Posts Tagged ‘civil rights’

My copy of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

My copy of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

So I recently bought my own copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, something I’ve been contemplating on doing since I listened to and reviewed Go Set a Watchman last year (more on that later). Reading the book, which I hadn’t read since eighth or ninth grade, I realized two things: one was that a lot of my memories of the Mockingbird book had been clouded and confused with the Mockingbird movie. The other was that this merited discussion. And where better to discuss it than on my blog?

I finished the book on Tuesday and watched the movie that night, but couldn’t really blog about it till now because I only have so much time, and what little I have goes by rather quickly (dammit Time, you’re still a quick bastard, aren’t you?). This article will be part review, part reflective essay, but all about what is obviously one of the best pieces of American literature ever written. So without further ado, let’s get into it.

The Book. To say the least, I’m glad I reread the book. I’m not sure if I just didn’t absorb the details as well the first time around, or if I just have a worse memory than I thought, but a lot of what made the book so wonderful hit me like it was my first time reading it. The text is beautiful, full of a smart child’s observations about events that an adult might have trouble absorbing, and all with a somewhat poetic innocence and beauty. You find yourself discovering all sorts of ironies and hypocrisies with Scout Finch, and you find yourself also wanting to explain to her these ironies and hypocrisies that, to her, are too confusing and that the adults can’t seem to explain to her very well.

And like I said earlier, I had quite a revelation about how much I confused the book and the movie. For instance, Scout’s a lot girlier in the book than in the movie. Yes, she’s still quite the tomboy in the book, but the movie emphasized that more, even to the point where she says she hates dresses. In the book, Scout doesn’t seem to outright hate dresses, she just prefers overalls. She also wants to be a good housewife when she grows up and take care of her husband, and she dreams of being a baton twirler when she’s in high school, which are something I can’t imagine Mary Badham’s Scout ever wanting to do. Yeah, these aren’t big differences, but they’re differences nonetheless.

What really surprised me though was the difference in Atticus’s character.* I’ve had this image of Atticus being like this perfect being, a giant of a man with the wisdom of Merlin and the morals of Abraham. However, this is only the movie’s version of Atticus. While Atticus is definitely a moral force, he does struggle in the book. You see it, every decision he struggles with. At times, you can feel him trying to figure out what’s the best move, whether it’s raising his children or trying to be a good lawyer and a good citizen. It was quite the surprise, but I like this version of Atticus more. A character who struggles to do the right thing is always easier to identify with and root for than a character who always does the right thing without question, and that makes the story all the more powerful.

Atticus Finch in the movie, as played by Gregory Peck.

Atticus Finch in the movie, as played by Gregory Peck.

The Movie. I love how the movie started with Scout just humming and coloring. It embodies the innocence that Scout somehow manages to maintain throughout the story. The actors all do very well in their roles, though I thought that the actor who played Bob Ewell could have looked a bit more unkempt and hateful, because he looks like just a regular farmer here. The film is smart in how it sticks to the most important points of the story, namely the trial and the children’s relationship with Boo Radley, as well as the family moments that allow the audience to get to know the characters. I would’ve liked to see more of Dill Harris, as his role is really scaled down in the film, and his exit from the movie is abrupt and not commented upon. Still, it is a really wonderful film. I’m glad I watched it again, and I hope it never gets remade (though if Hollywood is desperate enough to do so, cast Zachary Quinto as Atticus. He’s a bit young for the role, but he’s just an amazing actor. He could pull it off).

Overall thoughts. This book is just as relevant today as it was when it came out in 1960. Now I know to some people, that seems like a no-brainer. After all, the book is taught in schools every day, illustrating the racial climate of both the 1930’s and 1960’s. And yes, that is true, but Mockingbird‘s themes can be applied today. Look at the Black Lives Matter movement: it’s a movement that’s fighting against racial injustice in the justice system, trying to keep black men, women, and children alive when many are accused and sometimes even killed for crimes they did not commit. And people who would readily smack down Adolf Hitler have called these protesters thugs, criminals, terrorists for wanting things to change, and to not have to feel fear while walking down the street. Exactly like Mockingbird. And all too often, you hear people make sweeping generalizations about minorities, especially minorities who are “dangerous,” or a threat to social order. This happens in Mockingbird as well, and it’s scary to see something in a novel about the past happening in my present. And it makes you question how far we’ve really come since then.

