I have an aunt who doesn’t like swearing. She hates it to the point where saying a substitute for a swear word is still bad in her mind. In my immediate family, words like “crap” and “freaking” were fine substitutes – we weren’t saying the actual word, so Mom and Dad didn’t care. Not so with her.
I remember at one point I was over at her house and we were watching one of those teen comedies that aired in a block on ABC on Friday nights in the 90s. One of the characters said, “No freaking way!” and my aunt gasped, appalled. I asked her what was so wrong about it, and got the reply, “Don’t you know what it stands for?!” For her, everything was about the intent, not the words themselves. It didn’t matter if you subbed out one word for another – you still intended to curse, and that made it a curse.
I’ve done a lot of thinking about this policy in the many years since. In several ways, it was silly – her kids were allowed to use words like “stink” as a substitute for crap, and so it only seemed to be a matter of how far removed you were from the original idea. But there is something to changing up the language when your intent is still negative. This superficial level change doesn’t evince a heart transformation, which was my aunt’s entire point.
I’m a firm believer that intent isn’t a magical thing that automatically makes words hurt less, and I think it can be argued that bad intent doesn’t automatically turn good words into bad ones. But, of course, everything is contextual. Intent is a mixture of various things, and in many cases, intent and effect need to be separated. There’s an effective, practically tangible difference between the words “fucking” and “freaking,” if only because of the societal context in which they exist.
I think a lot of modern so-called progressives exist in this weird grey area that allows them to adopt and make words mean things different from what they actually mean, arguing all the while that because they have good intentions, because they don’t mean things maliciously, they deserve to create these definitions for themselves.
One of the terms I’ve spent a lot of time puzzling over and attempting to define in myriad ways is “ally.” There are a lot of people who claim to be allies to the queer community, but these fauxgressives, as I call them, are often functioning from a position where they remain in control. They get to define what the words mean, and since their intent is to help us in the community, we need to accept their handouts. Ally means what they say it does. Ally is a position to which they can rise, and no one can unseat them once they have put in their time.
Words function within power structures, and I’ve spoken before about how co-opting terms from marginalized people robs them of their power to speak for themselves. If a person can take food from the mouth of a child and call it justice, justice loses all meaning.
I see a similar trend happening with the idea of allies and allyship. “I’m an ally” has become a unilateral declaration, made by everyone from people who think homosexual acts are sinful but being gay isn’t to people who dedicate their lives to fighting for queer rights. Ally has become meaningless, a club that straight, cisgender folks can use to silence queer folk they are supposedly helping.
When you check these allies on their behavior, when you point out that they are literally talking over the people they’re supposed to help, when you attempt to correct them, what you get is not humility and a desire to prioritize the marginalized group. Instead, they take a defensive posture, a pulling out of credentials, and an attitude that seems to say, “I could be doing something else but I have deigned to help you, so you should just shut up and take it.”
It is, ultimately, a position that centers the ally, not the marginalized.
If straight cis people really want to be allies to the queer community, if white people really want to be allies to people of color, if able-bodied people want to be allies to people with disabilities, the allyship cannot begin and end with mere advocacy. It has to include a de-centering of our privileged selves from the conversation, a willingness to stop and listen – really listen – to what we have to say. If “hey, you screwed up” is constantly met with defensiveness, posturing, and pissing contests, your allyship doesn’t mean much.
I used to have a problem with debating online (a lifelong process to change). I had trouble disengaging, pulling myself out of that long Facebook thread or 300-comment stream. I now have a policy to comment once or twice and call it good, because usually anything beyond that becomes useless. Back when I’d be rapid-firing comments back and forth, though, I always had a nagging suspicion that I was losing when I started whipping out my academic credentials. I’d already lost when I had to lean back on the fact that I have an MA or a theology degree in order to make my point.
I see self-proclaimed allies doing this same thing, over and over and over. “I can’t be perpetuating harm; I’ve done x, y, and z for you people!” It’s the newest version of “I can’t be racist; I have a black friend!” It’s arrogance, plain and simple.
Simply put: I don’t care what you’ve done in the past. If you’re messing up now, I expect you to own up to it, now. My theology degree doesn’t erase the fact that I’m still learning and still reading about many different types of theology. The more I learn about the subjects I care about, the more I realize that I still have a long way to go. It should function similarly in being an ally – the longer you are an ally, the more it should be impressed upon you that you will screw up, you will be blinded by your privilege, and you will need to allow other people’s experiences and lives to take precedence over your status as an “ally.”
We are always learning. We are always growing. And our biggest mistakes arise when we have the arrogance to think we’re done.