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Friday, November 8, 2013

The plague on our words: How we're sapping the meaning from our sentences

Something's laying heavy on my heart tonight. It's 2:35 AM, and instead of sleeping I'm haunted. Please, I beg you dearly, think about this haunting with me. We stand in the midst of a plague, a passive-aggressive invasion that penetrates beyond the words we type into our very hearts—and lives may depend on this.

They may not. 

What on earth am I talking about?

Awareness movements all over the world this month culminated in words on twitter feeds and Facebook posts and comment threads, orgasming into “awareness” without ever giving birth to action. And it's not just this month. It's this year, this decade. Do we as writers—and as citizens of the internet in general—spend so much time thinking about social issues we forget to actually solve them?

How many breast cancer victims were helped this month by girls writing about their bra colors on Facebook? By boys dressing in pink tiaras to crack jokes about boobs? Now, how many possible breast cancer victims were saved by an actual conversation about self-exams, or donations to cancer research? Do we see the difference between the cancer researchers and educators and the “I'm wearing lacy black” gagtivists? Yes? No?

Bear with me a second, please please please, and let's keep questioning. There's a thread of sorcery here.

Do you write about racial equality? You that person who signs petitions, incorporates race issues into your fiction, lets your blood pressure rise with every race-based news story you read? Okay, great. But what do you actually do about it? When you're feeling fired up about inequality, do you go rant about evil racists on Facebook? You do know that doesn't make much difference, right? 

You vote or whatever? That's cute. But my dear friend do you know what makes real difference in inequality? Stepping away from the keyboard for a little bit and making things more equal. Give some of your stuff away. Mentor a kid who's disadvantaged. Donate to scholarship programs—it's easy to do stuff like that if you drink a little less Starbucks or even just buy the cheap ham instead of the good ham for a month. If you're part of a disadvantaged minority, promote equality by showcasing your awesomeness in your community with volunteering programs, local art projects, whatever you can think of—because no matter what color you are, ranting does not make nearly as much difference as helping disadvantaged youth, or celebrating you by representing the best to the world. Create good “stereotypes” by becoming the model you want people to think about. Yes, people suck. But you will only overcome evil with good. With action. Not politics. They could make five hundred thousand million laws about hate and it will change nothing if people’s hearts don't change, and only local, personal action changes hearts.

Another question.

Do you write about religious bigotry? You know, you've got that asshole character or that “societal pressure” you're decrying all the time? Great, but what are you actually doing to combat religious bigotry? Penning sordid stories of child abuse, priests, and bombed abortion clinics doesn't count. That's all talk. Are you actually forming relationships with close-minded people to love them into your point of view?

This is where you go “what the hell no,” and this is where I point out that I had a rough time ideologically in high school, partly because everyone else was an asshole, and partly because I was an asshole. Do you know what didn't help me tone down my ideologies? An entire school bus of people yelling at me. The extremists in my class sitting behind me making fun of me every time I opened my mouth. Stuff like that made me into a real asshole for real. You know what did help me? Kind people being kind to me in college while I was getting my ass kicked by personal stuff. If you want to make an actual, real-life difference to combat social stigma, you need to make some crazy religious friends and love them. You need to be that thing that surprises them into saying, “oh, huh, this kind of person isn't all bad.” And maybe you'll find they're not all bigots, either. We stereotype what we don't know: you could be stereotyping people even while you're fighting stereotypes with your satire, and that would be sadly ironic, wouldn't it?

How many times do you and I post stuff like “pray for Haiti” or “remembering the victims in this and such place” but we don't pray, and we don't donate to help the victims, or send them anything, or do anything at all except talk?

Maybe it's too much work for too little return. Writing an award-winning novel's hard, but it's more fun and fame than walking into a broken neighborhood to hand out hotdogs. Getting that kick-ass short story about race and religion into the Paris Review propels me towards my dreams way faster than spending an hour tutoring an mentally retarded kid. And that's just it. 

We use popular causes to power our glory and make us feel “aware.” And maybe emotionally we do “care.” But caring isn't a feeling. It's a 'nuther-freaking action, people! 

My dear future self reading this, my dear present friends, please understand—it's absolutely awesome to incorporate causes into your fiction and internet presence. That's kind of my modus operandum. But there's a Greek word for people who pretend to care about something, or even care a lot and tell other people to do things about them, but don't do anything themselves. The word literally means actor, a guy who get up on stage to be something he's not. That word has made it into the English language. You know what it is?

It's hypocrite.

Dear God, please let me not be that. Let me be a person who actually does shit, not just a dreamer and watcher and talker. Let me be a live-er.

Then I'll have something to write about.


  1. Amen.

    I was thinking recently about one of my favorite chapters in all of literature. It's a brief cutaway scene in Les Miserables, where Victor Hugo goes off on a rant about the great minds of literature and philosophy. Basically, his complaint is that these people spend so much time thinking about the grand universal questions that they ignore/neglect the real people who suffer all around them.

    I've been feeling quite a draw toward activism recently -- moreso than normal, anyway. I just need to sort out all of these thoughts in my mind to figure out exactly how I can put them into action. Sometimes the enormity of ideas is just too overwhelming.

    Anyway -- thanks for the kick in the pants.

    1. Wow that's a super hardcore reference. Thanks for sharing it, Les Mis and all!

  2. You know, I think the best thing we can do is teach the rising generation to ignore those biases. It's difficult to exact change in a populace, but it can be done with time and focus.

    1. See, I respect the writer's desire to teach--and I write teaching viewpoints into my stuff, too. But at the same time, there are people dying around me now. Kids in the Philippines need help now. The homeless guy a few streets away needs help now. Teaching the future generation to avoid our pet biases won't do anything but create new biases, good or bad, and most importantly it won't help now. Great literature is wonderful and important, but without actions to back it up our pretty words are just pretty words. If we're not reaching into our pockets to help folks who've got less, reaching across the religious and political aisle to love people we consider bigoted or stupid, and reaching around us to encourage the hurting, we've forgotten something really important. We've forgotten that love is a verb.