One of the best lessons from Mockingbird is that you can’t really know someone until you walk in their shoes. I don’t remember if this point was emphasized as much in my classes back in the day (and as students at an all-Jewish school, we’re all-too familiar with what it’s like to be a persecuted people), but it’s something that should be emphasized more in examinations of Mockingbird. Because it’s all too easy to be scared of someone, but it’s difficult as hell to empathize and see things from their point of view.

Whether it’s the book or the movie, really, To Kill a Mockingbird is just a powerful story. It’s beautifully written and told, the characters are timeless, and its lessons are things we can all take to heart, no matter what age it is. I’d be lucky to write something just as earth-shattering someday. Because Mockingbird isn’t just a great example of American literature. It’s an exploration in what it means to be a human being.

That’s all for now, my Followers of Fear. My next post will be at some point Saturday, so keep an eye out for it. Until next time!

*Speaking of Atticus’s character, something I just want to talk about real quick. When Watchman came out last year, there was all this controversy about Atticus being revealed as having racist leanings. Not the best thing to have in a sequel, is it? Well, I didn’t know this when I wrote my review, but apparently Watchman was not a real sequel. In actuality, it was most likely a very early draft of Mockingbird. This makes all sorts of sense to me, especially in light of my rereading Mockingbird. For instance, Watchman spends a lot of time going back and forth between events in Scout’s childhood and in her adulthood, which doesn’t happen at all in Mockingbird. A weird move for a sequel. That, and Atticus isn’t the only character who’s changed a bit: Uncle Jack Finch is portrayed as more eccentric in Watchman than in Mockingbird, which seems unusual as I’m sure Scout would have noticed his uncle’s oddness as a child. Most damning of all, though, is that the trial in Mockingbird is only barely in Watchman, and Boo Radley, who’s so essential to Mockingbird, isn’t even mentioned in Watchman! Very odd, to say the least.

And from a writer’s experience, I can tell you that stories can change dramatically between drafts. Some of my own stories have gone through great transformations from first draft to final publication (I should do an article on that!). That’s why Watchman, an early draft, is so different from Mockingbird, the final product.

So fear not, folks. Atticus isn’t really racist. An early version of him was, but I think the final version, who defended Tom Robinson and who said cheating a black man was ten times worse than a white man, isn’t a racist at all. He’s still a great idea of what we can be. He’s human, he struggles with his decisions, he’s not perfect. But he is a good man without prejudice. And that’s the version we love the most.

And Watchman? Well, it’s a pretty blatant attempt to capitalize on an already-famous book, but it’s good in its own right. Just remember its origin and don’t get too depressed over certain characterizations when you read it. That’s all I can say at this point, friends and neighbors.

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I’m taking a break from setting up Video Rage (more on that in a later post) to talk about a serious subject that needs to be talked about before serious damage is done to my state and to the transgender community here.

If you’ve been paying attention to developments in LGBT rights here in America, you’re probably aware that North Carolina has a transgender bathroom law that effectively bars transgender people from using the bathroom aligning with their gender identity, forcing them to instead use the bathroom corresponding to their biological sex. Mississippi has a much broader anti-LGBT law that includes this provision, and Kansas is considering a law that would force school districts to pay twenty-five hundred dollars to any kid who finds a transgender kid in their bathroom (how the schools are supposed to pay for that, I’m not sure. Kansas is flat broke).

Now Ohio’s got a bathroom bill. Or it will. A representative named John Becker from Clermont County is planning on introducing a bill that would “protect” families from “predators” who take advantage of businesses’ LGBT-friendly policies that allow customers to use the bathrooms corresponding to their gender identities. Becker says that the bill will have an exemption from LGBT individuals, which would make it different from the law in North Carolina. But with a bill like this, can you really just say there’ll be an exemption and expect people not to get worried?

And we should be worried about this bill, no matter what promises of exemptions or assurances that the transgender community isn’t the problem here. You know how I know this? Because people who would harass or harm men, women and children already exist! Not just in bathrooms, but in schools, homes, places of worship, government buildings, private businesses, public parks, and more than I can list in a single blog post! And you know what else? They don’t need to pretend to be transgender to do the attacking! They’ll just do it! I’m surprised we’re not getting more laws and outrage over that?

