O God, make us children of quietness and heirs of peace.
~ St. Clement, from The Doubleday Prayer Collection

I have been wondering lately how the ubiquity of the Internet and the culture of the Internet at this point in time affect the ways we communicate and the ways I communicate. I have been and am thankful for the technology that has allowed for disparate voices to be heard and for connections to be formed despite geography. So many people now have the platform to share their thoughts with countless others, and to do so directly, mediated only by the technology. It has undoubtedly changed my life for the better.

But in some ways the effects have not been so wonderful. In the din of billions of voices I’m desperate to be heard, and I feel that most of the other people I encounter online are as well. We, perhaps, become more and more solidified in our thoughts (and in our hearts) because we are competing for a limited amount of attention from others. If we simply say it louder, strong and without compromise then we’re bound to get a stronger response, a stronger validation, right? Right?

I look at my own desire to be heard and the ways I’ve shaped my ways of thinking to fit into the instant-response culture of the Internet, and I’m not sure I like the ways I’ve been speaking and writing. If I don’t immediately respond to a discussion, it moves along without me. If I take the time to consider my response then by the time it’s ready to be shared it has become irrelevant. Faced with communication possibilities hardly dreamed of when I was younger, I see that slow, measured, considered communication is lost. Again I’ve given circumstances in which loud, strong, uncompromising communication is valued, especially when it’s instant.

In some ways we’re losing ourselves in the flood of humanity we’re exposed to daily. We respond to that by holding ourselves to stronger ideas of self, by having instant responses, by talking louder and faster in the hope that something, anything will be heard in the deluge of voices. We’re so desperate to be heard that we don’t listen. We don’t stop. We don’t allow ourselves to be changed by others. We’re so afraid that our silence means our own death that we refuse to listen each other into existence.

I crave more silence. I crave more listening. I’m afraid of losing myself in that listening, but if I truly believe what I recently wrote, that I only exist in relationship, then in order to live my self I have to allow for the vulnerability of hearing and being heard. That means letting go of the hard hearted core of “self” to which I cling and opening to the question of who I am and who we are. That means silences, both in turn and shared. I’ll never be more myself than when I truly hear and am heard by the Other.

O Jesus, Son of God, who was silent before Pilate, do not let us wag our tongues without thinking of what we are to say and how to say it.
~ Irish Gaelic Prayer, from The Doubleday Prayer Collection

Who dat say dey gonna own dem words?

In January 2010 someone at the National Football League said, “Holy shit! People are paying attention to the Saints!” and proceeded to send cease and desist letters to businesses selling merchandise with the phrase “Who Dat?” on it. The NFL eventually backed off under massive public pressure. Of course the fact that someone else had the phrase trademarked before the NFL claimed exclusive rights helped push them to back off.

At the time I was most struck by the absurdity of anyone claiming to own two words that are so much a part of the culture. It’s ludicrous. And I knew that trademark would eventually come back around to bite us in the ass again. Now Sal and Steve Monistere and their company, in an effort to assert their right to the phrase, are suing local businesses who are selling Who Dat merchandise. Once again there’s going to be an outcry against this, but it’s going to be much more difficult to stop the Monistere’s.

The problem here isn’t greed, it’s intellectual property itself. Somewhere along the way people decided they could own ideas. Anything that had been part of culture could now be privately held. Where once poems could inspire books which could inspire operas that would inspire other operas, now licensing stood in the way.

For nearly all of human history our stories, our songs, our poetry, our language was held in common. Stories would evolve as they were retold, adapting to fit different circumstances. Poems would be recited by anyone who knew them. Songs were sung by anyone with the ability. Now all of that has been taken away. To sing a song publicly, you have to pay a fee. To share a poem, you have to get permission from its owner. To retell a story, you have to pay for the license to do so.

And apparently to print a chant widely used by the population of south Louisiana, you have to pay Sal and Steve Monistere.

I say, along with most folks in this area, that “Who Dat” belongs to everyone. I’m not just saying that because the chant predates the trademark claim. I’m not just saying that because the phrase has grown beyond its use by the Monistere’s and thus transcends their right to ownership.

“Who Dat” belongs to everyone in the same way that Cinderella, Rent, “Howl,” “Stairway to Heaven” and the letter B belong to everyone. Art and language are not private property, but cultural property. No one person can claim any of it. Stories, songs, poems and chants grow out of their cultures and belong to everyone.

Who dat say dey own “Who Dat?” Me. And you. And everyone.

“That’s so gay.”

I admit it, I don’t know how to respond to people using the phrase, “That’s so gay.” For years now it seems that people have been using this to mean “That’s stupid” or “That’s ridiculous,” and to me it’s so freakin’ obvious that such a use came from seeing gay people as stupid or ridiculous that I can’t even see how people can say it without being aware that they’re being insulting. It’s just so glaringly mean!

