Silent Reverie
June 17, 2006

If you've read much of this blog before, you know that I frequently claim to have been an odd child. Maybe I should make that one of the categories here, as it seems like an almost ritualistic start to many of my posts.

At any rate, I was an odd little kid. At seven, I was positive that I had the whole world figured out. The point of life was quite obviously to be an adult. This was the mecca of achievements. After all, grown-ups were always telling us to act more mature. And, the definition of a grown-up was to be objective, impartial and to have no emotional extremes whatsoever. Getting angry or hurt or mad or too sad, all of that was childish. And even at seven, I strove to be as adult and grown-up as I possibly could.

To go along with this concept, I assumed that as my friends and I aged, we would become more "adult," more objective, more impartial, less given to petty fights over nothing at all.

As I grew older and realized that most chronological adults are anything but objective and impartial and who are still quite emotional and sometimes petty, I grew terribly confused. Why couldn't all the adults see that my vision of how life should be was the right one? They obviously weren't trying enough.

Like I said, I was an odd child.

Okay, seemingly big jump here, but I'll tie it all together in a minute, hang on.

I've been online in one capacity and frequency or another since the kid across the street got a modem for his Commodore 64. He'd labouriously log into his BBS and we'd type to some other kid. The modem transmitted one slow letter at a time. And oh, but God forbid you make a typo ... then you would watch the cursor back up, eating one letter at a time until the other dude got to the mistake and then labouriously re-typed the real word. And trust me, on the C-64, you had to whale on those keys with your fingers to get each letter to take. There was none of this soft-touch keyboard action. You might as well have been on an old Royal typewriter and you'd better have some damn strong fingers if you wanted to touch-type instead of hunt and peck.

Now I am both a very visual person and a very words-oriented person. The two traits together have helped me learn to read people's words, body language and mannerisms fairly well. (Okay, so being the child of an alcoholic honed that skill more than anything else could have, but you get the point.) And what I noticed about the early BBS was that it was far easier to get into a misunderstanding there than in person. In fact, the limited typing skills, the speed of the modems, and the programming of the systems pretty much generated disagreements like Orville Reddenbacher generated popcorn.

When I got back online in 1993 and joined MUDdog, the landscape of being online had changed drastically. While there's still the "lag kills" issue to be faced, the 'net was far more of a "real-time" community than it had been. But the miscommunications and fights seemed to be just as bad, if not worse, than before. And because I both love figuring things out and because I'm a writer, I tried to do what I do best: sit back and observe and then draw conclusions. (And then share them ... gee, aren't you lucky?)

The fact of the matter is that on the computer screen, everything is flat as hell. It's a one-dimensional, flat as a pancake, exercise in frustrating interpretation. The fact of the matter is that most of us are completely used to relying on another person's vocal tone or body language to give hints as to whether someone is laughing at us or with us. As a writing teacher, I saw this over and over and over again. Our little black marks on the page are one of the best ways we have to communicate our ideas to a wide audience ... and they are also simply the dead skeleton left behind by the ideas we convey as we speak. They're better than nothing, but they're not the whole Stegasorous.

And what really sucks about this is that so many of us feel that "plain speech" will "clear the air" and is the best way to avoid being misunderstood and to still be true to our own selves and our own feelings.

Unfortunately, this simply is not true most of the time. Plain speech, more often than not, leads to people taking offense. And we can say all we want, "I didn't mean it that way" or "I should be able to say what I mean" ... but the deal is ... language, any language, every language, does not have fixed meaning.

An example: I hate the word lesbian. It drives me up the frigging wall. Yet, most people who are trying conscientiously to use the "right" word for a gay female will use lesbian. To me, it sounds like a frigging disease. See, when I was in high school, and a newscaster was forced to talk about "one of those people," they'd say lesbian in this hideous tone of voice that just dripped distaste. One particular news story discussed the "crazed lesbian who broke into Sharon Gless' home." (This was while Cagney and Lacy was airing.) For me, I internalized all that venom directed when the newscasters said that word and so it's never been a word I particularly liked. Dyke, on the other hand, was a word I'd never heard before I came out in college. So while a great many gay women find the term offensive, it's always been one that I preferred.

Actually, I just thought anyone who wasn't heterosexual oughta go by "gay" since I have never really seen the need to separate out every little faction of the community ... but that's just me. :)

All of that is to say while the basic definitions of lesbian, dyke and gay woman all seem to describe the same concept, well, they really don't mean the same things.

One more seeming sidetrip and I'll wrap this post all together.

I read a LOT of Robert Heinlein novels as a kid. And I can remember reading in several of his books about the concept of manners and politeness. In several different books he talks about the brashness of youth and how many young people seem to think that being polite really just throws sand into the gears of life. If we would all just say what we mean, then things would move more quickly and efficiently.