In fact, where is that anger? Where is that outrage, those proposed laws? Why aren’t we more upset about the rape that occurs everyday whether there’s a non-discrimination ordinance or not? Ke$ha was assaulted by her producer but is still stuck in a contract with a guy, even after several legal battles with him. A former Speaker of the House raped young boys in the shower (without putting on a dress, I might add), but nobody seems to care that he was only convicted for another crime. A well-known media critic has been constantly harassed online by people threatening to rape and kill her, but where’s the rush of politicians and clergy to pass laws to protect her? I find it very odd that the outrage only comes when there’s transgender people involved. Like allowing transgender people to use the bathrooms of their choice, rather than forcing them to use one aligning to their biological sex and possibly face physical assault, is somehow a recipe for increased assaults.

We should not be punishing the trans community for an imaginary fear!

Which it isn’t. Look at the research. A non-discrimination ordinance doesn’t increase sexual assaults. There are no recorded cases of NDOs leading to an assault in a bathroom. This is fact. This is just trying to punish transgender individuals. Sure, perhaps some of it is actual fear of sexual assault, but if this was the real focus, then we’d be seeing bills that more heavily punished sex offenders or took steps to do away with rape culture and the systemic causes of it. We’d be seeing all this outrage 24/7, no matter who is perpetrating the raping.

But these aren’t the only reasons this bill shouldn’t be passed. Oh, all that I’ve talked about are definitely the most important reasons, but they’re not the only reasons. No, there are other reasons, and these are the reasons that politicians who aren’t that sympathetic to the transgender community. The reason that they should get these folks against this bill is that if it passed, all of Ohio would be punished. Not just the transgender community in Ohio. All of Ohio.

Since North Carolina and Mississippi passed their bills, they’ve received such a backlash. Celebrities have canceled concerts or filming movies in those states due to these laws. Large companies like Paypal or the NBA have said they won’t do or expand business in North Carolina or Mississippi if these laws stay on the books. Entire towns and states have even passed resolutions not to have business with these states unless absolutely essential (my own Columbus passed such a resolution for North Carolina).

What would happen if that happened in Ohio? I don’t think we’d lose our swing state status come November (especially with the GOP convention in Cleveland in July), but we’d lose a whole lot in the process! Nationwide has its headquarters here in Columbus, and a lot of other major businesses have important branches in our metropolitan areas. We have several sports teams throughout the state at the college and professional levels. And prior to contrary belief, we get a lot of musical stars in Ohio during their tours. If this bill gets passed, those businesses may want to halt expanding in the state or relocate elsewhere, hurting our economy. Sports teams and celebrities may not want to play in our state, to the detriment of people who just want to see their favorite celebrities do their thing.* Entire states will say, “Sorry Ohio, we don’t agree with your human rights laws. Unless it’s absolutely essential, we’re discontinuing our business with the Buckeye State.”

This bill won’t deter sexual predators. It’ll just hurt Ohio, hurt its citizens, no matter if they’re trans or cisgender. So even if you don’t care for or dislike the the LGBT community, you should be worried for that very reason.

Now the good news is that there’s at least one petition out right now against this bill. At the time I’m posting, it’s got 7,022 signatures out of 7,500, and depending on how many people sign, it may go for even more signatures. This is great, and I hope more people, including you, my dear Followers of Fear, sign this petition. However, it’s not enough. It’s far from enough.

Not now. Not ever.

In order to stop this bill from becoming law and damaging Ohio, we need to make our voices heard. Writing blog posts, or writing or calling or tweeting Ohio representatives and Governor John Kasich, telling them that this bill is just plain wrong and that Ohioans will not stand for it. We have to make sure that when Representative Becker comes to the Legislature in Columbus, which happens to be one of the LGBT capitals of the Midwest,** that this bill is dead on arrival, and that no one is going to support such a hateful bill.

So do what I’m doing now. Make your voices heard, and don’t let anyone shut you up. Encourage others to speak their minds. Start petitions, talk to your elected officials. Make sure they know how the public feels about Becker’s bill. Because we can’t afford a bill like this, and we can’t afford hate in the Buckeye State. Not under any circumstances.

