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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.

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