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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Reality Check: The Power of Language

If you were the star of your own reality show, how would your character tell its story? Cinéma vérité is a style of documentary film making that blends reality with staged set-ups for maximum effect. It was the predecessor of today’s reality television genre. Provocative language is common, even encouraged. It escalates conflict, which heightens drama, which trounces Matlock reruns any day. But cinéma vérité does not have a lock on the power of language.

Rewind: “Dad, you made that Grace your bitch.” On its own, that quote from Talladega Nights (a Will Ferrell comedy) may seem like a harmless “kids say the darnedest things” candidate. I used to quote it, as an obtuse compliment to friends when they accomplished something particularly challenging: finishing a tough home improvement project, winning a weekend softball game, beating the IRS etc. I considered it a harmless “guy thing” -- only now I know it is not harmless and may – singularly or as part of a cumulative effect – be quite harmful. How?

Fast forward: MOCSA volunteer training 2011. The Man Up facilitators walked us through a “how bad is it?” analysis exercise where we considered various phrases or actions and ranked them low-to-high in context of how damaging we perceived them to be to women. Initially, I would have ranked the movie quote low. It’s a quote! From a comedy! Said by child actor! Our group’s discussion, though, led me down a different path: the casualization of derogatory language is just one way that men ( and society in general) can demean or degrade women, even unintentionally.

Pause: Having grown up with three sisters and plenty of female friends, I do not consider myself abusive or even chauvinistic. So how does a sensitive (I work at Hallmark for crown’s sake!) guy like me get his foundation shaken? Fatherhood. Now when I listen to the radio, watch TV, read books and blogs and interact with others, I do so with a keen ear toward defamatory words: alone or as part of a social cycle of verbal degradation. My slow evolution from “tool” to a more thoughtful dad and citizen has been a timely and necessary change. Fatherhood, and working at a company with a strong female leadership presence will do that to a guy. And I’m grateful. And I’m beginning to realize more and more the true power of language, beyond that which is just sexist. ANYTHING that minimizes another person is not OK. Here are a few observations; I encourage you to reflect on your own, too:

1) Sarcasm has a weak exchange rate in the emotional economy. I used to love the stuff, tossing out barbs here and there to keep the conversation going, interesting, stimulating…at least to me. Now I have my own live-in reality check, my daughter, who is a mirror and a megaphone. When I grimace, she grimaces. If I ask her, “Did you CLEAN your room?” I can pretty much expect a “Yes, I CLEANED it.” Touche!

2) Ke$ha kannot be kontained. I’ve tried changing the radio station, downplaying her relevance to contemporary society, explained the difference between creative and trashy…and yet “…brush my teeth with a bottle of Jack” seems to seep its way into our car radio play. Teaching moment: I asked my daughter if she knew what that lyric meant; she said she did not. I explained that Jack is short for Jack Daniels, and brushing your teeth with it makes no sense, and “I got it, Dad” was served up swiftly.

3) Overhearing doesn’t justify over-reacting. I’m all about diversity, and don’t shy away from a range of cultural events ranging from the downtown symphony to Santa Caligon Days in Independence, from tuxedo dinners to Taco Bell. With my family as company, we hear a lot that is not meant for the common ear, and often its an interchange between males about female passers-by. My shoulders tense when I hear a wolf-whistle being directed toward a woman, or my all-time-most-degrading-least-favorite overheard comment: “I’d like to tap that.” SERIOUSLY?!? Do guys (or any human being) think it’s OK to use that language? Dreadful.

4) Repetition risks affirmation. The Talladega Nights movie quote is an example; I used to repeat it so often that the word “bitch” lost its meaning. But taken to its truest, earliest meaning – am I OK with anything being compared to a female dog? No I am not, and by NOT repeating that language – as well as addressing (in safe environments) those who do, I can help stop the cycle of verbal abuse. Whether it’s said to a woman or not is immaterial; that which is said ABOUT women is just as offensive.

5) It’s OK to substitute, with creativity. Instead of saying “bitch and moan” I can use the word “complain.” Instead of quoting that line from Talladega nights, I can offer up a heartfelt but demonstrative high-five accompanied by a “YESSSSSS!”

For one week, take the language challenge. Be aware of what you say, read, hear or observe; how rampant is sexist/derogatory language in your social/work circle? Are you part of the problem? Have you perpetuated sexist language unintentionally? If you answer “Ye$” to any of these questions, you have room for improvement. And on behalf of MOCSA’s Man Up movement and dads and daughters everywhere, I hope you’ll use the power of language for good. Trust me. It’s a lot better than my mom’s method: dirty mouth = bar of soap.

Derek McCracken

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