I was confused. Being just a kid, I pretty much agreed that the ritual politeness of adults was a little crazy. But it bugged me to be categorized as "just a kid" in this way, so I thought about it a lot. And I eventually came to realize something.

"Political Correctness" is not bullshit. No, we didn't use the term back then. And I'm not talking about Orwellian double-speak, taking things too far political correctness. I'm talking about attempting to consider the other person's view and culture before opening our mouths ... or letting our fingers do the talking for us.

You see, when we say something that's on our mind with absolutely no internal editor on it at all, chances are we're going to use a few words that have highly charged meanings. Then, if we want to continue productive conversation with that person, we're going to have to back up and explain what we really mean, or soothe hurt feelings, or dig our heels in, call the other person overly sensitive and walk away from it all.

If we think a little more before we speak ... if we search for the right words when writing ... if we take the time to explain the context (even tho that takes longer), then we often have a better communication with a wider number of people and fewer hurt feelings or lost conversations. Which way is more efficient? Taking an extra ten words to explain part of the back-story or reason or taking an extra few seconds to choose a term carefully ... or "speaking plainly."

Particularly in online communications, our words serve as the grease which keeps the gears moving smoothly. Sure, it's messy work getting the right grease on the gears. Sure, it's kind of a pain to try to do that. And sure, sometimes you use the wrong stuff and the whole damn thing grinds to a halt anyway. The point is not whether the right word is lesbian or dyke or Sneetch without a green star on thars. The point is that we are not really objective, emotionless automatons who instantly grok the meaning and intent.

Sure, this can all go too far, to the point where we're making up words that are hopefully not offensive to anyone. Sure we can be so afraid to offend someone that we no longer speak up or talk about the things that need to be talked about. To me, that is PC bullshit. Fear of speaking is the bullshit. But there's a second side to that coin as well. It's just as bullshit to decide that words have but one meaning and no one should be offended by the words and jokes we tell. There are shades of grey here because we are not emotionless automatons.

Striking that balance between trying to think of the other person ... and still saying what you need to say ... that's being an adult. It's not politeness and ritual just for the sake of ritual and wasting time. I get what Heinlein was trying to say about manners now.

And I wish it was easier to convey our meanings and intents in our online communities. Because I've been online for a long time. I've been part of a LOT of different online communities, and I love them. There is something particularly delightful about meeting people from around the globe and learning about different ways of life, different cultures, different ways of thinking and being and living. But that also means there are lots and lots and lots of different ways to offend and be offended. To hurt and be hurt.

And while we aren't the "perfect," objective, impartial "adults" I'd conceived of back at the tender age of 7, we can at least try to listen to the other person. We can try to understand them. We can try to choose a less loaded word in hopes of carrying on the conversation longer. But ultimately, shit will happen because we don't all think exactly perfectly alike. We're not objective and impartial most of the time. And most of us are hard-wired to include at least some pettiness.

I just wish ....

I've been trying to finish that sentence for ten minutes now. There are so many things I tried to cover in this post. So many things I want to convery. But it's late, I'm really tired, and I don't know if any of this even makes sense anymore. I guess I'm just saying "why can't we all just get along?" Idealistic. Overly Pollyanna-ish. I know ... I know. But no matter how many times I see misunderstandings ... no matter how times I hear them ... I'm a writer. And I'm always trying to figure out how to bridge the rifts that words make ... with more words.

Well ... it's been well over an hour since I started attempting to unearth this particular dinosaur and uncover his bones, dust them off and examine them. Perhaps I should leave further interpretation for another day and other commenters.

Anyhow, I'll close with a bit of the song from which I took this title ... Sarah McLachlan's "Angel" :
so tired of the straight line
and everywhere you turn
there's vultures and thieves at your back
and the storm keeps on twisting
you keep on building the lie
that you make up for all that you lack

Posted by Red Monkey at June 17, 2006 1:30 AM | Never Underestimate the Power of Human Stupidity | | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble |


Beth said:

what if I used the word Lebonese instead? I think your post is right on the money.

June 16, 2006 11:49 PM


Red said:

Thank you ender, very well stated.
Good post.

June 17, 2006 1:04 PM


carrie said:

great post.

i was just recently noticing how the word lesbian is strange when melissa etheridge was on oprah and she said that when she was a kid someone was talking about "she's a lezzie" and i thought "oh i remember that word." since then, i've heard "lesbo" most commonly... but really, it's such an archaic reference.... ancient greece.

June 18, 2006 2:58 PM


marie b. said:

""Political Correctness" is not bullshit. No, we didn't use the term back then. [...] I'm talking about attempting to consider the other person's view and culture before opening our mouths ... or letting our fingers do the talking for us."


June 19, 2006 9:08 AM


Luka said:

Tag. You're it! ;-)

June 19, 2006 10:25 AM
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