Sunday, October 4, 2009

The problem of language

I have a lot of interesting conversations. It's kind of a hobby of mine. As in, it kind of replaces breathing for me most days.

The conversation I had on Friday (just before seeing Capitalism: A love story) and the spirited debate I'm in right now seem related to me. And seem related to another item that's been in the news recently, that is actually the reason why I really for really wanted to start a blog, and did!, this time.

So first, the website. The website currently being sued by Glenn Beck. The website which purports to act out a satire of Glenn Beck's "interviewing style." By that I mean his use of that one informal fallacy I can never remember the name to - The loaded question. You know, have you stopped beating your wife?; how do I know you're not still working for our enemies?; why hasn't Glenn Beck denied the rumors that he raped and murdered a girl in 1990? Apparently, if you name a website after that last one, Glenn Beck will sue you, in international court. Particularly if your website offers up specious evidence as to Glenn Beck not denying that he did rape and murder a girl in 1990.

Irrespective of whether or not Beck should or will win his case (likely no in both cases), I'm curious about what the website does. Can we beat Beck and his friend at his own game? Is there any worth to attempting satire at all, when, one could argue, what's missing from their half of the debate is the appropriate number of recursions in their theory of mind? (I could argue this, but it's long, and I'm likely lacking the neuroscience to really back up my claims, but trust me) And is there a way to do satire that doesn't rely on sexist rape jokes?

The boy and I have talked about this at some length and quite heatedly. He argues for a radical break, utterly changing our language. I still have liberal leanings, and so want to help unmake the master's house with the master's tools (to utterly obviate Audre Lorde's point). There is something about accepting that, for right now, our media is predisposed to the wing-nuts' style of sound-bites, invective, and nonsense. There is also something refreshing about being able to say - "your position is mind-numbingly idiotic, you should shut the hell up". It's similar to the problem I have with, well more issues than not these days, it's this weird quasi-PoMo move the modern news makes, where they treat both sides of every story equally. Understand evolution? That's just like believing in creationism! Perhaps women don't have the legally recognized right to abortion, maybe we've all been dreaming since 1973 . . . Maybe the birthers aren't hysterical racists, maybe Obama really wasn't born in Hawaii. Whether or not there is objective truth, there are still facts . . . and facts mean something.

That why I love the representative from Florida, Alan Grayson, so much, because he called the Republicans out on their nonsense and called them names. On the teevee nonetheless. For me, it's both. There is something so satisfying at seeing someone finally say, look, y'all are talking with the nonsense. There are times where I just want to say, fuck this noise. Something about this website seems to be doing that. Matching the nonsense point for point. And also, giving a common point for fellow progressives to blow off some steam, to not think about tone. There's also the hilarity of Beck suing someone for making the same sort of claims that Beck himself makes (teabaggins and all that). But what concerns me the most is that the premise of the satire is so clearly sexist, I mean, how many rape jokes do we need to make?, that I worry that this is the best we can do, and meeting them on their level means . . . meeting them on their racist, sexist, classist level.

I mean - rape jokes? I understand that most of Hollywood's come out in defense of poor put upon Roman Polanski (who, ZOMG, couldn't even pick up his own Oscar!), and we're all shades of in luuuurve with Max Tucker and that other guy . . . Seth Rogen? Judd Apatow? Both? The dude director who thinks rape is funny, but - it's just another reminder that women aren't really seen on the public stage. Or the ones that are seen are the ones that can play the boys' game. You know, the women with a sense of humor, who aren't going to get all worried about whether or not you're kind of taking rape a little too lightly there. Which kind of brings me back to my worry - can we use language and be heard without reinforcing the existing structures? Namely, can the non-dominant group (and I will argue strenuously that progressives count in that category) speak in a way that's heard by others without using the structures that presuppose some of the problems of the dominant group?

Which brings me to the first conversation, where my totally-for-true-actually-Community-Organizer friend called me out on classism with my use of internet LOLspeak. Which was good, I deserved it. My use of LOLspeak does tend to be in mockery. (Here's my obligatory addressing of my privilege). Part of my privilege knapsack involves a hefty dose of class-privilege and education-privilege. While I had thought of it as mockery (and really, there are some ideas that anything less than mockery can't really address) I hadn't considered the class-speak that possibly carried along with it.

The conflation with classism and education is an interesting problem of language for me, for a couple of reasons. Part of it is from the classroom - where I have to find a way to ask students, in college, to write me papers that use standard English. I've spent a lot of time working through both the right way to phrase that requirement, and also with my own default assumptions that life's just better if you can express yourself in standard English. That finding a way to beat racism and/or classism will require tricking the more privileged into forgetting that you lack it. Or something like that. The master's house, the master's tools. It's the sort of thought-process you carefully don't walk all the way through. Because there's a lot of privilege and assumption lurking at the bottom of it, that's tiring to wade through.

The more obvious flipside is that use of LOLspeak to mock those who spout claims long since disproved. Is it classist to say an idea is dumb? There is, and this was the community organizer's argument, something to be said for outreach and education. To trying to find a way to reach out to those who, say, think President Obama is a socialist and argue with them about what that means, and why he isn't and why even if he were a socialist, socialism isn't actually the end of the world. And that is important. However, I have an impatience in my soul with this weird movement towards "belief" that dialogue seems to have moved towards. That such impatience shows itself in a way that is seen as classist is something I will henceforth try to work on. But this impatience comes with an interesting problem - our language of disdain is so tied up with othering-language that expressing disdain for yet-another-fear-mongering-bit-of-already-disproven-nonsense can very easily slip you into language that others one group or another.

And this is the problem of language. We're still trying to write a new one. Still trying to find a way to speak to one another in a manner in which more than just the privileged can understand. But I think it's important that we progressives allow ourselves to be angry, from time to time. That's what that Glenn Beck site does, it's not to change Beck's mind about how Beck should behave, any Beckites that change their mind because of it are bonuses. That site is to let us be angry at the nonsense that surrounds us, that is taken up seriously in all parts of the news, that very truly threatens us. The problem, of course, is the language used in that anger does not actually let us be angry, it lets men be angry. (Men in the socially traditionally understanding) Women aren't visible.

There's something to be said for mockery. Something to be said for saying out loud - there is no actual reason for this crap to be repeated one more time. I refuse to believe that mocking the fearmongers, the obvious liars, the dangerous hate-filled loons at least a little bit is wrong. But it calls for a carefulness the other side doesn't have to worry about. And sometimes that's tiring.

1 comment:

  1. ...The thing about satire and mockery is that the other side has to GET it for it to have any effect.
    Getting angry from time to time is not only human, but organic and healing. If we ever hope to help this planet, this country; we have to understand that things are very much NOT copacetic. We have to absorb that fact, feel it in our cores and allow that melancholy that we feel to move us ahead in our goals.
    In the grand political scheme; I feel powerless. I think I speak for many when I say that. The only thing I keep fighting for is my kids. I had them at home so that I would have to deal with the hospitals and the usual B.S. that surrounds it. Pregnancy is oftentimes viewed as an illness instead of what it is. Unless it's convenient for someone in the political spectrum to say otherwise. I say hardily throw it in their faces, til someone gets a gun. Then, it may be wise to hide under a table and change your name.