Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The R-word

I can't believe that this still needs to be said: Stop using the word retard. Just stop. No excuses. No explanation. Just. Stop.

I was in an argument online yesterday. I know. You can't judge the world based on internet commentary. Still.

It was a rehashing of the story from 2012, when the tediously predictable Ann Coulter made headlines by calling Obama a retard. John Franklin Stephens, an Olympic competitor who has Down Syndrome, penned a beautiful and loving response. The response went viral. Ann Coulter doubled down, ensuring her continued relevancy. I don't know why this story is making the rounds again. The internet is weird.

I get it. People are sick of being told how to speak. People are frustrated by accusations of bigotry. Some worry that whoever controls language, directs the conversation. Some are just tired of being on the defensive. PC vs. anti-PC language wars have been going on for a long time. The list of embattled words is long and diverse.

This word doesn't belong on the battle list. This is not a battle. This one is easy. The word is offensive.

I've had this argument so often I think I could write an automated Beth responder to have the argument for me.

I had not had the argument in years before last night though. I still see the many, many blog posts imploring people to stop, but they sort of felt dated and irrelevant. No one says that anymore, right? Wrong, apparently.

The names are a distraction. It isn't about Obama. It isn't about Ms. Coulter. It isn't about elevating political discourse above schoolyard taunts. It isn't about politics. It isn't even about rudeness.

When you use this word to insult someone, the insult is a comparison. When you use this word to belittle someone, you are belittling a group of people. The word marginalizes this group of people much more effectively than it insults whomever you intended to insult. And it doesn't matter at all if that is what you meant. 

Mentally retarded used to be a medical diagnosis. It used to describe people with various cognitive impairments. Etymologically, it means to slow down or to delay, and it is used in variant forms in music. As a diagnosis, it described a broad category of symptoms. It is not in use as a medical diagnosis anymore. It has been replaced.

Cognitive impairment describes everything from memory loss to learning disabilities. It does not mean stupid. If we are brutally honest, there is an overlap. Both might be used to mean lower than average intelligence. But stupid always has a negative connotation. Stupid is an insult. And cognitive impairment is a broad term, covering impediments to memory, concentration and learning ability. Insisting that they are synonyms is, well, stupid.

This is the hard part, which is not actually hard at all. A diagnosis should not have a negative connotation. That is an uphill battle advocates fight every day. It is really hard to name some things because the things themselves are not socially acceptable. As soon as the thing is named, the new name becomes an insult. Mentally retarded replaced other words which had deteriorated into pejoratives. The first person to do it probably thinks himself very clever. Every time. Bullies always do.

As a society, we don't handle these things well. We don't like to think about mental illnesses or cognitive impairments. There is a stigma. And it needs to go away.

When the world appropriates a diagnosis for use as an insult, the intended target is not the only target. The insult is the comparison. "You fool. You are stupid. You are just like those children with special needs." Wait, what?

Words have meaning, and that is what that one means.

So, no. This is not just another battle over language. This is not one of those times where an argument is directed by evolving language. There is no argument at stake in defending usage of the term. There is just an affirmation of the stigma associated with cognitive impairments and a growing disapproval.

Maybe there is an element of political correctness after all.

If the fact that the word hurts people doesn't dissuade you from using it, social stigma should. We're judging you, you bully.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Evolving or revolving

I've been reading opinions about marriage. What it is. Why it is. If it is. And I have been examining my own evolution of thought on the subject. Obama evolved. I'm evolving.

When I was in high school, many of my peers asserted that marriage was just a piece of paper. Why would anyone need or even want a governmental stamp of approval on their relationship? It made sense to me. Either you love someone enough to stay with them forever, with or without anyone's approval, or you don't. Ah teenagers.

It was the 90s. So, everyone was talking about civil unions (remember civil unions?) and Don't Ask Don't Tell.  Homosexuality was a big deal in politics, and I was as politically active as any high school student.

Once, the school board in my county held a hearing on homosexuals being bullied. I don't clearly remember the details. It was a hate crime kind of discussion. I attended and argued that bullying must be against the rules and punishable, but if you single out one object of bullying to protect them specifically, you do the community a disservice. Either there are adequate rules in place to protect the students from bullying of any kind, or I am not protected. It was not spur of the moment, I had carefully prepared a speech after thinking through my own thoughts and experiences. I had been bullied, though not targeted for my race or sexuality. If my homosexual friends needed better protection, the whole student population did.

In college, I don't remember why it came up, but it did. I wrote a very short opinion in the school paper which basically asserted what I took to be self evident: homosexual relationships are not the same as heterosexual relationships. Setting aside questions of morality, they are simply different. Whether or not it is moral isn't the right question; gay marriage is impossible.

It wasn't a very nuanced idea. It wasn't clever or original. It was typical college freshman stuff (I wasn't a freshman). It seemed evident to me, so it must be evident to everyone and it must be true. I had thought about it; it wasn't an unconsidered opinion. It was just, as yet, unchallenged.

Also in college, I had a friend who had some concern about his visa status. I didn't know the details, but I told him I'd marry him, if it would help. I did love him, but not romantically. I said that I didn't actually care about the piece of paper from the government anyway. If and when I got married "for real" it'd be in a Church in front of my family- and that is what would make it real. It didn't occur to me then that these ideas I had about marriage were already in conflict.

