Short, essay-esque pieces, ideas, taken from the notebook where random thoughts on whys, whats, and hows, are jotted; presented in their original disorder, so as to be truly assorted.
One Size Fits None
What Can You Laugh At
A Cross Between
The Green-Eyed Monster
Hate for You, Hate for Me
With Malice Towards None
To Whom Do You Refer
One Size Fits None
Have you ever felt that when a celebrated author flouts Strunk and White-ish dos and don’ts (passive voice, adverbs, use of, that vs. which, etc.), her trailblazing gives hope to the little people?
(And every time you’re told not to do something, isn’t it the thing you’ve just done?)
In fiction writing, “errors”, supposedly against rules, often are founded on illogical premises…which is to stand a thing in opposition to its own existence. Why? Because rules (really guidelines) that are needed, evolve naturally from the apparency of the need, and are curtailed naturally by the apparency of its limitations. Nagging opportunities that evolve from the wish to apply some authority dogmatically and across the board, function as their own gratification, but poorly as alleged principles.
Periodically, in Assorted Opinions, I will tackle some of the popular axioms on writing.
Consider these different ways of opening a story.
There was rain falling on the roof.
“There was” places the narrator at a distance from the scene. We assume the omniscient voice; he/she may be inside or outside the roof in question, and may or may not appear in this work as a character. We may not meet the hero before the stage has been set, or some history recounted. (Extra: You’re not required, as a writer, to pitch for this, but notice the stressed/unstressed patter of the sentence. You can choose your words to echo the action.)
Rain fell on the roof.
This has the sound of a closer narration; it implies the character, or group of characters, are in a place. The observation is someone’s perception.
Rain was falling on the roof.
All of the above, plus this makes the rain a condition that brackets the action or conversation to follow, as opposed to “fell”, where it is another component of a past event.
He heard rain.
You can shorthand all the way to this pithiest sentence of three words, with the character in the thick of the narrative, while the sense of place is implied. (If he were not indoors, he would perceive the rain more involvedly than merely to hear it.)
But then, to maintain that for having fewest words, this last is best, is to rate other ways of telling a story less valid; validity would be measured on the grounds of pithiness alone—which writers know is not how we work.
Most simply, an unnecessary word that counts as such, would be any the character wouldn’t know or use, in speech, or in narration that follows her thoughts and viewpoint.
(But, note, if I had said, “…in a narration that follows her thoughts and viewpoint…”, I would only have specified “this narration I’m talking about” as opposed to the notion of narration; while I might do the opposite—taking “her” away and the “s” from thoughts—to make thought and viewpoint into concepts, rather than examples.)
If I begin my story: “He had come indoors when it had started to rain”, I could (and should) dispense with the clunky second “had”, because the phrase in which it occurs is covered by the first. But can I change it to “He came indoors when it started to rain”? Only if the action has presently finished.
Were I to write:
He came indoors when it started to rain. Dressed, and sitting at the lunch table, he toyed with his fork…
…the words would take on a feeling of incongruity, order-of-events-wise.
And there is the whole field of humorous effect, wherein all verbosity, tautology, persiflage, rusticity and urbanity, confusion and conflation, are fine and useful.
So at the least remove or replace words:
- That are not true to the voice narrating.
This wedging-in process is tempting to writers of historical fiction, where there is so much information to impart.
(Every time Maryanne passed the Frickerson manor, her thoughts turned naturally to its origins—once an alehouse, erected at what, in 1786, had been a crossroads, marked with the first milestone beyond the village limits; the landlord, Jonas Fricherssen, also a barber by trade, and living with his family in the upstairs loft…)
- That are covered by predecessors.
- Whose meaning is implied by circumstance:
(He knocked his wine glass over on the table, and ruined the cloth.)
- That have the wrong number of syllables for the rhythm of the sentence.
- That are key—noun, verb, adjective, adverb…in that this particular word communicates the very point you’re making, and needs to be vivid. It doesn’t hurt to give second thoughts to categorical nouns: people, trees, machinery, vehicles; and to simple verbs, at times the character can do something more acute than make, go, see.
- If a word doesn’t on the page carry visual weight, or when spoken internally, emotional weight. (But again, not necessarily so in dialogue, or when aiming for humorous effect.)
Bury That Thing
You are familiar with news articles that go something like this:
DIY Project Yields Clue to Thirty-Year-Old Mystery
Tearing out drywall in an upstairs bedroom, Mike and Carol Merganser, of Watsier Point, made a gruesome discovery yesterday.
The Mergansers, high school sweethearts who married soon after graduating from Providence State University in 1975, moved to this quiet New Jersey suburb shortly after Ronald Reagan was elected president. Mr. Merganser is a longtime employee of Brutalitec Industries…
If you’re a typical reader, this is where you’d be saying to yourself, “Don’t care. What’s gruesome?” (Likewise the news site doesn’t much care, when you scroll down, and more ads load.)
The lead is buried. Or is it lede?
Typically, the explanation for the spelling is that in linotype days the machinery used “leads” (of the metal kind), and to avoid confusion, the newsroom produced its own coinage. Possibly. The Mergenthaler (manufacturer of the Linotype machine) company manual spoke of matrices, slugs, magazines…“leads” seems not an official vocabulary word, but names for things can evolve.
And yet, picturing the matter intuitively…saying, for instance, that an editor had written, “Where’s the lead?” on a piece of copy’s margin, is it likely the reporter would mumble: “Well, this can’t be meant for me”; and afterwards, in the composing room, the linotypist would say to himself, “Huh. I don’t get it”?
This would be something like calling salient facts “bullets”, rather than leads, and fearing they’d get confused with the kind the security guard in the lobby uses, so in the newsroom, they should be called “bulléts.”
However, professions can use their own terminology, origin story plausible or otherwise. Why does “lede” annoy people?
I think it’s because the spelling suggests cultural studies concept-words, such as “mores” and “anomie”. Lede makes it seem as though an underlying contention exists, for an article of grand themes, offering subtext and symbolic layering. Lede looks very much like a Jungian term, and when it confronts someone unexpectedly, they must imagine they’re being told intellectual doings are afoot—and being talked down to.
Some Environmental Don’ts
But not of the scolding variety.
If you have a little patch of yard, or a double-sized lot, or some rural acreage, you can help the planet by employing tactics that are as easy as doing nothing.
One: Mow grass about a third as often as you might, especially if you’re a once-a-weeker. (Community rules allowing.)
A few things are going on here. Short grass grows roots that are shallow and thatchy. The roots aren’t healthy enough to penetrate deeply, helping the harder-working dandelions, clovers, and violets condition the soil; and can’t, under summer stresses, provide for even their own needs. The grass turns brown. If you choose to water and chemically treat your lawn, you make more work for yourself, and with bad consequences for the micro-ecosystem under your watch.
Cut your basic labor at the outset, and you won’t need to do these additional jobs. What else do you gain? Longer grass retains morning dew, keeps the ground cooler and moister close to its surface, matures a crop of seed…all of which are habitat features for tiny things—insects, spiders, centipedes, birds, snakes, and small rodents (many of these last two are beneficial…and the odds are far greater you’ll never see them).
