Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Threshold Of Words

Written by Chris Jarvis

Words have power. Words can hurt. Words can elevate (elevate = to raise) dialogue. Agreed. 

There are good words and bad words. Disagreed.
A large section of American society has come to agree that there are, in fact, bad words. But are there? We live in a culture so politically correct that simply using a word, regardless the intent (intent = the state of mind with which an act is done), can make you a pariah (pariah = outcast). But there are no bad words. Words are just words. It's the intent behind the word that matters. 

This version of American life has come and gone before. In the 1970's, a time strewn with much stronger racism than is apparent today, words were not nearly as monitored. On "ALL IN THE FAMILY", a top sitcom airing from 1971 to 1979, words were un-censored and honest. "All In The Family" was the first sitcom to top the charts for five straight years.  On this prime time show, it was common to hear such words as "jungle bunny", "polack", "spic", "chink", "honky", "retard" and "fag". Not only was it common, but each word resulted in explosive laughter from the live audience. 

A necessary distinction here...the audience was not exploding in laughter because they agreed with Archie Bunker, the central character on the show, an uneducated, prejudiced and harsh "man's man", but because they acknowledged how ridiculous this character's observations were becoming. This was a time in America when everyone was fighting for equal rights. Archie represented those in America who were unwilling to give up the white male domination that resulted in so many minority groups being denied rights, sympathy and dignity (dignity = the quality or state of being worthy). Archie, even with his sympathetic heart, a writer's manipulation, was the anti-center of this show. People were laughing at his ignorance, and forced to deal with their own bigotry (bigotry = the state of mind of a bigot. Bigot = a person obstinately or intolerantly devoted to their own opinions and prejudices). All this, in a nation where citizens were exploding with pleas for equality.

Imagine a TV show today doing those things. Oh, there's South Park and Family Guy and The Simpsons (all animated, by the way) and the rest of the shows, all protected by cable TV access. But there are no prime time, network shows today that could go anywhere near this kind of controversial diatribe. You might say that's a good thing. But "All In The Family" was a brilliant show. It made us face our own prejudices and think about how wrong they were. As a middle class, white boy, I watched it make a difference in so many people's lives. I watched as those around me questioned their prejudiced ideas of people different than they were. 

Growing up with that kind of bluntness, I was propelled faster into my burgeoning proclivity (proclivity = an inclination toward something) for shock, confrontation and blatant honesty. From the time I was a very young boy, I pushed the envelope of language and acceptability. Maybe not so much in the public, where my safety was a concern, but certainly at home with my family.

I like the word faggot. I rarely use it anymore, but long ago, I used to use it as a greeting to my gay friends, as many of us did. I embraced it the same way black people embrace nigger, which is all over the airwaves at any given moment, whether in hip hop songs or standup comedy. It's everywhere. Not in the demeaning and degrading (degrade = to bring to low esteem) way it was originally used against black Americans, but within the everyday language of many black Americans. It's acceptable for them to use it with each other. I used to use faggot the same way. I'd see my friends in the club and say "Hey, faggot". It was a friendly and sarcastic  greeting within the community. There's clearly no way faggot could be used negatively by me because I'm gay.

But while the black community caught on to the irony, the LGBT community lost sight. Try to say faggot in a friendly way around a group of gay people today and see how many disapproving looks you get. In 2011, at the Fresno Pride Parade, with rain falling down on everyone for the first time in Pride history, I visited the festival area before the parade started. I walked through the tables setting up and saw a few friends. I noticed that I was one of the only ones with an umbrella and said, loudly, as I approached a booth..."Am I the only fag here with an umbrella?" I, of course, meant it as a joke. When I looked around to the faces in the booths around me, I saw my share of shock and condemnation. The LGBT community, mired in a battle for equal rights comparable to the fight the black community won decades ago, can't seem to avoid the mud of political correctness. We used to reclaim words used negatively against us, like faggot and queer. Now, the power of adopting words has morphed into a PC soup. Again, it's all about intent. 