My feeling offended by the phrase has been met with “Well, language evolves,” and “I don’t mean homosexual, I mean stupid.” I can’t argue with those. They’re true statements. They simply don’t get to the root of why that phrase is so very fucked up.

The fact that language evolves doesn’t excuse us from looking at the forces pushing the evolution. Most slang develops to provide a signifier that the people using it belong to the same class. Often it’s a way that non-dominant groups create power, by molding the language to their culture. It’s a way of defining against, of building a shorthand that says “This person is like me.” One of the most obvious examples is among teenagers, for whom defining themselves against their parents and their parents’ culture is of supreme importance. Building slang, changing the meanings of words, these are ways that they say “I’m not you. I’m me.” As part of a person’s development, this stage is necessary.

Another part of the evolution of language is seen in reclaiming words that were once slurs, taking the power-over away from the words and using them as power-with the group that they slurred. Gay men referring to themselves as “fags” can be an example of this (though such usage can also be derisive). Claiming the words “dyke” and “butch” as part of a self-defined identity is another example. Words that were used to hurt can be appropriated by the people attacked with them and redefined.

“That’s so gay,” isn’t a reclamation. It’s use doesn’t come from a group whose oppression was evidenced in it’s previous usage. “That’s so gay” comes from the oppression itself. Being gay or appearing gay is so derided that it becomes a synonym for stupid or ridiculous. The driving force behind this evolution in language is homophobia. By participating in this evolution of meaning, we take part in furthering institutionalized homophobia. That’s not to say people using the phrase are homophobic, but they are participating in cultural homophobia, equating “gay” with “stupid.” The meaning the individual puts into the phrase doesn’t take away from that homophobia. The intended meaning being “That’s stupid” doesn’t remove the link made between “stupid” and “homosexual.” “I didn’t mean it like that,” doesn’t remove the force behind the words used.

But I’m left wondering how to confront the usage of such a hurtful phrase. Pointing out the roots of homophobia in the words seems to result in defensiveness and walls being throw up so that communication stops. Saying “I find that phrase hurtful, please don’t use it around me,” just means that at best I’m not going to hear it, not that I’ve actually been able to communicate what’s so hurtful about the phrase. So how do I say, “I’m not calling you a homophobe, but your language is homophobic and hurtful regardless of your intent,” in a way that people will hear it and understand and not feel defensive or insulted themselves. How do I set aside my own incredulity at people not seeing the insult in their words long enough for me to lovingly explain the insult?

That’s where I’m left stumbling. I just don’t know how to do that, or if it’s worth trying when people just don’t want to hear it.

The Importance of Language

The last few posts I’ve written, I’m not religious. I’m spiritual., So Anne Rice isn’t a Christian anymore? and, over on Pornocracy, Mistress Matisse Is Just Plain Wrong (that last one being potentially not safe for work) all have a similar focus. They’re all about the words we use and what they mean.

We’ve reached a point as a culture at which it’s no longer assumed that anything has inherent meaning. This has been building for a long time, and I think now we’re at a point where our culture recognizes that Truth is, largely, relative. It is defined by circumstance. Meaning depends on so many factors that we no longer conceive of anything having inherent meaning.

Because of that, I put huge amounts of importance on language. Living in a meaningless world affords us untold freedom in creating meaning. It also gives us the great responsibility of being aware of the meaning that we create. One of the most basic ways we assign meaning is in our use of language. The way we use words not only gives meaning to the words, but is part of our way of understanding things and assigning value. How we define words has implications for the meanings of not just those words, but words related to them as well. Sloppy use of language creates a whole string of meaning that may not be in line with the core values of the person using it, but will likely play out in their lives nonetheless. On the other hand, the use of language may reveal values that they profess not to have.

An example here is, I think, Deborah Anapol’s writings on polyamory. She wrote one of the earliest books on polyamory, Polyamory: The New Love Without Limits. In it she mixed language of New Age spirituality, Neotantra and polyamory in a way that presented polyamory as a more enlightened way of structuring relationships. Though she hasn’t been as active in a poly world since, she’s recently returned with a new book and a blog on Psychology Today’s website.

In Anapol’s inaugural post she attempts to describe what polyamory is. She starts off by saying:

My position on polyamory has always been pro-choice rather than anti-monogamy, but after thirty years as a participant-observer in this strange new world it’s more the case than ever that I really have no position on whether people should be monogamous or not.

To Deborah Anapol, monogamy is one choice among several, and it’s really none of her business what you do, and she’s not qualified to tell you what you should do. That’s pretty fantastic. I’d applaud a sentiment like that.

She then goes on to say:

While many people define polyamory as the practice of having more than one intimate relationship at a time with everyone’s full knowledge and consent, I see it differently. To me polyamory is a philosophy of loving that asks us to surrender to love. Polyamory leads us to ask, “What is the most loving and authentic way I can be present with these people and with myself at this time?”