Two: Don’t rake leaves in the fall. (Again, if you can get away with it.) Up there in the trees, throughout the summer, insects we like (butterflies, moths, wasps…but even non-beneficials such as tent worms that birds we care about—cuckoos, warblers, orioles—eat), lay eggs, or pupate on the underside of leaves. The leaves fall, and if you rake them away or burn them, you’ve decimated your biome. Leaf mould makes warm winter shelter for those tiny things mentioned above, a breeding ground for useful microbes and funguses, nutrition for the roots of the trees the leaves fell from.
Three: Don’t bustle out with the spray bottle when you see your flowers under attack. Diseases and infestations come in cycles. Plants have evolved robust defenses (poisons, doubling down on reproduction…even pheromonally attracting helpers: insects that eat other insects). It may take a season or two of patience to see a shrub, or a stand of perennials, adapt.
I wouldn’t eco-bully anyone…why should you not enjoy a specimen (a desired plant that isn’t native to, or easy to grow in, your locality), if you like? Just remember that your outdoor space belongs to nature, and she doesn’t obsess about her looks. Anything that really can’t survive, can always be replaced with a better choice.
So there you have it, an easy summer-to-fall plan for making laziness a virtue in the garden.
A Poetry Inspiration Trick
You might have heard of blackout poetry, where you take a page from an old book and black out words, leaving those remaining to harmonize into poetry. But here’s an exercise that’s fun, and that can serve as a jumping off point for inspiration. It’s more a game than an end in itself.
Take a page of text from your notes or prose writings, and change the font color to white (or whatever color matches your background). Then select words at random and change them to back to black. Unlike blackout poetry, whiteout poetry can’t be calculated in the making. You’ll want to polish it up…but the illustration (left) gives an idea.
What Can You Laugh At
We seem to live, these days, in the “it takes one to know one” era.
Those most likely to taunt others, with a motive of dominance, silencing, or plain cruelty, or to openly aggress on them with nothing that lives in the neighborhood of humor, are both the first to claim offense when they, being public figures, are lampooned (under fully accredited comedy auspices); and conversely, the first to excuse themselves by accusing others of “not taking a joke”, when their own offenses manifestly were not meant as such.
Anyone can crack wise spontaneously, and any comedian can ad lib. If the joke is thoughtless, the investment of backlash should equal and not exceed the investment of thought. But—heads up!—comedy will often appear in the funny pages, on TV, in movies, in clubs…all places where the recipient (audience) has an implied contract, that of the “house”.
You knew joking would take place when you came here…you are not under duress, presumably can’t come to harm, and you can leave if you like. (Yes, when comedians scare people, ridicule them, or damage their property, they’ve broken the contract themselves.)
So, how do you tell a joke? Not tell, but tell.
Let’s start with some old-time slapstick. You might, under present-day PC rules, find this 1914 Mack Sennett short sexist…brute-ist, even…though Mabel Normand gives as good as she gets; further, the various objects-at-hand the characters hit one another with are very apparent props.
Perspective, and consideration of era, make it okay to laugh at the above. What about “organic” slapstick? The next clip shows a series of texting-while-walking accidents. In this news report (not always the case with videos online) events are responsibly curated. But here is one of the central conundrums of comedy, one serious philosophers have wrestled with explaining.
Why do we laugh at mishaps, even when they are “real-life” and the consequences may be unfortunate?
This past April, a couple of tempests in our nation’s teapot took place, when Sean Hannity picked a fight with Jimmy Kimmel over Melania Trump’s accent; and when comedian Michelle Wolf hosted the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
Links: USA Today
Are matters of appearance, or habits of speech, truly off-limits for jokers? The freedom constitutionally afforded to satirists is, of course, everyone’s freedom, as in oppressive regimes humor is often the front line of fighting back, for ordinary people who have lost their representative voice. Whereas, in long-established rules of cultural interchange—etiquette—those things true of a person, obvious to the eye, and which everyone is expected to ignore as though they did not exist, are regarded either tragic afflictions or embarrassments.
So it may not be a welcome defense to suggest a person’s accent or her face must be unmentionable, for decency’s sake.
Mimicry is a comedic convention. To separate good from bad requires analysing what makes a humorous device function. Cartoons, as a type of comedy, employ portrayal in the most direct way. The punchline is part of the joke, but the joke gets its flesh from the accompanying artwork.
Below, one of my own, “A Friendly Smile, and a Firm Handshake”. In this case, the joke really is the art.
When monologuists portray famous people through mimicry, they are sharpening the joke…drawing for the audience a picture, in effect.
In the first of the following clips, Stephen Colbert gives a physical representation of Eric Trump, that so unexpectedly delights the audience, he barely is able to finish the joke, and ends up doing the gag twice.
In the second clip, Trevor Noah’s satire of Facebook’s apology ad gets surgical with his impression of the narrator’s voice and mannerisms.
Mean mimicry is not only identifiable to most people by instinct, but has the characteristic of pointlessness. People who suffer are not always saints, few uniformly saintly in behavior…if holding to a higher set of ethics, or showing greater tolerance than the average person, is any wish of theirs in the first place, they are—having enough to deal with—fully entitled to refuse such a role. In which case, the things they do that violate social codes are legitimate joke fodder, externalities notwithstanding.
Making fun of someone with a degenerative disease merely because he has symptoms of this disease, is utterly pointless. Making fun of people who speak a language, or practice a religion, merely because they do so, is utterly pointless.
That stuff is not comedy. Therefore not excused on the grounds that the target had not “understood” the humor.
I’ve been listening, while I make my art, to background music, 70s channels on YouTube—not merely to enjoy the songs, but for being reminded of “good ones”, I’d forgotten existed, as “Fox on the Run,” by the band Sweet. But, to my disappointment, some of these channels take fancy notions, playing a bunch of alternate versions, instead of the good old radio song I know and love. It makes me think that “live” cuts are the musical equivalent of kale. A lot of people find them superior…leafier, as it were, and more fibrous when digested by the temporal lobe, than polished radio “candy”. Myself, I like big in a song—big production, big guitar, big drums, big backup vocals, big lead vocals—total fakery, as long as it shines. That’s all.
A Cross Between
As Torsade’s mission in part, is always to stand for misfits and outsiders, and to help in any way possible disassembling the bullies’ toolkit, the serious question of humor keeps cropping, and needs addressing analytically—whenever we see another rearing-of-the-head, of: “My offense was only a joke.”
So, Part II:
How to Tell a Joke.
Fallout has fallen, and things have settled somewhat, but not long ago, a TV personality got into trouble for a toxic variant on the “cross-between” format of quipping.
You see this type frequently in reviews and light news articles.
The band’s vibe is a cross between heroin-chic nihilism, and a Reno lounge act.
Her public relations approach is a cross between McMann and Tate, and viral word-on-the-street hustling.
The humor nexus is in the contrast of two disparate things, each of which, for the reader’s sake, should conjure a picture; the pictures making together, with luck, a packet too ironically incongruent not to be funny.
If used at the personal level, the outlandishness of comparison then serves to soften the blow (and of course, points towards “not seriousness”).
She looks like a cross between Wilma Flintstone and William Howard Taft.
His penthouse is décored in a cross between UFO and Hee Haw.
