Most people are sexual beings, everybody is capable of love
An article in yesterday’s Guardian about a legal case in England caught my eye. A man, thirty-six years of age, on the autism spectrum, was given permission by a judge to pursue sexual and romantic relationships even though he cannot intellectually grasp the ever-important concept of consent. I do not envy any judge who has to look at conundrums lite this. And it is not made easier by the fact that we tend to confuse love and sex (even JB primarily wants to, and I quote “he desperately wants to find a girlfriend with whom he can develop and maintain a relationship.”) and while the two are related for most people, there is no automatism between the two. We can love without having sex and we can have sex without loving our partners.
The complexities of the issue
I’ve grappled with this question in the past and I remember writing a beautiful sex scene between Neil and Chris. Sadly, as this is a YA novel, it had to go (American Victorian morals, don’t blame me…)
When it comes to people with functional impairments (or variations if you prefer, the terminologies keep changing) it becomes even more difficult than it is with people who are “fully functional”. Consent, rape, abuse are daily news items between adults with no intellectual impairments. But when it comes to people who are intellectually challenged, two issues arise. You have the challenge above, that the person doesn’t understand the challenges involved, starting with consent. On the flip side, what about giving consent? We have very clear laws saying that children must, under all circumstances, be kept away from sex with adults because (I presume) we assume they do not understand consent and the potential harm of having sexual relations before their time. Different societies place the “age of consent” differently. It’s fifteen years here in Sweden but varies from “no age at all” to eighteen. There is no right answer, of course. But what about grown-ups who do not understand consent? What if JB ends up in a situation with someone who might consent to be with him and takes advantage of that? #mindboggling
The other side of this is even more difficult and I would beg for your indulgement if I say things that might be taboo, things some might find offensive even. Let’s talk about “market value” (a crass term) or “attractiveness”. We all know that there are things considered beautiful and things considered “not so beautiful” in our societies. There was a time when obesity was considered attractive. Judging from today’s catwalks, that is no longer the case. Now, having said that, I’m not going to discuss whether that is “right” or “wrong” (that would be a very different post) and I am well aware that what society at large feels is far from what you or I or anyone else may feel, believe. I think we can agree on this much. That our beauty ideals are warped may be another thing we might agree upon. In our age, disabilities, lack of limbs, tetraplegia, Down’s syndrome, cerebral palsy, you name it, are not considered very attractive. And when you watch the weird TV shows about sexual deviations, you might have people who fall in love with cars and who ejaculate on the hood of their loved one, portrayed alongside people with a thing for amputees, gerontophiles, etc.
My current WIP
When I first read the article about JB, I immediately thought of the main protagonist of my current work in progress, Matt. Matt is afflicted with cerebral palsy. He doesn’t communicate as his condition is quite severe. The actual story is primarily about his journey to breaking down the walls and finding ways to communicate. A twenty-something male, Matt has no formal education. He’s gay and he’s in love with his personal assistant. You can see where this is going, and the challenges I’m facing. The book, the story isn’t about the two becoming a couple. It’s not that sort of novel. But Matt is a normal human being with desires, a sex drive and a healthy heart with great empathy. But to what degree does he ‘understand’ love, does he realize that the emotions raging through him, are love? How does someone who’s never had sex, who’s never had sex ed understand a sexual drive? Babies, toddlers, have erections, it doesn’t mean they are horny. It’s just a physical reaction. But Matt thinks, he feels, and when his assistant massages his sore and tight muscles, he feels great, and things happen in his body.
The questions I’m grappling with right now, and I have time to figure it out, is how to put it onto the page, or not. What do I leave to the readers, what issues do I raise to do Matt justice? He is a human being, an amazing person, and he deserves nothing but the best treatment by his author. I hope to be done by Christmas. This is an important debate, a very complex one and not one that has easy answers. I’ve already discussed this online, on Facebook and seen some very helpful comments. Wish to contribute here? You’re most welcome to.
Crimea, 9/11, Hong Kong, racism, mass migration, global warming, etc.
The world is going down the drain
We live in troublesome times. The Internet’s profound impact on our lives, the individualization of society, the increasing divide between the haves and have nots. As a consequence of previous generations’ ravaging of the planet, global warming is about to wreck the world as we know it, leading to mass migration and human-induced mass extinction. On the other hand, family ties, social bonds are deteriorating rapidly, and we care less and less about those around us. It’s definitely the age of entitlement but the freedom we seek, yearn for, is in many aspects smaller than in previous decades. This might be a long post, so hang in as I try to look at the reasons why, various aspects of it, and what you and I can do to make a difference.
From individualization to entitlement, or how western societal control disappeared
Entitlement takes many forms…
It often amazes me how things have changed since I was a child. Mostly for the better, let me say that before I move on. However, when we abandoned our traditional “family values” and pretty much everything associated with it, we didn’t just rid ourselves of the “bad stuff”, such as control, that sons had to walk in their father’s shoes, that we weren’t allowed to marry whom we loved (some of us no one at all), honor killings, the honor system in the first place, etc. Unfortunately, we also rid ourselves of the positive aspects of familial/societal cohesion: people are lonelier than ever before, mental illness is galloping, grandparents no longer feel obligated to look after their grandkids while their parents work as they, too, are still finding themselves, children no longer care for ailing and/or aging parents, etc. Some of that is remedied by social and health services, but (and I could write a book about this, and I might…) at what cost?
