I want to introduce you to what I am coming to believe is one of the most dangerous words in the English language. Got any guesses what it is?
Hint: it’s a short word. Very, very short.
The word I’m thinking of is “we”.
Since that damned dirty mess in Steubenville happened, I’m seeing more and more blog posts/articles/etc about how we as a society could–and must–do more to shut down the rape culture. This is the same language I’ve seen historically about bullying–we must do everything we can to stop bullying–and about animal cruelty and about child abuse and about voter fraud and about pretty much everything Monsanto ever does and about how it’s a pain in the butt to find plus-sized clothing that doesn’t look like a potato sack or come with a ludicrous price tag. “We have to change things”, we all say; “we have to put an end to _____”, and “we have to empower people to ______”, and “we need to keep _____ in the spotlight until society sees what’s really going on”.
But here’s the problem with that: I read these articles, and I nod along, and not for one second do I believe that I’m alone here when I say that if I really, truly search my soul, I discover that I’m mentally translating “we” to “y’all”. ‘Cause, y’know, I’m not raping anybody, so I have nothing to change. I’m a beautiful and unique snowflake, and it’s all y’all vile slimebuckets out there who have some changin’ to do. Ditto for ending the use of “retarded” as a slang term for “not a great idea”, or “gay” for “uncool”, or putting an end to fat shaming or skinny slamming or the melting of the polar ice caps. I never describe an idea as “retarded”; therefore, I am absolved of all blame, and y’all need to get y’all’s act together. Sheesh.
And that’s where the problem comes in: we see the word “we”, we read it as the word “y’all”, and then we go on complacently with our lives. And for the most part, that’s actually kinda ok–I actually don’t advocate deciding that every day is Make a New Picket Line Day. I don’t advocate adding your voice to whatever clamor happens to be popular at the moment. I don’t advocate condensing all your beliefs to ten-second sound clips (just in case you ever get on the news, y’know) and then running through the streets, shrieking them at the top of your lungs.
IT’S NOT OKAY TO SAY “THAT’S GAY!”
SAVE THE BABY POLAR BEARS!
WHAT DO WE WANT? AFFORDABLE, CUTE PLUS-SIZED CLOTHING! WHEN DO WE WANT IT? NOW!
What I do advocate is acknowledging that “we” by default includes “I”, and taking on the mantle of very real, very concrete personal responsibility for changing the world around you through your direct action (or inaction–refusal to participate totally counts in advancing some causes). I very strongly advocate using your voice. And I absolutely advocate taking ownership of the space around you.
Here’s what I mean:
At a party, an acquaintance makes a rape joke (for the record, I think “rape joke” is an oxymoron). You have the right to say “I’m not ok with perpetuating rape culture” and walk away. You don’t have to explain yourself; you don’t have to engage with them (unless you really want to); you’re under no obligation, social or otherwise, to just roll with it. Parties are for having fun with people you like. If you’re not having fun, you’re actually kind of obligated to do something about it, lest you be everyone’s killjoy. (If opting out of that conversation is what makes you the killjoy, then I highly recommend leaving the party altogether and rethinking the type of friends you keep.)
Another scenario: you’re out to dinner with a dear friend, and he describes a movie he recently saw as “retarded”. You have the right to wince at that word. You can be more vocal if you want to–you’re allowed to say “I’m not cool with using that word in that way”, or something similar–but whatever response you choose, you are allowed to express your displeasure. You don’t have to beat him about the head with it–you don’t need to be a jerk here–but you are completely within your rights to say “not cool, bro” and roll on.
Scenario #3: It’s Thanksgiving, and Asinine Aunt Amelia (I don’t know any Amelias personally, so please know that if that’s your name, I’m really, truly not aiming this at you) has had a couple of glasses of tongue-loosening wine and has started spouting off about how gay people will be the ruination of this country so they should all be rounded up and sterilized. You have the right to buck protocol and hijack the conversation at the first available opportunity. I know, I know, you’re not supposed to interrupt your elders, and ok, fine, I’ll let her finish her sentence. But sooner or later she’s going to have to pause for a breath, and that’s when you leap in with “I love you, Aunt Amelia, but I think your opinions are antiquated and I’m not comfortable with you saying things like that in front of my kids. So instead we’re going to talk about books. I just read this really great one, called Code Name Verity, about spies and pilots in World War Two. Anyone else here read it? No? Well, here’s the gist….”
Look, folks, the bottom line is this: “we” is made up of a whole lot of “I”s, not a whole lot of “you”s. If “we” want society to change, then I have to take personal responsibility for changing it. I don’t have to be a jerk about it, and I don’t have to be confrontational or loud or pushy. We all know those people who are apparently incapable of talking about anything but the cause du jour, and those people are incredibly boring and no fun to be around. I don’t have to be that person.
But I do have to be willing to stand up and say “No”, and I have to be willing to follow that up with “‘No’ means NO”. I have to take responsibility for my actions, my words, and my life; and if I’m going to declare that the space around me is a traveling Safe Space, then I have to be in charge of keeping it that way.
And maybe if I and you and the rest of us “I”s and “you”s band together, we’ll create enough Safe Spaces to cover the world.