The many pitfalls of language

The many pitfalls of language

Language: a writer’s tool is constantly evolving

When language fails

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.

Always evolving

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

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.

 

The many pitfalls of language

What is sex? What is gender? Does it matter?

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”…

The many pitfalls of language

I’ve made it! I’m (finally?) a real author

No, it’s not because I write beautiful prose, capturing my audience from the first paragraph. Nor do I write tart poetry that puts readers in touch with their innermost emotions. I wish. Instead, it’s my personal life that resembles that of the stereotypical author: I’ve become a recluse. A hermit. I readily admit that I’m most comfortable in my own company. I wrap my loneliness around myself like a blanket on a cold winter’s day. It’s comforting, it’s mine.

Once upon a time…

Johnny Begood, up to no good

Johnny Begood, up to no good

There was a young man who thought himself to be an extrovert, a man who loved crowded cities and to meet new people. All the time. What the young man failed to realize (or admit to himself?) was the fact that those interactions were costly. Afterward, he’d feel exhausted and he would often slump into a what might best be described as a depression, or at least a “low”. It would take days to get out from under the rocks.

But he loved to slip into characters, to play someone else (safe, right?) and be outgoing, entertaining, the proverbial “life of the party”. Here (to the left) is a photo from one such event about fourteen years ago, happy times in Budapest, before the country descended into near-fascism under the rule of Victor Orbán. Here we have our author playing his evil (heterosexual) punk-rock twin.

I still remember it all, vividly, the things I did in character, things which would probably be considered sexual harassment in these post-#MeToo days, and I guess I’d have been slapped across the face more than once had it not been for the fact that my co-workers knew that it was all an act and that underneath the mask of that crazy punk rocker was an innocent gay boy, happily married. I even joined and sang (sic!) with a band that night, even though I had no idea what they were playing and despite the fact that I had never sung before and without a clue what the lyrics were. But we seemed to be quite the hit with the crowd, probably buoyed by the copious amounts of alcohol flowing all evening.

Her Majesty took the prize

Her Majesty’s groupies. My feigned disinterest was actually fatigue and a splitting headache.

Since then, I’ve only been “out” in character one more time, four years ago, and I will be honest and say that the price was far too high. As successful as the performance was (from a strict marketing point of view), the cost was crushing, mentally and emotionally. From the near-constant sexual assault by the many females in the crowd, and the neverending onslaught of people on my persona, I was barely able to keep a straight face and had it not been for my character, I would’ve fled the scene long before the two-hour mark after which I returned to my room utterly exhausted.

It must’ve been then that I “relabeled” myself, into an ambivert, someone who is a bit of both, extrovert and introvert, stuck in the middle, outgoing at times, but in desperate need to recharge the batteries in between.

From extro- to ambi- to introvert

I must have been fooling myself, like the little gay boy who feels safer coming out as bisexual rather than gay right away, failing to see that he’s thus only hurting those who really are bisexual. But that’s another story. I think it is high time that I admit that I’m a full-fledged introvert. But how did that happen? Has it been these past nine years of working alone from home? The lack of people to socialize with on a daily basis?

Alone. This is how I feel best right now.

Or is it because I’ve just spent ten days in the company of guests? Literally 24×7 with no privacy? I don’t know, but when I left the gym yesterday, after spending the first two hours alone in almost two weeks,

I felt this overwhelming sense of relief, of finally being able to breathe again, and then it struck me that I was about to head into the worst day of my year, as a friend reminded me of having to call me tomorrow. Given how much I hate attention, my mood quickly spiraled downward.

Suddenly, I felt like I was choking. I couldn’t breathe and I was panicking. How would I get out of all this? So today I’ve been offline. My phone’s been disconnected, and I’ve refused to check certain social media, particularly messaging apps. I. just. need. to. be. alone. On the upside, I wrote several thousand words today. That was nice. And I had a great walk into the forest.

Yet…

Obviously, I know I can’t. My husband will be home in an hour. So will my son. They don’t count, quite the contrary. Their daily homecoming is most welcome and I feel that I can be myself in their company. But everyone else better stay away or things could get nasty. I’m like the evil version of Annie Wilkes. I can be very protective of myself…

On the other hand, I still look forward to meeting people, and there is still part of me who longs to be social, to be out there, particularly when I guide guests and show them my town. Not sure what role I slip into, but that has never been a problem. At the end of the day, I can always take off the Hans-suit and be myself again. Strange, but I’m sure Paul Sheldon would be proud of me.