No, I don’t think grandparents ‘have’ to look after their grandkids, but on the other hand, given increasing workloads and career expectations on parents, where’s the relief system? And while it’s a boon that we no longer have to live under the same roof with our elder generations, the lack of social cohesion in society is palpable. There are two sides to every coin, and when I look at my own society, I can see how many immigrant families have maintained that cohesion. Sadly, they also kept the negative aspects, such as honor concepts, non-acceptance of LGBTQ family members, traditional gender expectations, etc.
The extreme individualization we see in our society is visible everywhere: from traffic where everyone feels entitled to go first (regardless of what the law says), to the workplace where people tell their managers that they don’t “feel like” doing certain aspects of their jobs, despite the job description they once signed off on. We all want to be “influencers”, we expect our dream jobs to just fall in our laps regardless of qualifications, we are offended by everybody and everything, and rather than forgiving or giving people the benefit of the doubt, we cry racist, homophobe, islamophobe, etc. We react long before our neurons have had a chance to reflect on the situation to warrant if our reaction is a) warranted and b) appropriate/adequate for the situation. I sometimes wonder: do I have to let people know every single time they say something stupid? Why have we become so confrontational? We are, after all, humans and are prone to making mistakes. Unfortunately, this extreme individualization has dire consequences for our societies, few of which are positive… I’ll explore that in the rest of this post.
The Internet: from freedom of speech to mind control and indoctrination
One of the advantages of being “old” is that I remember the age before the Internet, albeit barely. When the Internet first became a thing, in the early nineties, we all saw it as this amazing thing that would help us become freer, liberated in ways never before possible. We imagined how the “unfree” around the world would be able to access information freely and how the masses would rise in China and elsewhere to demand freedom and democracy. Swell! Too bad it didn’t really work out that way. In an almost Orwellian way, the Internet has instead become a tool to control the masses. China’s great wall isn’t visible from the moon, but it certainly makes sure that the people of China only read and see what the party wants them to see. And while we, in the west, still have access to (mostly) everything, we have become so fat and complacent that we sit in our comfy reclining chairs, pizza slice in one hand, beer in the other, and happily allow us to be manipulated to believe exactly what we always wanted to believe. This bias, this preference to read/watch/hear that which we expect to hear is bad enough when the news/information is unbiased, but in a world where algorithms map our preferences to the t, we are easy targets for all kinds of misinformation and propaganda. Cambridge Analytica and their role in the 2016 US elections and Brexit are bad enough, but with recent advances in technology, so-called “deep fakes” will make your mother tell you in a facetime call that she’s really a mass murderer and by the way never gave birth to you. And since it’s your mother on the line you’ll never know the difference. Already, researchers have put the words of Hitler into the mouth of Obama. We are doomed! And we won’t even know it.
Is it hopeless? I’m not optimistic, but when we see something, hear something that is completely “out there”, it begs to check the source. Call your mom, make sure it was actually her placing the call. Visit her face to face. This is an extreme and unlikely example, but in politics, we’ll see this happen, sooner rather than later. Make sure you double-check and triple-check the source, their bias. Because, and this is crucial, there are always two sides to every story. Before you jump to conclusions, before you make up your mind, make sure you’ve heard at least two sides of it. Actively force your mind to weigh the pros and cons before you decide to cry foul.
Education, the key to a better future
We once understood the need for a good education. Today we need to know and understand things more than ever. Some people don’t want that.
The above is easier said than done. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, our cable news, heck even our favorite department stores all show us what they believe we want to see, hear, buy. Republicans tune into Fox, Democrats into MSNBC, safe to only hear good things about their own. Never to have their values and convictions challenged. To second-guess, to question is hard work, and it requires a basic level of education many of us don’t possess and even more can’t be bothered with.
For decades, school systems have been allowed to deteriorate around the world, at the same time as we know infinitely more now than when I went to school. Just last week, the Swedish school department suggested scrapping any and all history prior to 1700 to make room for contemporary history. People are up in arms. Imagine a child growing up with no basic concept of ancient Athens (cradle of democracy), Rome (basis to much of our legislative traditions, still, not to mention politics, philosophy, etc.), the dark ages, etc. With no understanding of the many wars that plagued us through the eons. How are we to understand contemporary history with not even a hint of ancient history (which goes further back and includes other cultures as well, mind you?)
There is a reason why some don’t want the broad masses to have access to education, to keep them malleable. I’ll use the Romans as an example: “bread and games” Look at a country like Singapore. People are generally content, even though the country doesn’t really know the freedom of speech or real democracy. But as long as people find employment and fun (if you’ve ever been there, you’ll know what I mean) they’re content. However, as soon as the subway stops working, the government faces riots. There are advantages for a system like Singapore’s: it’s extremely efficient and works, but at the expense of minorities. You’re fine if you’re a straight Chinese, but if you’re Malay or, worse, Indian, your choices in life are limited. And other minorities, like the LGBT community, are oppressed. All the while, the richest are getting richer and the poorest lag behind. Never before in human society has the gap between the most fortunate and those least fortunate been greater. And it’s all happened in the past forty years, give or take.
