Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Inclusive Language

As a person living with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, I'm triggered by all the people claiming to be "triggered" when they're merely offended. 

Actually, I’m usually just offended myself by their imprecise language. It demeans people with PTSD, and/or culturally appropriates our experience. Their insensitivity can be upsetting. Nevertheless, we all have to deal with upsetting things in life – even ten-year-old video gamers and people with PTSD.

On the other hand, it’s possible the specific words someone uses when claiming to be “triggered” might just happen to push my buttons and trigger debilitating PTSD symptoms – presumably because of the relationship between their words and the youthful traumas I endured at the hands of anti-gay Mormons. Or because the speaker resembles my bishop at BYU. I mean, it’s  theoretically possible.

I’m reminded of the classic gender guide for choosing toys:

A similar proportion of the snowflake/free speech debate involves language that is triggering in and of itself. Rather than merely upsetting or otherwise offensive.

Nevertheless, language is a powerful tool. With great power you should be able to expect great responsibility. 

P.G. Wodehouse is the greatest comic English novelist of the twentieth century. (Don’t argue with me, I have PTSD.) 

Unlike my daughter Eleanor, I binge on good books instead of cheesy TV series. Topping off the well of Wodehouse at Bellingham Public Library, which I have now drained, my parents recently gave me a three-volume book of Jeeves & Wooster novels and short stories. 

One of the stories in the collection came from early in the last century, and early in the Wodehouse oeuvre. It included one instance of the word “nigger.” The word was used thoughtlessly rather than as a matter of writerly art, as far as I could tell. Nevertheless, no one should be offended to learn my personal library includes an otherwise exemplary text that is nevertheless representative of its time and place. 

In the same collection I came upon versions of the following metaphorical expression four times: “That’s awfully white of you,” meaning “That’s awfully good of you.” In my short theatrical career in Utah, I encountered the same phrase in the script for Kiss and Tell, a comedy set during World War II. We changed the line. (FYI, I played the handsome hero’s nerdy best friend. As usual.) 

Whether you’re in 1986 or 2018, the phrase feels wrong. A “white” = “good” metaphor is no longer part of our shared English language. At least not quite so directly.

When I was in law school, I joined the Yale Gilbert & Sullivan Society, where I sang in the choruses of H.M.S. Pinafore, Patience, Pirates of Penzance, and Ruddigore. Some might call membership in the Yale Gilbert & Sullivan Society a clue to one’s eventual sexual orientation. Like excessively groomed eyebrows.

In addition to channeling my proto-gay-men’s-chorus urges, doing theater at Yale gave me the opportunity to socialize with folks outside the law school. Participants came from all over the university. For example, our divinity student choreographer is now the thirteenth Episcopal bishop of Rhode Island. 

At a cast party my first year, the wild G&S crowd at Yale introduced me to a term I’d never heard at caffeine-and-alcohol-free Brigham Young University:  “girl-ing your beer.”

Admit it. You know what the phrase means. Certain people, and I’m not saying who, have a tendency to open a beverage and then leave it on some surface undrunk. Repeatedly.

This fall we observed a sudden increase in this same phenomenon at our house. Particularly abandoned cans of Diet Coke. All fingers immediately pointed to Eleanor. Her fingers most dramatically.

After a brief period of observation, I realized something more was going on than my daughter’s usual combination of hoarding, absent-mindedness, and casual privilege. It turns out they have a fancy new coffee-maker over the hill at my ex’s house. Teen-aged Eleanor has become addicted to a splash of coffee before school. During the weeks when the kids are with me, she gets her morning fix from a demitasse of Diet Coke.

I told Eleanor the story of gender-correlated alcohol consumption patterns at Yale. We agreed it’s best to avoid sexist language. And I suggested she work on her carbon footprint.

The other day, Eleanor came home from school and went straight to the fridge. She retrieved that morning’s mostly-full can of Diet Coke with this proud announcement:

“Look, Papa, I didn’t ‘Eleanor’ my drink!”

In our house, at least, one may refer to this reprehensible practice as “Eleanor-ing” without being accused of sexism.

Language is filled with hidden historical prejudices. For example, there are linguistic purists who won’t use the word “dilapidated” to refer to run-down wooden buildings, because they know the word’s Latin root “lapid” means “stone,” not “wood.”

Similarly, “dexterous” means “showing or having skill, especially with the hands,” while “sinister” means “evil or criminal.” The two words come from Latin roots with opposite meanings:  “dexter” means right handed, while “sinister” means left handed. 

As we paddle down the river of a language’s evolution, most of the baggage washes away. Today’s English speakers are unaware that our vocabulary subliminally reinforces rightie hegemony. I’ve never heard a right-hander use either “dexterous” or “sinister” for the purpose of encoding his supremacy. (Obviously we’re talking about a “his,” rather than a “her” or a “their.” Supremacy is involved.)

Now that I’ve let the right-handed cat out of the bag, no doubt we can expect an outpouring of feedback from outraged left-handers. Remember, “offended” is not the same as “triggered.”

Which brings us, at long last, to my real question today. What do we talk about when we talk about lunacy?

Sometimes I consciously apply words like “crazy” to myself in ostentatious air quotes, just to annoy my mother. She's convinced I’m not even trying to find a real job. Or I hint that PTSD caused me to be late for chorus rehearsal. Really I just lost track of time while writing at some coffee shop – but I worry folks will get suspicious if I overuse my usual excuses, i.e., kids, border, and/or traffic.

The other day I noticed the phrase “driving me crazy” in a sentence I’d written months ago about the itchiness of facial hair. Other blog posts similarly mention things like going “stir crazy,” or hearing “maddening” noises. Most of these references don’t come up in a discussion of mental illness itself. Instead, I consciously and unconsciously use the colorful language of Bedlam for its metaphorical effect. These words are part of the English language that's wired into my brain.

Every three years, lawyers in Washington have to report that they’ve attended 45 hours of Continuing Legal Education. Because I’ve been working at home instead of at some cushy firm, for the first time in my career I find myself up against the deadline. I still have another 16 hours of coursework to go before New Years Eve. 

To finish my CLE requirements, I bought the cheapest possible video lectures online. They’re taped in a conference room in New Jersey. Each of the presenters is dreadful, but in his or her own uniquely dreadful way. The Fifth Amendment speaker read her entire printed text. Slowly, in a monotonous drone. The employment discrimination instructor could barely speak through her bronchitis. The sports law guy managed to make “Boxing Law” utterly boring. And so on….

This morning I watched a generic legal ethics presentation, describing the usual parade of horrifying exemplars of the profession. In one case, the disgraced lawyer spent a year in prison after going on a 45 minute spree where he assaulted his ex and trashed her apartment. The question was how long state regulators should suspend his law license for – sixty days, six months, or three years? 

In describing the factual background and potential mitigating or aggravating factors, the instructor mentioned that after the incident, the lawyer went to a psychiatrist who diagnosed him with anger management issues. I don’t have an opinion about the case – the instructor was primarily using it as an example of how legal regulators vary widely in their sanctions. But it’s not the first time I’ve heard a lawyer cynically suggest mental health diagnoses are a gimmick to game the system. Indeed, much of the pernicious early case law undercutting the Americans with Disabilities Act involves judges who can barely disguise their hostility to claimants suffering from mental rather than “physical” impairments. 

I have no objection to folks appropriating the language of craziness to describe the world – particularly these days, when the world seems so deranged. As long as you remember mental illness is real. And not just a metaphor.

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