Words Mean Things: Cascade Effects, Faberge Organics, and Lindy West

Reblogged from Julie Gillis

I have been watching and tweeting about a nearly year long ongoing twitter/social media conversation? Debate? Argument? about rape jokes, censorship, freedom, and more. Lindy West, a comic and writer, has been squarely in the middle of it from her posts on Jezebel about rape jokes and comedy, to her debate with Jim Norton, to the threats and online attacks she’s received (not just emails, someone created fake accounts in her name and has been posting as her).

Jim Norton recently posted a piece at XO Jane asking for those attacks to stop. Other comedians offered vulnerable posts about their own experiences with telling jokes that might not be so well advised, and there was even an article up about science, humor, bias and how jokes can subtly reinforce negative attitudes towards people.

I’ve got so many thoughts and feelings swirling around in my brain that I’m not sure what to say. Mostly, it seems simple to me and even Jim Norton said it in his post decrying the way people have treated Lindy:

“My suggestion to these people is to think about what you really want to say and make an effort to say it.”

That’s all Lindy (and the bajillion rest of us) has been saying. Not censorship. Not getting sent to jail or having your words taking from you. To think, as a culture and a people, about what we really want to say, what we really mean, what we really have to state and then say it clearly.

Which means taking a moment (instead of acting on impulse) to look at the joke/ad/facebook page etc and say to yourself, “Is this joke serving the purpose I intend for it? What is that purpose? Is it gonna hurt people? Do I want it to? Is it going to highlight a complicated power structure? Do I want it to? Could it help bring people together or rip them apart?” Words mean things. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t be arguing about them.

If those comics want to use their considerable skill as wordsmiths and artists to paint a picture of the crap that goes on, comment on it and pierce through the bullshit so we can find our way out? Awesome! I’m all for that. There are a lot of comics that do that and yes, they use racism, and sexism, and homophobia and difficult subject matter in their acts. They point out the toxicity and our complicity in it and they are brilliant. It’s uncomfortable but it makes change happen.

But if they don’t want their jokes to do more than keep the rapey, racist, individualistic, callous status quo going, fine. If they want to punch down, fine. If they think jokes about race, or sex, or orientation, or body size or anything that could be used to tease, mock, push around, or otherwise keep people in their relative places are AOK jokes, that’s certainly legal.

And it’s certainly legal to call those comics/ads/pages out on it.

That’s not censorship. That’s communication.

What we aren’t doing, and what we shouldn’t do, is threaten, harass, dox, imitate, hack, and otherwise act like bullies under a trollish veil of anonymity, which is what is happening to Lindy.

It’s wrong.

I do social justice work in writing and I also do it in real time with real people. I’ve seen how hard it is to facilitate meetings on race or interpersonal violence. I’ve watched as myself or others have, forgive the metaphor, offered seeds out to plant about consent, language, privilege, equality, peace and so forth only to be dismissed and treated badly. I’ve had to watch people truly struggle with being mocked.

That’s the thing about making cultural change. You don’t know what kind of impact you or your words will have, but rest assured they will have impact. I can recall things said decades ago that I finally had “aha” moments about, and realize perhaps too late how lucky I was to have heard them. The person who said them? They’ll never know they had an impact on me over time.

I’ll rarely know if what I write, or what I do, or the people I work with will feel good or bad or have moments of change, if those interventive moments (and especially the ones I’m not consciously thinking about) will help them also reach others, who will reach others, who will reach others like a cascade effect, like that awesome 80’s Faberge Organics Shampoo Ad with Heather Locklear to change the world. What I do know is, that I want my words, if they count at all, to cascade warmly, kindly, lovingly and with purpose.

(Memes y’all. Trends. Biases. Beliefs. Myths into truths–that’s all cascading information and it makes culture and systems which is why are cultures are dynamic not static over time.)

I know there are people who don’t believe that culture is made through the millions of cascades that wave through us daily. I do. I believe words mean things and we assign and comprehend meaning to those words past their Webster’s Definition.

I think Lindy does as well, and I for one want to stand up with her as she does her work. I think we should all stand up, because what is happening to her (and others like her who visibly examine systems and push against places they think could use pushing) is that more and more, they are getting abused and harshly.

Lastly, I’ll leave you with this since it’s part of the core of this conversation:

What’s so threatening about being asked to think about what you say even if you still choose to say it? I’ve got some ideas of my own, but I’d like some others responses to that.