To limit access to education is a tool for the “haves”, of course. Keep the have nots docile. Those of us who want a better future for humanity need to counter that. We need to fight for the best possible education for everybody, regardless. No exception. Nobody gets to be left behind. A comprehensive, free education. We also need to teach our children the consequences of NOT having an education, and I think we need to broaden that discussion from mere career choices to include our civic duties. Education is, of course, not the only factor. Voting is another. And they’re correlated: the more we know, the more likely we are to vote! Gerrymandering, voter registration, and voter restrictions are other tools used to make sure fewer people vote, and again, education and the ability to navigate the shoals of bureaucracy greatly impact those least educated. The reasons why are glaringly obvious as they usually do not vote for those who steal from you.
There’s nothing I can do
It’s easy to feel hopeless these days…
Last Sunday I traveled from Liverpool to Manchester after a book launch. The direct train I was on, to avoid the worst of the traffic from the ongoing Tory party conference in Manchester, had no first-class seats. Suddenly I found myself in an environment I usually avoid. Minutes after boarding the train, two young men came in and sat down in front of me, loud music blaring from their phones. Their voices carried and they talked about stuff I didn’t really care about and most certainly didn’t want to listen to. I put on my earphones and zoned out, too. They quickly fell asleep, heads on the table, with no regard for the third passenger sitting with them. After a while, the conductor came to check our tickets and after having checked everyone else’s, he tried to wake those two. They didn’t respond for the longest time, and I’m unsure if by design or as a result of being drugged (they seemed fine when they boarded the train, but what do I know about drugs…) Police were called and I got to witness just how the world of the disenfranchised looks like. It was painful. And it got me thinking, a lot. What can I do to change their lives? How can I help people care about their lives? Worry about the climate when their only focus is the next fix? The next meal? Clothing their kids?
Can I blame the mom who buys the cheapest eggs, produced by hens in miserable conditions, while I soothe my conscience with organic ones? Can I blame the Appalachian miner who sports a MAGA hat, not realizing that his president’s “clean coal” is as likely to get him a job as the presidents ties ever being in fashion again? Can I blame the South Africans who decry immigration from other countries in the region because they can’t find work back home? Can I blame the illiteral Hindi farmer who kills his newborn daughter because he knows full well that he will barely be able to feed her, but never, ever have the money to marry her off?
We look at the world around us and it feels not only like an uphill, but an insurmountable task. At the same time storms become more deadly, temperatures increase and sea levels rise. It’s easy to get the impression that we are doomed! Yet giving up isn’t really an option, is it? We have to fight, for our own children and grandchildren, for our nieces and nephews, for our neighborhood children.
So, what can I do?
As long as the sun rises in the East, there is hope!
If ever there was a $64,000 dollar question, eh? I think the first thing is to not give up, not give in to the overwhelming feeling “we’re soo screwed!” Because there are plenty of things you and I can do. A change in attitude is the first thing. History teaches us that we can change our fortune. Just look at the American Revolution, the French one. While there were setbacks, in the end, democracy prevailed, and little by little, things got better. The civil rights movement, the 68-movement, and right now, the Friday school strikes are already making a difference.
But you don’t have to go on strike. There are other things you can do. Talk to your Representative, your MP, whoever represents you in your country’s parliament. There is a website listing their name, email and postal address. They might even have a phone. Their job is to represent you, even if you’ve never voted or if you voted for the other candidate(s) in the election. Talk to them, tell them about your concerns, your worries. Tell them what you expect from them. Believe me, it’s easier than you think. Do the same on your regional level, in your city. Talk about your schools, the retirement home your parents are in or let them know what isn’t working in your health care system. It is my experience that most parliamentarians (regardless of what level) welcome the contact to their constituents.
There’s so much more. Recycle. Such a simple thing. Don’t litter in nature. Eat less meat. Believe me, every little makes a difference. I recently read an article about how much microplastic ends up in our waters due to laundry cycles. The longer you wash, the worse it is. I had always flushed down the fibers stuck in my dryer in the toilet. OOPS! Not doing that again. A tiny change for me, walking the twenty extra steps to the trash can, but if we all do that? Imagine how grateful sealife will be for the difference we make. We are, after all, almost 10 billion people. Even if we all ate one less beef burger a week, replace it by something else, better, times billions… Suddenly you can see how even the smallest thing makes a difference.
But what changes to make?
That is where education comes in. Never stop learning. Read the papers, science section. Trust me, those journalists are trained to present difficult academic subjects so we, you and I, can understand. If a source is unknown, is known to be biased (your way or another way), make sure you double-check the article is credible. Google it. Find other sources to confirm. It’s not that hard and after a while, it’ll become second nature.
You can also engage those less fortunate. This is probably the most important, the single most difficult thing we will need to do. We can’t wait for politics to introduce great education for everyone. There was a reason why we once said that everyone should be able to read, write and do math. Duh! But so many still can’t. More now than decades ago, right here in the west. But what good does it do to read if you don’t do so? Our kids brains yearn for the stimuli from their phones and pads, rather than stimulate them with a good book. You can change that. Read aloud! Insist! Really, I mean it. Read for fifteen minutes every day until your child is old enough to read on their own. Then make sure they read a book for a half-hour every day. Soon they’ll be so engrossed in the story they’ll ask you to stay up just a little longer… I know, author optimism here, but I can see how children’s minds are wide open to embrace the imagination books spark. So much more than adults.