*We have a heavy metal festival in Columbus every year called Rock on the Range, that attracts bands and fans from all over the world. Imagine how bad next year’s festival will be if this bill is passed! Believe it or not, we heavy metal fans can be pretty liberal, and so can our bands.

**No seriously, Columbus is an LGBT power center! Our Gay Pride Parade and Festival attracts thousands of people every year. Not to mention that the rest of the year, we have a vibrant LGBT community active in our city. And a couple of really fun gay bars, more than a few within walking distance of each other. Believe me, I know.

I read an article on BuzzFeed yesterday that really upset me. According to the article, emails from the University of Chicago’s chapter of Alpha Epsilon Pi, a historically Jewish fraternity, had been released and revealed a culture of racism and Islamaphobia within the chapter. The N-word was used prolifically, Muslims were called “terrorists” or “towel heads”, a vacant lot next to the fraternity’s house was called “Palestine”, and some of the brothers turned MLK Day into “Marathon Luther King Day”, celebrating with drinking and eating at a fried chicken place.

Over the past couple of years, stories about fraternities and some of the disgusting things going on within their walls have been coming out. Every time I’m absolutely disgusted, but this one hit me in a number of ways. For one thing, I have friends who are part of the Ohio State chapter of AEPi. They are good people, upstanding young men connected to their heritage and active in the broader community. To think they are in any way associated with this scandal just horrifies me.

Alpha Epsilon Pi’s University of Chicago branch is in deep trouble for the emails that have been uncovered.

But that’s only one level that this hit me on. Because this story also brought back memories from when I was young:

I went to a Jewish overnight camp from fifth grade to tenth grade. During my last year or two there, I noticed a disturbing trend among the boys in my year. Swearing was a regular part of camp culture–even the counselors swore on occasion–so saying “shit” or the F-bomb didn’t make me bat an eye. In fact, I reveled in it. We were being adult, we were being naughty. It was great.

But then I heard my friends calling each other “n***er”, and occasionally “faggot” or “fag”.

Understand, there were no black kids or staff on the camp, at least not as far as I know. This was also well before I realized I was bisexual. And my friends assured me their black friends were cool with it.

Even if I believed them, I still told them that I wasn’t comfortable with it, that they shouldn’t say it, or at least not around me.

Maybe it’s because I was bullied a lot back in the third grade (most of it verbal) and it left a big impact on me, but I’m sensitive to when people use words to hurt others. Especially those words. As much as words only have meaning if we give them meaning, these words do carry a meaning bred in deep history, and the meanings are not easily separated from the words. Every time a white person uses the N-word, they’re saying that African-Americans are lesser beings, second-class citizens and do not have the same rights as people with light skin. Every time someone calls a Jew a kike (like when, after a soccer match between my all-Jewish high school and a school of mostly African-American Christians, the opposing team began using the word after they lost the game and things nearly came to blows), that someone is calling the Jewish people a strange people, a parasite that takes money and power and killed the Christian God. Every time someone calls someone else a fag, they’re saying that there’s something inhuman or strange or obscene about being LGBT. And every time someone–not just a fraternity brother–calls a Muslim or a Palestinian a terrorist, they’re saying that entire religion is incapable of being peaceful, that their whole goal is destruction. That’s all completely wrong, and there’s not excuse to use those words.

Even if I had been as eloquent then as I am now, I doubt that would’ve swayed my friends, because they continued saying those words without any care to my feelings. Even when the head counselor of our year had a discussion with us one evening about how disgusting we were being. Even after, while on a field trip to the city, my friend said the N-word and it was almost overheard by a passing black man. They just went on saying all those nasty words and by doing so, they were saying it was okay to say words charged with prejudice and not care whom it might hurt.

For the first time today I wondered if any of my camp friends ended up at University of Chicago, and then at the school’s chapter of AEPi. Those camps have the effect of bringing Jewish teens closer to their heritage. Maybe some of my friends went there and brought some of their bad habits with them.

Believe it or not, this is some of the nicer things this sort of uncaring attitude can lead to.

