Curses

I don’t use curse words.  Of all of my behavioral quirks, that is probably the most noticeable.  It isn’t an affectation.  I am not prudish about it or offended when others use them.  I just don’t.  I have one friend that has been trying to get me to swear for almost 20 years now.  She hasn’t been successful.  Although, if she had just asked before it became a thing between us, I probably would have.  Back when I was a manager in a bookstore, I was legitimately threatened by a customer.  I had to call the police to make sure I could safely go to my car.  When the police were taking my statement, they asked me what the man who threatened me said.  I repeated his words, including the four letter ones.  After the police left, my coworkers mentioned that the strangest thing about the whole incident was that my statement to the police was the first time any of them had ever heard me use a curse word.

Naturally, I’m not unique.  It is somewhat common among people of my parent’s generation and older to find people who do not swear.  But for people my age and younger it is quite strange.  But, the fact that I do not use curse words creates another strange thing about me.  I am one of the few people of my generation that can curse.  In order to curse, there needs to be contrast.  If the same words are used to describe everything, there is no way to tell what is what.  Listening to most people talk, a traffic jam, snow, an armed robbery and spoiled milk are all described in the same language.  There’s no way to tell what is mildly annoying from what is devastating.

It’s surprising to me that new curse words haven’t appeared in the last 15-20 years.  They would serve a purpose.  The current ones have lost their power to shock, offend, insult or communicate.  They are merely sounds people make.  They are more like punctuation than words at this point.

I retain the power of curse words.  At least, I think I do.  I’m pretty sure if I ever used one, people would notice.  And, I’m pretty sure they would recognize that something was different.  Curse words would get my point across, if I ever wanted to get that kind of point across.  I guess that’s the irony.  The only way to have the power to curse is to never, or rarely, curse.  It’s kind of an impotent power to have, but it’s nice to have powers.

Allies, Gentrification and Privilege

I wrote a post the other day where I complained that the nature of academic racial language forces the conversations about race to be too self conscious.  As an aside, I also mentioned that this same language is polarizing and alienating.  Not that anyone asked, since no one ever leaves comments, but I thought I’d expand on that aside here.

In that other post, I already explained why I don’t like the term African American.  Three other words that get used a lot are ally, gentrification and privilege.  I have varying degrees of problems with all three of these.  I’ll try to explain going from the least bad to the most bad.

When I hear the word ally the first thing I think of is World War II, the Allied Powers.  From there I go to any kind of formal agreement of support between two or more parties.  After that I think of video games, board games and bad reality TV shows.  It’s not awful when I hear it in the context of minority issues, but I don’t like it.  I think there are two reasons why I don’t like it.  First, it sounds too formal.  I want to see marriage equality, but I never signed any kind of accord with LGBT groups.  I feel like more of a supporter or a well wisher than an ally.  I was furious with the Supreme Court when they gutted the Voting Rights Act, but I didn’t hold a conference with the NAACP to decide on a proportionate response.  When I write to my congress people or vote, I do so on my own, not as part of an alliance.  If this were the only issue with the word, there would be a place for it.  Members of one group could specifically ally with other groups.  Perhaps an environmental group could become allied with a minority housing group.

The other issue I have with the word, in this context, is that it is divisive.  There is the definite sense that if there are allies, there will also be enemies.  While I know that is true in practice, it doesn’t have to be.  Especially when it comes to race relations, the systematic nature of the problem means that it would still be a problem even without enemies.  Talk of allies makes it sound like a zero sum game.  If one side wins, the other has to lose and we all better hope we are allied with the right side.  This isn’t a zero sum game, though.  Equality, real genuine equality, benefits everyone.  But it is hard to convince people of that if they are treated like enemies.  Like I said, I don’t hate this word.  It is at least understandable.  But, I think we can do better.

Gentrification also bothers me for two reasons.  The first is that it is not plain what it means.  It just feels like the type of word people use to confuse other people or to make themselves feel superior.  It feels empty, like business speak, “The gentrification creates synergistic opportunities to increase functionality outside of the box which will procure more low hanging fruit for our strategic partners.”

The other reason I don’t like gentrification is that it doesn’t mean what it should mean.  I’m pretty sure the gentry were originally landed men who did not have to work because they made enough in rents.  The meaning expanded over time to include anyone who didn’t have to work because of rents or investments or inheritance.  Now we use the word gentrification to mean young white people moving into a minority urban area for the low cost of living.  Their presence eventually raises the cost of living and forces the original residents out.  I fail to see the connection.  The young white people are not gentry; they work for their money.  The gentry are not moving to poor urban areas.  If anything, I think slum lords come closer to gentrification than hipsters since they live off of rent without doing any work.  Maybe we should call it hip(ster) displacement.  Silly joke aside, it would be clearer.

