The Words We Mutter Under Our Breath

Some years ago, as I waited to be served food by a prickly employee of an eating establishment, I sensed my temper flaring. She and I had had run-ins before; she had always seemed unnecessarily querulous and brusque in her interactions with me; the  milk of human kindness seemed to have curdled long ago in her. I anticipated more trouble in this encounter; I was on edge, wondering which pronouncement of mine would be met with curtness or indifference. I wasn’t mistaken; a few seconds later, I was subjected to a familiar, rage-inducing rudeness. I placed my order, picked up my food, and walked away. As I did so, I muttered under my breath, “Fuck you, you fucking stupid bitch.” My short and bitter rant was loud enough to be overheard by someone–not a complete stranger–standing next to me, who promptly did a double-take and said something to the effect of “Wow, that’s harsh.” Now mortified, I mumbled something about having a bad day and walked quickly away. (I was especially embarrassed because I had just interacted with a service worker, someone who at the best of times is underpaid and overworked.)

It wasn’t the first time–and sadly, I don’t think it will be the last–that I will say something quite unhinged, in a hushed tone of voice, in words only audible to myself. On various occasions over the years I’ve deployed almost exactly that same line above on the conclusion of an aggravating social encounter–with ‘bitch’ replaced by some other derogatory term, sometimes racist, sometimes homophobic, sometimes sexist, sometimes fat-shaming. In the encounter I make note of above, I had been detected and called out; on most occasions, I am the only audience for these private expressions of my feelings.

I do not know if this history means that deep down at heart I’m a sexist, racist, misogynistic, homophobic person; I do know that I’m afflicted with many kinds of implicit bias, and they play a role in my understanding of the world and my relationships with those who inhabit it; I do know that being exposed to all those strands of thought as I grew up, and living in societies that still suffer from those afflictions predisposes me to fall back, lazily, in the cauldron of unfavorable circumstance, to those very same attitudes when I express anger. They suggest themselves to me as the right kind of ammunition to deploy against my imagined foes, the only balms that will assuage my psychic wounds. (Conversely, with probability one, someone has referred to me in precisely the terms above after an aggravating encounter with me, with their favorite prejudiced expression for folks of my ethnic persuasion inserted into the schema above.)

These are not flattering reflections on oneself; my utterances are only partially excused by being made in a fit of anger. Perhaps I can congratulate myself on having found a ‘safe outlet’ for my frustrations; after all, all I did was rant a bit to myself. My words did not lead to prejudiced action or violence or politics or some form of systematic discrimination against those who, unknown to themselves, had been subjected to abuse my me. But perhaps that lets me too easily off the hook; and perhaps it lets off our societies and our times too easily as well.

Donald Trump’s ‘Hot-Mic’ And Men Talking About Sex

A friend offers the following reaction to the latest ‘sensational’ disclosures about Donald Trump’s misogyny:

To all the guys on my feed posting their shock and outrage over Trump’s hot-mic comments about women: give me a break. “How could America possibly elect someone who talks like this about women??” you ask. Do you honestly think we haven’t elected guys who talk like this about women before? Do you think Bill Clinton never talked like this? George W Bush? Come on. This is quintessential Americana, right here. Boys talk like this about girls in ELEMENTARY SCHOOL, for pete’s sake. Men have talked about women like this for EVER. And you’re so shocked that **Donald Trump** talks this way? One of you posting your shock once forcibly blocked my entrance to a restroom and shoved your tongue in my mouth, some years ago. I bet you don’t even remember, because it was a total non-event or you felt like, because you liked me, it was OK. This is normal, every day behavior. Yes, it sucks, but please don’t pretend this is your first time experiencing this reality. Your b.s. outrage is an insult to those of us who have been aware of this reality since we were children.

Indeed. Men talk like this about women all the time. Many conversations like this take place when men get together to talk about women, about sex, and about their sexual ‘conquests.’ The distinctions that many are seeking to draw between sexual assault and sexual ‘conquest’–which, supposedly, makes these conversations worse than normal ‘locker room banter’–is easily blurred precisely because for so many men this line is blurred in their ‘locker room banter’ about sex and their sexual partners:

[M]en, when talking about sex, cannot drop the language of conquest and domination, of conflating sex and violence (‘Dude, I fucked the shit out of her’ or ‘I was banging her all night’) [they] imagine sex to be a variant of rough-and-tumble sport (‘scoring touchdowns’), [and] associate weakness with womanhood (‘Don’t be a pussy’ ‘Man up’ ‘Put your pants on’).

