I was trying to write a blog post last week. I was already cranky because, for a number of reasons, I haven’t written anything for a while and was having a hard time getting going. Wanting to quote a particular interaction, I had spent longer than planned digging through old tweets, so I was double cranky. And then I started seeing all these tweets about Paris. The events of that evening were hideous. I was double cranky plus sad plus scared. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I started to write a new post about not being able to wrap my head around it, because the writing helps me get my feelings straight, usually. But then I felt selfish and awful and went to bed feeling like an asshole. A sad asshole. And I had the dream where the house falls down around me over and over and over again. That is never a good sign.
There’s a bit from The Basketball Diaries that runs through my head on repeat when I get like this: “It’s been hard, the writing, lately. Just all comes in beautiful fragments like nods now. So high. Guess I’d rather sleep forever this sleep and forget. But the gnats, they keep buzzing in my ear, and the heat, and the dreams…” (And then, because it’s the next thing on the soundtrack, I get the Posies stuck in my head, which is a whole other special kind of torture.) And obviously I’m in no way comparing my depression or my being riled up about something to Carroll’s heroin addiction, but I do feel scattered and incoherent. I’ve never dealt well with anger. Seems I’m angry about more than I thought. I keep starting to rant and rave and then realizing I’ve changed the subject without really noticing. It all does come in beautiful fragments, but they don’t fit together and they don’t make any fucking sense. So I made a list. I’ve been avoiding using lists as a writing style for about a year, but they are pretty well unbeatable for getting all the distracting bullshit out of my head. I’ll just give you the bullet points.
Things I’m pissed about at the moment (actual title of actual list, because I’d had four beers and was weeping):
Social media solidarity
Men’s Right’s Activists
I’ve got pages and pages on some of these things, most of which is bitchy to the point of being unpublishable. But at least it’s not all clanging around in my brain anymore. I think, though, that the real problem I’m having at the moment is actually with the discussion of any of these issues. When the attacks happened in Paris, I was gutted. And while people were still screaming and bleeding in the streets, I was already seeing tweets and posts about Muslims and refugees being responsible, being evil, and how France had brought this on itself, how Paris deserved what was happening. While no one had yet caught the attackers or even counted the dead. The reactionary way in which people comport themselves in what passes for news or debate makes me more angry, sometimes, than I have words for. Passion is one thing. Throwing a temper tantrum is quite another.
So many assumptions are based on labels. For example, thinking that because I describe myself as a liberal that that automatically means I hate guns and don’t want them to exist. Why does A equal B? I like guns. I’m an excellent shot. Do I think that I should have to prove that I know how to safely and properly use them in order to own them? Yes. But the same is true of my car. (It is, ironically, not true of the twelve extremely dangerous swords I keep in my bedroom. Or my kitchen knives. Or any number of chemicals we all have around. If I wanted to kill someone, I don’t need a gun to do it.) Sometimes your assumptions will fail you. Sometimes you will be wrong. Sometimes, when you spit labels at me like insults, I will laugh. I will put that shit on a t-shirt. Politically correct? Fine. Liberal? Sure. Secularist? Yup. Humanist? Absolutely. Social Justice Warrior? Fuck. Yes. Say it again. Say it louder. Point is, don’t think that the way someone labels themselves tells you everything you need or want to know about them. I assure you, that’s untrue. Further, there’s no harm whatsoever in simply asking. Why are we so afraid to ask for people’s opinions to be clarified when we know they differ from our own? Opinion is nuanced. To think you know everything based on a few generalizations is reductive and quite possibly dangerous. Let alone inflammatory and damaging to your own argument. I do it all the time, am quite often wrong, and almost always immediately regret it.
