“Please Call Me Jimmy, Or Not” or “5 Observations About Language” or “Please Chill The Hell Out Word Police”

Many of my students claim that they find it difficult to argue with a good number of my blogs, in spite of the fact I strongly encourage them to do so. I would like to believe one reason it may be difficult to argue is due to my practice of anticipating objections and addressing those antithetical arguments first and foremost…while making it very clear what I am NOT saying.

This blog will continue with that strategy and quite intentional tradition.

So today I argue that we live in an age of absurd politically correct language—that is reaching near ridiculous levels—and that I most definitely do NOT serve on the politically correct language committee. I also believe our (the universal “our”) collective linguistic sensibilities are far too easily offended.

It is therefore now imperative to make it clear what I am NOT saying when I suggest you all just need to relax when it comes to the use of, for some, emotionally charged words.

I am not suggesting that we use intentional hurtful language toward anyone or any group. I am not suggesting that if we know a word or label to be hurtful to someone to use it. I am not suggesting that all words are appropriate for all occasions. I AM suggesting that we should use words, labels and phrases that a person or group prefers to be addressed.

And should we screw that up? Chill out…we actually have real problems in the world. Like REAL problems.

Take the issue of one’s name. When I was a child most referred to me as “Jimmy.” When I started to get older, I transitioned for a few years to James, then, circa high school, I was officially Jim. Upon reaching mid-life crisis circa mid-forties, in a futile effort to reconnect with anything youth, I elected to go back to my roots…and requested to be called, once again, Jimmy. You may think it silly that I now prefer this moniker, yet who the hell cares what you think? Just call me what I prefer regardless of the reason I prefer. And guess what? I will call you whatever it is you prefer as well…no verbal skin off Jimmy’s back.

If your name is Norman yet you prefer to be called Bubba, I am so down.

This is called common courtesy and makes the village a slightly better place.

Now, that said, should you opt to call me something other than Jimmy…I really do not give a shit.

I realize it is only a damn word and in the grand scheme of things, means relatively nothing.

At the more macro level, the problem is our acceptable phrases and monikers are changing at light speed and we cannot always keep up with the right term at the right time—so put your word guns down language police, not everyone checks in with PC committee when they wake up each morning.

What I am arguing is that we (once again, the universal “we”) place WAY too much emphasis on the role of language, as if words are some sort of sacred cows and possess an inherent meaning all their own that are worthy of respect…not.

Here are five basic observations about words:

  1. Words are arbitrary, subjective and constantly subject to change. According to Linguist and one time US Senator, now dead, SI Hayakawa, the term broadcast used to be an agricultural term referring to a farmer planting the fields, “broadly casting” the seed in the ground. Ready? Nice used to mean foolish, silly used to mean worthy and blessed, awful used to mean “in awe of,” naughty used to mean having nothing, clue used to mean a ball of yarn, guy used to mean a frightful figure (ok…maybe a bad example), egregious used to mean distinguished, flirt used to mean flicking something away, while sick used to mean being ill and some of us old farts still might use it this way. How can we trust the meaning of a word when it can change meaning at any time and we can never be absolutely certain of the intended meaning behind it?
  1. The only meaning a word has is the meaning we assign to it. There are some words that are so elastic we can stretch them to mean whatever it is we want them to mean. My British friends love the word “brilliant.” When I use this word I refer to something completely extraordinary or smart and amazing. They could use it to describe their most recent bowel movement. To many Brits, nearly every underwhelming feat is overwhelmingly brilliant which is, uh, well, not so brilliant—if you ask me. Comedian Louis CK has a spot-on bit about our incorrect use of the words “starving” and “hilarious” which IS absolutely hilarious…sorry Louis.
  1. No two people share the identical meaning for the identical word. Like the words described above, each of us share a sometimes ever-so-slightly nuanced version of the same word. If I tell you I have a big dog, this could mean a large canine but that could mean St. Bernard big or German Shepherd big. Or it could mean eating a big, fat frankfurter with mustard. Or, hell, according to my students it could mean a horny guy….but then it would be dawg or Dogg, I guess. Concepts such as rich, poor, hungry and ill, for example, are so vague as to mean nothing on their own accord. My rich could be another man’s poor.
  1. Meaning is found in people, not in words. For a fascinating speech on the use of the cursed “N-Word” you must check out Marlita Hill’s 1999 award- winning presentation. As she observes, it is the meaning behind the word that matters, not the word itself. In regards to the popular 1970’s series Roots, she observes the overuse of the word nigger, yet contends, given the context of the movie, the script demands it must remain that way. She says, “Does the slave master have to keep using that word – over and over again – I mean, couldn’t he just had said: “I’m gonna rape your wife and kill you – you god damn n-word. I hate n-words.” Get it? The meaning was hateful and any attempt toward a euphemism would have been greatly misguided and ineffective. The opposite can be true as well. I could utter a politically correct word with vitriol and hate in my voice. Meanings matter, not words.
  1. Words are ultimately incapable of conveying the precise message of our meaning. I can hear it now, “But wait Jimmy, you are using words right now. You are a hypocrite.” Yes, I am using words at this very moment because it is the best tool we have for expressing meaning –and I would drink water off my front lawn or out of my toilet bowl if that were my only choice for hydration. Of course I would launch into my belief expressing the importance of nonverbal communication as a means to determine meaning, yet that is a different blog for a different day.

