Do I Need a Word for Stupid People?

My employer required a handful of DEI-related readings this quarter. Definitely a good thing, and/but the selections made me confront something I’ve been pushing aside for a while. In the spirit of facing up to my shit, here we go.

The issue is the troubling origins of the words “moron” “idiot” “imbecile” etc. Pretty much all synonymous terms were medical or legal classifications for individuals who did not conform to whatever arbitrary standard for intelligence or behavior was enforced at that time. The classifications were utilized to take away people’s freedom to live where they wanted to live, participate in society, reproduce, vote. The words were consequential and did not just designate difference, but inferiority. Although the usage has changed, the sting still lingers for folks, so removing those words from pointed use seems reasonable.[i]

The question I’ve been avoiding is the one that always lingers in my mind when this group of words is broached,

“But what am I supposed to call stupid people?”

The appropriate response is, of course, “why do I need a name for stupid people?”

“Because there are stupid people out there, and I may need to reference them in writing or conversation.”

Do I, though?

I’ve argued in at least one post and an op/ed that writing off our perceived (often political) enemies as “idiots” is not helpful. It places a nearly impenetrable wall between us and them and, yes, the language itself fortifies the wall. If they are idiots, there is no reaching them, no reasoning with them, no point in concerning ourselves with their motives or wellbeing. If they are idiots, there is no point in trying to talk to them. I’ve argued against this usage with the ride or die Trumpers specifically, because holding fast to a belief in the face of contradictory evidence is something every one of us has done. Maybe it’s not over a political election, but rather in believing in superstitions, practicing harmful habits, defending the  improbable innocence of people we happen to like. The belief that we are rational actors leads us to trust ourselves too much, and to trust others too little, and facing up to our universal irrationality may help us be a bit more forgiving.

I have come to believe that people may believe stupid things, perhaps, or make stupid decisions, but no one is an idiot. Do we need a demeaning word for someone who is incapable of thinking the way that we do? Perhaps you’re wondering about people with intellectual disabilities, diagnosed or not, apart from any ideologies you might have. Would you call those people idiots? I wouldn’t. Those words imply some element of will, not a different intellectual capacity, and all of the words synonymous with idiot have a tinge of insult and judgement that hang on them. It would never cross my mind to call someone with an intellectual disability an idiot. Besides, our definition of intelligence is far, far too narrow. Everyone who is conscious has some kind of intelligence, whether it be the ability to make something, to love well, to appreciate beauty. None of us excel in everything, and there’s plenty of variety to go around.

What if someone is unwilling to apply their intelligence? That makes them stubborn, right? Or willfully ignorant. Not stupid.

So do we need a word like idiot? Do we need a word that takes what we perceive to be the circumstantial inferiority of a person and turns it into their entire identity? Do we need a demeaning word for people with disabilities? Do we need a demeaning word for Black people? For gay people? For women?

How might the world shift if we did not have a demeaning word for people who are intellectually disabled or make harmful or ignorant decisions? Would it force us to look at them as people with flaws, like us, instead of demons? What would it look like if, instead of saying, “Those Trump supporters are idiots,” we said:

Those Trump supporters believe something that has been proven false, or

Those Trump supporters are being manipulated by greedy, ambitious people, or

Those Trump supporters are being led by their fear.

I immediately feel my compassion extend towards those people, in a way in which I wouldn’t with a mob of idiots. Which ones could you relate to? Who is worth caring for? Who might you be willing to talk to? Each one of those descriptions contains within it a clue to solving the perceived problem. Does that opening put too much responsibility on our shoulders? Is that what we’re trying to avoid?

An idiot is a person who is not like us, a person not worth considering. A person whose motives we don’t even need to think about, because even if they did have motives, why should we learn about them? They’re stupid, after all. We separate from them in word and deed. We lock them out of the human club by naming them as something other. Separation is a method to shut down compassion and a lack of compassion separates us from our companions in this journey.

I think I can live without it.

As for my use of crazy… that’s for the next therapy session.

[i]

I don’t argue that these or any words be removed from the language entirely. This is about mindful speech & writing.

