“Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with the absolute truth.”—
Simone de Beauvoir
Every time I read something that argues we are post-racial, post-feminism, etc, etc, I think of my favorite philosopher. We all make our own representations of the world - and that makes sense because we all have different lived experiences. But when we deny the lived experiences of others, when we assume that our experiences are representative of all, and we confuse our representations with truth, we fail one another.
I’ve spent a few days thinking about this; in particular, I’ve wondered whether I can make the point that I want to make without offending people. My sense is that I almost certainly cannot.
That said, I feel that the point is important and that a discussion arising from possibly offending people would also be important.
Here is what I saw the other day, on both Tumblr and Twitter:
I love that Jon Stewart is parlaying his celebrity into political action. I think a rally to counter Beck’s and Palin’s is long overdue and I think Stewart, from what I know, is as good of a leader as any. I’m less thrilled about the name. You could even say I’m angry.
The implicit message behind the “Rally to Restore Sanity” is that individuals influencing America’s current political climate are “insane.” Crazy. Wacko. It’s Stewart pointing at a picture of Beck and circling an index finger around his ear. And it pisses me off. No one in Stewart’s entire machine thought twice about invoking the experiences of an entire group of people who are already oppressed and using them for their own purposes. This kind of language only serves to reinforce the existing and damaging stigma against mental illness. It both pathologizes the lack of critical thought characteristic of Glenn Beck’s particular brand of bigoted conservatism, in some ways removing personal responsibility from individuals who choose to adhere to that political ideology, and fails to actually address the flaws behind it. At the same time, it reinforces that crazy is universally a bad thing. Crazy needs to be eliminated to fix America.
It’s important to note from the jump how unfortunate it is that people are offended. It’s difficult to imagine that Jon Stewart (or his writers) intended offense. And, of course, that is — in part — what the author of this blog post wants us to note: the way in which we give offense without even thinking about it. We are, as a society, quick to label as “crazy” or “insane” those things about which we generally disapprove. But we dont think about how that sort of language impacts people with mental illnesses.
And that is certainly a valid point. We ought to think more carefully about the ways in which our language choices impact others. We ought to work harder to put ourselves into the shoes of the other, to empathize, and to avoid humiliating (whether consciously or unconsiously) with our words.
Yet, having said all of that, I can’t help but wonder the following: At what point will we be unable to actually say anything at all? At what point will we find ourselves complaining about everything? I ask these questions because, in the conclusion of the blog post, the author offers the following suggestions to avoid offending people with mental illnesses:
How difficult would it have been to title the event differently? “Rally to Restore Reason”? “Rally to Restore Common Sense”? Probably not terribly taxing.
And so here’s the problem: After all, looking at these alternatives, it’s clear that Stewart probably wouldn’t want to use these terms either, not if he wanted to avoid causing offense. Couldn’t he be accused of using reason as a bludgeon? Wouldn’t those whose life projects have historically been viewed as unreasonable take offense? Or those whose worldview defies the use of common sense?
Undoubtedly, some people will be hurt by these words — “reason,” “common sense” — just as “sanity” seems to have caused harm. After all, if we can’t say that being sane is somehow preferable to being insane, then we probably also can’t say that possessing common sense or using reason would be preferable to the alternative. And this is the problem: when we begin thinking carefully about all of the ways in which our words could potentially offend, we realize that, in some sense, we are trapped — we must either be silent or risk offending someone. With that in mind, we ought to think carefully about those things that are really offensive — and intentionally offensive — and we ought to save our complaints for those things, lest we risk watering down our legitimate complaints by complaining all the time.
I think it’s pretty clear, after all, that Jon Stewart doesn’t think that mentally ill people are ruining our society any more than someone who criticizes a referee for blowing an obvious call thinks that blind people are somehow worse than sighted people.
This isn’t to say that we ought not to worry about causing offense, or that we ought to say things once we know they will offend; it is instead a plea for us all to think carefully about the things that cause us to feel offended, to demand apologies when people have clearly crossed a line (I’m thinking here about hate speech), and to take ourselves a little less seriously when it’s either less clear that a line’s been crossed or when we have a difficult time coming up with an alternative to the offensive word.
There is this thing currently going around tumblr about why dating a writer is good. I think it’s nice that this thing is going around, because I like writers, and lots of us could use more dates. As a writer who has dated people, though — including other writers — I would like to offer some…
A Dutch study of parents and teenagers yielded some highly interesting results: Dutch parents are generally much more accepting of their teenage children participating in sleepovers with their romantic partners — and this permissive culture has actually led to teen pregnancy rates much, much lower to than their more prudish American counterparts. The report, “Sex, Love, and Autonomy in the Teenage Sleepover,” by sociologist Amy Schalet, paints a fascinating portrait of the two different cultures’ attitudes on teenage sexual activity and the consequences of these belief systems.