This gets compounded when those labels are then used as insults. I’ve noticed a lot of chatter lately about the term “politically correct.” To my recollection, this phrase gained widespread use in the 90s when things like “physically challenged” replaced things like “crippled.” We’ve largely moved on to a third wave of less shitty terms (“disabled” in this case, although I’m not entirely satisfied with that, either, and “differently abled,” while less internally dispositive, is a bit of a mouthful). Here’s the thing about PC terminology: I can see both sides of the argument. On the one hand, people don’t like to be described with pejorative words. I totally get that. On the other hand, people don’t like being told how to speak (possibly because that feels an awful lot like being told how to think). I totally get that, too. But you don’t get to come at me specifically because my efforts are to be more inclusive or respectful. Where’s the upside in yelling at me for being nice? I very rarely correct how others speak if it’s not outright inaccurate, and I try not to take offense on anyone else’s behalf. I do not tolerate certain things being said in my own space or about me specifically, but out in the world, I can wince and move on or remove myself from the conversation. Because I’m a fucking grownup. No one is trying to take away anyone’s right to be an asshole. That right is yours to cherish forever. But don’t get upset and try to pull the free speech card when someone tells you that you hurt them. The First Amendment is my favorite, too, but it has never been without consequence.
People can be overly delicate, sure, but that’s hardly new. What feels new to me is people being outraged that anyone would dare say that they take offense to something. I see shit all the time about “why you so butthurt over words?” and “we’re raising a nation of pussies” and “man up” and “the word police are trying to create a nanny state.” Trying to at least act like we give a shit about people by choosing our words carefully is not a nanny state. The nanny state is having fifty warning labels on everything because litigious idiots don’t know better than to stick their hands in spinning blades or to drink lighter fluid. The nanny state is freaking out over “free range parenting” and putting padding under playground equipment. The nanny state is telling me I can’t smoke in a fucking bar, because apparently cigarettes are bad for me but liquor is healthsome and good. The nanny state is being so scared of law suits and bad press that we’re becoming averse to innovation and risk-taking and radical ideas. We’re fat and we’re boring and and we’re stagnating as a culture and it’s because we don’t want to lose any money, not because of the words I use. Stop trying to insult me for striving to be kind.
While we’re on the subject of words (and really, when am I not?), there are a few that get consistently misused and it drives me up a damn wall. “Capitalism” is not the same thing as “corporatism.” To that same end, “communism” is an economic construct, not a governmental one. “Socialism” is a governmental concept, and should not be confused with “fascism.” Fascism is the bad one. Socialism is not inherently evil, and we’ve already got quite a few socialist principles in place. A few years ago I read an article about a survey asking Americans which was better, “socialized medicine” or “nationalized medicine.” These are, of course, the exact same thing. Across the board, people chose “nationalized medicine,” saying Socialism would ruin us all. Around that same time, I saw a clip on the news from a protest against the ACA, of a lady holding a sign that read “Keep the government out of my Medicaid.” I can’t imagine she was being sarcastic. Anyway. Words. “Equality” bothers me, as well. This is one that’s so misused that to point it out is pedantic and annoying, but I’m going to do it anyway. Equality is a given. What we seek is “equanimity.” Look it up (see also: literally, ironically, and chaos).
And lately the one that’s gotten under my skin the most is “courage.” No one’s using it wrong, as far as I’ve seen, but it’s been turned into something pretty gross and it bothers the shit out of me. I don’t think Caitlyn Jenner should necessarily be winning any awards for her courage. She’s rich and white and famous, and her transition has to have been a breeze compared to most people’s. But I have seen so many memes with a picture of her next to a picture of a soldier or a veteran saying something like “This is real courage.” And you know what? Fuck you. Every time I see one of those posts I want to pull my hair out. Because they diminish everyone who wants to use that word to describe themselves but now can’t because they don’t feel like they’re good enough, because they don’t think they’ve met some standard. Bravery and courage aren’t the absence of fear, but rather being scared out of your mind and doing the thing anyway. Those soldiers and cops and firemen? Brave, of course, no question. But also, those kids in the cancer ward? Brave. That single parent trying to get through their day? Brave. That woman walking into an abortion clinic? Brave. That person with mental illness who’s finally asking for some help? Brave. That child sticking up for the other child getting picked on? Brave. That teen telling their parents they’re gay? Brave. There’s more than one kind of courage. There’s more than one way to be a role model. Kicking back and posting memes about people you don’t know or don’t understand? That takes zero bravery. Disagree with people or opinions if you want to disagree. That’s fine. Doing it without being an ass is admirable. Noble, even. But don’t construct false dichotomies, pitting two unrelated things against each other. It’s lazy, and when the argument falls apart, you look like an idiot.