Can you ever joke about someone’s appearance?
Let’s first ask, why do we want to?
Society has certain airbrushed standards of beauty and coolness that almost none of us meet. And…people sometimes take ridiculous measures to live up to them. Then again, people continue being (and despite the doing-unto-others snag) harshly judgmental towards those who don’t.
So, in matters of appearance, we have the behavioral, as well as “what can’t be helped”. Behaviors, when they are conspicuous and in some way idiotic, strike a common chord of response…to joke is often a means of acknowledging: “I think so and I know you do, too.”
But, if what we have both noticed is that a small and powerless person is also fat or old, or identifiably possessed of a race, where is the humor? The observation would be pointless; the acknowledgment of it, cruel…if not stand-alone stupid.
If someone is powerful, wealthy, privileged, enjoys a position in the public eye; or if even an ordinary person exhibits behaviors that are egregious (as of some recent Twitter infamati), a certain amount of take-down is indicated…perhaps in the matter of sunglasses or hair gel.
Many style choices are aspirational: i.e., plastic surgeries, hair extensions, makeup strength incompatible with local lighting conditions (let’s say); the combining of tight garments with a prominent Sitting Belly Bulge, etc.
If your skin is orange, your eyeliner Cooper-esque (Alice), or if your procedure to rein in chin baggage has left your profile prognathous, you know these things about yourself. You chose them. These are not disabilities. They are a few of the “looks” aspects that fall in the behavioral category.
Religious clothing, unless it’s a species of cult-wear, doesn’t qualify as behavioral, and isn’t suited for joking…nor are malpractice-level consequences in plastic surgery; nor are hairpieces worn as a result of illness. Foremost, because accidents and illnesses aren’t funny.
Below, samples of Larry Tate in action; the old Sci-Fi series UFO; and a running bit on Hee Haw.
“Burial at sea…has always been her ‘wish’,” the captain said.
Here is an opener that would make it hard to quit reading. And why? The mystery is in the punctuation.
Content creators often have rules that represent a house style, implying that punctuation is dead where it fell, and can only lie in that pose forever. Always the Oxford comma; never the Oxford comma. Always the period inside the parenthesis; never the period inside the parenthesis. Always in effect pluralizing a singular possessive that ends in s; never other than Charles’s, the Jones’s.
We punctuate writing for logic. One problem in text is that words sitting next to each other can convey different meanings—the intended and the unexpected. People sometimes use this phenomenon playfully, as this invented example:
The nationalist leader insists she is not a fascist, bitch as they will her detractors.
Or headline writers may sometimes editorialize. A recently famous (apocryphal?) one, re the U.S. presidential physical:
Doctor: No heart, cognitive issues
The punctuation and grammar of a sentence may be fine, and it will still on the page read weirdly. Below, a comma, though not strictly needed, might help break up an awkward set.
People in the minority hate charity relieving them of free choice.
Punctuation in the more complicated sentence puts its components into reading order, as bracketing in mathematical equations puts expressions in solving order. Such constructions are fun for the writer too, because the flow of persuasion at times requires the short-and-sharp; at times the symphonic build-up.
When a statement is offset with parentheses, these contain a relevant aside, but one with no material bearing on the sentence’s meaning. If the parenthetical belongs to a leading or internal clause, the comma logically comes after the closing parenthesis. If the contents are an insertion, where no comma is needed, then the parenthetical doesn’t need to assume one.
I contend it is a piece of cake to put your house in apple-pie order (though those full of beans may have a bone to pick).
There’s no call for a comma after order. Some stylists would prefer placing the period between pick and the closing parenthesis. I don’t, on the logical grounds that it would make the aside actively part of the sentence, and it isn’t meant to be.
Dashes are another type of offset. As in parentheticals, the statement contained within can have its own question or exclamation mark.
In spite of strong evidence of tampering, and the danger of lasting harm, the action a baseball commissioner could hardly avoid taking had cheating tainted a World Series game, goes—unbelievably!—begging where a nation’s well-being is at stake.
The dashed expression is material, and can be commented on.
It amounted to small reparation—it amounted to his paying himself while pretending to right a wrong—but the landlord’s ‘discount’ would have to be accepted.
Then, there’s the double ellipsis. This is appropriate on two occasions: when the character is hesitant in thought or speech; and when dubiety or sardonic humor are being expressed.
It was fine for Lucille to claim wind or the cat could have disarranged things…there, Margot saw again the heavy dictionary fallen to the floor…but after all, they were noticing these oddities, were they not? Did that not imply an introduction, a phenomenon?
“Do you think it’s louche,” she asked, as the driver…showing, at any rate, élan…accelerated into the blind curve, “to be the sort of person who live-streams her own demise?”
All these devices taken together lend a naturalistic progression to a train of thought in close narration…
In actuality, though, rats were intelligent, were they not? More so, perhaps, than…he felt it possible; he had seen uncontrolled horses run simply mad—in which case the conceit…
Inimical, Chapter 9, “Considerations Beyond Understanding”
…or an omniscient narrator’s tone of light humor. Logically, each new thing is mentioned just where it bears on that to which it’s relevant.
And had either newcomer known it, that a family-sized carriage, one confiding wealth—in that its brass lamps shined, their glass intact; the side panels were of a glowing mahogany which, burnished under a coachman’s care, laughed at dust; the spokes of the rubber-tired wheels thrust true (and were not a bit rusted, nor especially dirt-caked for their travels)—was an unusual sight, pulled to a standstill before the Main Street Hotel, one or the other might have remarked on it.
Hammersmith, Chapter 26, “Chickens in a Mood to Roost”
In other words, the parenthetical above briefly expands on the tires; the entire dash-off explains the meaning of a carriage “confiding wealth”; the sentence complete establishes what: “If either had known…one or the other might have remarked.”
And whether the (seemingly) haphazard sentence echoes patterns of natural thought, or whether humorous complications echo those of a humorously complicated plot, these types of offset allow the writer to plug in information, just where it’s needed.
The Green-Eyed Monster
On a bad family vacation in 1989…a time when my father was, for some reason, going through a Rush Limbaugh phase…we (as people who have bad family vacations do) were tussling over the radio. If it had been pop music, I’d have been happy to have it on; but right-wing bombast, no.
I was captive audience, though, to a caller who boasted that whenever he saw a Mercedes-Benz parked on the street, he keyed it (which…just in case this practice I haven’t heard referred to in ages has become unfamiliar means to use, with malice, the sharp edge of an old-fashioned key to scrape someone’s paint).
I really disliked his attitude, his praise-seeking for a criminal impulse, from a radio figure; while other members of the family seemed to chuckle over it.
What mentality are we dealing with?
He subscribes (the man with the key) to a commonplace, certainly so where I come from, that when others have nice things, benefits and advantages, this by itself is unfair to those who don’t have them. The plausibility is apparent…the emotional appeal, the relatability, for many, of “my life is hard, and yours is easy”.
And the view, mostly working-class conservative, can mesh in cozily with a type of folly on the left, a nominal social consciousness. Much of the sheer charm that buffets the world from the politically correct swing of the compass is rooted also in the doctrine of unfairness—an unwillingness to allow people who have erred to fix anything, to change their minds about anything, to be offered a squaring-away task and allowed to complete it, to have their imperfect contribution valued for being a contribution, rather than scorned for being imperfect; to admit themselves wrong and receive redemption.