Privilege bothers me the most and again for two reasons.  The first is that its common usage is just too different than its usage in a minority rights context.  When most people talk about privileges, they mean something special that they get, but others don’t.  Some privileges are earned, like an employee of the month getting the good parking spot.  Others are not earned, like the child of an alumnus getting accepted despite a worse transcript than other applicants.  But, earned or not, privileges are special.  Breathing is not a privilege.  Nor is speaking.  Neither of these things are privileges because they are available to mostly everyone.  I would go even further and say that they cannot be made into privileges.  If I steal all the air and only give it to my friends and family, no one would say that I’ve made breathing a privilege.  They would insist that breathing is not a privilege, it is a right, and I am a monster for depriving people of a right.  There are many things that straight white men can do in America that are not easily done by minorities and women.  But, saying that straight white men have privileges that others don’t is the wrong way to look at it.  Those things should be available to all.  Straight white men have spoils, not privileges.

The other reason I hate the word is it is alienating.  The vast majority of straight white men certainly don’t feel privileged.  They work too much if they are lucky enough to have a job.  They are in debt.  They are stressed and tired all the time.  The last thing they want to hear about is their privilege.  The only thing talk of privilege does is drive away potential allies (sorry, I meant to say supporters).  It is counterproductive.

Keep in mind that I am not denying the existence of these problems.  It is true that minorities are forced to relocate when white people take over a neighborhood.  It is true that straight white men get things that minorities and women do not.  I am only objecting to the way we talk about these problems.  It is never helpful to be divisive, obscure or alienating.  We need to find a language that is inclusive, clear and disarming.

American Oppressed Minority That Used To Be Enslaved History Month

A couple years ago, a student was working with me on a history paper.  She was a regular and I had worked with her often.  She always seemed smart and nice.  This day she asked me, “What do you call me?”  I hesitated and tried to glance at her folder.  I figured I had called her by the wrong name.  I am absolutely horrible with names.  But, that didn’t seem right because I virtually never use people’s names (this is a direct result of being self consciously bad with names).  So, I asked her, “What do you mean?”

She answered, “What do you call people who look like me?”

I laughed.  “Honestly,” I said, “I do everything I can to not call you anything.”

It was her turn to ask what I meant.  I kind of awkwardly explained that when I was a kid, the common terms were black and white.  No one referred to themselves as African American or Caucasian.  This is the vocabulary I internalized and what feels natural, but I was told as a teenager that black isn’t the right term, it is African American.  I still think African American sounds weird, but I don’t want to offend anyone, so I try to avoid race labels all together.

She then volunteered that she hates the phrase African American.  It turns out she was born and raised in Connecticut, but her parents are from Haiti.  They take pride in their Haitian heritage, the French language, the food, etc.  They have never been to Africa and feel no connection to it.  She feels that the phrase African American misrepresents who she is.

This conversation did two things to me.  First, it made me double down on my whole avoid race labels at all costs position.  Second, it made me think about labels differently.  I used to think the labels were necessary in order to have a conversation.  How can we talk about racial segregation without labeling which people belong to which race?  My own discomfort with the labels was just something I needed to get over if I wanted to participate in the dialogue.

Now I’ve changed my mind.  I think the labels actually hinder communication.  Language is an organic, living thing.  In order to work, it needs to be fed from the bottom.  But the politically correct labels come from the academy.  They are handed down from above.  Labels like African American, Privileged, Ally, Gentrification, etc. are not natural, and that means they can only be used self-consciously.  Self-conscious speech is rarely honest speech.  That is what hinders communication.*

What we need is natural, honest speech.  We need to stop worrying about what we call each other (although it is always a good idea to be respectful).  If people are victims of discrimination, that is a problem and that should be our focus.  We need to stop caring about what we call the victims and start trying to help them.

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*I don’t want to get into it here, but the specific labels used by academics have a tendency to polarize and alienate which is also a problem.

Rain

You know how people say that peoples from the arctic have fifty words for snow? They say it because it’s supposed to seem impressive, but it never struck me as impressive. And apparently it’s not true. That’s too bad. While not impressed, I like the flexibility of language, and it saddens me that arctic peoples don’t have the sort of variety in their languages that we have in ours. To lend support to my position, here are fifty words (or phrases) for rain. While not impressive, it’s a fun list. If you know any that I missed, please leave a comment.

 

Rain, showers, drizzle, downpour, sprinkle, sun shower, monsoon, typhoon, thunderstorm, pouring, raining cats and dogs, raining buckets, god’s tears, angels crying, precipitation, hurricane, storm, cloudburst, deluge, skies opened up, drips, drops, gully washer, trash mover, toad strangler, heavy mist, sky is crying, spit, spittle, biblical rain, heavy dew, liquid sunshine, rainstorm, volley, stream, drencher, fall, mist, precip, rainfall, raindrops, sheets, window washer, nature’s car wash, thundershower, gusher, mizzle, squall, rainsquall, inundation.