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Monday, March 12, 2012

Little Red Riding Hines and the Big Bad Wolf


I don't know why I keep getting in kerfuffles with Jim C. Hines. I think that if we ever met in person, we'd get along great. It's just we have some convictions we disagree on, or I'm woefully ignorant of. It's not like I'm coming away obstinate and unchanged. I now understand that inability to give consent for sex = consent not given. You'd think that'd be a no-brainer, but yes, it did need to stew in my brain a little while before I understood it completely. White male privilege is an insidious thing.

I resolved it by using the metaphor of stage-diving. You want to jump off the stage and crowd-surf, like it in the movies. It looks fun. You do not want to have a hundred hands squeeze your ass or grope your breasts or put their hand down your pants. That's inappropriate, no matter what you're doing (unless you're having sex... with consent). It's not what you asked for, and there's no circumstances where that's okay, and we should all know that. But we don't. Yes, it's a bad idea to get so drunk you pass out, and it indicates a serious problem. It does not mean you want to have sex. Anyway, that's not what I came to talk about.

I came to talk about the parable he wrote which is a thinly-disguised story about colloquial use of the word 'retarded', and how you shouldn't say it. At least, I think that's what he meant to illustrate. Go ahead and read it, it's short. As you can tell by the comments, there are kneejerk claps and praises abound, but not a lot of thinking about possible consequences or different interpretations. That lack of analytical thinking is what gets things like Kony 2012 started.

I get uncomfortable when people start telling me what words I can and can't use. It angries up the blood. The first thing I thought of was Neil Gaiman's Defense of Icky Speech. But then it was pointed out to me that this story is not about the legality, but the responsibility that speech. I see some gray area in that, because the way I see it, if the Pig had his way, if he were a supreme court judge, he would try to get that word banned. I don't see an alternative goal -- what else could the Pig be seeking? Maybe I'm assigning something that’s not there, but the simple parable nature of the story makes it hard to see.

Yes, I know words can hurt. We are all part of a generation that knows that. But it’s not the words themselves, it’s the context, as nicely illustrated in George Carlin’s philosophy. What this parable basically is, in one of its facets, is advocating censorship. And I hate censorship. IMO, the only real appropriate action the Pig made was calling the Wolf a "jackass"/"douchebag". That’s all one really has the power to do in that situation, and it's all one should be able to do, whether that's a fortunate or unfortunate result.

And I have a problem with people being punished because of one person. At no time did any of the Wolves call the Bunny retarded — they were all referring to something else. They didn’t even know the Bunny was there, or what his condition was. What made the Bunny feel bad was that the word evoked a memory of kids teasing him. Those are the bad guys. Those are the ones that the Pig should be talking to.

We all have bad days. We all end up with scars. If you live life without being hurt, then you’re doing something wrong. I have a problem with other people telling others how to act when the consequences of that action are, in reality, quite small. Why is it my job to change my way of speaking when I'm not the one who has the problem? The fact is, we ALL get teased, we ALL get bullied. Everyone got bullied by someone in their life -- the popular kids, the jocks, the nerds, even the bullies.

I was bullied frequently. And I bullied others. I'm not proud of it, I regret it, I'd change it if I could. But I did it, and I know why I did it -- so I could feel better about myself than I was feeling at the time. When you've got nothing, you can always pick on someone weaker than you. And at some primal level, that will make you feel good -- that in some way you are better than at least one person. Sometimes on a bad day, you need that. I'm not advocating bullying here, I'm saying that's why it happens.

And I've been called retarded many times (and not peripherally, like in the parable. I'm talking about to my face.). I probably got called 'retarded' more than an average person, because, while I'm not retarded, I look retarded because I have some nerve damage in my face that makes it look like I'm talking out of the side of my mouth.

I think back to all those times on the bus with kids teasing me, girls and boys, getting kicked while I was sitting on the ground reading a book (and this was by freshmen when I was a senior), being laughed at and made fun of. People thought I was in a car accident because I didn't talk. So I know words can hurt, just as much as anyone, especially being called 'retarded'. But I grew beyond that.

Now I have two daughters of my own. They are not retarded -- they won't go through the same thing I did. But I am dreading the day they start public school, because I know they will be made fun of or come home crying because they were teased. Why? There's nothing wrong with them, they're quite beautiful, they're normal, they have normal behavioral characteristics. Why would anyone make fun of them? Because EVERYONE DOES IT. It is an inevitable truth of life -- there are no boundaries to the cruelness of children. Girls especially have a reputation for it. I can't stop it. No one will ever be able to stop it. I guarantee you one of them will call one of them retarded. That's not okay, but it must happen if one is to become stronger, and to recognize what's right and what's wrong.

But, thinking back to those kids on the bus, now that I'm grown up, I'd still defend to the death their right to say 'retarded' in that context. Because as Patrick Henry said "I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." and as Neil Gaiman said, "Freedom of speech is not a scalpel, it's a club."

So here's my question to the Pig: You get one magic wish. You can either make it so no one uses the word 'retarded' any more, or you can make it so your Bunny is no longer learning disabled. Which one would you choose?

I know what I would choose.
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