I personally have been reprimanded more than once for using a term I believed was both sensitive and appropriate only to be shamed regardless of my loving and supportive intention. So I could not give Bill Maher a more boisterous “AMEN” when, on his recent HBO Real Time show, he criticized actor Michael Keaton for profusely apologizing when gave the wrong title for a movie he was discussing.

“Cue the outrage, cue the retraction,” Maher said, then quoted part of Keaton’s apology—with crocodile tears added: “I screwed up. It makes me feel so badly that people feel badly and if someone feels badly that’s all that matters.”

“No,” said Maher returning to his own voice. “That’s not all that matters. In fact, things like this don’t matter at all. What matters is that while you self-involved fools were policing the language at the kids’ choice awards, a madman talked his way into the White House. What matters is that while liberals were in a contest to see who could be the first to call out fat-shaming, the Tea Party has been busy taking over schools boards.”

Maher then advised Hollywood liberals to “stop protecting your virgin ears” and pay more attention to what was happening (in so many words) behind them.

Regardless of one’s politics or love/hate of Trump or conservative school boards, if any of you know me AT ALL, you know I absolutely love it when a person is able to criticize his/her own side when something is believed to be wrong or misguided. The world would be a much saner place if we all could practice such objective and critical impartiality.

The point is clear…when it comes to language and politics in general, it is a good idea to not major on the minors and minor on the majors.

So people, can we please take our language with a grain of salt? I will not be offended if you call me Jim, James or that crazy Hungarian for that matter.

So have at it word police, whatcha got for me?

I know you all could argue with me on this one. Brilliantly, I’m sure. 🙂

 

 

Protests, Oral Sex, Coming Out, Being “Kinda” Gay and Compassion. Wow. What Just Happened?

Wow. Never before and perhaps never again.

Let me explain.

I really like to keep all my classes organic -with a point. I want the point to be made- yet keep open all the infinite ways the means by which it may be made. Typically the weirder the better, as I find students remember concepts much more vividly.

Be careful when you get what you want.

The class began rather normally and I did not see what was coming. Not a clue. In my traditional courses -as opposed to my hybrid/online course where there is very limited room for flexibility- we have opportunity to meander and “Golden Snake” quite a bit, particularly on days like this one when we are in between delivering speeches.

In general, the climate of this class is normally subdued and mellow. Not a quiet class, yet not a loud class either. Some students in the 18 member group have never talked at all…with these students I am the speech dentist, attempting to extract thoughts from their brains as painlessly as possible.

Not today. No need.

I began the 3 hour course with a lecture/discussion on the positives and negatives of the use of public protest as a means of political action. Such a lecture is quite relevant for a public speaking course as said protests carry a form of public speaking, not to mention the political process is on the forefront of nearly everyone’s mind at the moment.

I suppose it was not surprising that the discussion began to get heated. Going against my natural wiring, I did not assert my thoughts and opinions very much…there was no need as the class was providing the required fodder for spirited debate and discussion. I had the pleasure of acting as more moderator than instigator, clarifier over invigorator, and referee not player.

As the class purged their opinions on the current political climate and protests specifically, the discussion took a turn in the direction of LGBTQ when a normally quiet student, a 19 year-old lesbian (we had no idea until that moment) declared she was recently kicked out of her house by her conservative father upon revealing she was homosexual.

