Monday, May 12, 2014
Snark, unchecked, can lead to instability: an irony of free speech
I’ve addressed the Donald Sterling situation before, including the questionable way in which the comments were made public. I can certainly say that if I had an “intimate” or “romantic” relationship with someone or wanted that kind of relation with anyone, I cannot imagine speaking to such a person (whom by definition I would admire or affiliate “upward” with) in that manner, even in the most private circumstances. His subsequent comments are filled with logical contradictions, which I suspect will continue tonight in front of Anderson Cooper. It is striking to me, and hard to process, that "you" can provide for someone, say you love him or her (sort of, as like a pet) and still talk the person (singular or plural) as inferior to you. I don't process that in my own situations.
There’s a bigger question, about the “sticks and stones” proverb. Words can really hurt you. It does seem now that expression of certain attitudes (maybe race is the most obvious but not the only issue) from people with any kind of public prominence or influence has indeed become unacceptable. Insults can be harmful. We wonder why they are met with such violence in other parts of the world (especially from radical Islam), sometimes brought to our shores.
I think that an “insult”, at least one which suggests that the target of the insult is less than equal to other human beings, even if his or her life is still “valuable” as a human being’s in some abstract sense, tends to make those of less fortunate backgrounds have less confidence that they can get a fair shake or (as Elizabeth Warren writes, in a book yet to be reviewed. “A Fighting Chance”) in an open, progressive, and (or but) individualistic (possibly hyperindividualistic) society. (Something suddenly comes to mind: when I was a graduate assistant instructor teaching remedial algebra at the University of Kansas in 1966, I was admonished, “You’ve lost the confidence of your students.” Another little incident where I insulted a bartender with a recklessly small tip in NYC around 1976 comes to mind. So does a particularly disturbing incident in gym class in ninth grade in 1958, described in some detail in Chapter 1 of my first book.) This loss of belief that the world can somehow become “fair” enough tends to lead to instability, and contributes to increasingly brazen crimes sometimes.
The gay male community is capable of catty personal behavior sometimes, in mimicry or mockery of the taunts and behaviors that they have individually endured. It has been common, for example, for gay men among themselves to make comments about the sexual attractiveness of others, or say things like “He can do better than that.” In fact, straight men used to say this about other men’s girl friends. I’ve heard this in the workplace. (I’ve also heard remarks about professional football players that would be considered rabidly racist today but that were perfectly acceptable in Dallas, Texas in the early 1980s.) Even today, in movie reviews, I sometimes make comments about characters or actors that reflect those sentiments, as if everyone believed them at some level. Yet, I wonder. Suppose I were a manager with direct reports in the workplace, or a teacher with the authority to grade students. Someone finds the remarks, which used to be acceptable and commonplace, and wonders if “I” will think less of them as someone with the authority to grade them or influence the course of their lives. Suddenly, irony becomes snarky. This problem was evolving for several years before Facebook was commonly used. It had a bearing on my own course as a substitute teacher.
There is an irony in all of this. We have the right to reject people, to give and withhold consent for relationships, and express our values. Yet, sometimes these values reflect the authoritarian or overly-meritocratic culture in which we were raised which, frankly, wasn’t very willing to take fortune into account. When freely expressed today, they can boomerang. In the wrong hands, they can lead right back to a totalitarian state – even though I can see the arguments that the problems recurring overseas today are more the result of nationalistic, imperialistic and religious conflicts over generations than just personal values.
The “snark” factor is what therapists called “stepping on their toes” when “treating” me in 1962. I had been led to feel inadequate, but my “behavior” (perhaps retaliatory) was seen as intended to make other men feel less confident that they could date, marry and procreate themselves. (If I was already “fallen”, they could very well “fall” too.) That’s one of the biggest reasons why homophobia exists. No wonder rogue or calculating politicians can use it as a diversion.