If polyamory is to be a useful word at all, it needs to refer to “the practice of having more than one intimate relationship at a time with everyone’s full knowledge and consent.” That’s the point of calling a particular relationship style polyamory. What Anapol does here is to define polyamory as the way of relating to others that is the most authentic and most loving. So in contrast, then, monogamy is inauthentic and less loving? One cannot determine that the most authentic and loving way to be present with people is to engage in only one romantic partnership? That looks like what she’s saying.

I fully agree with Anapol that the thing to be valued is asking, “What is the most loving and authentic way I can be present with these people and with myself at this time?” Polyamory? Monogamy? To me they are valueless on their own. Engaging in relationships that feed all involved and reflect a commitment to love and the self is more important than valuing one style of relating over another. But by defining polyamory as answering that particular question, Anapol is saying the answer to the question is “not monogamy.”

Her language creates value.

In a post I linked to above I described how Matisse’s language defined monogamy as something other than having a single romantic relationship, and the values that came from that definition. In the Rice and spiritual/religious posts we see more examples of someone (re)defining something as “all the stuff I don’t like.” This use of language creates or reflects values that, in most cases, I don’t think the people using them want to have.

There’s an assumption among many that things like this should be be allowed to slide, that “you know what they really mean, you’re just playing at semantics.” If language creates and reflects meaning, then no, I can’t let things slide. In a world where nothing can be assumed, and in sub- and counter-cultures (anti-racist, sex-positive, feminist) in which making assumptions is seen as damaging (that’s what euro-centrism, hetero-centrism, etc. are all about), it’s doubly important. The assumptions in our language shape our world, and if we want to shape that world deliberately, we have to be aware of the language we use.

Take a look at the insults we use. The last howevermany years have seen an explosion in people using “gay” as a pejorative. When I’ve called people on it they’ve said it’s just a synonym for stupid. I find that hard to imagine. “Gay” as an insult comes from devaluing homosexuality. Calling something gay is saying it’s as bad as being homosexual.

In the same way I’ve tried to move away from using body parts as insults. Calling someone a dick or an asshole is devaluing those body parts. Sorry, but I’m pretty fond of my dick and my asshole.

I’ve certainly called women “stunning” and “striking” before. A recent Sociological Images post on young Christian men’s view of modesty uses several different discussions on how men view women to show how this language ties into our culture’s view of women’s bodies and women’s sexualities.

This language — suggesting that women’s bodies “scream” at him, attempt to control him, and “forcefully” tempt him — is reminiscent of Tim Beneke’s interviews with men about sexual violence in Men on Rape. Michael Kimmel (summarizing Beneke in Guyland) discusses how lots of the terms used to describe a beautiful, sexy woman are metaphors for danger and violence: “ravishing,” “stunning,” bombshell,” “knockout,” “dressed to kill,” and “femme fatale.” “Women’s beauty,” Kimmel surmises, “is perceived as violence to men” (p. 229).

While seeing overwhelming beauty, in a person or a sunset or a work of art, might make me feel like the wind has been knocked out of me, how do these expressions play into violence against women?

What we say matters. How we say it matters. It both reflects and shapes the world around us. If we don’t take care with what we say, we create values and meaning that may have consequences far greater than “well you know what I meant!”

Or, as Uncle Wilson used to say, “Say what you mean and mean what you say, Dorothy.”

So Anne Rice isn’t a Christian anymore?

I admit I’ve never been a fan of Anne Rice. I enjoyed Belinda but every other of book of hers I’ve tried to read hasn’t done anything for me. When I’d heard that she had embraced Christianity and was going to write novels about Jesus, I cringed. At least it’s not Stephenie Meyer, right? (At least not yet.)

But I just read on Huffington Post that Anne Rice has “quit being a Christian.”

What she actually said was this:

Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being “Christian” or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to “belong” to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.

And then

As I said below, I quit being a Christian. I’m out. In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.

So Anne has just defined Christian as quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-artificial birth control, anti-Democrat, anti-secular humanism, anti-science and anti-life.

Ignoring two-thousand years of often contentious and contradictory struggle with understanding and experiencing the divine in the context of a particular Palestinian Jew’s life and teachings, she’s decided that Christianity is the domain of the loudest, most bigoted, least Christlike group of people using the name. In her view Metropolitan Community Churches, Sojourners, Jesus Radicals, Brian McLaren, Shane Claiborne, Jay Bakker, Phyllis Tickle, and likely St. Francis himself aren’t Christian. That’d be a pretty big surprise to some of those people.

Anne says elsewhere on her Facebook page, “My faith in Christ is central to my life… Christ is infinitely more important than Christianity and always will be, no matter what Christianity is, has been, or might become.”

And that’s great, Anne. Valuing Christ over any particular cultural expression of valuing Christ is a long running part of following Christ. But that puts you right at the center, at the very core of Christianity. That makes you like countless other devotees of Christ. That puts you in the company of George Fox and Martin Luther. It makes you a compatriot of house churches across the world and a cohort of the Emerging Church conversation. These things don’t make you not a Christian. They make you a quintessential Christian.