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Meditations on privilege

There are times when we are absolutely nowhere 1

I just saw this clip via The Angry Black Woman:


(embed is fickle. If it’s not showing up, click here.2)

This is just the latest of videos of truly violent3, jaw-droppingly appalling, often racially- or ethnically-charged4 conduct at town halls on health care reform. But sometimes, I see stuff like this and it is just too much.

Because are you fucking kidding me with this? To say “heil Hitler” to an Israeli Jew, as an accusation, as an insult because you disagree with him on how large the government should be, and whether it should provide health care for its citizens. There is still so much work to do and there are times when I am not up to any of it. I understand anger-baiting, but I also understand cruelty, malice, bad faith, and evil. And there is something evil in this. Rabbi Menachem Mendel said:

Intolerance lies at the core of evil. Not the intolerance that results from any threat or danger. But intolerance of another being who dares to exist. Intolerance without cause. It is so deep within us, because every human being secretly desires the entire universe to himself. Our only way out is to learn compassion without cause. To care for each other simply because that ‘other’ exists.”

Several protesters hold signs against health care reform. One man holds a sign that says 'we have not idea what they we are talking about.' On the sign, several arrows point at the people around him. In front of him, a girl holds a sign reading 'sorry, we thought reading the bill was ur job.'

This quote always brings up another for me. In “Mother Night,” a book about a playwright-turned Nazi propagandist, Kurt Vonnegut writes

There are plenty of good reasons for fighting, but no good reason ever to hate without reservation, to imagine that G-d Almighty Himself hates with you, too. Where’s evil? It’s that large part of every man that wants to hate without limit, that wants to hate with G-d on his side.

I watched the above video with a good friend of mine, who is not Jewish, but whose gay great uncle was killed in the Holocaust. He, too felt flabbergasted, but a short while later we were trying to light a fire which kept dying. He called the efforts lame and I told him that was an ableist term. He gave me such a look of annoyance, though occasionally he will apologize when I call him on “retarded,” and has learnt the term “hipster racism.” Where do you go with this? What do you do in a world that wants to hate without limit? I can understand wanting a small government. I can understand not trusting politicians. To disagree what sorts of programs a government should provide. To get upset when you see people stand in opposition to your ideals, even to lash out occationally.

But I cannot understand the baseless, monstrous comparisons to Adolf G-ddamned Hitler; strapping on guns and publicly, proudly threatening the president; I cannot understand a willful abandonment of humanity for inhumanity, the hatred of the other who dares to exist.

So. Where do you go with this?5 Where do you find that compassion without cause? How do you care for the other when the other is against (health) care? Where do you find love to combat intolerance so visceral?

________
1. “The West Wing,” “Take This Sabbath Day.” Sam Seaborn to Leo McGarry on the President’s refusal to take a stand against capital punishment.
2. For those unable to view or hear the video, the title tells you the long and short of it. An Israeli man is talking about how in Israel, they care for people, particularly soldiers, and provide everyone with health care. As he speaks, a woman off camera shouts “Heil Hitler.” He says to the reporter “did you hear that? She said to a Jew ‘Heil Hitler’.” He then confronts her: “I’m a Jew, you’re telling me ‘Heil Hitler?’ Shame of you! Shame of you!” Full transcript when I have headphones.
3. Hate crime-tracking groups report upswing in activity against President Obama, a health care protester uses Twitter to encourage people to carry and even use guns at town meetings, a Tampa town hall turns violent and is cancelled
4. Black Rep. David Scott (D-Georgia)’s offices are vandalized with a four-foot swastika following a town hall meeting, a woman has her poster of Rosa Parks ripped out of her hands. If you’re not quite sure about this racial undercurrent, I invite you to take a look at the comment section of virtually any piece about health care reform.
5. Me? I intellectualize.

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That’s stupid: Saying what we mean

On Womanist Musings, Renee has a post up apologizing for her ableist language in the form of the word “crazy”. I am a former and occasional crazy person, by which I mean that throughout high school and some of college I had an alternate education plan to help to address my emotional problems and their presentation in the classroom. Near the end of my first year of college, I also checked myself into a hospital where I spent the first three days screaming off and on and keeping a tally of my panic attacks. And this past week I had a three-day-long, slow-burn freak out because my friend touched my side. So the word “crazy” as a generic insult should, perhaps, be close to my heart. But it’s not particularly. Renee’s post got me thinking about why that might be.

When I was in high school, I started hanging out with a girl who is developmentally delayed and became involved with Best Buddies (a group which pairs DD people and non-DD people). I began to realize how much of the common insult vernacular (for want of a better term) has to do with intelligence. When I, as president of the GSA, lead trainings, I’d often ask “what do you mean when you say ‘that’s so gay?'” Usually the response was “that’s stupid,” so I’d urge them to use that term instead. “When you say ‘gay’ where you mean ‘stupid,’ you’re saying gay people are stupid. Just say what you mean.”

It took me a long time to realize that terms like “stupid,” “idiot,” and “moron” speak directly to someone’s “intelligence.” In fact, I can’t say it really hit me for years, even after one lunch time when I played Trivial Pursuit with several of the people in my friend’s class. One of her teachers told me that they had noticed a card that used offensive language and asked me to take it out if I came across it. I asked what it was, so that I could look for it, and she got uncomfortable, unsure how to phrase it, and said “it involves the sort of people we teach in this room.” The card asked about the IQ of people with the diagnosis “moron.”

That was probably five years ago, and I am still working on trying to find better insults. I’ve been disabled by my brain’s misfirings  but I still use “crazy”. Words like these are so ingrained in our shared language that they are almost invisible unless aimed at you. This is, of course, the essence of privilege: failing to (have to) realize that the potential for these words to harm is not theoretical and that their pervasiveness doesn’t dull the tips of these invisible daggers.

For my part, I am making a point of using better words that more correctly label whatever problem I have identified. This requires me to actually think about what I dislike about someone or something and to articulate that.It means that my language is more effective and less prone to distract with unintended meaning.

Instead of saying someone is “stupid”, I say they are “not thinking”, or that they “don’t make sense”. Instead of calling a situation “crazy”, I can say it is “out of control”. Rather than “that’s lame” I can say “I don’t like that.”

What words do you use as a shorthand for things that seem out of place, unwanted, or wrong? What is the implication of those terms? What better replacements have you found?

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