Tell Me I’m Wrong

Tell Me I’m Wrong

I like it.

I do. It’s new – maybe a few years that I’ve had positive reactions to being accurately corrected – but it feels so good when I do. It actually gives me a physical rush. Maybe rush isn’t the right word. It’s like a piney breeze softly winding through my body. It feels like freedom.

When I find out I don’t know shit…

I don’t know why, but it feels like Freeeeeeeeeedom

(thank you for the only upbeat popular songs of 2021, Mr. Batiste)

Oh, don’t think it’s always been this way. It definitively ain’t. I’m one of those people who has had a lifelong embarrassment of showing ignorance. Not any ignorance: I allowed myself some realms of detached unknowing. Mostly in realms I didn’t care about. You could tease me relentlessly about never having seen a full Star Trek episode or most forms of etiquette or different cuts of meat or fantasy novels and I’d laugh it off. But for a shockingly, shockingly broad swath of topics, not knowing something churned up not interest, but shame. Even some things I didn’t give two shits about, like the names of different kinds of rocks. I’d still feel stupid because I know we covered that at some point in grade school. So I should know it. Different kinds of architecture? Never studied it, but I know educated people often do, so I should know it. Damn near every event in history, every geographic location, every word in Spanish, every philosopher, every person who ever accomplished anything noteworthy, every non-obscure scientific theory.

Everyone who shares this affliction has their own unique backstory, I’m sure. As a child I was shamed and sometimes psychologically tortured for hours if I failed to define a word correctly or adequately explain why a race riot somewhere in Asia was noteworthy. And it wasn’t just facts or intellectual prowess I was expected to excel in, but physical activities as well. If I didn’t rapidly learn how to hit a tennis ball without lobbing it over the fence or catch a baseball thrown with some velocity at my face, I was met with anger and heaping gobs of disappointment. Is it any wonder I mournfully sat out softball while my BFA class got to know each other on the field my freshman year in college? Or wouldn’t partake in any new activity until I had already practiced on my own beforehand? There was also a fun little twist in that my abuser often accused me of “pretending not to know.” I really wonder where the hell he got that one. What kind of masochist did he think I was, to invite hours of soul-crushing confusion and barely contained violence just for fun?

Weirdly, or not, I have treated myself with much the same bad logic. I put a slightly different spin on it: knowing that I don’t know an answer, I’m clearly not faking it, so at least I don’t have that bullshit to contend with. Instead I see my ignorance as a personal failure. For someone who considers herself logical, it really doesn’t make any more sense than my dad’s accusation. If I don’t remember something from high school, did I choose to forget it? Obviously not, so how can I blame myself? More things are forgotten than remembered by every person, every day. And even more things are never acknowledged in the first place. We’d be unable to function in society otherwise. Perhaps I didn’t study hard enough, but considering the overwhelming mass of things I expect myself to remember, “enough” is an unreachable goal. Many crucial facts are things I didn’t even learn in class, things that might have been casually referenced in passing. If I had worked to commit to memory every stupid tidbit I’m expected to know, I wouldn’t have lived a life.

What if my ignorance is, Buddha forbid, just plain old stupidity? I certainly can’t blame myself for that. And if I am intellectually stunted, I’ve done remarkably well for myself.

Why does knowing things even matter? What wisdom or insight or empathy or connection is gained simply by carrying oodles of items around in your head? What real knowing comes of it?

Of course, if talking oneself out of bad habits were enough to erase them, we’d all be a whole lot healthier. My intro was an optimistic exaggeration. There are still too many areas or scenarios in which I feel that shame creeping in, and one of them will be put to the test yet again for the umpteenth time next week. I’m taking a Spanish class for the first time since 2019, and as much as I love the language, relish speaking it, and crave fluency, practice has always been an opportunity for me to start waving that flag of self-loathing. I can rationalize my way out of the wise analysis of previous paragraphs with the simple fact that I have been studying Spanish off and on for decades, so obviously I should know it perfectly by now. I will also be participating in an Mindfulness Intensive program during part of the semester, so I’m hoping that will help me process any fucked-up feelings I’m experiencing.