There are so many words you can't use anymore, it can be hard to follow a conversation. Listening to OutQ on Sirius Radio , particularly on the Michelangelo Signorile Show, I can hear him use a sentence with at least three words for which he'll only give me a letter...the "F" word, the "N" word or the "T" word. I can usually figure it out, but it's getting tougher as more words make into the one letter category. These conversations are occurring on an LGBT radio station during an LGBT show and they still choose not to say the words out loud. 

"Tranny" is one of the latest words you can't use. I don't have a problem with that. It's a derogatory word. But in the past, I saw it as slang, one of many shortcuts we all have used over the years. Then I watched many celebrities, including Kelly Osborne, Lance Bass and Neil Patrick Harris, who are pro-LGBT, get taken down for letting the word slip out. In those instances, I think we may be too harsh too fast. Don't we need to allow people to get used to the latest restrictions before we label them homophobic? I believe, as Kelly Osborne points out, that transgender people are some of the bravest people I know. Every day I'm astounded by their bravery and I share that. I know, that now, with the transcendent rise of the transgender community, the word has become offensive and we should change our words. But shouldn't we give our LGBT brothers, sisters and supporters a little less flak, a little more wiggle room than right wing republicans and religious zealots?

A year or two ago I commented on a story on GLAAD.  The story was about an episode of GLEE which used the word "tranny". My comment was within the context of the online conversation, a place where only the people who came to discuss the issue were involved. I noticed that on all other comments that a large number of words were censored with asterisks. So faggot became f****t and tranny became t****y. It happened within so many comments I found it hard to believe that all those commenting were self censoring, so I posted my own comment, and didn't censor my words. Why would I? That's the topic we're discussing and it's on an LGBT website where we're trying to find the answers to these issues. When I checked back the next day, my comment was indeed censored by GLAAD. It was FULL of asterisks. Are we this vulnerable even when we're discussing the very issue we're talking about within our own community? Don't we need to be mature enough to allow the words when we're discussing their power and influence?

During the Republican campaign last year, when Rick Perry was running and it was discovered that his hunting ranch had a rock painted with "Niggerhead", the media, of course, leaped on the story. But from the start, for those who didn't know the details, it might have been hard to follow. Virtually everyone reported on the rock as having the word "N-head" on it. So even in the reporting of the story, using the word "nigger" to tell the story was universally outlawed. It changed somewhat, as some, like Barbara Walters, Whoopi Goldberg and Bill Maher refused to censor the facts of the story, which was the right thing to do. Sherri Shepard went off on Barbara Walters during The View because she dared to use the word. Barbara explained she was reporting, Sherri didn't get it.

Another huge debate occurred last year over a new edition of the book "Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain. It was a censored edition...A 2011 edition of the book, published by NewSouth Books, replaced the word "nigger" with "slave" (although being incorrectly addressed to a freed man) and did not use the term "Injun". Clearly, there was a lot of talk surrounding the decision to release the book in a censored form. If we take out words like nigger and injun, aren't we re-writing history and therefore removing the struggle of what those words did and how we overcame them? Which is the right teaching moment?

Nigger is easily one of the most offensive and degrading words ever created, but if you can't even say it in the reporting of a news story, when you hear it on the radio thousands of times a day, haven't we become too sensitive in the wrong direction?

Marriage Equality USA, who I've called out before, use LOVE as the wedge between those who want marriage equality and those who don't. I find this to be one of the worst examples of how to win politically. At first, it's understandable. Same sex couples love each other the same way as straight couples. So let's toss out LOVE as what anti marriage equality Americans are against. The problem is, that doesn't work. It can't. "Love" is not something you need a law to protect. 
Not only does it not work for marriage equality, it works, far more effectively, against marriage equality. People "love" a lot of things. People, cars, animals, paintings, food groups, music and ideas, just to name a few. There are no laws legislating (legislate - to make or enact laws) against love. None. They don't exist. Love is an internal feeling, something that can only be defined by the person. Love has never been, and never will be, anything requiring a law to protect it. 