Men have been used to talking like that about women for a very long time. It’s how they’ve learned to talk about sex and women in the company of men. In general, when men brag to other men about their sexual conquests, they do not describe how they generated intimacy–physical or otherwise–with conversation; rather, they speak of how they ‘overcame’ the barriers that the woman had put up between herself–as a sexual target to be attained–and sex. In these circumstances, getting a little pushy goes with the territory; don’t you have to get women drunk before you can have sex with them? And if a women doesn’t resist your advances, then men can talk about what a ‘whore’ and a ‘slut’ and a ‘dirty bitch who really wanted it’ she was as she got ‘down and dirty.’

To this toxic mix, add a little entitlement and arrogance and you get the Trump conversation. Indeed, with probability one, hot mics would reveal conversations like this in most public figures’ portfolios. It is not just ‘deplorables‘ who ‘talk like that.’

Paul Ryan’s ‘Mea Culpa’ Speech: Anatomy of Political Bad Faith

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a significant subset of the demographic consisting of American liberals and progressives and centrists are among the most gullible political subjects of all: throw them a bone or two–i.e., a substantive or purely rhetorical political concession–and they’ll immediately drop previously held convictions. The visible reaction to Paul Ryan‘s recent supposedly bold and courageous speech, where he offered a critique of the degraded level of current political discourse and apologized for using the term ‘takers’ to describe anyone that wasn’t a ‘maker’–the former are welfare mooches, the poor, benefits recipients, the latter are presumably CEOs and business executives–demonstrates the truth of this claim quite impressively. For no sooner were the words out of Ryan’s mouth that he was immediately anointed as the leader the Republican Party has been waiting for–many lonely eyes were turned his way apparently–, his political courage and principles were praised, and he immediately began to look presidential.

Excuse me while I don’t kiss this guy.

Ryan did not name names. He blamed all and sundry for the degraded level of political discourse–a kind of ‘everyone seems to have lost their mind’ line that is vacuous and dishonest. For the ones engaging in the kind of speech that Ryan seems to be referring to are members of his own party, and moreover, the level of discourse on display in Republican debates is not significantly lower than the kind of language his party has been using for a very long time. (The loudness and shrillness has been amped up just a bit but the sentiments on display have been public ones for a very long time) The guilty–the ones lowering the quality so beloved of Ryan–have just not been using it against other Republicans. Their targets have been the same demographics that Ryan targeted in his ‘takers’ comment: the politically and economically disenfranchised.

As for Ryan’s apology for using the ‘takers’ line: the most expedient political strategy for Republicans, following their noticing that many of those who have begun to carry the Trump banner would have been considered ‘takers’ in Ryan’s old formulation (even as they continue to reassure themselves that their whiteness ensures they will never be considered ‘takers’) would be to stop describing them as such and to enroll their support for a ‘mainstream’ candidate. This apology is Ryan’s triangulation, it is his lame attempt to sound a more populist note in a symphony consisting of endless variations on the economic self-sufficiency theme.

I had noted a little while ago that the Republican Party would absorb this year’s political turbulence and move on. Ryan’s speech is part of that attempt; it aims to acknowledge the crassness on display, thus reassuring the Republican faithful that their own more carefully phrased ugliness remains kosher; it tries to lamely assert ownership of a populist platform. So desperate is Republican Party’s political opposition for signs of political reasonableness that it will accept this transparent dishonesty.

Fool me once etc.

Bilinguality And Being ‘Different People In Different Languages’

Over at LitHub, Ana Menéndez asks that age-old question ‘Are We Different People in Different Languages,’ and, by way of a partial answer, writes:

For me, language was a kind of initiation into multiple realities. For if one language could be certain of a table’s gender and another couldn’t be bothered, then what was true of the world was intimately tied, not to some platonic ideal, but to our way of expressing it.

Immigrants, of course, have known this forever. We inhabit two worlds at all times; one remembered, romanticized, fantasized about, wistfully recollected; the other, lived and grappled with. The first seeps into the second’s pores at all times: accents poke their heads up and demand and compel recognition–in both directions. The older one marks you an outsider, unable to settle; the newer one as a traveler, unable to return home.  (In the case of the Indian immigrant to the US, who very often brings a variant, a ‘dialect,’ a local flavor of English with him, you carry around traces of a distinctive idiom in your new linguistic home. Sometimes you emphasize the wrong syllable and you turn heads, or prompt an ‘excuse me?’; at those moments, you sense, awkwardly, that your cover is blown.)