The many pitfalls of language

Imagine being locked into your body, unable to communicate

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.

Bad, bad artist! How do you deal with your idol being a “bad” person?

Bad, bad artist! How do you deal with your idol being a “bad” person?

The documentary “Leaving Neverland” highlights an age-old conundrum

I haven’t seen the documentary yet. So no comments on its merits, artistically or in terms of assignment of guilt. I am a staunch believer in our justice system and the basic tenant of “innocent until proven guilty”. This post isn’t about who said what or who did what, nor about Michael Jackson specifically. As a survivor of sexual assault as a child by a grown-up, I’m not sure I’ll ever watch it either. Some things need not be remembered needlessly. But the discussions that have followed in the wake of its screening around the globe have led me to think about the topic as such, and how we, as consumers of art, can deal with instances when an artist we enjoy/love/adore turns out to be less perfect than we would like them to be.

Through history, artists have always been human…

Stating the obvious first. Artists (writers, musicians, painters, sculptors, actors, filmmakers etc.) have always been humans. And as such, they’re all deeply flawed. Some even claim that it takes a highly flawed person to create great art. Wasn’t me, but I can see how that might be true. In order to create art that touches people emotionally, art that annoys, makes happy, saddens, etc., any artistic product must appeal to our emotions and in order to achieve that effect, whoever creates it, must be able to access deeply rooted feelings and emotions, good and bad.

A bust from the National Archaeological Museum in Naples depicts Julius Caesar, whose popularity skyrocketed after his conquest of Gaul, threatening the power of Rome’s nobility. Photograph by De Agostini

A bust from the National Archaeological Museum in Naples depicts Julius Caesar, whose popularity skyrocketed after his conquest of Gaul, threatening the power of Rome’s nobility.
Photograph by De Agostini

I remember reading the works of Julius Caesar in school, in the original Latin. He was a brilliant writer, his storytelling unique, yet as a statesman, he was also quite ruthless and brutal. Hardly the ideal human being, and I remember our teacher telling us that we had to see his stories as what they were: a victor’s account of historical events. Hardly objective. And there are many instances through the eons of artists we may treasure, but who fell short on the human front. Here are a couple of my favorites: Richard Wagner, one of my favorite classical composers, yet an asshole (pardon my French) as a human being, not to mention an Anti-Semite of the worst kind. Knut Hamsun, one of my favorite Norwegian writers, brilliant stories. He even won a Nobel Prize, but yeah, he was a staunch supporter of the Nazis and German occupation of Norway. Fast forward to someone like Woody Allen, and the many movies of his I adore, particularly “What you always wanted to know…” but on a human front? Yeah. Then there are Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, R Kelly, Kevin Spacey and countless others. And we’ve already mentioned the King of Pop whose musical legacy is astonishing, but who leaves many wondering: can I still listen to his music after these allegations?

Boycott or no boycott?

In the wake of the Jackson documentary, several radio stations have stopped playing his music. That is, of course, their prerogative. However, I’m not sure that is the right way to go because it derives us, the audience of the possibility to come to that determination on our own. If I am disgusted by the allegations, I should be able to come to that conclusion on my own and change the station or turn it off. However, if I want to continue to listen, I should be allowed to do so as well.

I don’t like it very much when other people make decisions on my behalf, but that’s just me. If I don’t want to attend a concert by an artist because they’ve been accused of something horrific, that should be my choice, and the same should be true for reading a book, listening to music, or watching a movie.

I have one caveat though: be open-minded, and educate yourself. Often enough it is very difficult to assess whether someone really is a bad person, or not. And posthumously? There is no defense possible, and in the case of Michael Jackson, there are no criminal convictions. Which isn’t to say he didn’t do it. Legally, though, and that is our common framework, he’s to be seen as innocent. And that is true for most artists, particularly deceased ones. They can no longer defend themselves, or explain their thoughts or why (or why not) they chose to do this or believe that.

My personal principles with regards to artists

I try to tackle this with a two-pronged approach: a) separate artist from the person and b) don’t be a putz! Educate yourself.

Richard Wagner in 1971

Richard Wagner in 1971

I will always love Wagner’s music, even though I know he was a racist and Anti-Semite. How do I reconcile the two? I have always maintained that the art, the work, is more important than the artist. It is separate from them and should be judged on its own merits. Allow me a short excursion into HR, where many organizations these days use anonymized resumes to make sure applicants have an equal opportunity. We know that hiring managers will sort people by name, gender, race etc. long before digging into the actual competencies of someone. Remove that information and they will be forced to view the actual competencies without knowing if it is a man/woman, someone white/black/Asian, etc. who’s behind a resume.

