Allegiances, Language, and Space

Like the mad, socially-conscious Yankee intellectual I was raised to be, I often find myself thinking about language.

Specifically, I think about how to use words in ways that will be empowering, rather than disempowering; unifying, rather than divisive; kind, rather than unkind.

Sometimes, this gets sticky — especially when it comes to speaking with compassion as an ally.

Whether we realize it or not, privilege colors how people in the world hear the words we use: our privilege and lack thereof, as well as their privilege and lack thereof (note that I write “and,” not “or,” because privilege is not an absolute; most of us experience a mixture of privilege and its opposite). 

If I call myself queer, anyone who hears me brings internal nuance to the table.   Some will hear that I choose that word because I’ve internalized the homophobia of the culture that surrounds me; some, that I’m reacting against that homophobia through lexical reclamation; some, that I don’t fit crisply into other categories; some, that I can myself queer for reasons I haven’t even imagined.  All of them may be right or wrong at the same time and to varying degrees.

Few, however, will argue with my right to choose that word for myself (and I’m happy to kindly debate that point with those who would protest — we may never see eye-to-eye, but usually their intentions are good, and we can at least come to appreciate one anothers’ perspectives).

It gets trickier, though, when I’m talking about someone else.

Take, for example, the word fat.

Burlesque dancer Lillian Bustle makes the brilliant point that fat is just a word, like short or beautiful — other traits which Ms.  Bustle owns with pride.   It’s a word that can be detached from value judgment — unlike, for example, overweight, which by its very linguistic nature underscores the notion that there is a “right” weight, a “right” body size, outside of which people are wrong.  We don’t call tall people overheight, so why call fat people overweight? We’ve tried that, and it hasn’t reduced anti-fat prejudice one iota.   Why don’t we simply decouple the word fat from its harmful connotations?

I think Ms. Bustle makes a brilliant point.   I agree with her whole-heartedly.  I love her spirit of reclamation.  Her words were, in fact, instrumental in my process of beginning to deal with my own deeply-seated, deeply-denied fat phobia.

And yet.

And yet, as someone who lives in a body of the type that is currently privileged in our culture, I hesitate to fly that banner.

I’m carrying it, don’t get me wrong.  I’m happy to unfurl it when I’m pretty sure that I won’t cause further harm that way — but believe me, I look around first to make sure I’m not going to poke sometime in the eye.

In short, when a skinny person — especially a skinny guy, because there are extra layers of complexity associated with gender — uses the word fat to describe someone else, no matter how sound his intentions, he risks inflicting unintended pain.

Even if the subject of his words identifies as fat, even if she embraces that word, she probably still hears it used as an insult all the time (by analogy, someone like me, in my locale, might feel the same about the word fag). 

It can be hard to glean what someone’s intentions are, and even well-meaning people harbor unexamined prejudices.  So if I’m trying to describe someone to another person and I say, “He’s a tall, fat guy with curly hair and piano hands,” it’s possible that it’ll sound like I’m making a value judgment about body size, even if it’s a salient characteristic for identifying the person in question.

The fact that I’m a skinny dude makes it more likely, I suspect, that prejudice will be inferred.  That’s not unreasonable: inferences of that kind are generally based upon past experience, which is an imperfect predictor of future experience, but still the best one we have.  People of a socially-sanctioned body size probably are more likely to feel justified in using the word “fat” as an insult.

While I can’t control how other people hear me, the onus is upon me to try to words compassionately. It gets kind of weird, though, in territory that’s still in the earliest phases of reclamation.  It’s possible reduce harm by thinking before I speak, but there will still be misunderstandings.

I think it’s important to shake things up, linguistically speaking. 

It’s good to reclaim words; it takes tools out of the hands of oppressors without adopting oppression as a tool.  Likewise, it affords us freedom in identifying ourselves; in describing ourselves.  Perhaps most importantly, it often affords us a route away from formulations (non-white, overweight, non-traditional marriage) that, intentionally or otherwise, bear implications of compromised worth and reinforce the idea that average (or in the case of body size in the US, below average) is inherently better.  

Prefixes like non-, over-, and under- imply the existence of an accepted standard — and value judgment is inherent in all standards.   That’s the nature of standards, and that’s okay — when we’re talking about things that really benefit from being standardized, like astronomical measuring devices and medical equipment.  

Human beings, though?   Human worth is inherent.  While reality sometimes makes it difficult, we do justice to one-another when we use words that reflect that worth; words that don’t imply that one is less correct simply because one is in some way different from a group that has been designated as a standard.

But it’s not always easy to do, nor does it always come off without a hitch.  