We discussed. We opined. We pondered. We empathized. We cared.

Then the strangest thing happened. An older and much more vocal student, who dropped hints during the semester of his religious affiliations and somewhat eccentric nature, informed the class he was a homosexual for a few years and really enjoyed oral sex with men during that period…yet he is straight and married now.

What. The. Fuck.

Did Captain Inappropriate just strike or what?

Aside from the obvious general bewilderment as to why one would even offer up that information to an entire class…how does a person turn gay and then straight again? Did he just really say that? Why?

This then sparked a conversation about being “kinda gay” and the spectrum of sexuality.

Perhaps it was just me that was bewildered concerning this seemingly out-of-place and strange comment- but then the floodgates opened. Another rather quiet student in the back of the class opened up about how she was sexually assaulted within the past year and her parents instructed her to not talk about it or tell anyone. She began crying…and crying…and crying.

This student was not a drama queen. Conversely, she is a stoic, tough, and strong young lady.  As she broke down, she confessed that this behavior was all an act as she DOES care what people think, she IS hurt and that her strained relationship with her mother is killing her inside. She recently signed up for the military -to escape- and is not telling her mother until the day she leaves.

We listened. And as the class gently responded to her, the tones of their voices drenched with empathy and love, I realized one can be untruthful with words, yet tones do not lie. This was real.

Then an older student, the class matriarch if you will, who came over from the Sudan 14 years ago, got up out of her seat and walked over to her just to hold her in her arms, as if perfectly scripted and brilliantly blocked out. And yes, the poetry of a woman from a “banned” country being the source of unity and love did not escape me.

The class was silent. Yet even the most silent of students would gingerly chime in a comment…comments that were poignant, soothing, and well, brilliant, as if something beyond the totality of the present individuals were guiding their tongues and caressing their minds.

The open confessions kept coming. A man opened up concerning his 16 year-old daughter who was recently stalked by an older man and was attempting to arrange an illicit affair with her; a young man, who just moments earlier was defending the recent Berkeley protestors and was visibly distraught, confessed he was bisexual while suffering from anxiety and depression on a daily basis…and could NEVER tell his parents for fear they would disown him.

It seemed everyone’s personality changed to accommodate this powerful dynamic that was taking place: The loud were quiet, the quiet just loud enough, and the apathetic empathetic.

I manufactured nothing. It was as if I jumped on this train and went along for the ride.

It was the most powerful 3 hours in my nearly 30 years of teaching.

We all were looking at each other with the facial expression suggesting, “What is happening right now?”

This was so much more than a “hippie dippie” Kumbaya moment. It was the kind of moment people pay hundreds of dollars per hour to a therapist to achieve.

Then the father of the 16 year-old suggested that perhaps this 3 hour lecture went full circle. As we began the day discussing the MACRO benefits and costs of a protest, we now realize the point of any protest must eventually benefit the MICRO of each of our lives.

If a macro protest is not undertaken with the ultimate objective to enrich what really matters in all our lives, for all people, for all countries -family, friends, love, trust, support, ie, the micro, it might just be a misguided protest.

A class that was divided minutes earlier came together and unified as our attention focused on what really matters, no matter our political associations or beliefs.

The class ended and the students slowly began filing out the door, changed to be sure, realizing something very special had just taken place.

I like to keep my lectures organic -with a point. And, on some days, the point is even made for me.

Dear Professor, I Cannot Support The Gays And “Lesbos”

As I was going through some old computer files, I ran across an email a former student sent to me a few years back…an email I forgot completely about.  As I reread her email the other day and my embedded response (in italics) to her position on homosexuality, I was reminded that ignorance and backward thinking still exist in our country–it just seems the political climate has changed so these folk tend to now shut up or utter their ignorance behind closed doors. So today I offer you this letter, complete with my various reactions to serve as a reminder  this continues to exist in profundity in our culture. I have left the letter in the original condition in which it was written…though the editor in me really wants to clean it up. I believe the poor spelling, grammar, and syntax might be more telling than anything else. I did create the use of paragraphs myself as it was hardly readable in its original condition.

Quite frankly, if this letter were written to me today, I may or may not take the time to respond. But it was not; it was when I was a bit younger and probably had a bit more hope than I currently possess. Or, hey, you may disagree with me and think she is on to something. If so, I would love to hear from you.

