Monday, November 23, 2015

10 things never to say: a rant and manifesto

1. humans vs. assholes

The other day, a writer I’m Facebook friends with posted: “I’m tired of personal essays. I really don’t need to know anything else about any stranger’s breakup, dysfunctional friendships, epiphanies, condescending cultural affiliations, or childhoods. Can the age of the universalizing snowflake transition into something else now?”

I basically agree; the thread that followed attached some qualifiers, and I admitted I like reading and writing personal essays when they’re good (well, I like reading them when they’re good; I probably like writing them even when they’re bad). But two things became evident: First, the universalizing snowflakes in question are usually middle class white women, rapidly turning their angst into a bid for internet fame. Guilty as charged, Your Honor.

Let me tell you all about my night and how dark and stormy it was.
Second, there’s a particular subgenre of the universalizing snowflake personal essay that especially bugs me, and that is the What Not To Say essay.

I just Googled “10 Things Never To Say” and here are some actual articles that came up:

10 Things to Never Say to a Woman Who Has Had a C-section
10 Things You Should Never Say to Someone Who’s Asexual
10 Things to Never Say to a Person with Sensory Processing Disorder
10 Things You Should Never Say to a Tall Person
10 Things to Never, Ever Say to Someone Struggling Financially
10 Things You Should Never Say to a Guest in a Worship Service

They have the prettiest What Not To Say lists.
Look, I’m not advocating that you tell your financially struggling friend to get a job, or your asexual friend that he just hasn’t met the right person yet. (I didn’t click on these links, but I and most non-assholes can make educated guesses about what not to say.) But the prevalence of such articles seems like a giant passive aggressive move on the part of people with hurt feelings. Maybe when someone asked the tall person what the weather was like up there, she replied that actually, she’d heard that one before. Or she laughed politely and then wrote a list for the internet.

My real beef, though, is with the implicit idea that if you study hard enough, you’ll avoid getting it wrong, and that getting it wrong is a thing only insensitive jerks do. Because that’s not the world I want to live in.

I have been on the receiving end of some ignorant questions and comments—about gay people, about cancer, about the adoption process—and at times I’ve been offended. Can I tell you how many times people have said, re: Dash’s birthmom, “So, are you still in touch with the mother?” (If you mean AK, the answer is yes. If you mean Erica, who is certainly a mother of his, but by no means the mother, the answer is yes.) Much more often, people have said sincere, respectful things. Because I know a lot of humans but very few assholes.

And guess what—it’s all good. It’s okay to fuck up and say something offensive. It’s okay to get offended. And then you talk about it and you both move on. Ideally.

I’m feeling a little cautious about this post, because I realize it could be a slippery slope to complaining about how “the PC police are taking away my right to make racist jokes and it’s so unfaaaaaair.” Regarding people who freak out over political correctness, I’ll repeat what a friend of mine said in college: “If you knew someone named Joe, and one day he wanted you to call him Bob, wouldn’t you just do it? Because he gets to decide what his own name is?”

I’m not saying it’s cool to be a jerk on purpose, to prioritize your own agenda at the expense of someone else’s emotional wellbeing, but, well, I am saying it’s better to call Bob “Joe” accidentally than it is not to call him. It’s okay to ask Bob why he wants to go by Bob, as long as you’re really willing to listen to the answer.

2. the repair manifesto

In the world of trauma therapies (a world I only half know, a world I get wrong all the time), people say it’s not about how trauma fucks you up, but about if and how you repair it. This idea gives me a lot of hope.

I spent the first twenty-ish years of my life afraid to rebel, because I thought that if I got in trouble, my dad would never forgive me. In a way, it’s a shame I never put it to the test, because now I have no doubt that he would have. Slowly, but he would have. I’m not such a goody-two-shoes these days, but I still haven’t gotten over my desire to be perfect. All I can say is that now I know it’s a losing battle.

Raisins contain antioxidants and anti-zombie properties.
So, repair. Maybe you managed to take some long walks and cook a couple of healthy meals over the course of your much-needed weekend. But then when the kid woke up at 3 am, you just started pounding cinnamon raisin bread and Trader Joe’s chocolate honey mints as if your mouth were some sort of bunker and carbs were going to be in short supply after the zombie apocalypse.

Repair it. Ignore your jiggly belly for now and eat some fruit and whole wheat toast for breakfast.

Maybe your partner was stressing out about some work stuff and you did the wrong things with your eyebrows and it led to a big fight.

The price of salt and kids' train sets.
Repair it. Remind yourself that she’s always been rattled by big changes and there’s a lot of change right now, and it’s okay and reasonable for her to be stressed out. It’s also okay and reasonable for you to get tired and resentful sometimes.

Ask Alberto—the aswesomest friend and godfather ever—to babysit and go eat pupusas at your neighbors’ house and go see Carol, a beautiful movie that pushes against the queer tragedy narratives of the past and the everything-is-awesome queer narratives of the present. Remember how much you love love love going to the movies together.


Anonymous said...

Agree on the "what not to say" genre, and their ilk ("ten things men hate", "what your housekeeper won't tell you", "don't make these 10 decorating mistakes", etc). It's just anxiety-inducing click-bait. Although I do sometimes hate-read them!

Cheryl said...

I have fallen for so. much. click-bait.