Words mean things; we don’t get to selectively decide they don’t.

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A friend of mine made a Facebook post the other day about how he was tired of people getting so offended all the time, suggesting that there were a number of people in the world who like to make a career out of being offended by what others say.  (He was duly warned that this post was coming, and because he’s a mensch, he told me to have at it.)

In fairness, he was making an arguable distinction between being offended by what people say vs. by what they do, and the questionable focus of being miffed about words while ignoring actual suffering, and the actions that cause it.  And I get that.  I don’t get wigged out about people saying “man the phones,” or “mankind,” or “mailman,” because as far as male/female equality issues go, we’ve got bigger fish to fry.  I’ll start worrying seriously about verbal equality when I can comfortably stop walking at night with keys poised as small weapons in my hand.

At the same time, I don’t tend to use those words, and others that are similarly problematic for other reasons, because words mean things, (and in fact, my mail carrier is a woman.)  And as someone who appreciates the power of words enough to keep writing this blog, among other scribbling, and someone who has, intentionally and unintentionally, wounded people with words, I tend to be mindful and precise in wielding language.  Mindful of my intentions; mindful of the message I truly want to convey; mindful of my audience, in any medium.

Part of that is artistic ego, I suppose, in that if I speak or write publicly at all, it’s because I want someone to know what I think.  And because I believe that meaning resides with the auditor/reader, if I want to be sure they get the meaning I intended, the onus is on me to use language carefully.  Plus, people have a tendency not to hear what you’re saying when you offend them.  If your communication goal was to shut communication down, then offend away!  As my communication goals always include a hope to reach people, to foster understanding and connection, and make them receptive to my ideas, that’s not going to be a winning strategy for me.

But the greater part of it is that I just really am not at all interested in hurting other people.  I don’t want to hurt their feelings.  I don’t want to disrespect them.  I don’t want to invalidate their experiences.  I don’t want to assault their human dignity.  And my chances of doing all those things go up considerably when I use loaded language, when I tell jokes in questionable taste, when I speak before I think.  So I try not to do those things, because I live by one rule, and one rule only: Don’t be an ass.

It is often suggested that if you don’t like something, you can just ignore it.  If you find a joke rude, inappropriate, bigoted, or cruel, rather than announce your offense, you should just not laugh.  If you find actions rude, inappropriate, bigoted, or cruel, keep it to yourself and walk away.  The rest of us don’t want to hear it, you buzzkill.  This is a common argument, because it’s so convenient for folks who have a tendency to offend.  It lets them off the hook entirely.  This is whence cometh the non-apology, “I’m sorry if you were offended.”  You’re responsible for their jerkitude, because you misunderstood/took it out of context/don’t have a sense of humor/no one of that group was in earshot to be offended, so what’s your problem?  It couldn’t possibly be that they actually were jerks.

This whole, “If I’m not offended, you don’t get to be offended” thing is ten kinds of bullshit, because we all have different life experiences, and you don’t get to decide what bothers me and I don’t get to decide what bothers you.  Demeaning other human beings bothers me.  Bigotry bothers me.  Making light of someone else’s genuine tragedy bothers me.  People being mean bothers me.  If I know you well enough to dance along that thin line between “okay,” and “too far,” then we can mambo until the cows come home, talking shit to each other that neither of us believes the other is sincere about.  Maybe.  If you don’t know me well enough to know how I’m going to take something, then you don’t know me well enough, period, and you should probably be using your company manners anyway, because I sure am.

I was at a campout a few years back, and while there were probably 20 of us camping together, I maybe knew 3 of the people there.  One of those was a woman who was a new acquaintance, who thought she could casually call me “bitch.”  I guess that played fine with her friends, but I made it abundantly clear that it was the last time she was going to call me that.  There is way too much baggage attached to that word for my tastes, and I’m not on the vocabulary reclamation bandwagon.  For some people, that’s empowering, but it’s not my thing.

Was I just supposed to laugh it off?  Walk away?  Someone just called me a bitch.  Hell yes, I was offended, and hell yes, I said something.  Why?  First of all, because I’m not a bitch, or any non-sexist pejorative equivalent, and I resented the application of such nastiness to my kind self.  And because I’ve learned in my many years on this planet that some people are assholes, and they rely on non-assholes’ unwillingness to make a scene to get away with their interpersonal vandalism day after day after day.  To let an asshole get away with such behavior is to be an enabler, complicit in the damage they do to us and others.  I’m just not going to do that.