The only time I approve of those words are when they’re used in mediums like literature or film to illustrate a particular time period or mindset, like in Huckleberry Finn or even in my own Reborn City. The rest of the time, there’s no good reason to say that trash. Not only is it hurtful to the people those words denote, they are harmful to the people saying those words, desensitizing them to the effects of these words. At best, that leads to dumb crap from fraternities and doddering old men in front of cameras or near cell phones. At worst, that leads to hate groups, violence, and lynchings or shootings in churches.

My hope that in the wake of this scandal, people–especially students and teenagers–realize that you can’t be blase about saying the N-word or calling people terrorists because of where they’re from or what their beliefs are. They’re hurtful. They’re damaging. And I hope that maybe the backlash these students will get will teach them and others what happens when you’re not cognizant of the feelings of others.

And I hope my friends from those long ago days aren’t members of that fraternity, and that they learned long before this what your words can do to themselves and to others.

Today, the Supreme Court declared gay marriage bans unconstitutional in a 5-4 decision, making the United States of America the 25th nation or territory to legalize same-sex marriage.The atmosphere has been jubilant all over the country. Today I was running errands downtown and I saw people getting married in a lovely plaza next to a fountain, couples coming together to be wed in holy matrimony. It was all sponsored by one of the pro-gay rights groups, with pastors and cakes and photographers all on stand by. It was so beautiful.

And why shouldn’t it be? Today, like suffragettes at the beginning of the 20th century and like African-Americans in the 1960s, LGBT community and their allies have reached an important and historic milestone, one that affirms all LGBT individuals who’ve ever felt less than good enough or unwanted from the country or society or from the world that we are human, that we are worthy of being full individuals under the law. This is a great moment for all LGBT Americans.

Of course, this is nowhere near the final victory, just as the Nineteenth Amendment wasn’t the final victory in the cause for women’s rights, nor were the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 the final victories for African Americans. We as a nation still have a long way to go as a country before we can say there is any final victory. There is much that still needs to be done. In the short term, we have to ensure that those who are free to marry now can marry. Some state legislatures will try to make it difficult by including religious exemptions for clerks, or putting the whole business of marriage solely in the hands of clergy, or even saying the state can resist laws or rulings from the federal government that the state finds immoral or against the state’s best interest, whatever that means. The LGBT community and their allies will have to make sure that these sort of extreme measures don’t come to pass, and if they do, that they’re fought with the ferocity of tigers.

Celebrations over the Supreme Court decision today. Oh, what a wonderful day it is.

As for the long term, we need to create and foster a more inclusive atmosphere and culture nationwide. In many states it is still legal to fire someone if they are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. In some places being LGBT or perceived as such can lead to harassment, assault, stalking, discrimination, persecution, and even death. Teens in junior high and high schools all over the nation are bullied every day for the way they were born or suffer in silence, afraid that if they allow themselves to be who they are, they will they will suffer more. Some lose everyone they love when they come out. Others will be forced to go to camps or some other form of “therapy” to make them “normal”.

This has to stop. As a nation that calls itself a land of opportunity and prosperity, we need to make it so that LGBT individuals within our borders can live in happiness and safety, to feel comfortable in their own skins and to go down the street without fear of being targeted for how they were born. That is what, in the long term, the LGBT community will pursue in this nation.

For now though, it is Friday. It is the weekend. And it’s still June, the month considered lucky for weddings (though in Ohio it’s also famous for rain and humidity). This weekend there will be celebrations of love, joy, matrimony. Couples will be legally wed in the eyes of the law, families will be brought together in happiness and health. Let us celebrate and love.

On Monday, as we usually do, we will get to work. But we will go to work with renewed purpose.

For what i would like to say to the naysayers and haters on this historic day, see my new post at From The Voice Of Common Sense.

It’s expected in the coming weeks that the grand jury will hand down a decision on whether or not to indict Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown. Protesters have threatened to riot if Wilson isn’t indicted, the governor has declared a state of emergency, and police are getting ready for what many see as a second, bigger powder keg after the first one went off back in August. And around the country, in living rooms and coffee shops, in workplaces and on news talk shows, people are asking what caused this and what will happen next.

