The big, heavy blunt instrument feels so good. Anyone who has swung a sledgehammer knows how productive it feels. But that same person knows that the sledgehammer is indiscriminate. It destroys and often misses the mark. To build and finish the job you have to put it down. Finer tools are slow and tedious. If you are tired and angry and impatient, justly impatient, the sledge hammer of indiscriminate language feels right…no…righteous. But the lack of care will most likely result in more damage than was needed to do the job.
I scribbled down that paragraph on a piece of paper that has been shoved aside on my desk for months. It was a response to a communication from the City that talked in certain, breezy terms about “white supremacy.”
Anyone who has worked for a public entity, and many private companies , has attended mandatory training about the subtle trap of “white privilege.” Basically, it is the current popular sociological construct that if you are born white in America you have built in edge in society, work, safety and economics. Training in that area is helpful to raise consciousness about all the subtle, and not so subtle, ways people of color are continually shoved to the end of the line, aspirations suppressed, by white people’s conscious and unconscious identification with race.
Sociological and biological analysts tells us that our brains are wired for the quick identification of our tribe. As primal beings, that is how we survived. Those genes don’t just disappear. Physical appearance, skin color, is probably the first filter. Fortunately, as with much of our biological coding, our big brains can overcome the wiring that kept us alive on the ancient Savannah.
Unfortunately, the useful concept of white privilege has now been coupled with a new, broad definition of white supremacy. Basically, if you are a beneficiary of white privilege you are a white supremacist. That use of the phrase strike anyone else as odd? For millions of Americans, a white supremacist is easy to recognize. They are evil, racist Klan members or Neo-NAZIs. This was something we could once all agree on. The phrase set boundaries in society and labeled clear and present dangers.
The movement that is promoting the broader use of white supremacy is first generational. If you went to college in the last 5 years, you know what it means. It is part of a current trend toward linguistic judo. Take a term with an accepted definition, redefine it, and use that new definition to throw a monkey wrench in the power dynamic. This isn’t a new concept.
Oh, I totally get it. If I was a 20 year old college student, sick and tired of the existing inequities and power structure I’d be right there doing my part to practice linguistic hammer locks. In the past, cops became pigs and “the man” became not an admired figure but the enemy. Ever hear two young women greet each other with a cheery “bitch!” Yea, word meanings are fluid.
Here is my concern. There was a very recent time when the word “racist” had a powerful and direct meaning. That label could stop someone dead in their tracks. You looked up if someone used that word in a conversation. The label was hard and meaningful. Now, I sense a dilution in the meaning of the word. Over my 8 years in City Hall it went from a rare, powerful indictment to commonplace description. It gets tossed around for any variety of real or perceived reasons. In fact, I have stopped trusting the label at all. If I hear it or read it, I may use it as a signifier to warrant a further look at an incident or person, but the word doesn’t stop me cold. That’s awful. I preferred the former clarity.
Broad definitions of white supremacy also create barriers to change. My fear is that someone who could be reached, even challenged in their belief system, will become lazy in the face of being tossed into the sauce with people they see as being genuinely evil. I think they will be pushed over the divide themselves and simply give up on the hard work of developing compassion. Given no opening, they will stubbornly acquiesce to ideas and actions of the hate mongers and demagogues. I believe this is the case with some meaningful portion of Trump supporters. “Oh, yea, if that’s what you think then, fuck you!” How often did we hear that in surprising quarters?
Is this what was intended with the easy use of loaded language? After the feel good expression, did you intend to cut off all possibility of a simple conversation that, with luck, could lead to hard conversations? After the heady buzz of empowerment that comes from turning language on its head, what’s next? What do you really want?
Increasingly, what I hear is that people just want to be heard. Fair enough. Who doesn’t want to be heard and respected. Long silenced and misunderstood voices down front! Let’s hear you. But in any listening process there comes a moment when you have been heard. The listener then takes over. They get chose or challenge what you have said. They get to demand next steps or walk away. Comprehension is not an end result. It is merely a potential catalyst. Time doesn’t stop. Endless “conversation” becomes tedious to even the most committed participant. This is precisely what we saw happen to the Occupy Movement.
When I wrote that first paragraph, I was breaking up an old sidewalk. The sledge bounced off a piece of concrete and hit me in the thumb. That was back in May of 2017. Looking down at that thumb now, the last of the blood under my nail is finally at the tip of my thumb. Blunt instruments are great right up until they aren’t and it takes a long time to heal.