But it’s not just kids, is it? It’s our neighbors, our friends. If they give voice to uneducated views, if they speak up against science, engage them. Not aggressively, don’t be condescending, judgemental. Try to understand WHY they feel like they do. Don’t tell them “you’re wrong…” (that’ll only make them reinforce that view), but listen. Then try to offer an alternative view, how their lives can improve, what they can do themselves, without scapegoating, hating, blaming. Possibly help them take the first baby step.
Is there hope for humankind?
Do we have a choice? Can we let things go to hell? If we don’t act, things will get worse. The dark forces that divide us for short-term profit mustn’t be allowed to win. We have enough food to feed all of humankind. There is enough creativity to solve climate change challenges, to slow global warming, halt the mass extinciton of plant and animal species. But we all need to act, beginning with ourselves. Don’t be complacent, don’t give up.
When I began to write my latest books about The Golden One, I knew little about how dire things really are out there. I say that despite having a post graduate education, despite reading several newspapers every single day, despite considering myself engaged in current events around the world. But immersing myself into the animal world, to hear my hero Jason speak to animals, widened my understanding for our planet, our ecosystems. It widened my empathic senses.
A tick. A nuisance, but do you understand it’s place in Mother Nature’s pyramid?
When I saw that spider trapped in my bathtub I wasn’t just sensing disgust and fear of the animal, I was also able to understand how it must feel, the panic of being trapped, unable to escape the white hell of my tub. Rescuing it made me a better human being. Just a couple of days ago I removed a tick who’d been sucking blood from one of our cats. The poor creature began to crawl away on the bathroom floor, probably in a panic, dragging her heavy, bloodfilled body alog the smooth surface. Rather than flushing her down the toilet, like I had done countless times before, I picked her up and released her outdoors. I know that ticks, too, have a role to play in Mother’s great pyramid. Just because I don’t understand that role doesn’t mean I get to play God. Silly, you say? Stupid even, given the diseases ticks carry? Possibly, but even viruses and bacteria play important roles in culling populations, making sure that the fittest survive. Humanity has long ago stepped away from that pyramid, and we control it. But that doesn’t mean we understand it, treat it with respect. The current extinction event points to the contrary.
Is there hope? As bleak as things may look right now, I emphatically maintain that we have no choice. We must remain optimistic. I for one will struggle to the bitter end to make sure my son has a bright future, but not only he, but every living thing on this planet. We are all connected to each other and only together can we thrive.
Game of Thrones is an unwelcome reminder of everything that’s still wrong
We didn’t watch Game of Thrones with the rest of the world, didn’t wait for months to see who came back after each season had ended. We didn’t have HBO and only got it because my husband wanted to see the new season of Twin Peaks. So while we have it, we figured we might as well see the series the world has been talking about the past eight years. I’ll be honest: I’m no fan of fantasy (which I think is well-known by now, the irony of which will become obvious tomorrow), so I’ve not read the books. I was quickly abhorred by the graphic violence in the series, which seems to be a “must” these days, regardless of what it is you’re watching. I can barely stomach it and often look away and close my ears before it happens, having learned the clues of what is about to happen ages ago.
Gay of Thrones
The storytelling of the series doesn’t really thrill me, the metaphors too simplistic. You don’t have to be a genius to understand that King’s Landing is London and that Winterfell is somewhere up north, Newcastle perhaps, that the “wall” is Hadrian’s Wall, just fantasy-style and that the “Wildlings” are the Scots. Don’t believe me? Listen to their accents. Pathetic.
However, I was pleasantly surprised by how openly the series began to talk about gay people: Loras, Renly, et al. There is a scene early in the show where Loras shaves Renly’s chest. A very romantic scene. Then there’s the Martells, with openly bisexual Oberyn. Some great scenes and lots of skin. But nothing good ever lasts, right? Oberyn is killed in one of the most disgusting scenes I’ve ever seen on screen, and the episodes I’ve just seen in season five have left me scarred. I had trouble falling asleep after the court scene against Loras. I already know that Loras is to meet a cruel demise, just as the cute escort who was coerced to give testimony against him. Simple math.
Some think it’s a metaphor for our society
I began to read articles about this treatment of the LGBT theme and some tried to spin this as a great thing, as a reminder of just how fragile the situation for the LGBT population around the world still is. Shit, Sherlock! Really? I don’t need a stupid TV show to remind me that my life is still threatened. I just turn to the news or Wikipedia: roughly 90 countries still consider being LGBT illegal, twelve still have a death penalty for being gay on their books and even in countries where it’s “officially” legal, you can be murdered (Russia, US, etc.) or have your kids taken away from you (Russia, again.) So this isn’t any news to any member of the LGBT community, this isn’t anything we need a TV show to enlighten us about. All we need is hold hands in public!
Some articles dig deep into the middle ages and claim “well it’s how things were”. To you morons. I have three questions: Giants? Dragons? Killing shadows creeping from cunts? This is fantasy for Pete’s sake. So if you’re fine with the above, to give the gay and bisexual populace a better fate wouldn’t have been too big a stretch of the imagination.