The irony (so often with the irony) is that I may be right about my language expectations. It is entirely possible that someone who has been studying as long as I would know the language at least comfortably, if not fluently. According to language experts, the main reason I haven’t gotten there is because I don’t spend nearly enough time actually interacting with people in Spanish. And why? Because I’m afraid of being wrong. You see here, that old Buddhist mantra creeping in – you can’t really love others until you can love yourself. Our fears create the scenarios we fear.

Alan Watts, apropos of I don’t know what, once said that the Japanese in Japan were generally excellent English speakers, but an Englishman had to get them drunk to hear them talk because they were too afraid of embarrassing themselves to try when they were sober. I empathize, mis amigos. Your culture of shame is far vaster than my culture of one, but I feel you.

I have come up with a procedure that would get rid of all these self-positioned and self-perpetuating obstacles: just detach the identity from the emotion. Because it’s not the embarrassment that kills you, it’s the shame – it’s the attachment of the embarrassment to one’s sense of self that creates the shame. I deal with this whenever I try to get White people to talk about race and racism, and it does get frustrating. At times I just want to shake them and say, “your ignorance is not your fault/you didn’t choose to be raised under White supremacy/you’re not doing anyone any good by hiding from it/ you can make things better for yourself and others if you just open up, allow yourself to be wrong, and grow.” And of course, I recognize that I am in the same boat, just on a different river.

So I am not there yet. But feeling that freedom of openness, of detaching my mistakes from my identity, of just letting them be and moving on, should make it easier to welcome that liberation with my Big Enemy of the language I should know. We’ll see. I’ll keep you in the loop.

The Death of Didion

Joan Didion was my favorite writer. That “was” may go back to a time before her death. It may have ended when I read Blue Nights, but I have yet to choose a replacement. Her style was extraordinary in its simultaneous originality and simplicity, and I followed her with devotion, while knowing I could never write like her. Perhaps because I knew I could never write like her: terse, incisive, stark, and stripped of emotion, while effectively evoking it from the reader. She is one of only two big writers who I have gone out of my way to see speak, and meet.

I was introduced to Joan Didion’s work, as I was introduced to so many of my favorite artists, by my college professor/surrogate father/friend who died last year, also of Parkinson’s, though a decade younger than her. He gave me Play It As It Lays in the midst of the drama of my depressed, self-absorbed, self-destructive sophomore year in Los Angeles, where it largely takes place; studying acting, which is the career of the protagonist; chain smoking, like he;, obsessively driving the freeways when I couldn’t sleep, as she did; routinely tearing through specific intersections highlighted in the book. I gobbled it up like it was the one essential nutrient keeping me alive. To this day, it is one of my top 5 favorite novels. That was the beginning of my obsession, which stretched over 12 books. Her memoir Where I Was From is the rare holdout on the shelf, and will now be my holiday reading. Because that’s what we do when writers die. At least I bought it while she was still alive to reap whatever profits were to be had.

I didn’t love all of her books. The political ones, in particular, were too insider-y for me. I don’t know if I’d understand them better now than I did then, and I don’t feel any need to find out. But when she was on … fuck. She had a way of making the ethereal tenable, and making the mundane revelatory. The contents of a purse (The Book of Common Prayer) could say as much as a deep psychological delve into a character. This was a revelation to me.

We tell ourselves stories in order to live.

I don’t think of Didion as a spiritual person, and I don’t think she did, either. But anyone who deliberately digs deeply into their own mind is bound to run up against the boundaries of things, the immaterial. Her famous quote above is right out of Buddhism 101. But rather than trying to escape the narrative and simply be, as Buddhists do, she relentlessly shoveled the shit, which might be almost the same thing, in the end.

Depression, in Didion’s works, is depicted not by talking about it: characters don’t discuss their feelings. They may not say much at all. They exhibit certain behaviors which represent certain states or weaknesses or depressive or anxious characteristics. It is the behaviors that hold their attention, not the motivation underneath. They are trapped in the idea of their own identity, or what it should be, or what they think others perceive it to be. They follow the directions drawn for them instead of being present in their own lives. They are detached to an exceptional degree, so that the protagonists may seem to be narrating their own story as they’re living it, or rather instead of living it, believing that changing the narrative will change the person herself.