I’ll keep my own personal views on what should happen to Wilson to myself, lest everything else I try to say in this piece gets forgotten because of one opinion. I will state that I think it’s tragic that a young man who had his whole life ahead of him and was planning to go college and maybe own his own business someday was taken too soon, and that his legacy has to be another awful bullet point in the United States’ long, troubled history with race.

And make no mistake, there is a racial element to this. I know some will say that we shouldn’t be talking about race, that we’re living in a post-racial society, that race is a sociological construct of the mind rather than a biological certainty, and that therefore race should not be brought up. I’ve said it many times before, and I’ll keep saying it: social construct or not, many people treat race as a biological reality, and racism is still a pervasive problem in the United States. In fact, I’ve often compared racism to cancer, and the way you deal with cancer isn’t to avoid it or pretend it doesn’t exist. The way you deal with cancer is to take a multi-pronged approach to cure it, and one of those approaches is to talk about racism.

And for those who continue to insist that race shouldn’t be part of the discussion because we live in a so-called “post-racial” society, here are some facts:

  • In November 2012, students of the University of Mississippi rioted upon learning that Barack Obama was reelected. Several racial slurs were heard shouted out during the riot.
  • In February 2012, a young man in Florida was profiled by a self-appointed neighborhood watchman, who then followed the young man despite being told by police not to pursue, and engaged the young man in a scuffle that ultimately ended with the young man’s life being taken. The young man, Trayvon Martin, was black.
  • There are over 900 documented hate groups in the United States according to a report released by the Southern Poverty Law Center last year. Most of them are primarily focused on race and racial differences.

Still want to argue that racism doesn’t exist? Racism is still very prevalent in the United States, and the fact that so many want to deny its existence or say that discussing race and racism in America makes you racist really disturb me. (The latter claim actually is the most ridiculous, especially since it goes against the very definition of racism, and real racists wouldn’t benefit from discussions on race as a societal problem unless it involved doing horrible things to other races. In fact, when economist Ben Stein went on Fox News the other day and called Obama the “most racist president” ever, I wanted to throw a dictionary and a history book at the guy. If you’re going to call a President racist, it’d be better to refer to possibly Andrew Johnson, Woodrow Wilson, or Franklin Roosevelt for starters.)

I think we owe today’s racism to some of the things that happened during Reconstruction, in part. Slavery itself definitely plays a role, but I want to focus on Reconstruction because during this time, President Andrew Johnson encouraged the return of defeated Confederate states to self-rule and to take part in federal government. The people who ended up seizing control were mostly plantation owners and businessmen, some of whom had been involved in the Confederate government, and had benefited from slavery. They used their power to pass sweeping legislation depriving freed slaves of rights, and used terror in the form of the KKK to prevent push back. There was also some propaganda directed to poorer whites who were told that giving freed slaves power was bad for them. The federal government, including Johnson, didn’t do much to prevent this (Johnson also didn’t support the Civil Rights Bill or the 13th Amendment, which is why I mentioned him above in my examples of racist presidents).

This set a painful pattern in motion that would last for nearly 100 years. The legislatures continued to have people in it who would keep up the status quo, African Americans and whites who sympathized with them were kept in place through lynching, the KKK, and other forms of terror, and efforts on state and federal levels to stop it faced uphill battles. It wasn’t until WWII, when African-Americans were determined to achieve victory at home and abroad after their rough treatment during WWI, that things began to change for the better.

Why do I go into all this, and at the risk of getting a bunch of people shouting at me in the comments about how I know nothing or I’m oversimplifying it or something along those lines? Because there are a lot of painful episodes, going back further than I have covered, that have happened and continue to happen long after MLK and the Civil Rights Acts, and we need to examine the whole picture in order to understand what is happening now. Racism existed then, and although they’re in new forms, racism exists today. So we need to confront the past and examine the present if we’re to better the future.

And now that I’ve led you through this long, somewhat rambling post, I have to ask: how do you think racism can be combated? What approaches should we take to stop racism and make it less prevalent in future generations?

*By the way, I know that some of the arguments here can also be applied to other forms of prejudice and discrimination towards other minorities, women, religions, ethnic groups, socioeconomic levels, and sexual orientations. For simplicity’s sake, I’ve only focused on race here, but I do cover other problems in other posts and in some of my fiction as well.