You frequently will see (in the Twittersphere) a conservative pundit or legislator condemn the American president’s policies, only to be met with:
“You let this happen in the first place!”
And further words of never-forgiveness.
The unfairness doctrine rests on a general, generally unexamined belief that people who have things, “got away” with having them; or that people who seek amity might short their accusers on the sackcloth and ashes, be let off the hook without sufficient suffering for the honor.
For all the man with the key knew, the Mercedes might have belonged to a disabled grandmother, for whom a community, grateful for her years of volunteering, had taken up a collection; they might all, that year, have gone without their turkey and holiday gifts. Yes, a rich f*** is more likely to be the owner, but the angels-in-disguise principle asks for faithful application, not quibbles on probability.
(The only thing you really need to believe in, as concerns all variations of creed, religious and secular, is that if you’re not done fixing yourself, you aren’t ready to start on anyone else.)
All this has an interesting bearing on creative work, on folklore concerning it; on the shadowy figure of the elitist—into that arty-farty stuff and insisting on funding it with your taxes.
Artists, poets, writers…perhaps especially writers…have often to deal with a type. This type interprets all a novelist’s characters and circumstances as autobiographical, or as evidence of sublimated psychology. This type may, if she’s very pernicious…and particularly with paintings, drawings, poetry…find evidence of depression, schizophrenia; possibly, if she’s worked herself into the zone, of “dissociative disorder”, in color combinations, rhymes and repetitions, surreal imagery.
If these people were up to any good, they would have some idea—one they could articulate—of the world’s being a better place for their efforts. But has any artist who’s ever encountered the type, heard tell of a plan for crafting, on the strength of these observations, a body of knowledge and a scheme to improve society?
Why do it? Why not enjoy Sylvia Plath or Mark Rothko (their individual works, that is, and each on its own merits) instead of buggering in deep, probing after “evidence” of suicidal tendencies?
Because creative success engenders a jealousy like no other. Someone gets to draw pictures for a living, or sing songs, and gets to be rich and famous?
Of course, by far, mostly not…but that doesn’t alter the radar sweep of the unfairness scouts. And as the boastful vandal above indicates, such persons would like to “get back” at the ones they see unfairly rewarded. The diagnosey behavior towards creative work serves to abnormalize it; therefore in turn making people (who could perfectly well make art, if their circles’ opinions weren’t so inhibiting to them) feel they are better off at their distance…not knowing art, but knowing what they like.
Hate for You, Hate for Me
I had the wrong idea about gossip.
I thought people sowed hatefulness by putting a bad name on someone; accusing another of having done something:
“Look out, Ben steals people’s stuff.”
“Maggie smokes in the bathroom.”
“Jack’s resume is a joke. He was never a Navy SEAL.”
“Shawna got her job because her father’s a big shareholder.”
Mild enough examples. But even serious charges…
“The new guy has a criminal record.”
“Lorraine’s wacko. I mean, for real!”
“Fred in accounting is a pervert. Don’t let him get you alone.”
“Judy just came out and called Ron a you-know-what!”
…are not quite it. Yes, people accept, and repeat, such statements, and feel comfortable with themselves doing so, while having never approached the accused for balance. However, the worst, truly divisive attacks come from the opposite flank. Not, “that person is hateful”; but “he (or she) hates you”.
For me at least it’s true, that if someone had told me any of the above (possibly, I would avoid being alone with Fred), I would still work with that person, engage him/her in a business-related exchange, with no wish to radiate suspicion and judgment. I wouldn’t feel judgment, in several instances. Why hate someone who’s starting a new life, or someone mentally ill…or even a pizza thief?
But suppose I’m told, “She can’t stand you. She rolled her eyes when she found out you were the one sent to help. She said you mess everything up, and why don’t they fire you?”
There’s a big difference between indignation on behalf of others, and indignation on your own behalf. Now, if she smiles, I may think, “Oh, that’s so phony.” If she asks me, “How long will this take?”; or, “Do you think you can figure out what’s wrong?”, I may see snark, veiled belittlement.
And if the accusation is true, if she has this attitude, these manifestations may even be deliberate offenses. If false, my own standoffishness and unforthcoming communication will make it true. She’ll either begin disliking me because she finds me rude…or dislike me more, because she feels her opinion confirmed. Her uncooperativeness, unwillingness to help me help her, will make my work seem incompetent. I’ll dislike her in turn, because I find her rude, because I worry she’ll defame me to others.
How did assaulting strangers, for the color of their skin, or their clothing, or the language they speak to each other, become a line to cross? The message, since the upheaval of post-2016 began, is that evidence doesn’t matter, facts don’t matter. They don’t matter because the “opponent” is not accused of anything specific. A charge against Jill the Liberal that she has stolen something, or physically harmed someone, is a charge that under the rule of law she has the right to know of, and defend herself against…a charge which ever after, if she obtains a verdict in her favor, the rule requires that her accusers, “drop it”.
But Joe the Conservative, under these mechanisms of propaganda, never has to relax his attitude towards Jill, because she is accused, merely, of being his enemy: “Jill doesn’t like you, Joe.”
By extension, all people similar to Jill, affiliated with Jill, roughly represented by Jill, don’t like you, Joe. They are all your enemies.
And Jill, Joe hates you in turn. Everyone similar to Joe, affiliated with Joe, roughly represented by Joe, hates you. They are all your enemies.
Rod Liddle, commenter for Britain’s “The Spectator” magazine, wrote (2 July 2016) a sarcastic assessment of mutual hate between Brexiteers and Remainers. Intended humor or not, these notions that old people hate young people, that all Leavers are racists, all Remainers spoiled urbanites, are the essence of the modern political disjunction. If debate were a matter of making your points, answering the opposition’s, hashing out a middle ground, no one would seek to make policy with elections. Elections are popularity contests. Or footraces. Debate and resolution are the very practice of parliaments and legislatures…but of late, governing bodies have tended to stack the deck first, in their own favor, wanting then to rubber stamp their agenda.
In America, the idea anyone would even raise the simple argument, “the other side disagrees with your positions” seems laughable. It is all reaction, all cultivated myth; the elites, a group which flexibly can be made to encompass the free press and every left-leaning political candidate, while excluding the very wealthy, hate you…if (flexibly again) you rate yourself a “regular American”.
Hillary Clinton hates you most of all. During a speech in India, while promoting What Happened, her book on the 2016 election, she referred to the Deplorables (that coinage forewarningly coopted by Republicans), saying in imitation of Trump, “You know, you didn’t like black people getting rights; you don’t like women…”
How easily such statements can be filtered down to their corollary. She (read: all Democrats) doesn’t like you. One reason, then, that her email contretemps (not wholly a scandal, since what this is, exactly—other than next to nothing, as evidence suggests—hasn’t been brought to a verdict) can’t be dropped, is because Hillary-as-enemy fills this role to a T for the far right. She’s against you…look, she says so.