The same can be said for wandering into safe spaces belonging to disenfranchised groups — the hierarchy of relative privilege gets sticky.  I’m not always sure how to manage that, either.

I suspect nobody is.   We all have the basics: listen, be compassionate, don’t be a jerk.   The devil, as always, is in the details. Sometimes, our best efforts still go awry.   Sometimes, we poke people in the eyes with the banners we’re unfurling in solidarity.

I guess, in the long run, this is a pretty good problem for a culture to have: a better one than that of knee-jerk prejudice and socially-sanctioned oppression (not that those are entirely gone, by any means).

I’m still working on all this stuff.   If I’m actually a good human being, I’m be working on it, with greater or lesser focus, til the day I die.

I like to think of this as a mitzvah — an extension of tikkun olam, repairing the world.   I can work to undo injustices I have done, and I can work with others to right injustices that began long before I was born.  I can look at that as an onerous duty or as a joy (hence the word mitzvah, literally “commandment” or “obligation,” but also an opportunity for human kindness, for justice, for celebration of the divine spark in ordinary things).

My efforts at likely to be flawed — after all, I’m human — but with successive approximations, I can improve not only my life, but the world around me …  without, I hope, giving out too many pokes in the eye.

About asher

Me in a nutshell: Standard uptight ballet boy. Trapeze junkie. Half-baked choreographer. Budding researcher. Transit cyclist. Terrible homemaker. Neuro-atypical. Fabulous. Married to a very patient man. Bachelor of Science in Psychology (2015). Proto-foodie, but lazy about it. Cat owner ... or, should I say, cat own-ee? ... dog lover. Equestrian.

Posted on 2015/04/10, in justice, life, mitzvot and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. Unfortunately, there are a LOT of people who try to police who can and can’t identify with the word “queer”, at least in online communities… :\

    • I admit, I had forgotten about that. It’s very true, and an excellent point.

    • I’ve never done this before, but do you think you might be willing to write a guest post about the policing that goes on around “queer” identity? (Don’t worry, I won’t be offended at all if you say no! I realize that’s kind of like, asking someone, “Hey, do you want to do some work for free?”)

      I just started reading your blog, and I think you have really keen insights and you write really well, and I think I have much less insight than you do in that regard.

      • 😀 Sure! I can only speak on that topic from the asexual perspective, but it’s something that’s on my mind a lot. If you don’t mind me posting it to my own blog as well, I’d be happy to write something.

      • Thank you! That would be fantastic!

        I think the asexual perspective is a really important one in that particular debate — like, it seems to be the one that people are policing the hardest right now, from all kinds of angles.

        It’s weird how the internet has evolved as The Place Where We Can All Be Ourselves, and at the same time as The Place Where We All Keep Telling Each-Other Who To Be :\

        I sometimes wonder if it’s possible for the human race to stop policing identity, period.

        Anyway, thank you so much! I’m very excited about reading your thoughts on all this!

      • I just posted it (you should get a notification because I linked to you). You’re welcome to either reblog or I can give you the text so you can crosspost it yourself. 🙂 Whichever you prefer.

      • Thank you so much! I can’t wait to read it!

  2. I often find myself thinking about words and their meanings too – though it probably doesn’t show because you are about a billion times more articulate than me, lol.
    I still remember the first time I was called “fat” by someone other than a relative. It was sixth grade and one of my bullying classmates called me fat amongst other words (I was about to say “insults” but then realized that if I said that I was missing the point of your post) that hurt, with some physical abuse (poking of my belly and attempts at squeezing some of my excess flesh) thrown in there for good measure. While previously I had been aware that I was not on the smaller end of the size range when it came to individuals of my age group – I WAS fat – the way the word was said, or the intent behind it, made me feel awful. I was devastated, and felt as though it was assigning a (lack of) value to me. While my parents used variations of the word “fat” as pet names for each other (and me!), after my middle school experiences there was just no way I could see it as anything but a word used to hurt.
    If there was a way to take back the negative judgments assigned to any words that have been used as insults in the past it’d be great. But, being completely honest, I do get an immediate knee-jerk reaction to some of these words. I don’t know if there is any way to overcome the pain of the past (and believe me, I wish so hard for there to be a way…).
    That being said, I’ve been on the other end of the spectrum and heard the word “skinny” also be used as a derogatory term against me. However, since “mainstream society” may see this as something to be valued, the issue gets more complicated. While my feelings were hurt by the comments and the insinuations about my health, it was very hard to be taken seriously as most everyone I talked to believed that “‘skinny’ can’t be used as an insult, it’s a good thing” and there was no forthcoming sympathy.
    Words, power, and privilege, it’s a complicated issue for sure…

    • Thank you so much, Kit, for writing about your experiences. That’s the thing I think I worry most about — that for every person who for whatever reason has been able to reclaim the word “fat,” there are probably 10, 20 people for whom that isn’t possible and may never be.