Imagine a show like Games of Thrones gassing an entire city of Jews to death, all six million inhabitants. Imagine the uproar. No, actually, don’t. Because no one would, ever (except maybe in a nazi corner of the darkest dark web.) And don’t tell me that it’s fantasy and that there are no jews. Then why are there gays and bisexuals to murder? Couldn’t you have turned them into genderless dragons or leprechauns instead? To make it less “obvious”? We would still have known. Like I said, the metaphors aren’t the most brilliant in this series.
In this regard, I agree with one article I read: we are still vulnerable. Duh! (We knew THAT, too!) In fact, we are so vulnerable that it’s apparently so okay to give us the pre 1990s treatment that even LGBT writers defend the show. That’s how well we internalized this shit. But watching it had me transported back to my childhood in the seventies (where I guess afore-mentioned LGBT-writer wasn’t born yet.) I grew up with LGBT characters always dying, always being freaks (from the article in the pic: “Mr. Wint also has a habit of putting on women’s perfume” 🤦🏼♂️), always being evil. I may be married, I may have a family, but those scars are barely healed. No, they’re not even healed. Those emotional wounds are still gaping open and they were just ripped wide open again.
I don’t think straight people get it
If you grow up and you don’t have any obvious characters in the shows and movies you watch to identify with, you find them. You use the slightest clues and dream that they are “just like you”. Because who wants to be the only gay in the village?
I remember how I found people to identify with, how I desperately looked for those clues, mannerisms, a blinking of an eye, to make someone “mine” or at least “just like me”. I remember having crushes on singers, actors, characters, and sportsmen. Those crushes were crushed the second I learned they were married (to a woman, as was the only thing available back then.) Countless times, again, and again. The only people who were openly gay were evil. Not necessarily the kind of people I wanted to relate to. I was no criminal. I’m not evil. Never was, never want to be.
Does the show have a point?
Yes, we are indeed still threatened. But THAT point isn’t made. Nobody says it’s wrong to treat us this way. Nobody stands up in the show and says it’s wrong. Not even poor Loras’s grandmother (one of my favorite actresses) manages to make a point as she compares Loras’s inklings to the incest of Cersei and Jaime. Why thank you! That’s the best we get… I rest my case.
It’s exhausting. It’s painful. Imagine my son watching this in a few years and obviously picturing his dads in e.g. the scene between Renly and Loras. You do the math.
What we need are happy endings, thousands and thousands more of happy endings. We need to see LGBT characters in every walk of life, just regular people, coming and going. We don’t always have to meet a cruel demise. You can just write us out. We come, we go. Nobody would ever kill jews in stories (unless a nazi), so why is it still okay to do this to the LGBT community? Why? I for one am pretty much done with this show. Already knowing how it ends (for the LGBT characters) and who “wins” the stupid throne in the end, I have nothing, absolutely nothing left to look forward to. But books to write! Hopeful books which portray LGBT characters as the human beings we are, to give all the young Hans’s out there someone to relate to, someone to identify with, so they aren’t all alone, in the frightful and lonely years leading up to their coming out.
As a writer, I am aware of the raw power of my tool. As a linguist, I am also aware of how many of the world’s languages have evolved from common ancestors, how they are related and how the meaning of the same word can differ from one sister language to another. Language is extremely complex, and the more you learn, the more you know, the easier it becomes to get lost in language, to make mistakes and realizing just how little you actually know.
Just last week I was made aware, in a most humiliating way, that an expression used in the blurbs of one of my books had offended a group of people. I was given a proper dress-down, in public, which led me to withdraw that particular book from the table where I was selling it along with my other work. Seems that both the sensitivity readers (which we’d used, despite the accuser’s assumption of the contrary), the publisher, editor, and this author had completely missed it. I won’t go into details here, but oddly, when discussing this with fellow authors and members of the affected group/minority, everyone was puzzled and wondered how else to express oneself today, to be politically correct and not offending anyone.
Languages evolve, all the time. There are many examples in history and from literature where the most highly acclaimed books include wording that is no longer considered okay. We no longer use “nigger” or “negro” to describe blacks or Africans, which is a good thing. African American is the term used if you’re in the US but is of little help to describe black people from other parts of the world. But when Astrid Lindgren wrote her Pippi books back in the 1960s, it was perfectly okay to write that Pippi’s father was “negerkung” (negro king.) In recent editions, the term has been replaced. This is probably the most famous example in terms of language evolving, but there are literally thousands of expressions that have changed, be it for people with disabilities (or function variations as may be more modern), people from within the LGBTQ community, etc.
Lost in translation: politics, philosophy, religion & culture make things complex
As a member of the LGBTQ community, I am a member of a minority, and I’ve always been acutely aware of how I’m labeled by society. Often times words also carry a political notion, a belief held by the speaker. After Chernobyl, people who were fighting against the use of this particular way to generate power were, in German anyway, always speaking of atomic power, and the slogan “Atomkraft, Nein Danke!” became a household term. The proponents of nuclear power did not use atomic power. They call it nuclear power. Neither terms were “offensive” to anyone. They simply indicated a political belief. There are many similar examples of words and expressions who carry a philosophical belief within the word: capitalism vs. free enterprise, sexual orientation vs sexual preference, etc.
Words carry political beliefs
Then there are differences across cultures, which make many of the words which are used across languages dangerous pitfalls. Even within a given language family, a word that carries a connotation in one country may not be viewed the same way elsewhere. The word black is one such example, where it may be deemed acceptable in some flavors of English, but might get you stares if you use it in the U.S.