At a basic level, enemy-making works for propagandists because the human race has an existing language for veiled hostility, one often employed by those whose dislike for its target is genuine. We’ve seen the phony smile; we’ve heard polite words uttered in a sarcastic tone of voice; been damned with faint praise; marveled at, conversely, over tiny achievements. We’ve come across scads of passive-aggressive “accidents”, designed to make us feel bad.
Primed, or coached, to believe someone hates us; that she thinks we aren’t as good as she is, doesn’t want to work with or live with our kind, we can teach ourselves also to readily spot signs and wonders. We can grow so reactive that all the other person says seems untrustworthy; we can, influenced by propaganda, be made paranoid enough to feel hate at the other person’s walking into a room. Look at the way she goes around! What she wears! How she talks! We can offer her a cup of coffee and be outraged she dares accept it.
Thus, this spate of fearful Whites attacking Blacks and Spanish-speakers, can burgeon even while the speed-dialer may insist, “I’m not a racist”. In the enemy-seeking mindset lies reward…and a sense of reward not hard to come by, if consultation is contained within an insular group. The person with the cell phone is not, among her particular “us”, a racist; she is an innocent threatened by inimical moves, almost a glamorous role…the stuff of books and movies. She is a model citizen, being safe rather than sorry, heroic, misunderstood—by “haters”.
Is it extreme to hate a mark of punctuation?
Or…have you noticed that when people explicate, after stating their dislike for the exclamation point, or the semicolon, they begin to talk about the sorts of people they don’t like?
I am a little charmed, myself, by enthusiasm, and don’t recall reading any book where the use of exclamation points was disturbing, or interfered with my comprehension.
The usual complaint is that they are overstatements; that they vie for attention.
Also, there’s this:
Buzzfeed: We Tried to Stop Using Exclamation Points and It Was So Hard!
(On the popular idea these marks are used mostly by women.)
Now, why would you be bothered, suffer an existential crisis, over whether this or that jot suggests you’re betraying feminism, feminizing yourself, conforming to a stereotype, defying a stereotype, persuading, failing to persuade, pleasing, trying too hard to please, looking accessible, looking stupid…
Which might be called simple, which might be called rustic, which might be called…common. Part of the problem!
(Okay, settle down.)
Snippet from South Carolina in the Revolutionary War, William Gilmore Simms, 1853.
As a nineteenth century writer (sample above) might put it: How limiting—and how pointless!—to fear your use of punctuation brands you the wrong sort of person! (The inverted question, augmented with the emphatic interjection.)
Many of our literary foreparents got great mileage from this sort of thing, when they had the occasion to deplore or marvel at their present-day atrocities. But—to the point—if you’re going to write period fiction, you need to be conversant with this, and a variety of other casual and rhetorical styles.
Is the semicolon stuffy; is it a kind of showing off?
Why should it be? (People who have “been to college” are just as likely as anyone else to use them wrong.) They do serve a purpose in a kind of formal writing, mainly because complicated sentences on topics arcane to the reader, benefit from every sort of clarity. They also have specific technical uses—where clauses make contrasting statements, where a conjunction has been left out.
And you might not think of a semicolon belonging in dialogue, but you can probably think of the sort of person whose speech would contain semicolons. In that case, what artistic self-negation is justified by refusing to use them?
It’s helpful to look at punctuation as a sort of musical notation.
; = a two beat pause
… = a three beat pause
— = a glide and stop
For more literary theater, there are other line/clause terminating devices.
Of course, that was just what Fisher had been asking… Too late to have grasped his purpose now.
Everyone had been in the process of disembarking anyway, and should have got off safely enough—
Well, to tell the story properly, I’ll have to go back to that telegram in June, the one Aunt Eula had done her best to stop me paying the overcharge on, certain we were being rooked.
In the first example, the adverb floats like an iceberg from the parent sentence, to become a punchline.
In the second, we have the Trailing Ellipsis/Space/Fragment treatment, allowing “Too late“ to carry more weight. (Never mind anyone’s suggestion you shouldn’t use fragments.)
The third example shows the dash-and-drop, a mechanism either humorous or fraught.
My own bag of tricks as a writer contains every sort of device, since they all aid composition, in the truest sense. How you read the story is the story. What does it mean, after all, when something is “done for effect”? If your artistic austerity is too fine for drama (or for anything else), are you applying an unexamined standard? Do you wholly account for your judgment of yourself vs. others: “This is my level”; “That is too low for me”?
(As general life advice, every form of snobbery is the burning of a bridge, so you need to be certain you’re not going back there.)
A last word, then, on the semicolon, the comma splice, the Oxford comma. I don’t follow a style book (Chicago Manual of, AP, etc.). I try to apply such rules as have a persuasive logic.
If something in quotes is part of the sentence, I put the stop—period, question mark, exclamation point—outside the quote. If the segment is genuine dialogue, I put the stop inside the quote.
A good reason for this:
I asked him why he had parked diagonally over the walk, and he said he was “only going in for a minute”!
The exclamation point is an editorial comment of the narrator. If you made an unvarying rule that punctuation always goes inside the quote, the speaker’s enthusiasm would either be misrepresented, or the narrator’s indignation would require unnecessary fanciness, e.g.: (!)
Now, say you write…
The watercolorist’s backpack contained pencils and brushes, pots of pigment, three tablets of paper, a small water bottle and saucer, a large water bottle for her lunch, sandwiches, chips, napkins, and a camera.
The comma use varies. Things that are of a set: pencils and brushes, small water bottle and saucer, are not separated. This method also varies the rhythm of the sentence as you read it, to pleasing effect. So why would it make sense to rigidly separate everything, or always link up the last two items, however unrelated?
They would like to deny responsibility, they would like to make a disability of their fecklessness; they would like to claim, nonetheless, that they can be trusted with responsibility!
He left the house, and as he would not be back, quashed the impulse to slam the door, pulled it softly, let it click.
The old-fashioned way of punctuating the first example requires a semicolon between each clause. I usually treat clauses that function as items on a list, as such, to be separated less fussily by a comma; only the final clause, that draws some logical point from the preceding ones, asks for a semicolon. There are two other arguments for using one here: That you could consider an “and” to have been replaced before the final clause, and that “nonetheless” is simply placed centrally (for dramatic emphasis), and might have been placed at the head of the clause. By tradition, if a clause is constructed: This; otherwise, that… the conjunctive adverb takes the semicolon/comma treatment.
In the second example, formally there would be a semicolon between house and and; the last phrase using the ing verb form, or being offset with a conjunction. But this passage makes an elegiac moment in the story (whatever the story may be), and the prose as written does a better job of conveying that.
When cleaning my garage, I came across a forgotten laser pointer.
The cats my father had given it to me for the entertainment of, are all past cats now; but recently I’ve adopted two brothers, Ed (grey) and Chester (orange), about a year and 3 months old. I checked the internet to see if pointers were considered dangerous, and the only objection highlighted was that being unable to ever catch the red dot might be frustrating for the cat.
My guys, not frustrated, learned in a hurry where I keep it; they emphatically come running when they hear the drawer slide. They beg and pestify as soon as I sit down at my computer cabinet to work, Ed rocketing himself through the five pillows I have to stuff in open spaces to block him, getting in among cables, chewing on these (which has to be stopped at once); also chewing up my notes.
