Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Yes, Georgia, The Words You Use Do Matter

TW: casual racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and ableism.

The following stemmed from a conversation I had with a friend today. A conversation that seems to come up way too often. Other, better people than myself have already covered this, but it seems to bear repeating.

Artists: The words and images you use matter.

Seems simple enough, right? I have never met a writer, painter, poet, musician, sculptor or artist of any sort who would honestly state that what they create doesn’t matter. That it is just stupid nonsense taking up space in the world. I don’t think anyone could put the muscle, strain and abject terror that goes into creating anything if they believed that.

Yet, inevitably, some white guy (like me) will drop a cavalier “nigger” or “chink.” Some cis guy (again, like me) will make a joke about ladyboys. Some straight guy (yup, still me) will toss out “faggot” like it ain’t no thing. These things will come out in some innocuous bit in their work, used without purpose or value or an understanding of the power those words have in the minds of those most affected by them. Don’t even get me started on “retard.”*

More inevitably, when they are called out on this, the resounding response is to lighten up. They’re just words, after all. Neither sticks nor stones. Stop being so sensitive. Stop working so hard to take offense at everything.

You feel that cognitive dissonance, there? The need for people to take your work seriously, to treat it with the gravitas your greatness deserves, except for those words. The ones you are complaining about. You shouldn’t treat THOSE ones as if they matter. After all, they don’t cause harm to me, so they clearly do not cause harm to you.

Except they do. There are too many people to whom the word “nigger” carries with it memories of beatings, of being turned away, of being belittled and dehumanized. There are too many people to whom the word “faggot” is bound up in the angry glare of a parent throwing them out of the house, or back alley boot parties, or mumbled excuses about why they can’t continue to work at this establishment any more. Hell, does “cunt” ever come without the connotation of rape, when it comes flying out of the mouth of an angry man?

Some words have more power than others. Some words bear a certain cultural and historical weight to them. Sometimes, that weight is felt disproportionately by specific portions of society and not at all by others. That weight, that power, needs to be treated with respect. Reverence, even, on occasion.

That isn’t to say that there is no place for them in art. Denial is also a type of weapon and I refuse to let those who have profited from the abuse of others bury their past crimes any more than I would degrade the effect those crimes have had upon their victims. If I was writing something dealing with caustic ableism, I would be remiss if I were to ignore the existence and impact of words like “retard”. I would also be a lazy ass writer if I just leaned on that, instead of showing the more subtle ways in which ableism rears it’s head. Because I know the weight they carry, I use such words and images sparingly and with grim purpose.

I get annoyed at this because I take my work as an artist** very seriously. I use words because I believe they have power to build and to destroy, to lift up and to oppress. To bring joy and to bring pain. If I didn't, I wouldn't bother working with them at all. To see people use them so flippantly and without regard is a manner of spitting on the hard work of those who do use them carefully, reverently and with respect to all they can accomplish.

Really, shouldn't we being doing that with ALL the words we use, anyways?

*Yup, I am sticking to using examples that apply to writing. That’s the type of art I understand. There are plenty of ways to do this same shit with visual art.

**Enter self-deprecating comment here, as I feel super pretentious calling myself an artist.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Baby Steps and Long Term Goals

I went to the Cincinnati sister march to the Women’s March on Washington today. My wife went with me. So did a purported 14000 other people. Then someone asked me why I was there.

This question threw me, so I had to think on it. What follows is the best answer I could come up with.

I wasn’t there because I thought it would turn back time. I wasn’t there because I thought marching and shouting would really and truly change anything. I’m not stupid enough to expect miracles.

I was there because those who found themselves in possession of an absurd amount of power were calling the election a popular mandate to undo so much of the progress we, as a nation and as a people, had made over the past decade. I was there because the talking heads were so vociferous that this was what the “real” people of America wanted, when the whiny strains of the east coast elite were removed from consideration.

I was there because I knew it wasn’t just me that was scared of what the future would remove. That there were many other voices out there, trembling at home in the dark. I knew that those in power could only delude themselves to their divinity of right if they could call us few. I knew there were others that believed the lies and thought themselves alone, besieged.

I was there because all of those people needed to see the hidden truth. They needed to see us together. As much as we needed to see each other. They needed to hear our voices and feel the earth rumbling from our collective feet.

I was there because this wasn’t about me. It never is and never will be. Every single one of us is too intricately tied to each other, too bound up in unified existence. No spiritual or shit-science bull here, just the very real fact that all of us are stuck on the same chunk of earth and don’t get to pretend that we are islands.

I was there for us.