      I also think that the point you make about the word “skinny” is dead on. As you point out, it’s associated with something that mainstream society values — and it’s a word that’s already commonly used in a positive sense (more often, I think than it is in a negative sense) — and yet at the same time when it is used as an insult, people don’t “get it,” somehow.

      Like, they don’t understand why it hurts, exactly like you point out. People are like, “How can being skinny be bad?”

      And then there are all the sort of cultural marginalia: when we talk about “skinny jeans,” they’re just a hip fashion. “Fat jeans,” meanwhile, are associated with feeling bad about our bodies.

      Come to think of it, I guess when our culture reaches a point at which “fat jeans” can be as positive a thing a “skinny jeans,” that will probably be a sign we’ve actually made some progress.

  3. Your words echo thru my being. Our subconscious can trip and tangle the spoken word, learned by past experiences and influences, yet each of us has the capacity and the obligation to respect all of mankind until justified, otherwise.

    I was blessed to have been raised in a home where my parents were color blind. Our family moved to the south in my teen years and the world unfolded a heinous cancer that had festered for legends of time. I will never forget how ignorant and shocked I was, nor will time erase the pure hatred spewed upon people of color. I was out of place and out of time. The barometer of moment calculated every action and nuance. My youth was dirtied and ragged at the edges. Fears appeared and innocence of all that came before was now mired in what I was and who I would become. I stood upon the precipice and dove off into the waters deep, suffocating myself in silence, but that is what we do in our youth. If the battle is too grand, we make a choice to follow the lead or retire to the sanctuary of our truth. And so it was, and is, and as I aged my appreciation for my parents color blindness brought me from my hiding place and empowered me in ways I had not imagined it could.

    They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. That adage is testament to all who have survived the onslaught of bigotry, whether the prejudice was from color, weight, nationality, religion… But we must always remember that not everyone survived their storm, and this, Ash, is the very reason we must heed your beautifully written testament. Everyone is worthy and all should be afforded respect. It is not a matter of whether or not their choice be our choice, or vice-versa, but that each of us has a place at the table.

    • “Our subconscious can trip and tangle the spoken word, learned by past experiences and influences, yet each of us has the capacity and the obligation to respect all of mankind until justified, otherwise.”

      I love this, by the way. I think our culture has kind of lost sight of this: we get sort of hung up in the idea that if we go through bad stuff, we earn some kind of license to be harsh to others; to “go home and kick the dog,” so to speak.

      Sometimes, of course, we can’t help it — it’s in the nature of all beings that can lash out when hurt to do so.

      The point you go on to make about how not everyone has survived their storm (beautiful phrase, Coffee!) says so much about why those of us who can try to speak compassionately should try, when it’s possible for us to do so.

      I also love your concluding statement about choices: I am so with you there. I think about this a lot while staying the heck out of the ongoing conversations about atheism and religion that seem to currently sort of plague some of my social circles. It sometimes seems like each side hopes that if they shout loud enough, they other side will go, “Oh, you’re totally right, we were wrong all along,” or at least leave the table.

      • Thank you for your thoughts and appreciations, Asher. I believe our worlds collided by fate, and not by chance. 🙂

        Looking outside who we are, and accepting the value of others is a responsibility. Sadly, not unlike your example of the shouting match between atheist or believer, the noise gets louder and in the end, nothing is accomplished.

        On a personal note, I have very strong feelings over the rights of a woman to make her own decision on abortion. How on Earth can someone else determine what is right or wrong for me when they have no clue as to what drove my decision? They can’t, and therefore they have no right to dictate their agenda, doing so, they have judged and convicted me.

        Society will attempt to define the mentally ill, lesbian, gay, transgender, homeless, etc., as less than normal, inferior to the accepted norm. People will be classified, labeled, ridiculed, bullied, and marked for their lifestyle choice(s). This really gets me worked up!

        My husband and I were asked to take Genetic Counseling when we learned I was pregnant with my youngest daughter (I was being treated with a powerful medication for a brain tumor at the time).
        What the doctor wanted to prepare us for was the possibility for abnormalities, deformities, etc. (Amniocentesis was performed).
        During counseling we were shown DNA coding. We learned about genetics and the known mutations at the time, this was in 1990. (Downs Syndrome, Neurological and Physical known attributes, etc.). We were shown how gender preferences can be determined beyond the X and Y chromosomes when pieces of genetic material are added or deleted from a gene.