She had watched them in supermarkets and she knew the signs. At seven o’clock on a Saturday evening they would be standing in the checkout line reading the horoscope in Harper’s Bazaar and in their carts would be a single lamb chop and maybe two cans of cat food and the Sunday morning paper…. To avoid giving off the signs, Maria shopped always for a household…. She knew all the indices of the idle lonely, never bought a small tube of toothpaste, never dropped a magazine in her shopping cart. The house in Beverly Hills overflowed with sugar, corn-muffin mix, frozen roasts and Spanish onions. Maria ate cottage cheese.  

…she had an uneasy sense that sleeping outside on a rattan chaise could be construed as the first step toward something unnameable …

Play It As It Lays

A journalist and sometime screenwriter herself, her characters seem to also be watching the movie from the outside, narrating the story of their lives instead of living it, moving through a kind of fog or mild narcotic state. And not just in her novels. In her essays, the commentary on her life, her thoughts, seems to her far more real than her life itself.

Something real was happening: this was, as it were, her life. If she could keep that in mind, she would be able to play it through, do the right thing, whatever that meant.

Play It As It Lays

You are getting a woman who for some time now has felt radically separated from most of the ideas that seem to interest other people…. Quite often during the last several years I have felt myself a sleepwalker, moving through the world unconscious of the Moment’s high issues, oblivious to its data, alert only to the stuff of bad dreams.

In the Islands, essay (The White Album, 1979)

Joan Didion, as you probably know, wrote a gut-wrenching book on her reaction to the death of her husband, because she didn’t know what else to do, how to act, how to Be. (I read it in one sitting because it was beautiful and because it was too painful to carry over into a second day.) She grounded herself in curiosity about her own inner workings, and also recognized that she could not hide from grief behind words. That grief was present in a way that she often was not, shrouded in her protective magical thinking. And the uber-narrator is acutely aware of that.

Perhaps the writing brought her some peace. It definitely brought thousands of readers to some understanding – of her, of themselves, of grief. The best artists make the specific universal, and the universal personal. In her analytical way, she turned herself inside out – for us? For her? No matter. We could see ourselves reflected there, in all our gory vulnerability.

Life changes fast/ Life changes in and instant/ You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends

The Year of Magical Thinking walks us, and Joan herself, through the months after her partner’s death, but it’s not that different from the rest of her writing – writing as both interpreter of and substitute for living, “both a way of keeping a distance and a way of getting close. It’s both those things, simultaneously.” (interview ~2011). Writing is both a way to connect and a way to detach. Look at the lines above – the first words she wrote after her husband died weren’t explaining her own feelings, her own experience: they pulled the lens back on the moment – declarative, conclusive, not even in the first person. It isn’t about her, it’s about LIFE, in the abstract, writ large. She struggles both with the need to write to figure out the story, and with wanting to resist creating a narrative that may not be honest.

I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.

Why I Write, NY Times 12/5/76

There is something spiritual about Didion’s work, in its explicit omission. Her focus on behavior and thought and physicality recognizes its own exclusionary nature, thereby opening up the possibility for more. In Play It As It Lays, Maria’s fear of losing herself to inertia and pathos drive her to keep pursuing self-awareness.

By the end of a week she was thinking constantly about where her body stopped and the air began, about the exact point in space and time that was the difference between Maria and other.

There is some terror in losing that distinction, because the character has no resource for dealing with it. She’s surrounded by self-serving, profit and status-driven people in a dry, manufactured, materialistic world. But the pain in living that detached narrative is palpable.