If you heard pieces from e.g. the Ring without knowing who wrote the score, would you deem it less valuable? As a writer, this is particularly important to me, as I find my works should be judged as they are, not based on who I am. Having studied literature in college, I know that we tend to look to the author’s life to explain this or that in their writing. I’ve always found this rather “offensive”, particularly since I’ve begun to write myself. Yes, I may find inspiration for my writing in my life (duh!) but the end result is never a reflection of me, never something that can be used as a basis for psychoanalysis of me and those near me. I’ve written about this in the past.

Educate yourself

It’s easier said than done not to be a putz when it comes to our darlings. We tend to see our idols through stars in our eyes. That is quite normal. And even if you feel that your idol has been falsely accused, and you feel strongly about that, which is fine as long as they have not been convicted in a court of law, educate yourself about the crime/behavior they have been accused of. Not the specific case, but learn about e.g. sexual assault, and how frequent it is, who the victims are, the perpetrators, circumstances it happens and the powerplay involved. Learn about child abuse, the causes, and who victims and predators normally are.

Let’s face it, you can’t really judge anyone unless you know a hell of a lot more about the alleged crime. Just because someone sings a lovely song, writes a great book or is an incredibly talented actor says absolutely nothing about their potential lives. Nothing.

My take?

I can listen to Michael Jackson, at least the songs I like and will continue to do so. However, if he were still alive, I’d not allow my son to spend time near him. Ever. Better to be safe than sorry. I can still watch a movie by Harvey Weinstein or Woody Allan, but I wouldn’t have coffee with them. I can still enjoy a novel by Knut Hamsun, but I’m mindful of his views expressed, and I look forward to “The Valkyries” at my opera house this fall, and to learning more about Wagner’s life and the despicable views held by him, his late wife Cosima and many in his family for generations, still infecting the Bayreuth festival every year.

That’s my take on it. What is yours?

Finally

We are three days away from the launch of my next book in the Golden One series, Deceit. And while I’m far from being a perfect human being, the worst I’ve done is getting speeding tickets and running a stop sign. LOL So don’t judge me too harshly. But more importantly, judge my books on their own merits, not by what you think of me, my views or my actions. You can learn more about Deceit right here, complete with purchase links to get your own copy.

International Women’s Day matters, not just to women, but men as well

International Women’s Day matters, not just to women, but men as well

Gender equality is critical, not just to elevate women, but to free men as well

I always feel conflicted on this day. It’s such an important opportunity to talk about all the work we still have ahead of us, in terms of gender equality, women’s rights etc. all around the world. Just this morning I heard a story on the news about how a new right-wing party wants to tear up the current abortion legislation in Spain, turn back the dial some forty years. So sad, and so very sad that many women support these policies. No one should ever be allowed to make any kind of decision about your own body than the person themself. Alas, women’s bodies still seem to be the property of someone or something else.

My mother feeding me. 1967. Photo: private

It’s not about vaginas v penises, not really…

Gender equality isn’t really about our sexual organs or biology. Yes, undoubtedly, biology plays a role and has played a role in the past. Today though, it’s more about values. We have men with vaginas and women with penises (and people who do not fit on the binary scale), so we can forego the “biological” part, because unless you know the person in front of you is trans, you’ll treat them according to how you perceive them, not what they may or may not have between their legs, what hormonal levels they exhibit in a blood test or even how they perceive themselves…

The real difference is in how we value that which is considered “male” and that which is considered “female”. Sadly, female attributes are considered less valuable, less desirable, than male traits. As a gay man, someone who’s often been described with female attributes in order to be ridiculed, derided and diminished, I know a little bit about it. My community has made the most of this, taking these so-called undesirable traits, elevating and celebrating them. #Drag When we call each other “bitch!” it’s a compliment, not a slur. We’re fierce, strong!

Unfortunately, for society, this skewed value attribution is detrimental. Boys are still (sadly) raised to oppress whatever traits that might be considered female: show emotions, cry, care etc. Instead, they’re pushed to compete, struggle, fight and overcome adversity, to “be a man”. Mind you, these traits are not “bad” per se, but unless they are balanced by empathy and caring, they become dangerous. A man who fights and competes to advance is potentially dangerous if he doesn’t feel empathy for those around him or care for those he competes with. A woman, similarly, is a walking target for abuse if she doesn’t compete or fight for her place if all she does is feel empathy and make excuses.