My little kitties are obsessed…they find the laser pointer the Toy of Toys.
I’ve tried playing it over actual toys, or pieces of food, so they’d have something to catch, but they’re not really interested. Chester’s favorite thing is watching the dot vanish down the cold air duct; Ed’s is just chasing it round and round in circles.
There’s a certain curiously worded type of rejection I always wonder about.
First of all, let me say that none of these writing-career setbacks should be found very critical, for the excellent reason that…
Well, consider the process. If a journal receives five hundred poems entered in a contest, the task at that stage—of choosing one above all—is plainly impossible. You would have to be able to memorize each and every, and bear all in mind simultaneously. You would need, also, to be equipped with a mind free of prejudices, conscious at all times of clearly delineated standards.
So, dunked in the submission pool, your work begins by being sieved. Are the sievers reliable? That depends on a definition the submitter can’t know, and that may (must?) be variable and individual. To a given publication, is relevance relevant? Is the reader freshly trained to dislike this, find that outdated…and the next thing not sufficiently sensitive? Is the reader an old hand, confident of his/her own taste, willing to shoulder controversy?
And does that matter, since the ultimate choice, out of maybe thirty, then ten, etc., is still an amalgamation of tastes, prejudices, fears, aspirations.
Just as are the submitted poems.
But, now and then, you get a rejection that says, in effect, “Good luck someplace else”. And here I tend to question, are they sincere? Do they believe this sounds encouraging? Do they not notice that it sounds like, “Never send us your work again”?
Ern Malley Hoax
You may enjoy this, hopeful poets. (Right now, we’re in a pesky phase of online exigencies, where sites not carrying a proper certificate are being labeled on Google “not secure”. If you like to dig up more of Malley’s poetry, and judge its merits—yes, there are some well-curated lines—a number of them are out there, but mostly on http sites.)
A Few Nice Turns of Phrase
Caesar and Grannie came back, both in fearful outbursts of Sunday clothes.
The Manxman, Sir Hall Caine 1903
The bathroom that he now whistled in was a utile jewel… [non-italics mine]
Mildred Pierce, James M. Cain 1941
(‘Utile jewel’ so perfectly captures American mid-century bathroom pride.)
It is singular, however, that those who hold up the pigs as models to us never hold us up as models to the pigs.
My Summer in a Garden, Charles Dudley Warner, 1880
One of the greatest advances in modern technology is the freedom, which will only be meaningful to those who lived under the old system, to not receive, thus not have to store, electric, gas, credit card statements…all such as we were once guilted into making a second career out of ordering chronologically (if not alphabetically), and tucking away in hanging files, then in shoe boxes, then years later—for the bold—shredding and dumping. Some had such a fear that the Paper Trail Police would kick their door in and demand to see every grocery receipt from 1972, on pain of foreclosure, that they could never throw old documents out, even when the garage held thirty years’ worth of them.
No doubt the survivalists will chortle over these digital developments. When the apocalypse comes, everyone else’s identity will be wiped out…
But, just possibly, a handy thing in the midst of apocalypse.
With Malice Towards None, with Charity for All
The phrase comes from Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address, delivered 4 March 1865. America’s Civil War was winding to a close, and the hour to many seemed the darkness before the dawn. But division, our nation’s worst (as we’d still like to think), was rooting itself in among those who knew that they would lose, but vowed they would not be reconciled.
The passage is worth quoting in its larger context:
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may soon pass away. Yet if God wills that it continue until the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn by the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, that ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’
With malice towards none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and orphans, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
We are presently engaged in a great civil disjunction, testing whether in America we have any common sense left at all. Global trickery is on the march, and seemingly, we aren’t quite smart enough to see through it, to avoid seeing our social balance destabilized…yet our leaders greet this turn with a fatalistic shrug.
I contend that the two great drivers of human behavior are not love vs. hate; nor any other dichotomy of nebulous, ill-defined emotion. They are procrastination and aversion.
Procrastination says, “These are awful things. I’ll really do something about them one day—when I’m less busy…I feel better…I’m a little richer. When I’m older, married, divorced, once I’ve retired, whenever the economy picks up…”
Procrastination engenders ethical abandonment, because it allows someone to feel (by virtue of intention) that he is in the right, and is doing right, all the while he’s doing nothing.
Aversion says: I fear you. I hate you. I hate the things you like. I hate the things I associate with you. I hate the things that remind me of you. I hate the city you live in. Now, I hate the state you live in. Soon, I’ll hate the country you live in.
Aversion accounts for behaviors that otherwise would appear nearly insane. Why should a normal-minded person be opportunistically cruel, or refuse to be helpful? A mindset has been cultivated here (often enough, on fertile ground). People who are both frightened, and convincible that the ordinary conceals a veiled threat, can’t feel safe—their new mindset telling them to always anticipate attack. They itch to launch one instead.
Aversion then grows into paranoia, as trajected above. This process leads to self-loathing. Self-loathing leads to a wish to cleanse, and a wish to cleanse leads to…
But here on Torsade, we’re concerned mostly with the arts. And in the fields of fiction, poetry, image-making, etc., we have material enough to work with, in addressing those trends that have so many well-meaning people, who truly purpose going into the world with malice towards none, and charity for all, ducking for cover and running scared.
The framework for rational assessment begins with the outer bracket, so to speak—which we’ll use to determine what we’re dealing with; a first necessity before we decide on faults and punishments.
The three types of exaggeration:
i. Overstated importance.
ii. Overstated influence.
iii. Escalation of reaction.
Bad art should be easy to dismiss.
Whatever controversy rises when someone publishes an insensitive (so labeled) poem, cartoon, novel, remark on social media…
Or gives a performance in costume, perhaps, or produces a piece of statement art, statement misapprehended…
None of this is anthrax in the water.
Art, by and large, is a bubble in the water at best, soon to vanish. Those works historically credited with influencing hearts and minds were never born into a sterile environment. Not even the Communist Manifesto.
Propagandists know this perfectly well. A key tactic of the propagandist’s science is short-handing, the use of words, phrases, symbols, to seemingly express an idea. The reduction to a non-specific stub, makes the symbol more effective. If person A believes life would be great if only the local factory could be reopened, and person B believes life would be great if schools were required to teach Christianity, both may feel they hear the same assurance when this is simplified to the level of a slogan. The slogan can be simplified even further, to a coinage…that may sound like the mumblings of a troll. Maga, maga, maga.
Whatever piece of art emerges as “important”, as a new cultural touchstone, emerges because an audience exists for it, because human beings are always waiting for a bellwether, a guiding force that can encompass a diverse body of longings…and seemingly unify these into a whole, a “herd” to which all believers can belong.
And so, in that respect, yes, popular art can have coalition-building powers.
But this putting of the cart before the horse, this insistence that art is dangerous, that a book or movie can cause conversion in the mind’s otherwise empty cabinet of philosophy, spurs these tooth-combing attacks on clumsy little people, and their clumsy little efforts. These days, preemptive strikes are made against any possibility of a second chance, while the need for second chances, in an angry and accusative society, only grows.
Once upon a time, the mannerly would have said, “I apologize. I phrased that badly.”
And the mannerly reply: “Oh, we all make mistakes.”
