Friday, June 13, 2008

The Best Defense Is Being Offended

So we've started rehearsals for our next show, All Rights Reserved: A Libertarian Rage, which is a rewrite and a remount of a show we did a couple of years back -- the show that initially got me into political writing. Like most of Maximum Verbosity's shows, one of its primary themes is language, in this case how it operates within the realm of politics. One of the ways this is represented is through the use of profanity and racial slurs throughout the script.

When I initially wrote those scenes, I recall sitting down and thinking through the implications very carefully. I recognize the fact that there are some people -- indeed, a significant portion of the population -- who can find the mere existence of a word to be offensive, even painful. Surely, I thought, I must be able to connect to that mentality on some level -- there must be at least one word, somewhere in the English lexicon, that fills me with rage.

But there isn't. As a student of language, I've always had the sense that words, by themselves, mean nothing -- they're complete abstractions of the concept they represent: an arbitrary collection of syllables; ink on paper. Their meaning is defined entirely by intent and context. I'm reminded of a quote by Larry Elder:

Hate crime legislation forces us to place greater value on some victims because of race. By all means, we should prosecute bad conduct. But if I'm standing at an ATM machine and a Ku Klux Klansman hits me in the back of the head with a brick, the operative word is not "Klansman." It is "brick."

I'm also conscious of individual words as bearing the weight of history. Am I being excessively semantic to point out that the word "nigger" ultimately emerged from the Latin "niger" -- a form of speech that hasn't been widely used in nearly 1600 years? That it has derivants in every Romance language? That it was a neutral descriptive in our own country until about 150 years ago? That 150 years from now, it will no doubt carry a completely different connotation?

Oprah's serene assertion that the word should be stricken from the dictionary (to full-house applause by an interracial audience) seems to me to be to be nothing less than an attempt to -- if you'll forgive the phrase -- whitewash history. Language isn't an absolute, but an evolving organism; and for someone fascinated with that process, witnessing the attempts of the black community to consciously reclaim the word has been compelling stuff.

These are all arguments I've been making for years. But picking up this project again, I find that my thinking has developed, and I think that my beef runs a little deeper than that.

I'm not prepared to say that I'm totally immune to being offended by something, but I think I certainly have a higher threshold than most. If someone says something I disagree with, I'm far more likely to laugh, shrug my shoulders, think "Wow, that dude is crazy," and go on my way. If I were to be physically attacked for my minority status, my emotional response would be fear for my life -- being "offended" on behalf of the race I was born into would, I imagine, be very far from my mind in that moment! A lot of my writing has been offensive to a lot of people, although that's never been my intention. And here, I think, is why it bothers me so much:

Ultimately, it's hard for me to read taking offense as anything other than attempt to seize control of the conversation. To be "offended" by something is to immediately put your opponent on the defensive. This is one of the reasons that polical correctness is subjected to much ridicule: that, for example, the appropriate term for an American of African descent has been, at various points, negro, nigger, colored person, person of color, black, African-American, Afro-American -- and none of them are an appropriate descriptive of the range of ethnicities it applies to! To use the wrong one in the wrong environment is to demonstrate how out of touch you are, to force you to apologize, to put you on the defensive.

This is perhaps more visible in the left -- but the right is, if anything, worse -- it's just that their sacred cows are differently placed. Try to say anything critical of America's recent military ventures, and, oh! The offense! The umbrage! And we have to twist ourselves into knots apologizing, affirming our patriotism, beating the nationalist drum. It's a dirty trick, and one that's killed dead just about any meaningful dialogue we could have about the war. Or race. Or language. Or any number of other issues.

None of this is new -- after all, it was just a few centuries ago in Britain where it was a stated crime, punishable by death, to think treason against the king. In a representative republic, we've organized our "forbidden language" around a different set of concepts. Could we at least stop being offended long enough to figure out where we all stand beneath this steadily-growing morass of forbidden words and phrases?

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