        Asher, how many of us have been advised that we may have a preference over our sexual identities because our genetic coding determines it? Rather, we are told we are kinky, twisted, abnormal….

        The point I’m trying to make is one that will ignite spontaneous combustion within certain communities. Flames of fire and smoke cannot burn down the house if we have a brigade of firefighters and every bit of fire fighting power within our arsenal. It is what it is. Truth. So, does my mental illness come from a ‘fact’ or could it be part of my genetic coding? Which comes to this; do I accept my challenge, embrace my truth and seek to live my life knowing that it is my responsibility to take my medications and advise my doctor at the first sign of an imbalance? I’m capable, therefore, I am!

        Each and everyone of us is dealing with something. No one is exempt. Genetic and environmental predispositions are not items to be chosen from the candy store, but this brings me to Pandora’s Box; will science try to carve us into perfect specimens? Surely we want to eliminate heinous and devastating diseases, abnormalities, etc., but who should dictate who we love, or how we choose to show our love?

        Everyone deserves love and respect. To deny them of it is to make a judgement. Whom amongst us is qualified to act as judge and jury?


  4. Language seems to be a fundamental prism through which we view the world. When our prism is distorted, by ignorance and bigotry, tthe view is itself distorted. What if our distortion (language) itself distorts the world?
    I think that is the point George Orwell was making in his great essay, “Politics and the English Language” which is still worth reading or re-reading.
    Just a comment on this quote “They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” from ‘coffeegrounded’. It’s not a they say, it’s an almost direct quote from Frederick Nietzsche, ““That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”

    • I’m going to have to check out that Orwell essay. I don’t believe I’ve read it, but it sounds very interesting indeed.

      Are you familiar with the Sapir-Whorff hypothesis in sociology, hk? I ask because its basic premise can essentially be summed up in your first sentence. I don’t entirely agree with it, but it is not by any means without wisdom.

      There’s definitely something to be said, for example, for the idea that how we understand words can deeply influence how we understand the world around us — like, people who grow up where the word “fat,” or the word “gay” (and so forth) is routinely coupled with all kinds of negative connotations do often seem to internalize a lot of the negativity in question.

      I wonder if the fact that I don’t really think in words influences my perceptions, though. I sort of run everything through what I call a “language co-processor,” which translates thoughts into words with varying degrees of reliability — it works better in written or formal presentation contexts than in casual conversation! I suspect that there’s less sort of primacy-of-meaning, for me, where words are concerned than there is for someone like Denis, who thinks primarily in words and only a little in pictures and sensations and so forth.

      OTOH, it makes it much harder for me to understand abstract concepts, so there’s that.

  5. The words don’t own the meaning, the meaning owns the words. That’s why I have little time for politically correct speech and its policing.

    If you called yourself “queer” with a bucket-load of self-contempt other people who are subjected to the word as an insult would have the right to be upset about your usage. And if a homophobe spat “LGBTQ person” at you as an insult it would be one. But if a lover embraced you as he called you “dirty little faggot” it would be a term of endearment and if you stood up in front of an audience and proudly called yourself that it would be a means of empowerment.

    In Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night the autistic protagonist is taunted by children in the street who chant “Special needs. Special needs.” at him.

    Words are almost infinitely flexible tools that can always be used as weapons no matter how innocuous they may seem.

    • “The words don’t own the meaning, the meaning owns the words. That’s why I have little time for politically correct speech and its policing.”

      Amen to this. (FWIW, cabro, your comment pretty much sums up what I was trying to say, but in a lot less words :D). This is especially true in a vibrant, living language, wherein meaning shifts all the time based on usage and context.

      I should point out that what I’m talking about in my post is not “political correctness” for sake of “political correctness,” but the more subtle art of trying to pay attention to what words actual human beings find hurtful.

      I think these ideas get lost in our era of quick-and-easy, one-size-fits-all solutions.

      It’s one of the things I find very problematic about trying to police speech through public policy — when we try to use policy to curtail jerks from being jerks, we tend to wind up with policies that curtail everyone (and prevent jerks from showing us their true colors so we can avoid them!). I may not agree with people who think that there’s something wrong with being gay (or white, or an immigrant, or rich or poor or just about anything else), but I don’t think that means they shouldn’t be allowed to express their opinions.

      One wishes that certain folks out there (on all sides of each issue!) would learn to do so in a civil way, but I suppose we can’t really legislate etiquette any more than we can legislate morality.

  1. Pingback: #1575 | Only Fragments

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