I’ll close this attempt at analysis with as much reportage as I can muster. The scene: a woman, far nearer 40 than 20, waits in line to meet her literary heroine, cradling her favorite novel and the writer’s recent memoir under her arm. As she watches the other attendees step up to the table, she cycles through reasonable, thoughtful, intelligent praise, something that hints at her own mental acuity, and with respect for the subject: that she has read more of the author’s works than anyone alive; that of the thousand novels she’s read, this is among the very best. She looks up as the distance shrinks and decides she doesn’t need to say anything at all. She can just hand over the books for signing. Then she approaches the table, and the tiny, old woman looks up, with eyes that look beyond and through what is in front of her, but stare definitively at her own, and the fan blurts out, “I love your writing SO MUCH.” The author opens the books and signs, saying nothing, and hands them back. Was there a tired sigh? The woman walks out of the theatre and goes on with her life, a new narrative to tell, with a new character under her belt: the fawning fool.

Thank you, Ms. Didion, for all of it.

Imagine no Imagination

Imagine no Imagination

You know those things you say about yourself, tag lines that silently cling to or loudly proclaim what you believe are core, unchangeable elements of who you really are? I’ve been working on my own blurbs casually for the last decade or so; not refining them so much as trying to eliminate them and the restrictions they put on how I live my life. What are they really good for, except crafting an identity that limits my own capacity and power from inside my skin, and attempting to script what others should think of me looking in, instead of making their own determinations based on what they observe.

A standard one of mine was originally phrased as “I’m not creative.” People would sometimes argue with me on this because I was an actor, but for me acting was an interpretive art, not a creative one. Yes, I write, but I don’t write fiction or poetry and I consider the writing I do, again, analytical. I chalked this flaw up to being raised by someone who could not see reality as it was, who believed in black magic and negative energies and that my singing Bad Moon Rising on a road trip is the reason he got pulled over for speeding. In reaction, I chose to be practical, believe what I could see, and take responsibility for everything that happened to me. (Also not a great way to live, and one I’ve moved away from as well.) At some point in the too-near past I came to accept that I possess a certain creativity in thinking and looking at the world, so I narrowed it down to, “I have no visual imagination.” It’s true that I have a hard time picturing sets when I read plays, no matter the detail of the description, or really putting a face together in my mind when articulated in a novel. But I think I’ve also been turned off by the word Imagination, and haven’t worked very hard to embrace it. Partly because of the anger of that parent whenever I didn’t conjure up his idea of what I should be imagining, partly a reaction to New Agey teachings and preachings and “if you can dream it, you can do it” thinking (which is, IMHO, bullshit), and partially because it just seemed … well, like a waste of time. I mean, I’m not a real artist.

But in the social justice engagement I’ve done over the last few years, imagination has come up again and again. And I see the limits of people’s imagination really, concretely get in the way of progress. There are so many well-intentioned (eyeroll) people who simply cannot imagine an America without capitalism, without a desperate struggle for meaningless subsistence work for the poor, without fossil fuels, without police, even with racial equity. And I’ve come to believe in a version of James Baldwin’s oft-used quote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” To wit: Not every transformation that is imagined can be accomplished, but no transformation can be accomplished without being imagined.

Maybe that’s right.

Which brings me to Lennon’s famous and infamous song. It’s not one of my favorites and never has been, but I have a different understanding of it these days, informed in part by hearing a bit of an interview with Lennon shortly before he was murdered, but perhaps more from my own widening perspective. I always thought of the song as an endpoint. That the imagining was the goal. But really it’s just a necessary step. We can all imagine worst-case scenarios: our government and law enforcement systems let those nightmares shape a lot of practice & policy, for better and worse. But most of us don’t spend much time imagining significant, creative change. Maybe that’s why we keep implementing small, makeshift changes instead of restructuring the systems that created the countless small problems. Instead of inventing an energy-intensive meat substitute, dismantle corporate farming; instead of reducing some criminal sentences, create alternatives to incarceration.

Hard to imagine? Exactly. It seems worth the glucose (a term for energy usage that Roshi Joan Halifax uses regularly, and which I am stealing) to try. How much glucose do we spend catastrophizing? I read an excellent article a few years back arguing that Black writers had wasted too much of their energy writing to a White audience, defending their humanity or what have you, when they could have been writing for each other, and Imagine what they could have accomplished if they had.