I do not tolerate negative language meant to denigrate a person because of their race, gender, orientation, or ability. So when I see someone using this sort of language flippantly or carelessly, I usually tend to avoid that person. If they’re a friend though, I’ll try to convince them not to use that language before I cut them off.

Last night I was forced to do just that. Someone I’m acquainted with at school was responding to people lamenting about Facebook buying some app or another. He thought it was hypocritical that they were complaining about it on Facebook and said they should reevaluate their lives (though he didn’t phrase it in such nice terms). Where I got upset was when he used the word “retard”. I’ve mentioned before that I have an autism spectrum disorder and I’d been called “retard” or “retarded” more than once by bullies because I didn’t understand certain social boundaries or conventions when I was younger. Not to mention that mental retardation (or intellectual disabilities, which seems to be the preferred term among medical professionals these days) is an actual medical condition, so using it as an insult hurts the people with actual mental retardation worse than it hurts the people having the insult hurled at them.

I asked my friend if he would not use that word because it has the potential to hurt people. He responded that he was using the word without negative connotations and that people should realize that (as if we’re mind-readers!). He also said he uses racial and other denigrating terms, including the N-word, and said he uses them without the negative connotations and that it’s my problem if I was insulted by it.

At that moment another friend of his, whom I’m acquainted with as well, joined the thread and started using the very same terms we’d just been discussing. At that point I decided to leave the conversation, unfriend the both of them, and go to bed (though not before coming up with an idea for a short story based on this experience). And it’s still on my mind, as this blog post makes evident.

The thing is, even if they think they’re not using the words with their negative connotations, it’s not so easy to disassociate a word or symbol from its negative meanings. Otherwise the swastika would still mean good luck and auspiciousness rather than Nazi Germany and the Holocaust as it does for many Westerners. And these sort of microaggressions can have terrible effects on the people being denigrated. If you’ve never heard the term “microaggression” before, there’s a great blog post on microaggressions that explains them in depth. If you don’t have the time to read it though, a microaggression is basically the everyday little forms of discrimination that minorities experience throughout their lives. An example is the continued use of saying “that’s so gay” as a way of saying something’s stupid. It is not only bringing down whatever is being called gay, but it is saying that there is something wrong with being gay in the first place. And while the basic definition of microaggressions means they are small, especially when compared to gay-bashings or other forms of assault and more obvious forms of discrimination, over time they can build up and cause stress, depression, or suicidal thoughts in the person being denigrated.

Personally I only ever use these sort of terms in stories in order to portray a character the way I want him or her to come across to an audience. Even then I hesitate to do it and seriously consider whether I should really use such negative terms and if there is another way to get across the full impression of the character. That’s why within all of Reborn City, a novel about gangs divided mostly on racial lines and with a white supremacist gang, you’ll only see one instance where I use the N-word and other racial terms (though I do have several characters call Zahara a “terrorist” in order to illustrate how ignorant and prejudiced the world of RC is against Muslims).

So when I see people using these sort of terms so flippantly, uncaring about the negative consequences of these words, I get pretty upset. These terms are attacks on people because they’re minorities, and because my former friends are white or deeply tanned and don’t receive discrimination for their skin color, gender, sexual orientation, or level of ability, they don’t necessarily realize the damage they’re doing by using these terms. And by calling the rest of us oversensitive for being upset that they’re using these words, they’re proving that they’re insensitive to the problems of others, not that we’re oversensitive.

So I finish this post urging people to really think about the terms they use. You’re not being cool or rebellious by using terms that bring down minorities. What you’re doing is hurting people and causing people to think you’re ignorant or bigoted. If you’re going to use them, use them in a way that won’t hurt anyone, such as using the N-word in Huckleberry Finn is used to illustrate the beliefs of that age towards African-Americans. Or these words can be used to fight discrimination: there is a growing body of literature, music and other media that uses these words to show how hurtful they are and possibly change the way people think. Slowly but surely, some people are changing the way that they think.

That is all for now. I hope my former friends learn that using these words has negative consequences. Especially the guy who actually happens to own an up-and-coming business. How many businesses have failed because of something the owner has done? I hope that doesn’t happen to him someday.