But the anonymity of social media, combined with the game-like reward of being first to score a point, encourages a particular kind of depredation. The things that are vital to social interaction, and cannot be tossed aside if we care what kind of country this is, are those things we feel, and know we feel, in the face of all the world’s dismissal.
If someone finds polite speech embarrassing, and shies from using it, he will still find rudeness painful. It’s worth noting that the quick apology and easy (social) forgiveness are not weaknesses. They are diplomacy in action. When a coworker launches into a dirty story, and you say (in effect, or, any modern variation upon), “You mistake me, sir!”; when someone makes a racist comment, and you say…coldly, “I don’t think I can have understood you”; you are saying, either commit to your position or back off!
Here is not only strength, as opposed to weakness, but the time-honored way of keeping social discourse civil. (Forcing clarity at the outset also circumvents the excuses: “I was only joking”; “No one minded then.”)
We forget that to be accused of having bad intentions is deeply insulting. To be accused of wishing to harm others is grotesquely insulting. (To be accused of harming others, implies a criminal or civil violation, requiring the accusation be made publicly, officially, and “on paper”; and proofs provided by the accuser.)
We have the right, when so insulted, to demand our accuser take a stance that can be answered. If apologies and corrections won’t be accepted, then the accuser becomes the aggressor.
To Whom Do You Refer
When I speak of good taste and of good moral tone I do not mean the kind of good taste which is offended by every reference to the unpleasant things of life, I do not mean the kind of morality which refuses to recognize the existence of immorality — that type of moral hypocrite has done more to check the moral progress of humanity than all the immoral people put together — what I mean is the kind of good taste which demands that frankness should be linked with decency, the kind of moral tone which is braced and not relaxed when it is brought face to face with vice.
Joseph Pulitzer, quoted by Alleyn Ireland, 1914
The question is one of reliability.
The question really is, of course, how great is the present-day danger, how much are we placing at stake, when we write, when we speak, when we express our opinions? The question, then, is one of triviality and gravity at once. Words, our choices of them, our chances of being able to express ourselves freely, individually, and as often as we wish, while dodging PC predators.
That itself takes defining, because we’ve been informed that, since the dark times commenced in 2016, a fair portion of attack posts online come not from members of protected classes—who have a right to speak of their own experiences—but trolls, who truly intend to make us all feel bad.
There are three facets to reliability.
First, everything you’ve done which is objectively provable. You have paid your taxes—you have the documents. You are a college graduate—you have your diploma.
Second, your reputation. This, the ill-fitting prison jumpsuit stitched up by gossipers…who are not known to sidle over and whisper anyone’s praises to an eager friend…
This, you can’t do much about, other than refute it by the life you lead.
Third, what you know of yourself. That you love animals, hate pollution, never want to be cruel, always hope to comply with the law, etc.
The importance of reliability is measured in what we lose when campaigning behavior attempts to strip us of it. If you have committed no crimes, no gross offenses; if you are trustworthy on not practicing quirks and predilections in public, to impose them on others; if your political and religious beliefs are shared only in forums where opinions are sought or tolerated, you should be secure in your reliability. People can hire you to do a job. They have no reason to fear being alone with you. They can trust you with things of value to them.
Minorities and marginalized groups have always known themselves in danger of being characterized unreliable. Incumbents, in the holding of power, even at the community tin-pot level, often don’t want their fantasies spoiled by the challenge of a face-to-face meeting—the possibility of a scapegoat, of use politically, turning out to be nice.
What happens to the fun of their happy hatred, then?
But “in-people”, of late, have felt the same insecurity. They will put a foot wrong; they will be boycotted by righteous, intractable strangers; they will be ostracized, unemployed, debt-ridden, made homeless…
Insiders and outsiders alike must fear this, these days.
That things we did in the past without high censure—but, for what we deem today enlightenment, things that the good-willed among us have stopped doing, will be dug up like the corpse of Pope Formosus, tried and condemned, and it will do no good to agree with these people, it will do no good to apologize to them, it will do no good to point to the way we’ve lived for years.
All things that require the hand of authority, personated by a leader. Containment, which follows definition; closure, which follows adjudication. For having these, a sense of secure protection, which is the purpose to a society of authority in the first place. Faith, that the system doesn’t bury wrongdoing, or allow, by the use of its rules, wrongdoers to sidestep or outlast their victims; temperance, exercised, that the existence of victims doesn’t become conflated with the political idea that victimization exists.
We see this is so even in the trend of acceptance, and widespread use of, the word “accusers”. A person making an allegation, a person petitioning for prosecution of a reported offense, is a person whose legal standing prior to an investigation, prior to charges being filed, is not more or less elevated than that of the alleged perpetrator. “Another accuser has come forward” is heavily loaded language—“has” the only neutral word in the sentence. The load is the picture-weight that a word or phrase carries. (“Candidate from Otherton Runs for School Board” vs. “Area Mom Hopes to Bring Change to School Board”.)
Victim’s rights are not compromised by eliminating language with a presupposition of guilt. Long records of consistent patterns of behavior don’t lose their evidentiary validity if Star Chamber proceedings are not imposed on spotty cases with questionable import and inconsistencies from witness to witness.
And so, to contain those offenses that are society’s business, we begin by creating guidelines, by identifying principles for the testing of allegations. From tested principles, we create rules for what is and what is not.
One future day, a rumor will rise, spread by the older people, that some new use of language, or type of conduct, some new formula of joking, or article of fashion, is offensive. An accused performer or a politician will insist on his innocence, and the punditry will call forth an expert.
The expert will attest: “I have an advanced degree in Relational Cultural Synthesis Studies, from Yale Online; also, I hold three virtual chairs at various Input Centres of the European Unified Resources Complex. The claim is utterly unsupported. I have browsed all the records listed under this, and other, key topics, and there is no framework of chronological signifiers to indicate these rumors ever to have had a basis in fact.”
This will be the era when History has been eliminated, due to its general unpleasantness and backwards-looking nature.
While measures may be needed to expand the scope of human knowledge, and while some subjects, given their lack of successful community participation, are thought more suited to assist with these measures, it is demonstrable that no one in the Human Chronicle has ever been experimented on without informed consent. The truth of this assertion can readily be verified, if the curious wish to apply for permission to access the Allied Nations International Database.
Professional Information Aggregators will insist there cannot have been such a thing as slavery (a suggestive term not wholly excised from the speech habits of the elderly), for, if that were so, one would not read so many happy stories of property owners and their staff interacting with such respectful and appropriate dialogue, during that very distant epoch in which these events were alleged to have occurred.
Equally, other suspect terms which must die with the generations once employing them, such as “racism”, “sexism”, “ageism”, “religious bigotry”, are simply not based on “issues” proven to have resulted from actual events. The record speaks to the contrary, all workplace and neighborhood relationships being described, by qualified researchers, as entirely harmonious, from well before that century formerly designated the “20th”
Though the above is satire, the news today tells us that big entities—the University of California; the National Enquirer, with its “catch and kill” tactic, any corporation or celebrity that hires a publicity firm specializing in “reputational cleanup”—have both a will and a way for excising information from the public mind. And should alterations to our shared legacy, in quarantine-and-eradicate ruthlessness, come about, this may not result from totalitarianism, but from progressives’ weak equivalency. The person who offends has responsibilities, and the offended one has them too. When a thing cannot be spoken of at all, where does it exist?
