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Sunday, March 18, 2012

I Am a Dick

The fact is, I was going to write a counter-argument parable to Jim C. Hines. You see, I was angry. I was sincerely trying to understand this concept, but I kept getting shut down and told "you don't get it, so I'm not going to explain it to you".

It was going to be fairly well-thought out too. It was about a pig who went into a book store, where she was going to complain to the store owner (a Wolf) how they shouldn't stock the new book from Tim W. Grimes because it contains references to magic. And her son couldn't do magic -- some kids were making fun of him because he just couldn't do what the book says and now he feels bad about magic. Here are some choice excerpts.
COMPLAINING PIG: You see, a year ago, my son was trying to do magic. And some kids saw him and were making fun of him.

BOOKSTORE OWNER: I'm sorry, this happened a year ago?

COMPLAINING PIG: Yes. Some kids were making fun of him because he just couldn't do what the book says, and now he feels bad about doing magic.

BOOKSTORE OWNER: You understand that these are books about fictional worlds with magic, not books about doing sleight of hand or bunnies out of hats.

COMPLAINING PIG: I know that, but any mention of magic sets him off. He won't do it again, he won't even try, because he's afraid of being made fun of again.

BOOKSTORE OWNER: I'm not sure how that's my problem. Why don't you talk to those kids? They're the ones who made him feel bad.

COMPLAINING PIG: Well, they haven't really done anything since. Kind of ignore him now. And I don't like confrontation.
And this...
BOOKSTORE OWNER: But almost my entire inventory of YA has to do with magic.

COMPLAINING PIG: Why can't you simply stop stocking these books? Can't you see that people are hurting because of them?

BOOKSTORE OWNER: I have plenty of non-magic books your child might enjoy.

COMPLAINING PIG: I'm not talking about those books. I want you to stop stocking these. (she pulls out a short list) But if you insist on books with magic, I was considerate enough to find some that would be more acceptable.

BOOKSTORE OWNER: (looks over the list) Well, these are all well and good, but they aren't like the books I stock. A lot of them have a much weaker story and characters. They're not as well-written, blander, longer, some are too literary. They lack punch. Each book is different. Each has different information it communicates. One might be better than another in one aspect but weaker in another. I try and recommend the right book for the right reader -- the one that communicates everything needed.
And this little gem:
BOOKSTORE OWNER: Look, you need to tell me why I need to stop selling these books when you're the first person to ever complain about them. I didn't even know this was an issue. (He's trying to be open-minded -- even though this is the first complainer, there may be others out there who haven't spoken up).

The complaining pig talks about how she couldn't afford a good book on magic. Or that his hands are just a little too slow. And that it's society's fault because they treat people who do magic like geeks. Worse for people who can't do magic well.

BOOKSTORE PIG: With that argument, all these books have the potential to hurt someone. Look, I'm sorry your kid has such challenges, and I didn't intend to hurt him. But I had no idea your kid even existed when I put up this store. I can't fight his battles for him.

COMPLAINING PIG: Can't you simply stock different books?

BOOKSTORE OWNER: Is this your bookstore? I know it's awkward of you to ask, but it's awkward of me to give in to a foolish request. Why is it my job to protect your kid when I'm not the one with the problem? I won't be the first and I won't be the last. What gives you the ability to dictate policies for me? Are you the thought police?

COMPLAINING PIG: You do have the freedom to stock the books you want. But I have the freedom to ask you to stop because you are hurting people.

BOOKSTORE OWNER: True, and before you asked that, I had no opinion of you. But now you're acting like a jerk and making unreasonable demands of me, asking me to change my ways for one person who I don't know. You can't avoid pain in life, it's impossible to try. And by making a special exception for him, aren't I setting him apart from the crowd? The same thing that's ostracizing him in the first place? There are a hundred other people in this bookstore, magicians and non-magicians alike, who have no problem.

You see, because 'books' really mean words in this story.




And then it was going to end with the complaining woman bringing a "One Million Moms"-like group and other "concerned" sheep protesting and shouting slogans like "You're a bastard for stocking this filth" and "why are you hurting this little boy!" and closing the store. All very transparent to how mindless groupthink leads to bad things. I was even going to call it "This Parable is Retarded".

While I was pre-writing my story, the little voice inside my head kept telling me "don't do this", "you're wasting your energy on something hateful", "Wil Wheaton says 'don't be a dick'!", "you'll regret this", "you're just trying to extract some petty measure of vengeance" and so forth. I attempted to shut that voice up with Conviction. People take advantage when blind devotions are freely given, like in Kony 2012. They don't stop to consider there's another side to the coin, and I convinced myself it's my job to present that side. I understand that "freedom of speech" is not equal to "freedom from consequences of that speech". But I cannot reconcile the "stop using a word that's hateful" vs. "telling people how they should speak" which is a jerk move in my book.