One more point on imagination, and a bit of credit to your writer. I think someone did my astrological chart when I was a child and even though (even then) I didn’t really believe in that stuff, I liked the interpretation that I was good at seeing a situation from all sides, so I clung to it. This is, of course, an act of imagination. It may be a kind of cognitive resonance, a logical imagining, but it’s still creative. I clearly passed judgment on different kinds of creative thinking and decided this one was okey dokey. Why? Perhaps because I wasn’t criticized for using this skill, whereas my other creative failings were not infrequently critiqued or diminished. It’s a skill I still prize, but one that I keep to myself more these days. Being able to understand someone else’s motivation or thinking leads some vocal parties to align you with “them:” the other, the criminal, insurrectionist, White supremacist, etc. so introducing any understanding, which is a form of compassion, is counter-revolutionary (or just plain old evil). A lot of people simply don’t want to imagine why others might think a certain way. Are they afraid they’ll be sucked into the dark side? afraid they’ll have to see the enemy as human? afraid to feel compassion for someone they have judged as “bad”? It’s a disturbing and frustrating blind spot, and an impractical strategy as well. If we don’t try to understand the other, we’ll never be able to genuinely reach out to them and make our case in a way they can hear. And I don’t believe we can succeed in resolving the enormous, wicked problems of our time without recruiting as many folks as possible.

I admit, I still feel my body tense up when someone asks me to take a moment and imagine something – when I’m on a Zoom about prison abolition or white supremacy, for example; but I try to just note that physical reaction and dive in for as long as I can stand the water. If nothing else, it can be a fun exercise. At least when I am able to silence that voice in my head telling me my ideas are uninteresting. What the fuck does she know, anyway?

Elizabeth Warren’s Identity Crisis

pocahontasI started writing this a year ago, and I had hoped I wouldn’t need to post it, but here we are with a seemingly decent public figure digging her own political grave in a desperate, nail-ripping grasp of identity.

I’ve never met the woman, but here’s my outsider analysis. (Factcheck-free!)

Elizabeth Warren was brought up on a story both romantic and empowering. Told that one of her ancestors was ostracized because of her Native American heritage, and was loved and married despite that (wholly unacceptable!) racism, Warren wove the story into her own identity from the time she was a little girl. And who wouldn’t? Hell, I cling to my genetic half-Judaism like it’s the last lifeboat on the sinking ship of white supremacy. What thoughtful, educated, observant white person would want to be White? I mean, we want all our stuff and political and economic supremacy of course, but we also want to claim some history of oppression, some feeling of done-wrongedness that will act as a palliative to our privilege. Maybe we can balance out a little of our imperialist, murderous, slaveowning genes with a sprinkling of the “good guys.” Maybe we can find some African genes in our 23 and Me results (nope, just more Mongolian: Khan slut). But for many the ultimate prize is Native affiliation, especially in the US.

I went through a big Indian phase – read tons of Native books (mostly novels), bought Native jewelry and knicknacks, spent a lot of time traveling Navajo/Dine country in the Southwest. Because Indians are fucking cool, man. We simultaneously embrace these conflicting concepts of Native people in the US: the drunken, uneducated, poverty-stricken people living on pitiable reservations; and the wise, equanimous souls who understand silence and the universe and our relationship with the natural world. They have potions and spirit animals and songs and dances and secrets and wisdom. Who wouldn’t want a piece of that?

So a white woman clings to that family story, as do her relatives, reinforcing it across generations. But when it comes down to it, it’s just a story. One that she repeats and uses officially and unofficially for decades.

To what end?

I can believe that she wasn’t looking for affirmative action or special treatment because of it, I really can. But she wanted something. Was it just a little less guilt? A little less complicity? A little more grooviness, man? Whatever it was was her own business, her psychological drama to bear, until Trump got hold of it. Then it became our problem.

Because Warren has taken a leadership role in Congress. She has stood up for the little guy, the disenfranchised, the poor, and stood up to the archetypal “white man.” Despite the inability to sound human and genuine when she makes a speech (an affliction that seems to infect nearly every living politician, usually forever; somebody get these people an acting coach!), she had potential. And I’m not writing her political death warrant, but she has wasted much of that work because of some bullshit concept of her racial identity.