You might also remember the time when the Swedish chairman of BP was criticized for using the term “little people” in a White House press conference. While a perfectly acceptable term in Swedish, translated ad verbatim to English it becomes offensive. What he meant was “ordinary, regular people like you and I.”
How we view history changes
To make matters even more complex, we are, as a people, really bad at looking at history through the lens of the time. I’ve just returned from Washington, DC, where I also visited the National Archives Museum where the original Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution are on display. When you read these documents and you read things like “We the people…” or “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” yet are aware that this did not apply to everybody. “People” and “all men” did not include Native Americans, Africans or Asians. Because if you believe in slavery it makes no sense to assume that Africans were entitled to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” because clearly, they were not. Men, back then, obviously also did not apply to women.
Did not apply to blacks, women, Asians or Natives.
However, today, we look at these words and we can feel pride in the accomplishment of the founding fathers, even if we’re Korean, Sudanese or German, and decisions rendered by the Supreme Court of the U.S. has updated the interpretation of the meaning of these words over time. It just so happens that the probably biggest struggle within said court these days is in the interpretation of the constitution: as a document in time, or to read it literally, or if you prefer, a liberal or a conservative interpretation.
Labeling a group of people, labeling “me”
Language evolves, all the time. Would it not, we’d all still be speaking a proto-human language we don’t even remember. Latin would not have evolved into Italian, French, Spanish, etc., and Germanic into German, Scandinavian and English. So that’s a good thing. We also introduce new words, we share them across languages and cultures and make new words our own.
It’s a good thing that we no longer use words like “nigger”, “cripple” or “faggot”, as the negative connotations are painful reminders to members of said communities of a painful past. And language continues to evolve: it’s better to say transgender than transsexual, as the trans experience isn’t primarily about people’s sexuality but more about their gender, we talk about marriage equality rather than “gay marriage” because a marriage is a marriage, it has no sexual/romantic orientation.
For most people, all of this is way above their heads, and they’re not really affected by the terminology used within a certain community, and how groups try to improve on language to make it more inclusive and less offensive, divisive. For older generations, much of this may pass them by. However, when words and expressions are used that are hurtful, the consequences can be dire, and we can observe this in our everyday lives. Ten years ago, gender fluidity and trans people were not discussed in mainstream society. The language was very CIS, except for the affected people. Therefore, for most people, meeting members of the trans community can be an interesting and frightful experience, as it not only challenges the language they speak but also some of the very fundamental core foundations of their education and the two sexes: male and female. Migration challenges other long-held beliefs.
Political correctness and the backlash of the Trumpian era
For some, things have clearly gone too far and they push back. Migration is used as a term to lump together people who come to our countries for very different reasons. No longer is a distinction made between refugees and economic immigrants, it’s all equally bad. And in our strive to create a label that fits just us, we make it a perfect pitfall to be offended, for how is a stranger to know if you want to be addressed as Mr., Mrs., Ms. or Miss. Or something else entirely? How are we to know if you are bisexual or pansexual? Oftentimes, terms are used interchangeably and what means something to one person, has different connotations to someone else.
This may be controversial but sometimes I feel we have gone too far. We are too easily offended. And some people have begun to push back. To mislabel something doesn’t necessarily make a person a “bigot” or “racist” or whatever. They may simply not be familiar with the latest developments in the language. Trust me, it’s easy to get things wrong. When I first moved to the US in the eighties we used a “bathroom” to go potty, these days it’s “restroom” (although given American toilets, they’re anything but restful with their lack of privacy, but that’s another story.) In India, people still go to the toilet, in English.
The drive for political correctness sometimes feels like a provocation. And we are quick to accuse, prosecute and judge people for using the wrong words. The judgment can be harsh, particularly in this social media day and age where the action often precedes contemplation and thought. And I feel that some people have begun to push back. And as I’ve mentioned above, language is becoming political, but not always. But when someone talks about “gay marriage”, I for one assume they’re not supportive of the concept of marriage equality. But an I be certain?
The benefit of the doubt
Here’s the thing. Our societies have become very black and white in our political discourse, and we seem to have a hard time to accept dissenting views and opinions. There is less and less discourse in society about where we should head, how to overcome the challenges of our time. Instead, driven by 140 characters, we simplify and shorten. It’s not necessarily beneficial to being respectful to one another. Trying to do the right thing can be frightening and intimidating and a friend of mine recently said that the fear of saying the wrong thing has led him to avoid public discussions/settings. That’s a shame.
What about we give each other the benefit of the doubt? What if we were to assume that most people are NOT trying to offend us, denigrate us, insult us. So when they use a term we find offensive, don’t lash out, forgive and educate. Tell them how you’d like to be addressed, politely. Chances are, they’ll be grateful, i.e. if you do it with a smile and non-judgemental way. I often feel that we usually use the opposite approach: we’re offended, we judge and keep a grudge and the message gets lost, simply because the wrong word was used. I think we could all be helped if we calmed things down a bit, in the interest of communication and understanding.
I know that my own language is far from perfect, regardless of which one I use. I’m also aware that being multilingual increases my potential for making mistakes. I beg your forgiveness and oversight for any words used mistakenly.
Remember: you may not have the power to choose the words used to describe you, but you have the power to choose how to respond.