Ying and Yang. Only together can male and female attributes form a complete human being, regardless of how we identify.

Ying and Yang. Only together can male and female attributes form a complete human being, regardless of how we identify.

Male and female traits, in a way, are like Ying and Yang. Only together do they make us whole as human beings.

Equality isn’t women’s struggle. It’s a human struggle

I often look to my own parents to see how gender inequality can destroy lives and affect people across time and even generations. My mother was raised in a conservative Catholic home (they all were back in the 1940s.) When she got married, she’d advanced to a purchaser for a local clothing store and had a (potentially) rewarding professional career ahead of her. She had an amazing sense of fashion and was always dressed meticulously. My dad, a carpenter, wanted to move away and she gave it all up, for him (of course.) When they got married, my mother knew nothing (sic!) about sex. Nothing. Imagine the shock.

She raised me and my brother to be different than what my dad had been raised to be. Not that my father is a bad person. Quite the contrary. But just as my mom was a victim of societal expectations (and she played her role well), so was (is) my dad. He worked very hard, built a very successful business, providing for us, and became a person of great influence in town. We often jokingly refer to him as the “King of Samedan” because of that. Part of that image was also to be successful in sexual matters, and affairs with several women were the result, in part because my mom couldn’t due to her upbringing.

I don’t know when my mother first found out about those affairs. I recently learned they began in 1981, but the first ‘clash’ didn’t come until 1985/86 when I was in the US. I missed it all. I couldn’t miss how their relationship had changed when I came back though. But my mother wouldn’t leave him. Threaten? Yes. But a good woman doesn’t leave her man. It’s how she’d been raised and she was unable to break out of the expectations of what it meant to be a good wife, a good mother.

Emotionally crippled

Grandfather and grandson feeding the birds together. Those two… Photo: private

When my mom died, five years ago, my dad was devastated, even though he’d continued to stay in touch with at least one of the women he’d had affairs with through those years. I know because both my brother and I got an offer to inseminate her Lesbian daughter just a couple of years before mom passed away… We both politely (not really) declined. My dad could not cope with being alone after her death, he’d burn the water on the stove… It didn’t take many months before he considered at least four (!)  different women and we all joked about what he’d labeled “Beuteschema”, i.e. target audience, to translate it a little bit less offensive than the German term.

Fast forward and my dad is dating the “other woman” and they spend a lot of time together. He’s grown a lot as a person in the past few years and is a lot more open about his emotions, and he’s an amazing and loving grandfather. But there are still lies, there are still cover-ups, and there are still other women that I’m not supposed to know about. His male ego still needs to be stroked. He needs to feel that power rush of being valued by women. Mind you, it takes two to tango, and cheating isn’t a male thing, but I believe that men cheat for different reasons: for them it’s the fear or loneliness, of asserting their power, having something pretty by their side, being looked after, cared for, while women do it to be seen, valued, affirmed. Two sides of the same coin. Ying & Yang all over.

To break the cycle

Unfortunately, this behavior, the effects of the inequality my parents suffer from, also affects their children. Having been my mother’s confidant for decades, I am the living memory of my mother’s pain and the betrayals against her. Every time I see my father’s new woman, I remember all the countless times my mom cried and lamented at being cheated on. It makes family gatherings very difficult and had it not been for my son and his right to spend time with his grandfather, I have a hunch I would avoid the pain if possible. Alas…

Here's to a better, brighter future, regardless of gender.

Here’s to a better, brighter future, regardless of gender.

So how do you break the cycle? I’ll be honest, I see little hope for me to ever feel differently about what happened between my mom and dad. And I doubt my feelings toward the other woman will ever change. What I can do is try and make sure that I raise our son to be different, to help him be a true human, someone who competes and fights, someone who is truly whole and who doesn’t judge others based on their biology or gender attributes, but based on their heart and mind. It’s an uphill battle because society doesn’t change at the pace we’d like it to (quite the contrary.)

Countless times have we had to point out that “no, that’s not a girl/boy thing” when he came home to tell us about something at school.

I try very hard to break the cycle. I’m a faggot, I’m in touch with every feminine side there is, and I celebrate those traits, every day, just as I relish my masculine characteristics. I can wield a hammer as well as I can stir a pot with a spoon. Let’s all work toward this common goal. Not just today, as we wear purple to honor our sisters, but every day of the year. For all of humanity, women, men and nonbinary people alike.

I wish you all a most auspicious International Women’s Day 2019.