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.