What is your take? Do you think we should tackle this dilemma? What is the best way to help people use the least offensive and most inclusive language? Feel free to use the comment section.
Words can be so hurtful, as they reveal what people believe, deep down
“He starts to look like a real boy…”
It was meant as a compliment. A new haircut, short in the back. I love my son’s hair, regardless whether it’s shorter or longer. I think he looks amazing in long hair. However, he’s only six years old and keeping long hair looking good requires more work than your average six-year-old is willing to put in. Plus his hair is dark, thick and hot in the summer. He eagerly accepted my suggestion to cut it shorter as we’re about to head out on a vacation to a warmer climate. The response above from a family member floored me. It was so hurtful. Is short hair really the trademark of a “real” boy, masculinity? And what did this family member think of Sascha before? That he was girly? Did they not respect my son’s choice? A gazillion questions running through my mind, none very pleasant.
Hair is fashion, at best
Manly? I’m sure he thought so…
The Vikings had long hair, men and women, so did many other peoples, including native Americans. Samurai kept their hair long, too, so did many other Asian cultures. Are Vikings unmanly? Samurai? #facepalm Even in Europe, long hair was a thing for men for the longest of times. Just look at the sixteenth to the eighteenth century. Picture Louis XIV of France with his wigs. Was he unmanly? No, of course not. There is nothing that says that a hairstyle would be indicative of one’s masculinity or how we fit into a gender.
Hair was even once considered so manly that Samson believed his masculine strength resided there. What a twat!
At fifty-two, I’ve had long hair, short hair, I’ve even colored my hair, but I’m still exactly the same person I’ve always been. Yet somehow, some people still believe that short hair is for boys and long hair is for girls. And they rejoice when a boy cuts his hair or a girl lets it grow out. No longer do they have to have their disgusting preconceptions challenged every time they see that person.
Sex, gender is a social construct
I strongly believe that sex and gender are social constructs. And I believe that most educated people will believe me with regards to gender. Sex? Not so much. And here’s the thing: if you’re born with a vagina, chances are you’re a woman. If you’re born with a penis, chances are you’re a man. However, nature is tricky and chromosomal anomalies, intersex, etc. exemplify this. Hormonal influences during the pregnancy will also affect the brain and how we come to identify, regardless of our genitals. That’s as far as nature goes. The rest is society. How we’re raised, the experiences we make, how we view our bodies, etc. However, the traits we attribute to “humans with vaginas” and “humans with penises” are entirely social constructs. And it is entirely society which attaches a value to a specific trait. The fact that vaginas are considered inferior to penises, for whatever reason. That’s beyond my comprehension, but it’s a fact nonetheless.
Therefore, every trait commonly associated with “vaginas” is considered of less value: long hair, be in touch with emotions, empathy, caring, you name it. And penis values are considered high value, e.g. short hair. No wonder my relative was so thrilled to see Sascha’s new haircut.
What about trans people, gender fluidity?
As a gay man, I had to accept that many of the traits I cherish are considered “feminine” and that I’m not only considered a traitor to my sex but also of less value than a straight man. Oh well. Lesbians are considered traitors to their sex because they refuse to let themselves be subjugated by men, hence a certain aura of “mystery” (=value) but also an almost unstoppable desire from straight men to subjugate them, break them. This incident in London is a great example of that.
Our trans siblings are those suffering the most. How dare one abdicate the genitals given to us by God? Yet even with trans people, society’s outlook differs. Trans men are considered a tad more valuable than trans women because at least they strive toward masculinity, want to be of more value. But trans women? Those traitors! To abandon the mighty penis! How dare they? The number of trans women murdered is among the highest in the world. They are a threat to straight men and there are a lot of feminists who do not accept them either. The absence of ovaries and the experience of “growing up oppressed” means that there are many women out there who refuse to accept trans women as sisters in their struggle for equality. They don’t realize that they’re doing ruling men’s bidding.
It goes without saying that gender fluid humans are enigmas. People generally don’t really know how to react to them, how to interpret them. Androgyny is sexy, we are mysteriously attracted to it, because they combine the best from both worlds, and that is somehow oddly attractive.
Is androgyny the key to the future?
I’ve always maintained that just like most people are bisexual (it’s a spectrum and very few people are stuck in the extremes) and the way younger generations are more open to being pansexual than strictly gay/straight is a sign that things are changing. The same is true for gender identity. While most of us are born with cis-genitalia our gender markers are very much on a spectrum, wildly combining “male” and “female” traits. And I would hope that someday we get to the point when those traits are valued equally, or at least valued how they help us build a successful society, not just the simplistic and ignorant “vagina < penis” formula. It’s just not helpful.
And who knows, we might even get to the point where gender reassignment surgeries and hormone treatments become less important as we can live and express ourselves the way we want to regardless of the physical traits of our genitalia and bodies. More gender fluidity for the people! This is not to say that some people won’t always feel the need to switch sexes, but the less important ‘sex’ is in a society, the lower the need to change, don’t you think?