Again, I get it, how Marriage Equality USA came to use the word, even when they expanded it to include "love warriors". But that's not what we're fighting for. How can you expect to make an impact when the message is so muddled? We're fighting for civil rights. Telling those against marriage equality that we're fighting for love, when they can clearly see no one is stopping us from loving each other, stops the conversation in its tracks. 

Words matter. If you're trying to gain equality (equal = like for each member), you play by the rules of the constitution, which, supposedly, decides these issues for Americans. After all, these issues are now being decided in the courts, through the lens of the US Constitution.
The power of words raised its head again recently when Gay Central Valley brought the NOH8 Campaign to Fresno for the first time. The powerful word behind NOH8 is hate. (HATE - To have a strong aversion or distaste to). The "hate", as it relates to discrimination against LGBT people, is understandable. Groups discriminated against for no reason other than difference, have at some point related that discrimination to hate. After all, to deny a minority group equal civil rights (civil = of or relating to the state or it's citizenry) because they are different from the majority is un-American. Given that those discriminating are often outwardly patriotic (patriotic = inspired by patriotism), it doesn't follow that a foundation of American values leads to such decisions. 

The "hate" mantra was renewed  with the passing of Proposition 8 in California in 2008. LGBT Americans have justifiably felt hatred coming their way since time began. But in 2008, after the citizens of California voted to overturn a ruling by the California Supreme Court that allowed same sex couples the legal right to marry, Adam Bouska and Jeff Parshley launched the NOH8 campaign to point out the discrimination. They started taking pictures of people with NOH8 on their faces and duck tape over their mouths, signifying the silencing of LGBT rights by the majority. The campaign went national and then international. 

While it was here in Fresno there was a lot of media coverage. Carlos Saucedo with local ABC30, who covered the event, got a quote from local Steven Williams, a Prop 8 supporter.  "Just the title itself, no hate, they're saying that if you oppose same sex marriage, you're hateful, by definition.

This is just another of a number of times the LGBT community has been called out for using the word hate to describe the motivation by those working to deny us our civil rights as Americans. While it's proven a highly effective tool for the NOH8 campaign, and might be perfectly understandable to most in the LGBT community, there's a point to William's statement. Hate is a strong word. People have a strong reaction (reaction = the act or process of reacting) to it. I don't disagree, and in fact, support, Adam and Jeff for using the word but it can work against us in conversations surrounding the battle for equality. 

I've seen hate hurled back at LGBT people to show a lack of tolerance on our side (believe it or not). Opponents claim we label anyone with hate if they disagree with us. In that respect, the word fails us. What we're against as far as our opponents go is that they are behaving anti-American in denying us equal rights. I don't doubt that a good portion of them do, in fact, hate us, in their own way, but that's something much harder to change, even once we're granted equal rights. Some people will always hate us, regardless.

Whether they hate us or not, they are, in fact, working against American values and the US Constitution. That's what I say to people. First of all, it's true (true = being accurate). They are anti-American in that they feel they can decide which Americans have civil equality and which do not. That is the most abusive interpretation of the US Constitution possible. The constitution clearly states that being a US citizen is the basis for which rights you can have (all of them). 

Second, the fastest way to attack those who "believe" they are patriots even while working to deny other Americans equal rights, is to call them out for what they are, where it hits home, their "patriotism". 

You simply can't be an American who is bound to the US Constitution and stand on the side of equal rights for some, but not for others. It is simply is not possible. If you do that, you're not an American, you're, by definition, an anti-American.

So use this against those who work to deny LGBT American their equal rights. It's the issue that will make their heads spin more than any trendy argument you can come up with. These people are basing their entire arguments on the fact that they are in line with the US Constitution. They are not. 

Point it out.

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