A good friend pushed back against my ideas. He challenged me to flesh out what I was thinking, why, and what followed. I wished I had spoken to him before putting my writing out for anyone to read. He forced me to admit that my opinions were formed by my experience and my faith, which while good is not universal. He forced me to confront the question: If I don't think a green card marriage is immoral, then on what ground can I object to homosexual marriage? I had already disassociated what the Church does and what the state does in my mind. I had already decided that what the state does had to do with rights and had nothing at all to do with my definition of marriage.

I remember that my opinion that a civil marriage was nearly meaningless deeply offended a good friend whose parents were civilly married. They loved each other and raised a picture perfect American family. I was blessed to meet them and I cherish memories of their generosity and hospitality. They weren't Christian. He wasn't Christian. He hoped one day to marry, civilly, and love and raise a family. That was the first real emotional challenge. Did I really think his parents weren't married? Did I really think he couldn't be married? What an absurd idea. Of course not.

So, I came out of college with both my thoughts and feelings on the subject a little shoved around and unmolded. My ten year college reunion is coming up this fall, so that is how long I have had to mull these thoughts. Maybe they are over-steeped and bitter.

One more personal story: I found out some time after college that my best friend in high school was homosexual. It was startling. Jarring, even. Not that she was homosexual, but that I didn't know. She didn't tell me. We had been very close. She would have heard all my thoughts, sometimes wandery and indirect, sometimes forcefully political. She knew all my crushes and dreams. She knew the silly stuff and the serious stuff. My closest friend was gay, but I didn't know. Did she? Why didn't she tell me? Did she think I couldn't handle it? More troubling, could she have been right?

I certainly had other friends who were gay. You know when you are 16 and you think 30 is old and you make a silly pact to marry someone you love but not romantically if you are both still single at 30? Maybe that isn't a thing. Anyway. My guy was gay and we both knew it. We joked that we'd teach our beautiful children the alphabet with Mozart's alphabet song. I'd like to say that I would have handled the information about my best friend in some loving way, but I don't know. The idea that she may have felt like she had to keep it secret breaks my heart. How awful and isolating. That she might have been right in her fear that sharing would hurt our friendship is a painful possibility.

One of my more recent blunders was to simply assert that the state should get out of the business of marriage altogether. That simplistic view has the appeal of closing the question. But if the state takes no notice of marriage, what about all the legal issues surrounding marriage? Inheritance. Medical choices. Hospital visitation. Children. Immigration. I am married. I don't think very often about the legal benefits. That is the luxury of having them. I do not want to fight for them. I do not want to lose them.

Here is my point: my views are shaped by my faith, my thoughts and my experiences. That is not to say that there aren't truths, but only to note that what seems obvious to one person may seem obviously untrue to another. Indeed, what seems obvious to you today may crack a bit under tomorrow's light.

I was wrong about what the Church teaches about marriage. I was also clueless about the real benefits of civil marriage and by extension I completely missed the boat on state interest in family and family life.

Marriage is hard to define. Per the catechism: "The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament."

That is a definition I recognize. Sacrament. Covenant. Man and women. Procreation and education. That is a definition I can claim. But, is it a definition I want parsed and pickled and protracted in law? As it is, in the language of the catechism, I understand it. Within the context of faith- my faith- I recognize it. I aspire to living it. But the thing falls apart of you take Christ out of it. The words don't make sense anymore.

I've taken a long way around, but I do understand Christians who insist on Christian-centric language even in law. The alternative remains an enigma, at least to me. I know it exists. I've seen it. But I don't know how to talk about it. I don't have the words.

Love is important, but even if it was definable, it is not a definer. Commitment too. The difference between a loving commitment and a marriage has to do with this other word that I don't really want the government to define, but I also don't want them to ignore: family. When you marry, you change your family. You enter a family as an in-law. You welcome a spouse, to your family. And you form a brand new family.

I hear people groaning about a redefinition and it resonates. The only definition I know how to discuss isn't about two people. It's about a creative love. A sacramental union. It's about a Christian union which is the unbreakable foundation of the family. Children are not a relevant afterthought, they are essential. Marriage is " its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring..."

And so, when it comes to the heart of the thing, I really only know how to talk to Catholics. Divorce. Birth control. Adultery. These things all conflict with the definition I know.

Here is where I am still floundering: I don't want birth control, divorce and adultery to be illegal. I don't think I know anyone who does. The definition I understand is not a definition I want enshrined in law.

Gay marriage is legal now. I cannot think about it using the same terms that I think about my own marriage, the language of the Catechism. It doesn't make sense, in those terms. Unlike the sins listed, gay marriage is not bad, it is impossible. So how do I understand it? How do I talk about it?

So, I am sympathetic to insistence that this is a redefinition.

I am also sympathetic to insistence that marriage comes with rights, and denying rights based on bedroom behaviors is not OK. The practical concerns that I don't worry about, because I am married to the man I live with, are not a side note. They are a government recognition of a relationship which I chose; recognition which matters in real ways.

I don't know how I would design an answer. I read all the articles and blog posts about how it affects me. I even read Matt Walsh. Not a one of them impressed me. It is not that I am a wishy-washy wonderer. I know what I think marriage is. And I don't want a law about it. And I am not entirely sure where that leaves me.