Posted in Commentary, Growing up/old, Lessons Learned, Politics

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

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?



I've been doing some form of creative writing since 9th grade, and have been a blogger since 2003. Like most bloggers, I've quit blogging multiple times. But the words always come back, asking to be written down, and they pester me if I don't. So here we are. Thanks for reading.

2 thoughts on “Words mean things; we don’t get to selectively decide they don’t.

  1. I sharpen mine each day in the event I need them. like the knife I have in my pocket. you never know when verbal warfare will ensue. unless youre a high school teacher, in which case you can be sure a little skirmishing is going to be a daily occurrence.

    1. You carry a knife in your pocket to school?

      I live with Scott, who’s been my sparring partner lo these many years. We’re verbally prepared for pretty much anything now.

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