Words are only words, not the oft-mentioned sticks and stones, but they are the things that come out of our faces when we interact socially. Or, from our keyboards when we write for publication.
In every type of non-fiction, when a person is quoted, or closely paraphrased, and uses a particular word or expression…so be it. Expletives and slurs may be asterisked, or replaced with an editor’s bracketing:
Smith then referred to the protestors as [racial epithet].
(One might question whether soliciting readers’ own suggestions is really for the best.)
In fiction, which includes poetry, a character’s speech, a character’s quoted thoughts, a narrative that follows a character’s train of thought, has an imperative to be true to the character’s voice.
If the story takes place in the early to mid-20th, 19th, or any earlier century, men will not be supernaturally feminist in their outlook, white “believers in equality” will congratulate themselves on their perceptivity and fairness, while being sturdily blind to their condescension, their control of social standards, money, and permissions. Few in small towns (or insular city boroughs) will have personal friends who are not as they are, or will have met many not like themselves. The average citizen goes to a church or synagogue, or other place of worship; most college educated ones don’t find it more fashionable to be atheists (although spiritual seeking has become popular).
People attribute their luck to God’s special providence. Politicians’ victories are in their eyes endorsed by God; the dead are called home to God…and this is the ordinary way for everyone to speak to one another.
We don’t need big reasons, big theory, to write history. We can make these novels just because we like to read them. But our heroes and heroines shouldn’t be created to “correct” history, to cater to present-day standards.
If you’re a woman, you have (likely) easy access to channeling this idea of training, education, background, being so strong that to know better than to express a thing isn’t enough to defeat the impulse. You know you shouldn’t—really, must not—care what you look like…whether your clothes make you frumpy, your face is too old, you aren’t thin enough, your hair won’t agree to look decent. You know that when you beat yourself up, you do your part to perpetuate the inequality in our society, the judging of women on their appearance, the wanting to retire them while they’re still strong workers, or in myriad ways valuing them as less capable, a half of humanity whose existence is less about doing, and more about being done up.
But every time you have these insecurities about yourself, your environment is taking over your mind. Consulting that perspective, you can get inside your characters’ minds. Some of them won’t know what’s right; some won’t be able to overcome the pressures around them.
Scenario One: Darrin has a habit of walking up behind Willa while she works at her desk, putting his hand on one of her shoulders, and leaning over the other to see what she has on her computer screen.
Willa, after a while, says, “Will you not? And please say my name if you want my attention.”
Darrin begins to “playfully” just touch her on the shoulder, or arm. When he says her name, he uses an insinuating sing-song.
Scenario Two: Sean is Jason’s college roommate. Allie is Jason’s younger sister. Jason has told Sean that his sister hates the song, “You’re Beautiful”. When during Siblings Weekend Allie comes to visit her brother, Sean “teases” her by singing this at the moment Jason ushers her into the room.
What is the point of Scenario One?
Darrin makes Willa uncomfortable. When she speaks up, Darrin reacts by prodding at the boundaries she has specified. He imagines she puts him in the wrong; that he can win this argument by touching just a little, making her accept it, using her name in a way that communicates disrespect.
Because…Darrin feels falsely accused. He sees himself as a man who isn’t rapey towards women. Darrin can be a jerk, and still be entitled to have the limits of his jerkiness, by his co-workers, acknowledged. But, he isn’t having an argument with Willa. She has not accused him of anything; she hasn’t threatened him with retaliation, overtly, or by bad-mouthing him to their colleagues. As to the latter, Willa would be at fault if she did. In the workplace, as everywhere, we have the right to know what we’re accused of, and be given the chance to make a defense, rather than suffer unaddressable consequences.
Here we have the principle that lends its title to this series:
Language that inherently refers to a person, and that is offensive, is always offensive. Writers use these words when establishing the nature of a character, and the impact of his behavior on other characters, and we use them when quoting the actual words of real people. We don’t otherwise question why words, why attitudes, make others uncomfortable, or why we can’t use offensive terms ironically, or what is the difference between someone calling himself by a term, and a stranger calling him that.
As Darrin should with Willa, we accept that we’ve been asked not to.
But this raises the question of Darrin’s “turning it around” on Willa. He prods at her until she snaps, acts out in some way. He then claims her anger is an aggression, and that he is afraid of her. He asks her to respect him by not doing this and that…
Willa may ask, “Isn’t there a better rule than just going along with someone’s preferences…or why, if this is the best we can do, can the rule be so easily exploited by people with clearly bad intentions?”
Campaigning behavior, when an individual targets another individual, or when a group decides to drive off someone from their neighborhood, their workplace, their school (a particular misery for bullied kids, who are being repulsed by harassment while forced to return to this treatment every day), relies on its representation of itself as innocent.
And so the better answer, which is true for both Darrin and Willa, if either ends up on the receiving end of a series of attacks, is the Face Value strategy, or Forcing the Position.
Willa yields no part of the truth in her dealings with Darrin, and will not allow him to alter the narrative. They’ve had this conversation; he has agreed to her requests. Nothing can be in play if it hasn’t been seen and heard: thus, face value.
She may say (cheerfully), “Darrin, you’re the kind of person who gets so lost in thought, you don’t realize what you’re doing!”
Darrin can accept this, or object to it. No, I did mean to touch you…no, you’re right, I forgot. If he is passive-aggressive to the point of mental illness, he may “forget” continually, but if Willa steadfastly refuses to see anything other than what Darrin shows on the surface, and refuses not to see this—that they have an agreement, that he has reinforced his admission he understands this; that if he forgets frequently, it can only be because he is remembering to the best of his ability—Darrin will get no payoff. No escalation of hostilities, no opportunity to be the victim, only an unflattering self-representation.
Consider those governments elected in various countries due to nationalistic trends. How much of the story we’re meant to believe about these people has to do with hints of covert genius machinations, triggered by strange symbols, part of deep and mysterious plans?
And how much better, if our journalists would make their reporting strong and tenacious on this point? Of never allowing that someone who does his job incompetently or corruptly can have a secret master in the background, promulgating a Plan of devious complication; but, utter face value… Believe it, say it. Whether the subject is a Committee Chair or President, Prime Minister or Party Chief, when his actions and words suggest he doesn’t understand the nature of his job, or of his duty to his country, what you see is what you get. He works to the sum total of his ability. If he had more, he would give it.
Do not admit another story, than the one told by verifiable facts.
The caveat is that this rule works for interpersonal relationships. It works for distant relationships that are still essentially one accountable person to many owed accountability. (Why, for example, would you not replace the entire board of a company that would split hairs on supplying and training, as to a safety feature that could save lives? Where is their competent leader? Where is their established protocol that demands anyone who raises an objection be heard, no matter what his/her status?)
When problems are cultural, as with systemic sexism and bigotry (or systemic suppression of whistleblowing), the culture needs to be addressed, safety provided for victims of it, and that is most effectively done by law-making, by electing representatives who are not tools of bad culture.
(more to come)
To Whom Do You Refer
My Curious Reading