We’re in this for the long haul…
My son comes home all the time with new things he’s heard in school, questions on his mind: “are boys better than girls?” only to state the next day that “girls are better than boys”. Statements like “girls can’t do this or that” or “boys can do whatever they want…” are tiring, but society is tirelessly at work to shape our children into the cis-minded drones we’ve been raised as. We take the debate every time, showing him that no, girls are just like boys, and they can both be whatever they set their minds to. I know of course that in reality, it’s more complicated but who am I to ruin a six-year-old’s life dreams? He’ll learn soon enough. He’s even come home a couple of times saying “I want to be a girl.” and I guess that’s fine, too. I have to walk my own talk and let him discover his body, his identity in his own pace. He’s only now discovering the differences between girls and boys. I wish they never would, that all of us could see each other as just “friends”. To get there requires us, parents, to pull the heavy duty, against all those who think that a boy in a short haircut is “real”…
Off to an interesting meeting today, to learn more about alternative communication
Matt, the main character in my new novel (Opus XIII) is suffering from cerebral palsy. This is a condition that comes in many “flavors”. You may have seen characters with CP on TV, e.g. the teacher’s son, Walter Jr., in Breaking Bad or the main character in the new Netflix show Special. Not unlike autism, CP comes on a spectrum and in recent years, thanks to advances in medicine, we are able to help people with CP to live much fuller lives than in the past. For some, the damage from CP is so big that they are almost completely disabled, in some cases, they can’t communicate verbally. This is where alternative communication comes in.
I’m about to learn more about alternative communication
I’m sure you’ve seen how Stephen Hawking used a synthesized voice to communicate with the outside world. Mr. Hawking didn’t suffer from CP, he had MND. Over the years, you can read it in the Wikipedia article, he used different forms of alternative communication. Here’s a snippet from his appearance on Star Trek TNG:
Today, I have a meeting I’m really looking forward to. It’s with an expert on alternative communication at Dart, which is our local West Swedish center for alternative communication here in Gothenburg. I can’t wait to learn about how methods are developed and to see how I might be able to help Matt to break out of his shell.
(Almost) every case is different
You see, each person with a severe communicative disability is different. Okay, they all can’t speak, some might even be deaf, which makes things even more difficult. As babies and toddlers, our brains quickly learn. We recognize our names, realize who’s a mom and who’s dad, recognize them by putting a face next to a name repeated. My six-year-old son just recently entered a phase where he’s fascinated to learn that pappa and daddy not only have “titles” but names, too. He finds it titillating to call us Alex and Hans. Endlessly amusing.
We also learn to recognize objects, as they’re shown to us: forks, teddy bears, spoons, cups. You get the gist. And a healthy baby will repeat those words and will continue to do so for the rest of their lives as they learn new words. Now imagine if you can’t speak. You can’t repeat what your parents are telling you to. You just can’t get those words over your lips. In time people will realize that something is wrong, and they might take you to a doctor to learn more.
In time, with a lot of research, specialists at places like Dart will be able to find a way to help you break through that barrier. But how?
Not reinventing the wheel
I won’t spoil the story for you, but Matt is particularly challenged. There are a great many ways to help patients with communication challenges. Some might be able to use their hands to move a device that looks similar to a computer mouse to point to objects or letters and make words. Others use an eye tracker to see what the individual is looking at. However, not every method works for every patient and to make voluntary movements (rather than erratic ones which are common in CP patients), it will take a lot of time to determine what might work and what might not.
Unfortunately, not every patient with CP gets help. A while ago a friend told me about someone they met out and about with their parents, a young woman, severely physically disabled, unable to communicate. Just imagine the horror of being trapped inside your body, unable to speak, unable to communicate, make yourself heard, tell the world about your desires, your dreams, your hopes. Would you go crazy? In a way, this is what interests me the most about Matt’s journey.
For me, as an author, I’m not up to the task of inventing a communicative method of my own. Hence my meeting today. I have realized, thanks to Matt, what works for him. Now I need to find out just how I can use that to help him communicate, for the first time in his life. I can’t wait for that day when I get to write those chapters. I’m not quite there yet.
Realistic, believable, credible
At the end of the day, I need the story to be realistic enough to be credible to the audience, believable. Unlike the snippet from StarTrek above, this isn’t science-fiction. I can’t just “pretend” this or that, can’t simply attach a diode to Matt’s head which allows him to communicate freely. We’re just not there (yet?) The story I write is about Matt, it’s about someone who–for now–is relying on me to speak on his behalf. I want to write a story about a human being with a particular set of challenges and it won’t be until the end of the book that Matt gets to speak within quotation marks with his own words. Until then, he relies on me, on the things he tells me.
Books are important. The stories we tell are about seeing ourselves through the eyes of someone else. We want to read about “ourselves”. We crave to have our own life validated through the characters in the books we read. We need to see that we are not alone, the only one in the village. This is particularly important for minorities. And in a way, we’re all part of a minority, some may just be smaller than others. Sex, gender, age, creed, skin color, ethnicity, hair color, glasses, LGBTQ, disabilities, etc. All of these in infinite combinations. We’re all some of that, somewhere, somehow.
So is Matt. This may be his story, but it has to be relatable enough for abled people to maybe learn something and for people with disabilities to feel validated, seen. Maybe that’s a tall order. Maybe I’m not the right person to write about this (I’ve had this argument before), but I am an author. It’s my job to tell other people’s stories. Research helps me make sure I get it right.
I can’t wait to present you with this story, eventually, when it’s done. I expect it to be released next spring. Until then, we have the finale of The Golden One to look forward to.