As soon as her Native claims were brought into the light of day, she should have had the sense to come out and say, “look, this is a story my family was brought up on, and I’ve had a hard time letting go of it, because the Native peoples in this country are so special, I have so much respect for them, and I so wanted to be identified with them. But I have no tribal affiliation and no way to prove this claim, so I am letting it go, out of respect to the people who have suffered the injustices of being Native in the US. I have lived my life as a white woman, with all the privilege (and the prejudice) that goes with that. I will fight for native rights and sovereignty, and against the insults liberally tossed around by the President, as every red-blooded American should, because “Indians” are the true Americans, and all the rest of us are immigrants.

(or something like that)

Then she could just ignore all that Pocahontas shit, with the Indian nations possibly supporting her. Instead, she waited way too long and then tried to reify her fable by taking a DNA test, pissing off the recognized tribes and making herself a joke.

Part of me doesn’t blame her, because I know how hard it is to let go of labels you wear like military honors, or college sweatshirts, but Identity has so much destructive power, from sports fans that can’t let go of a racist mascot to men that can’t let go of abusive machismo. Yes, markers can be empowering or helpful or politically necessary, but if we can’t let go of them when they cause harm to ourselves and others, what good are they? To me, the greatest identity crisis is not trying to figure out who you are, but blindly accepting some inculcated idea of who you are without questioning it. Unfortunately,  most of us never get past that phase.

Feminism & Racism: Up Close & Personal

femrac

Some of my feminist behaviors are actually acts of white supremacy.

Damn it.

I’ve been on a Racism Awareness journey over the past year. Well, for longer than that, but aggressively over the past year – reading lots, talking with folks on their own journeys, facilitating conversations on race as much as they’ll let me, going to conferences on equity, volunteering as Secretary on the Diversity Equity and Inclusion Committee at work … stuff like that.

Simultaneously, I have been on a feminist journey: a #me-tooing of my own. This hasn’t required any books, just a clear-headed, clear-eyed recognition of life as it is and has been for me for decades.

My habitual behavior in the realm of the latter is to recognize blatant sexual assault and blatantly sexist language (and in my case to apply feminist analysis to works of literature and art), but to “deal with” the rest as the necessary burden of being female in the world. To play the game, laugh at the jokes, tolerate the piggery. Because we can. Because we are strong enough to do so. Because we can take jokes. (Unlike men. Don’t panic, guys. She’s a professional comedian.) Because we know how to “play with the big boys.” I realized last year that this is not necessarily healthy, and I’m certainly not the only woman doing it. And while I don’t regret behaving in that way, it is a coping mechanism performed out of defensive necessity. I should not have to be tolerant in the face of offense or attack or abuse. I should be able to call it out and have it redressed. That has been a difficult thing to accept, because I take so much pride in my toughness, my ability to withstand sexist bullshit, but in reality it is much braver to upend the game than to play along. I also have to recognize that I have looked down on women who “couldn’t take it,” who chose to make themselves vulnerable by calling out the crap, and I am not proud of that.

It took a bit more formal education and a bit more time to recognize that there was another destructive aspect to the persona I’ve cultivated in response to sexism. I have made it a point to be heard, to express opinions, to speak out at work, to argue and disagree and confront professors because it is my responsibility to fly in the face of stereotypes of female inadequacy and submission and deference. What I never thought to recognize is that while this might be a stand against patriarchy, it’s right in step with the white supremacist culture in which I was born and raised and live.

I have never thought of my assertiveness as consensual with white supremacy, but it is. It’s hard to say what threatens white men more – women or Black people – the threats are different and context is everything – but as a white woman I have certain privileges that Black men and Black women do not have, and I have taken advantage of that privilege more times than I can count. A big one with me is the right to be angry. While I might be described as shrill or hysterical if I openly express anger, I am not perceived as a threat and I’m not usually written off. That is not typically true for Black people in America, because it feeds into the manufactured stereotypes which I certainly don’t need to explain here.