Then I started reading the comments on the post to gain material. Here are some choice ones.
"'Retarded' refers to a state of being. People with learning disabilities* are playing the hand they’ve been dealt, usually with an immense amount of effort to make the best of it. On the other hand, 'stupid' refers to a behavior. 'Stupid' is kind of a choice, or at least a mistake. It’s pretty close to 'ignorant', and personally I think ignorant people need to be called on it."
-Joe Murphy
"You get to decide what’s offensive to you. They get to decide what's offensive to them. Of course, you also get to decide whether you're going to respect their feelings or not, but don’t expect anyone to admire or defend you if you decide not to respect their wishes."
"Using the word 'retarded' to indicate a bad situation, or a poor choice, or a willfully ignorant person, changes the context of the word. It's like calling something you don't like 'gay'. It's not that being retarded is a bad thing in and of itself. The person using it in a poor context adds a layer of disrespect and insult, by equating a word that doesn't signify in the situation, and implying that the word (and those associated with it) are bad in some way."
-Evan Middleton
This is exactly what I was looking for. Usually, when I post a comment, I don't read the other comments because there are always so many of them. I compensate for this by not posting comments often. In this case, I just got sick of the blind adoration, maybe because it was on the coattails of Kony 2012. I believe there were comments that were thoughtless praise. But clearly, others were from people who had reasonable justifications and well-thought out explanations. The issue is more complex and has deeper roots than I originally assigned it.

Like I said in my "philosophy on writing women" post, I no longer understand insults like "throws like a girl" or "gay", because it doesn't make sense to me. Girls like Jennie Finch are a good example and Sports Science has proven that it's harder to hit a girl's fast pitch softball than a male-thrown baseball (due to reaction time). Gay people get a bad rap, but of all the stereotypes associated with them, "mean", "hateful", and "stupid" are not among them (maybe a little catty and nescient, but comically so).

In fact, if I could stereotype anything of gay people, they seem to be all about the love. Calling something "gay" is like thinking tar baby is a racist term. Maybe it was once, but enough time has passed now that all I know is that it's a statue made out of tar. The word 'retarded' is like that, in that it assigns a negative modifier to a condition that can't be helped, like being a girl or gay. I have learned that because you have a condition you are not in control of, it does not mean you are inferior, and words to that effect should not be assigned to inferior ideas, people, or things.

But I'm still going to use the word 'retarded'.

Not often, and not when it's unneeded. But I think it's a proper word to describe something so stupid and ignorant that it could only have come from someone who had a mental difficulty. For one thing, all of my favorite stuff uses the most vulgar, offensive language in heaps and buckets. For another, words only have the power that they're given. Words change and their meanings change. And usually in a way that diminishes the subject they're referring to. Let's go to George Carlin for more.
Americans have trouble facing the truth, so they invent the kind of a soft language to protect themselves from it, and it gets worse with every generation. ... There's a condition in combat. Most people know about it. It's when a fighting person's nervous system has been stressed to its absolute peak and maximum. Can't take anymore input. The nervous system has either snapped or is about to snap.

In the first World War, that condition was called "shell shock". Simple, honest, direct language. Two syllables -- "shell shock". Almost sounds like the guns themselves. That was seventy years ago.

Then a whole generation went by and the second World War came along and the very same combat condition was called "battle fatigue". Four syllables now. Takes a little longer to say. Doesn't seem to hurt as much. "Fatigue" is a nicer word than "shock"...

Then we had the war in Korea, 1950. Madison avenue was riding high by that time, and the very same combat condition was called "operational exhaustion". Hey, we're up to eight syllables now! And the humanity has been squeezed completely out of the phrase. It's totally sterile now. "Operational exhaustion". Sounds like something that might happen to your car.

Then, of course, came the war in Vietnam, which has only been over for about sixteen or seventeen years. And thanks to the lies and deceits surrounding that war, I guess it's no surprise that the very same condition was called "post-traumatic stress disorder". Still eight syllables, but we've added a hyphen! And the pain is completely buried under jargon. "Post-traumatic stress disorder". I'll bet you if we'd have still been calling it "shell shock", some of those Vietnam veterans might have gotten the attention they needed at the time.
We used to say "dwarf". Then that wasn't okay, so we said "midget". Then that wasn't okay, so now we say "little person". Why? "Midget" is a made-up word! And this screws up the language so now I can't tell what is a person with dwarfism (or similar disease) and an actual person who is little, like my daughter or Danny DeVito. Sometimes we use the term "special" -- a great example of using soft, inoffensive language that obfuscates truth. "Special" used to be a positive word. Now it's been coerced into something derogatory, almost the same meaning as "retarded". That's why I say it's impossible to avoid these situations. There will always be speech with a little hatred in it. I think humans need it. If you take it away, it'll be like Prohibition. Or "Demolition Man".

Fact is, there's always going to be someone who disapproves of what you say, no matter who you are. Someone who doesn't like your lifestyle or the choices you make, for whatever reason. Words are like guns. It's how they're used that makes them bad or good. For example, 'retarded' is the only way you can describe a movie like "Bio-Dome".

So to sum up, one would be wise to remember these words: "Everyone messes up. We all say things without thinking. We say things that are hurtful, offensive, or just plain stupid. What's important is what happens next." I wonder who said that. Some smart guy, I'd wager.

Stay tuned. More apologies forthcoming.

* A helpful commenter mentioned that there is a difference between mental retardation -- a generalized disorder related to a low IQ level and characterized by deficits in memory, problem-solving and other symptoms -- and a learning disability (such as dyslexia, dysphasia) which affects the way the brain receives and processes information.
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