Monday, January 10, 2011

Tucson 2011

Because I teach, I tend to divide the calendar into semesters. At the start of this past semester, the big story in the news was “gay suicides.” What that meant: at least five gay teens took their lives. Story after story appeared about how each of them had been bullied, called names, harassed for being who they were.

Anyone who teaches and, in fact, anyone who has regular contact with individuals under the age of 30, probably hears the word “gay” bantered around in a joshing, informal manner on a regular basis. It’s used to label homosexual individuals, but it’s also used as a synonym for stupid, for lame, for effeminate, for sentimental, for tender-hearted, even for a certain brand of kindness. Young men use it as frequently as they use the word “the,” and young women use it as well. “That’s so gay,” or “Eww, that’s gay,” is ubiquitous in both junior high classrooms and on college campuses. Spend 10 minutes on Facebook and you’ll find at least one post using the word in this manner.

If you were to ask the user of the word why they’d chosen it, they’d be quick to proclaim no ill intent. “I was just kidding around,” they’d say. “It doesn’t have anything to do with gay people,” they’d claim. “It’s a joke. It’s just how we talk.”

Fast forward to January; I’m preparing for a new semester. Another group of people are dead, others seriously injured. It is widely suggested that language has again played a role in this tragedy, only this time it isn’t a word or two, but rather an atmosphere of vitriol, an environment of blame, and the regular, widespread use of careless and inflammatory rhetoric.

This language might start with politicians and the media – I’m not sure, honestly, if it matters where it begins – but it does not end there. Incivility, proclamations of outrage, and verbal abuse of every degree is rampant in many areas of public discourse. Facebook and Twitter light up when something newsworthy is first reported. The New York Times and other newspapers’ reader responses fill with accusatory comments and staunch position statements: I believe this, and nothing anyone says will make me reconsider.

I am not against passionate beliefs and I am not advocating for censorship. But I find it profoundly disturbing when rage meets ignorance and immediacy. Why do we feel the need to comment instantly and emotionally to everything? I lived in Tucson for six years and knew it to be a complex city, yes, with many difficult problems… but it is also a home to many artists, many reasonable political activists, many intelligent and compassionate individuals. For the last year or so, however, the city and the state of Arizona have been held up as models of intolerance, a kind of geographic aberration, as though the rest of the country does not have similar, if perhaps occasionally less public, problems. Shortly after Jared Lee Loughner opened fire on the corner of Ina and Oracle, some of my Facebook contacts opened fire verbally. The immediate response seemed to be something like this: some nut in Arizona – surely a Republican – just killed a Congresswoman, a Democrat. Tributaries of this initial reaction included blame of, in no particular order, Sarah Palin, Republicans, the Tea Party, the state of Arizona, the city of Tucson, the contentious state of immigration policies, the recent ruling on Mexican-American studies, Washington politics, John McCain, and gun control policies.

It’s not unreasonable to question all of these elements; my point has nothing to do with having an opinion, making serious inquiry into contributing factors, or feeling anger about these kinds of events. It has to do with reactionary expressions of outrage, including overt or subtle intimations of violence, often based on circumstances with which the speaker/writer has little familiarity.

It takes effort to pause, and even more effort to think. That’s what I’m advocating for: thinking. Considering. Doing a little research, gathering some facts. Formulating an opinion that advances discussion rather than shuts it down. Simply posting an inflammatory headline or a knee-jerk response does nothing to promote conversation, even of a cyber nature. On Saturday, for a good hour or so on Facebook, Representative Giffords was pronounced dead over and over again. You can argue that this was simply a way of sharing information and, in fact, a way that has become one of the easiest and most popular ways of doing so. You can argue that it was a widespread expression of concern, even grief. But I think it can also be argued that a rush to post that particular information was, at least in part, an expression of reactionary outrage based on no factual evidence.

Some of my students – college students, in their early 20’s – still banter the word “gay” around; many of my acquaintances are quick to condemn the Republican party at any opportunity. I, too, have been guilty of blaming an entire party for some of the ills of our current political and cultural state. I can’t say, with any degree of honesty, that it would pain me to see Sarah Palin fade from the national scene; I found her “target” poster truly horrifying, although only one example in a fairly steady stream of appalling comments coming from her.

But Sarah Palin did not single-handedly create our woes, in Tucson or nationally. Nor did the Republicans or the Tea Partiers. Everyone who responds with hot-headed and righteous anger, everyone who speaks without thinking, anyone who naively believes there is a right and a wrong answer on any given political issue, anyone who gets off on fanning the flames… All are culpable.

As I finish writing this, the nation has just held a moment of silence for the shooting victims. Let’s take that seriously – the idea of pausing to reflect – and keep in mind that words and symbols have power. We don’t have to censor ourselves or others, we don’t have to spin what we really believe – but maybe we can consider using language in a more responsible, dignified and productive manner – a manner that contributes something authentic and substantive. Maybe we can start by recognizing this: despite that childhood rhyme, it’s been proven, many times over, that words can hurt. Proceed accordingly.