as a permanent ban on Rep. Brown ever speaking again only lasted until the end of the session.
But while the media attention, comic quips, and social media chatter focused solely on the use of the word “vagina,” this episode shocked me for its implications. As we know, vagina is the respectful, medical word for the organ in question, yet the Speaker was able to use this non-vulgar, non-threatening, non-slang term as grounds for a permanent ban for speaking. Does this mean that the Speaker has the right to permanently silence any Representative for any reason, if he doesn’t happen to agree with him or her simply by hiding behind the rule that the individual broke decorum?
What if the bill in question had been about eliminating a school lunch program, and Rep. Bleedingheart said it would be “criminal” for the state to neglect its responsibility to the underprivileged children. Could the Speaker say that by suggesting the state was criminal Rep. Bleedingheart broke decorum, and permanently ban him from speaking?
What if there was a liberal Speaker, and the bill were about raising taxes on the rich. Rep. Moneybags complains that this is “class warfare.” Could the Speaker say that by suggesting that liberals were engaging in warfare Rep. Moneybags broke decorum, and permanently ban him from speaking?
Have we entered a new phase in state politics where the Speaker of state houses will now simply silence every Representative with whom they don’t agree? As polemic and poisoned as politics have become in the US, this isn’t so hard to imagine.
To me, this issue is much bigger than Rep. Brown saying vagina to a bunch of uptight conservatives. It’s a potential opening salvo in the shutting down of the democratic process at the state level. I hope I’m wrong, but the way things are going these days…