Dear Professor,

“I understand your point on committing adultery and gutton (gluttony?) and gossipers are not being addressed in 2010 but the same-sex marriage is (my point is not whether or not they are being addressed, rather they also violate “God’s laws” -as you understand them- thus where do we draw the line on what we enforce and what we do not?) and I just don’t agree with it, now aside from the Bible let’s say for instance If I didn’t believe in God I will still find it Very disgusting to see another man macking down another man in front of me (unfortunately, Civil Rights and laws cannot be mandated on what an individual might find offensive. I am sure many gays would prefer not to see you “macking down” on a male as well…though you are free to do so), I’m sorry it’s just not natural I mean it’s gross to me (many things in life are not “natural” as you contend…medicines, automobiles, prosthetics, books, etc. and yet we engage in these things constantly), I don’t care what’s fair to gays  because they don’t care what Fair to straights (so your bible tells you only to love those you like and who love you back? What happened to loving your enemy?), and it’s not fair for my kids to see that in my opinion (though you have already established you do not care what is fair).

If gay people were suppose to be gay, why is it that they CAN’T bear their own children the way a women can? NATURALLY but we find them all trying to adopt a child? (Should we restrict those straight couples who are unable to bear children the right to marry? Or couples that use birth control? Again, this is a very unnatural act) don’t people find that odd? (Again, no more odd than the millions who currently practice birth control for the purpose of not having children). They can’t bear children threw their rectum (does the inability to bear a child rectally undermine one’s rights and freedoms?) …two of the same sex have the same equipment, I mean to play catch you need a ball and glove not two balls or two gloves you’ll never catch anything. (Should we also outlaw oral sex? For this is sexual activity that will not bear children). The  body wasn’t made that way how does people think we all got here?!?!? (No one is suggesting everyone become gay). The big bang theory? like seriously, thats more of a miracle then God creating the Heavens and Earth don’t you think? (this is a red herring as creation vs. evolution is not the issue) lol

my husband and I were just talking about that yesterday Because my sister who I love dearly is a lesbo (the label is lesbian and I find your term to be offensive for many…name calling is not allowed in this course) and has questions for me like the ones you asked but really I’m not going to back up what I believe with reference from the bible or what have you That’s not necessary because people are going to believe and act as they want wether you prove it or not but in my opinion if man was suppose to be with man and women with women why can’t they bear their OWN children? (This issue has already been addressed) and their adopting children from what MAN and WOMEN created? My answer: “Because God gave us human beings that blessing to bear  are OWN children between man and women.”

I don’t Hate gay people or dislike them If you were gay I would totally talk to you and befriend you it doesn’t bother me, (that is absolutely awesome and great to read…definitely a step in the right direction) I just won’t help legalize something I don’t agree with I just don’t accept their ways and I will never consider them either and this topic of discussion can go on and on but I have understood, let people who are confused with their sexuality be confused and let them find their way and if they never do that’s their problem not mine cause I’m straight (whatever happened to the concept of compassion?) I’m not and will not confuse the generation that I had come out my body naturally “my four children” to believe such a thing I have answers as a straight person too, you know gay people to me always play the victims but I’m a victim too 🙂 (I believe you cannot speak for all gay people…this is called stereotyping) and another thing I don’t understand is why they want to get married anyway it’s a covenant under God which how it was originally before people started making their own rules and laws. (Does not divorce break this covenant? Should we outlaw divorce because it is not part of God’s covenant? In our country, marriage is a legal contract that does not even have to be religiously based.)

This is a crazy subject and I will not have a open mind to the gay life style even if someone panted it with pink and white poka dots 🙂 (This is called dogmatic thinking; it is probably the type of thinking of the majority of people) I just think it strange but I love everyone regardless of what status they have of lifestyle they choose but I just don’t choose to help legalize it for my own reasons, I’m not a mean person either lol or a confrontational person 🙂 (someone who is not mean or confrontational would never feel the need to claim they are not) I just won’t budge on what I believe 🙂 sorry this isn’t to offend anyone just my opinion and not a fan of pro 8 that’s all”

Hmmmm, maybe I should just stop going through old files.

Or maybe it is a really good exercise to practice arguing with unreasonable arguments that we might think do not warrant a response.