Friday, June 26, 2015

You know what bugs me?

Actually, a lot of things bug me.  It's part of my charm.  Apologies to those who realize today's post is a bit of a rerun, but this issue just keeps popping up time and again.

Last night, as we were finishing dinner, Bill and I started talking about the recent Confederate flag controversy.  We are both from the South, so the flag was part of our upbringing.  I was a kid when The Dukes of Hazzard was on TV and I've seen Gone With The Wind many times.  I went to graduate school in South Carolina and happened to be there in 2000, when the flag was taken off the Statehouse.  In 2000, the Confederate flag was a hot issue.  I remember a lot of people had bumper stickers on their cars that read "Take it down."  The flag was taken down and relocated to the Statehouse grounds.  Frankly, I kind of thought that was worse because it made it much more visible.  When it was on the dome, it looked small.  On the ground, it was up close and personal.  I remember when they first moved the flag, a state trooper was dispatched to guard it 24/7.  Seemed like a huge waste of taxpayer funds.

Since Dylann Roof's tragic decision to shoot up a Charleston area church and kill nine black people, the Confederate flag issue has been raised yet again.  I understand that Roof is a racist who embraced the Confederate flag.  What I don't understand is how that flag is blamed for what he did.  If the flag was no longer around, would that make Roof not racist anymore?  Somehow, I doubt it.  I think he would be racist regardless.  The flag is just a symbol, not a cause, of his racism.

Now... I completely understand why many people think the flag should be put in a museum.  I'm at the point now that I agree with taking it off government property.  Hell, we can't even have Christmas decorations on government property anymore so why should the Confederate flag be any different?  But is the flag really the cause of someone's deep seated racism?  I don't think so.  I think that attitude came from something far more sinister than a flag.  It doesn't seem like most people are talking about that.  They're talking about burying a symbol, which only has meaning because people gave it meaning.

It seems like whenever something like this happens, people have a knee jerk reaction that involves making new laws or limiting peoples' right to express themselves.  If you've been reading this blog, you may already know how I feel about banning words and symbols.  I think it's wrong.  The reason I think it's wrong is because people will always find a way to be insulting and unkind.  Ultimately, banning words because they hurt feelings is futile because it does nothing to address the attitudes and ignorance that cause people to be hurtful and cruel.

It's very easy to ban words and symbols that are offensive.  The word retard is offensive and mean?  Fine.  Let's ban it.  Let's make it unacceptable to use that word in public because some people are offended by it, even though the word retard actually has a number of useful definitions and is, in and of itself, innocent.

The Confederate flag is offensive?  Let's ban it.  Let's make it unacceptable for people to fly it on their personal property and automatically label those who dare to racists, even if we don't know them and have never had a discussion with them about why they display it.  The article I linked actually pissed me off a bit because the author apparently was never bothered by his neighbor's flag until Dylann Roof shot people in South Carolina.  Suddenly, his neighbor's Confederate flag enraged him.  It wasn't a problem until some guy in South Carolina, not even in the same state the author lives in, decided to kill people.  Then it was suddenly a problem.    

Does burying symbols and demanding that people change the way they communicate change attitudes?  I don't know.  When I was growing up, a lot of people openly used the n-word.  Nowadays,  you don't hear it so much because it's become taboo.  But we still have a big problem with racism.  In fact, it almost seems worse now than it was in the 70s and 80s.  Of course, that could be because we have news 24/7 now.  The media is forever stirring the pot and getting people riled up about issues.

Personally, I think words and symbols are mostly innocent.  It's the asshole who is using it to be hurtful to other people who needs to be dealt with.  But most people don't want to be confrontational, so instead of simply dealing with the people who are offensive, they campaign to ban words... And often even words that sound like an offensive word end up being taboo, too.

Last fall, I got into it with a Facebook friend about the word niggardly.  Niggardly sounds like a terrible word, but is actually completely innocent.  It has absolutely nothing to do with racism.  It's not even spelled the same way as the racist epithet and has different origins that actually pre-date the n-word.  My position is that it shouldn't be taboo.  Granted, I don't use it myself because so many people think it's an epithet and don't know what it means.  I've got better things to do with my time than get into it with someone who doesn't know that the word niggardly basically means stingy or miserly.  But I also think it's on those who don't know what the word niggardly means to get out a dictionary and get educated, not expect those with more evolved vocabularies to change the way they express themselves.

Of course, my "friend" disagreed and felt that the word should be banned because it sounds offensive and therefore upsets people.  What amazes me is that this guy is a teacher, for Chrissakes!  I don't think teachers should go out of their way to be offensive, but I do think they should educate their students.  If you use the word niggardly in an appropriate way, people should not be offended because it's not an offensive word.  If they are offended, they should be educated.  If they still choose to be offended, then that is on them.  I don't think people should look to be offended when no offense was intended.  In a way, being offended over someone's use of an unlucky word like niggardly is as bad as intentionally being offensive by using overtly racist language.  It creates unnecessary hostility and strife.

I don't think banning words and symbols is the answer to dealing with problems involving hurt feelings.  I think a respectful person tries hard not to use language that is offensive; but not everyone is going to be respectful.  Trying to bury language and symbols and forcing people to change their vocabulary won't suddenly make disrespectful people kind and decent.  In fact, I think campaigning to ban so-called offensive language and symbols will really only make things worse because then the words and symbols become "forbidden fruit".

You can tell people to stop using offensive language, but only the ones who give a shit about other people will listen to you.  Those who are actually causing the problems are probably not going to change.  And now, instead of just being upset about a person's racist and ignorant attitudes, you're also upset because of the taboo language he or she uses despite peer pressure that attempts to stop them.

I think words and symbols are the least of our problems... but they are the quickest and easiest things to change.  It's easy to get on a soap box and tell people that words like retard and fag are taboo and need to be stricken from our vocabularies.  It's much harder to tackle the real issues behind those words that cause people to want to use them.  Until we focus our attention on what's really important, things won't change, whether or not the Confederate flag flies at the South Carolina Statehouse.

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