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This Day in My History

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29 June 2005

I'm thinking of a program I saw recently--it was probably Oprah--where someone was discussing the use of "the N word" (as we have some to call it, so euphemistically) by a white person and how the people of color in the discussion were appalled, how offensive they found the term, and how they agreed that no white person, no matter how sympathetic, or united he may be with his African American brothers ever had the right to use that word because while it may seem "cool" to use it in context, its very use by someone White was terribly terribly offensive to anyone Black.  It's a visceral reaction that someone who has not had a history of slavery cannot begin to feel on the same level.

The same can be said of survivors of the Holocaust and their descendants.  Comments may be made in all innocence--"just words," which are extremely offensive to someone who has experienced the horror or whose relatives experienced the horror.  (Witness the reaction to comments made by Senator Durbin regarding Guantanamo Bay.)

Makes me think of the song in Avenue Q, "Everybody's a Little Bit Racist," where everyone's prejudices are pointed out to them.  The character of Gary Coleman (not the actor, the character is named Gary Coleman) gets offended when someone makes a slure against African Americans, but when someone point outs that he repeats Polish jokes, he laughs and says that sure he does, because those are funny.

What is "funny" or "just words" to me may be highly offensive to you, and vice versa.  Either we are a civilization that is entirely too sensitive or--my own particular interpretation--we are a civilization that needs to be more aware of the deep hurt that can be caused by "just words" spoken casually which, if we think about it, are guaranteed to offend.

In my travels over the past week I had occasion to speak with some friends, a lesbian couple, who attended a straight wedding recently.  Straight weddings, they say, are somewhat painful anyway because no matter how long these women have been together, they cannot legally marry anywhere except Massachusetts--and if they leave the state, their marriage will not be recognized anywhere else in the country.   But still, the groom was a good friend.  They have worked side by side battling injustices--the couple being married are a minority and aware of the hurts that inequality can cause.

So these women were sitting at the ceremony, the service starts, and one of the first things the minister says was that God declared that marriage is between a man and a woman. 

The two women gasped.  One was so angry she turned to her partner and kissed her right there.

They couldn't understand how this friend of theirs, knowing their own frustration at being unable to marry would deliberately choose that passage, out of all the possible passages in the Bible when he knew they would be attending.  And if he absolutely felt that passage needed to be included, why did he invite them in the first place?  They aren't good friends; they are "good acquaintances."  The lesbians certainly wouldn't have thought twice about it if they had not been invited to the wedding.

But to invite them and then deliberately throw one of the most painful Bible passages out there for them to hear was inconceivable. 

I'm wondering if the bridal couple even thought about what was being said.  If they picked a standard text because, after all, they are "just words" and how could they hurt?

It is like a white rapper performing for a room full of Black dancers and singing only songs using "the N word," or the gaffe of Senator Durbin in comparing treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo to the genocidal acts committed by the Nazis.  Sounds good in theory, it's terribly offensive in reality.

As the lesbians continued to talk about their long lives together, they related acts of discrimination where hotels would not rent them a room with a double bed because "we don't believe in that," or where the police refused to act when the husband of one woman broke in and dragged his children out of the house by the hair, because it was "a domestic incident" and they didn't want to get involved.  I heard of the women sleeping on the floor with a baseball bat when they knew one husband was showing up--and how he once cut all the telephone wires and then broke in the front door.

Yet these women have weathered it all, are still together and still cannot be legally recognized as a couple.

And then to have a friend who is certainly very aware of their pain over their inability to make their long-term marriage legal, has to add insult to injury by inserting that offensive sentence into what they assumed was going to be a happy social occasion.

We need to think about our words.  They are more than "just words."  Words can be inflammatory, can be painful, can be offensive.  We need to make monitoring our speech something that we do intuitively unless our intent is to deliberately set out to hurt someone.   When you strike at the very core of a person's being, the very heart of where their pain is, it's not like insulting their make-up or disagreeing with their choice of music.

I don't know why that isn't blatantly obvious to everyone.

NOTE:   Yesterday, Canada became the third country in the world to recognize same sex marriage, or it will as soon as the current measure, which passed through Parliament gets passed by the Senate (nobody thinks it will be otherwise).   As usual, Marn has the best comment to make.  For the guy I saw on television the other day who said that "Nobody has ever been able to give me one single good reason why we should allow gay marriage" (has he not listened?), I recommend that he read this.


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