And that’s what I see as the foundation of the “you shouldn’t get so offended” argument:  I am an asshole who doesn’t want to think about what I say, and who doesn’t care about you and your feelings.  I want to say whatever I feel like saying, regardless of how thoughtless, ignorant, and inconsiderate it is, and I want you to let me get away with it. Because it makes me feel a little bad inside when you call me out on my shit, and I hate feeling bad.  Feeling bad offends me, so you should stop saying things that make me feel bad.

OH!  See what I did there?

It’s not about “political correctness.” (Oh, how I hate that term!  The implication of it is that we’re faking it, that we don’t say potentially hurtful things only because the social tax is too high, or at least unknown, regardless of what is easy, or what we’d really like to say, and that it’s a huge burden.)  It’s about giving a damn about people.  If you wouldn’t walk up to someone and put your dirty thumb into their eye, why would you let your words do the psychic equivalent?  If it’s that hard for you to refer to women as “women,” instead of “bitches” or the dehumanizing “females,” or you are just dying to use the word “nigger,” and you think it’s egregiously unfair that African-American folks can (but don’t always) and you can’t (and why the hell would you want to, exactly?), and you don’t understand why people don’t enjoy your rape and Holocaust jokes, then the problem, I’m here to tell you, is internal.  And the diagnosis is that you’re an asshole.  And while it’s your right to be an asshole, it is not my obligation to accommodate your assholery in silence.  If you have every right in the world to be offensive, then I have every right in the world to be offended, and tell you so.

Does that mean I expect your behavior to change?  Not really.  If you’re truly an asshole, then my actual expectation is that you’ll dig in your heels even more.  By all means, get a bigger Confederate flag to wave from your pickup; nevermind the shameful history of human bondage it represents.  However, I’m going to share my feelings on the off chance that you are not really an asshole, that you do actually care about other people, and that you might be a thoughtful human being capable of reflecting on the fact that something you did hurt, or could hurt, someone else, and you could make a change if that’s not what, deep down, you want to put out in the world.  Or at the very least, you can quit polluting my awareness with it.  I don’t have to let you smoke in my house; I don’t have to let you pollute my mind with anything I know to be toxic to my soul, either.

I express my offense in consideration of the possibility that you may not know any better, that you’ve lived a sheltered life largely among people just like you, and you had no idea what you just said could give offense.  If you don’t know, you don’t know, and you can’t be blamed too much for that.  But if people don’t speak up when you step in it, you’re never going to learn.

Either of these motivations in expressing offense actually gives you the benefit of the doubt–that maybe you didn’t mean it, or that you didn’t understand the damage it could do, and even though I may be offended, I think you have the capacity to think it over and make a different, kinder choice.  It’s a rather generous thing we do with each other, when you think about it, and if we don’t talk about these things, we’re never going to evolve in our understanding of them, and each other.

If people say something you’ve said or done hurts them, you can believe them and knock it off, or you can dismiss their feelings with a big “Fuck you.  I do what I want.”  The choice you make indicates what kind of person you are, in my opinion.  And that’s why language matters, because it indicates our thought processes, our values, our belief systems, our interest in being cooperative members of the human race, and ultimately precedes the actions that arise from the way we think and speak.  If you’re reckless and destructive with your words, how can I trust you won’t be reckless with me, too?

And sew it starts…

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So, as I have mentioned, I have recently started sewing lessons.  After 4 lessons, I was qualified to complete not one, but TWO simple skirts.  You may admire them…I’ll wait.

paisleyskirt1owlskirt2

I wore the paisley one out this past Saturday, the day after I finished it, when I went out fabric shopping, and I told anyone who gave me the slightest opening that I’d made it myself, and it was my first project. So proud was I that I probably should’ve given up all pretense of coolness and hung it on the refrigerator (the traditional place for displaying good work). But when the random lady in the parking lot complimented my cute skirt without my saying a word or doing anything but walk to my car, noting the red rickrack peeking out from the hem, I was over the moon. I wore the owls to my lesson Thursday, and my teacher made a proud fuss, and if I’d been a puppy I would’ve wagged my tail hard enough to take off. I MADE DIS WIF MY OWN 2 HANDS AND SOMEONE BESIDES ME LIKES IT!  SQUEEEEEE!