But it happens all the time, doesn’t it? “X versus Y” becomes our only argumentative option. Gun control versus mental healthcare, every time there’s a shooting. Increasing food stamps versus paying for college tuition, every time there’s a conversation about helping the poor. Just lately it’s helping refugees versus housing the homeless. These are all crap arguments. The truth is that we can do more than one thing at a time. The real truth is that there are some things we just want to do more than others. If we housed a whackton of refugees right now and it went perfectly fine, when the dust settled I guarantee that those same people who rallied behind our own homeless population would find some other way to not help. Suddenly they’d be a drain on the system again. Here’s the ugliness: we need people to be homeless. We need them to be an example of the lowest of the low, a cautionary tale. We need to feel good donating to charities and foodbanks and handing that guy on the corner five bucks. We need an excuse to ignore the inscription on the Statue of Liberty. We need a Y to every future hypothetical X. Right now we need homeless veterans in particular to be a scapegoat for our hatred of Muslim refugees, apparently (putting aside the fact that those refugees are running from the same pieces of garbage that we’re spending billions of dollars fighting). Thing is, we’ve had homeless veterans since the beginning. Homes and jobs and lives have been destroyed by every single war in the history of war. It’s in the nature of the thing. There are guys out there in the cold right now who are fucked beyond unfucking because of Vietnam and we haven’t helped them yet. We just cut VA benefits again. We refuse them housing because they have drug problems that we also refuse them treatment for. We bitch and moan about lazy poor people taking advantage of food stamps (which account for less than half of one percent of the federal budget), but ignore how many active duty military personnel are on food stamps! What the actual fuck is that about? Stop making these bullshit arguments about the refugees and just own up to the fact that you’re terrified of Muslims. Just do it. I don’t respect that bias, but I can respect your honesty, and I will damn sure respect you more if you don’t hide behind some veterans who you have no intention of actually helping.
And look, I get it. We should take care of our own. We really should. We should be paying our soldiers enough that they don’t need food stamps. Absolutely. We should get a roof over every vet’s head. No doubt about it. But we what about all the others? What about these values that we claim are so goddamn American? Helping people? Being a melting pot? The land of opportunity? Home of the free? Doing unto others as you would have them do unto you? And “he who gives to the poor will never want but he who shuts his eyes will have many curses.” And “if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?” Don’t give me that Christian nation shit and then tell me you don’t want to help a starving baby who doesn’t even know what God is yet. Of course, I’m an atheist. I think you’re all fucking bonkers, and everyone gets to hate me equally. But my godless heathen ass would rather help people in need than not. I’d rather say “I’m sorry these terrible things happened to you, fellow human” without stipulations or conditions.
Of course, I know my privilege is showing here. I know that politics and culture aren’t exactly at the top of a lot of folks’ lists of priorities, especially those who are in the thick of some shit the rest of us just disconnectedly talk about – the refugees, the soldiers, the displaced, the poor, the sick, the old, the discriminated-against, the marginalized, the imprisoned. I get that I am not realistically in any trenches here. Hell, I haven’t even seen any real live people except The Husband and the roommates for weeks. I ain’t fighting any good fights up in my room with my multiple computers and my craft beer. Clearly. I’m just saying that countering outrage with outrage is useless if we choose to remain uninformed about what the words we use actually mean. We can’t just be pissed all the time about buzzwords, soundbites, labels, stereotypes, half-assed summaries, headlines, and social media distillations. Get mad about stuff. Please, for fuck’s sake, give a shit about things, about people. But before you bite someone’s head off, know your argument. Try to understand theirs. None of us should fight just for the sake of fighting. Don’t just say all the same things you’ve said before, like a rehearsed monologue. Listen to people. The hard work is in the learning from each other, being compassionate and open to changing our minds. And even if you hate the other guy, give him room to say his piece, or else everyone’s freedom of speech is fucking wasted. You can misuse these things we so take for granted. You can forget that some people still fight to have those things. You can’t know which side you’re on if you let anyone else tell you how or what to think. Don’t ever be afraid to say “I don’t know” or to bow out of a debate because you don’t understand the issue. It’s okay to need to learn about something before you speak to it. That’s responsible. That’s respectful. Be a citizen of the world. We’ve only got the one, after all. If you’re really going to choose a side, that’s the only one there is when all the other bullshit is taken out of the equation. Life is short. Try not to spend it being a dick.