So this idea of standing up to authority, of being what I am in spite of the powers that be: much of that has been an illusion. And coming to terms with that has been … interesting. It doesn’t mean I stop, but it means I bring a little more mindfulness to that behavior. Powerful white men have always benefited from pitting various “others” against each other, but it’s particularly upsetting when we do it without their (explicit) help.

When you start to recognize that we live in a society anchored in the bedrock of white superiority, your perspective on everything changes. The new vista isn’t always pretty, especially when you’re looking in the mirror. If you’re trying to head off another excuse for self-loathing, it helps to recognize that we are all soaking in it, and it takes a lot of work to scrub this shit off.

Unlearning the Lines

The_Memphis_Blues_4I am a lyrics junky. I know lyrics. Not just beloved lyrics, either. I know the lyrics of hundreds of songs I actively avoid, and probably twice as many that evoke not a single emotion. I’m guessing this takes up about 5% of my working brain.

I am also hard-wired with lyrics that are totally fuckin wrong. It’s happened more than once that after blithely, boldly singing along with a song for decades, one day, for whatever reason, I stop and actually pay attention to the song I’m accompanying, instead of getting wrapped up in the drama of my own (private) performance. Listening to the song with adult ears, I realize I’ve had it wrong this whole time. And now that I think about it, my version made no sense at all, whereas the actual lyrics were really pretty clear and sometimes disappointingly banal. Continue reading “Unlearning the Lines”

Flu Shot

flu1I got a flu shot last month. This was, like, a BIG THING. And yes, goddamnit, I am going to connect it to spirituality.

I have heretofore not had a flu shot as an adult. I assume I was required to get them as a kid, by my public school if no one else, but that makes well over two decades of no immunization and no illness. I cling to that fact with a pride that suggests I have some control over it.

Why fix what ain’t broken, I have said when asked why I don’t take advantage of the now free flu shots offered by my health insurance. As though that should apply to the complex nature of disease and infection. For all I know, I could already be broken, sloppily duck-taped together just beneath the surface, days from the snapping of the last frayed, sticky thread.

Folksy logic, combined with the mild aversion to immunizations embedded by my father, who was passively opposed to most Western medicine, has informed my choices for many years. Despite knowing the science. I know there is virtually no evidence that getting a flu shot can give me the flu or lower my immunity. I know that my erstwhile resilience probably has nothing to do with my avoidance of the needle and everything to do with luck and a naturally strong immune system (developed by the bacteria-embracing habits of same father?). I know there’s no evidence that beloved immune system will be weakened by a flu shot. When I try to figure out what in my informed brain pushes me to resist this lifesaving miracle, what emerges is some weird stew of colloquial belief and independence, with a dash of government mistrust. In other words, I am apparently an American Christian Fundamentalist.

And then there’s this: we adorable, pathetic humans favor narrative over facts. Even one story can tip the scales over thousands of facts. We are far more likely to believe our cousin who says that immunizations caused John Jr’s autism than we are the mountains of research that show there is no scientific connection between the two. I have read studies that demonstrate this irrational tendency. I am aware, even on alert for this tendency in my own adorable, pathetic brain. But you know what got me to get a flu shot this year? A story.

A friend around my age, who, like me, had never made the choice to get a flu shot and never had the flu … GOT THE FLU last year. She described it to me in graphic detail. She thought she was going to die. She has made her tale of woe into a pro-immunization mission. And it totally worked. Since my immunity to illness has not built my immunity to the state of being ill, I don’t handle illness well. I don’t know how to have a fever. I’ve never even had food poisoning. Worse than the physical discomfort, I become both self-critical and self-pitying when I’m even a little sick. Chances of me dying from influenza are slim, but I don’t know if I could emotionally survive a full-on case of the flu. I vowed to seek out and accept the plunge.

Disappointing, I know. But narratives can defend any line of thinking. This one supported scientific evidence, and encouraged my efforts to decrease personal hypocrisy, loosen my attachment to identity, and let go of long-held fears. For me, it required considerably more effort than the energy it took to bike to Walgreens, but it got done. A weird, tiny victory.