You have to understand…my sewing projects generally never see the light of day, so badly have I mangled them in the past. There were the stirrup pants in 10th grade that had too much waistband and not nearly enough crotch room. There was the jumper I tried to make and gave up when I couldn’t get the pocket on. I’m not sure what happened to the fleece socks I tried to make a couple years ago, but as I’m 100% certain I’ve never worn those socks, and don’t know where they went, doubtless they were yet another failed project, the memory of which has been stricken from both my mind and my house.

The result of my desire to learn, and this unprecedented success, is that I’ve become a little…obsessed…with the whole sewing thing, because for the first time in my life, it actually seems attainable. I’ve always loved clothes.  I love them a lot. And when you’re 5’ 10” and fat, putting together a considerable wardrobe takes dedication and effort, because there’s not always a lot available, and what is available ain’t cheap. I’m not so much interested in fashion as I am personal style and aesthetics. But given how much I love cool duds, it’s surprising it’s taken me this long to start sewing. Now that I have, though…I think I might be in trouble.

I’m in that hobby infatuation stage where I just want to learn every little thing about sewing, because it’s all so fascinating and darling and I’M JUST SO EXCITED! I’m buying books and magazines about sewing. I’m reading tutorials on the web about sewing. I’m searching out examples of stuff I’ve seen in the past and want to make. I’m studying options for making a custom dress form out of duct tape/paper tape/papier mache. I’m daydreaming clothing designs in my head, imagining all the things I’ve always wanted but couldn’t get because they weren’t available in my size, or colors I liked, or don’t yet exist because the world was waiting for ME! YES ME! to design them. (My daydreams sometimes tend to delusions of future grandeur.) I’m buying all kinds of notions I never knew until recently I couldn’t live without. Seriously, I bought a tailor’s ham, and upgraded to a better rotary cutter and a comfort-grip seam ripper, not to mention new measuring tools. Oh right–and a new (to me) sewing machine that doesn’t make my every attempt at sewing a nightmare rat’s nest of thread and every word out of my mouth profane. (Just my normal every 4 words.)

But the most dangerous part is the fabrics. Pretty, pretty fabrics. We have a store here called SAS Fabrics, and I was in there once, 13 years ago, on the hunt for fabric I could fudge somehow into something resembling Roman garb for our Latin Day at school. I went back in Saturday, and I think I was lost in there for 2 hours. Maybe more. Because what they have is an an overwhelming collection of piles upon piles upon still more piles of all kinds of fabrics in bolts and pre-cut yardages, plus pretty much any kind of trim you can imagine. And if you have the patience to paw through endless piles of fabric, and you are pure of heart, you can find some great stuff, different from what you can get at Jo-Ann’s or Hancock, and at a major discount, too.  I talked to a lady who was on the hunt for Amy Butler fabrics to resell on eBay, no doubt to finance her own fabric habit for her own projects. 

Evidently, I was exceedingly patient and pure of heart, because before long, I had a pile of fabric I absolutely could not leave without, and my arms couldn’t hold any more. (It’s a damn good thing they don’t have carts there; often, running out of hands to hold things is the only self-control mechanism I have.)

Most people who sew, or do any kind of craft with regularity, build a stash of materials for their projects, and they build this stash over time. Case in point:  my bead stash is significant enough that if I didn’t buy another bead for the next decade, I’d still have enough to keep me in personal projects and birthday/Christmas/no-reason-at-all gifts for all 10 years. The guiding principle behind any stash is, “Even though I do not have any specific craft plan at the moment that calls for this particular material, it is so brimming with innate awesomeness that I’d probably better get it now, because it won’t be here later/won’t be on sale anymore, and then won’t I be sorry?  I’ll figure out what to do with it later.”  It is the epitome of unmandated funding.  

It is a very slippery slope, however, because it seems that I am going for the instant stash.  I’ve got a whole lotta fabric going on already.  But I have ideas for every bit of fabric I bought.  There are skirts and tops and dresses in those fabrics–I can see them now!  

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fabric2fabric3Well, except for maybe the ants-on-the-tablecloth stuff.  That was just too cute to leave behind, and there was only a small piece.  I’ll figure out what to do with it later.  Believe it or not, I did show some restraint.  I left the pink flannel with the skulls on it behind. But only because they had tons of it, and I don’t know how to do pants yet.

Yep, I’m in big trouble.