Speaking in two languages–moving from one to the other–sometimes in the course of a single day or evening or night, prompts thoughts of this act of living in two worlds, two realities quite easily. You step into a corner, accost your interlocutor, and begin speaking. At that moment, you sense curtains drawn, a stepping across the threshold. You are, speaking so figuratively that it might as well be literal, in a different place, a different time. But that’s not all that’s changed.

For I become a different person. I have a new and distinct sense of humor; I am voluble and expressive in different ways; I can summon up new flavors of pungency and astringency. Not better, not more desirable, just different, able to accomplish different things and facilitate different projects. Then, someone speaks, summons me, calls out to me, from another land; I answer, switching back, and I am transported again. You don’t ‘belong’ anywhere, a loss that sometimes induces a wistfulness and longing, but very often a rueful appreciation of this always unstable position.

I am, as I often realize, many people. The languages I speak remind me of that in the most distinctive and pleasurable of ways.    

Note: I was compelled to make note of these observations this morning for the best reason of all. Last night, I attended a dinner in Brooklyn that was hosted by a high-school friend. She had invited two other classmates of mine (all of us residents of the US for some three decades now.). As might be imagined, over the course of the evening, I moved between the two languages I speak the most fluently. We saw the ‘old world’ and the ‘new world’ differently depending on the language we spoke at any given instant. We drove by car, back and forth, but that was not the only traveling we did.

Boccaccio And Double Entendres In A Patriarchal Society

In his review of a new translation of Giovanni Boccaccio‘s The Decameron (by Wayne A. Rebhorn, Norton, 2015), Stephen Greenblatt writes:

Many of these stories are scandalously obscene, but the scandal has nothing to do with filthy words….circumlocutory words, or periphrases…have nothing to do with prudery. They are part of Boccaccio’s inexhaustible bag of metaphorical tricks, and they work because, except for the crudest and most tongue-tied of us, everyone resorts to such tricks constantly, if rarely with such inventiveness. As Boccaccio writes “The Author’s Conclusion,” “Men and women generally…go around all day long saying ‘hole’ and ‘rod’ and ‘mortar’ and ‘pestle’ and ‘sausage’ and ‘mortadella’ and lots of other things like that.” The point is not that such words should rightfully be innocent of double entendres but rather that we gleefully carry our sexual energy over into everyday language, and we love it. It is part of what it means to be healthy and alive.

As the unsurprising popularity and ubiquity of the ‘That’s what she said’ and ‘said the actress to the bishop’ formulations shows, our language is littered with ample opportunities for such ‘interventions.’ Quasi-hecklers and budding comedians especially delight in these: the innocent speaker launches forth, utters the fateful phrase–say, perhaps, “I kept pushing hard” or “there was no point in stopping” or “it had quickly hardened”–and the would-be Michael Scott, sensing an opportunity, steps in with his interjection. Titters and snickers follow. Easy pickings indeed. (I cannot tell a lie; I have indulged myself on occasion in precisely such a fashion.)

But we don’t all “love it” and we don’t all find the reminders of this “sexual energy” in our “everyday language” to be part of the meaning of “what it means to be healthy and alive.” There are times when the constant, knowing, deployment of double entendres or ‘That’s what she said’ interjections can, in certain social and conversational contexts, become occasions for discomfort, for displacement, for silencing, and thus even contribute to a form of harassment. As women have often complained in workplace settings, the deployment of double entendres in conversations by their male colleagues–with nods and winks at other accomplices–has often contributed to an uncomfortable work environment. (Sometimes their gentlemen colleagues–in the bad old days–would bring their “sexual energy” to the workplace by watching porn at their work desks, or by putting up pinups of scantily clad women on their desks.)

In a society riven by unequal gender relations and dynamics, by patriarchy and sexism, our carrying over of our “sexual energy” into our “everyday language” includes carrying over a great deal of that  same inequality and imbalance. The woman whose uttering of “it wasn’t as long as it could have been” is interrupted by a “that’s what she said” in the workplace is, in all likelihood, surrounded by men who make more than her, whose work is taken more seriously, who are listened to more carefully and respectfully.

Our “everyday language” does not just contribute to our politics, it also reflects it.

On Male Brazilians And Revealing Ethnic Origins Through Cussing

Today was a painful day; twice, I encountered good old-fashioned physical pain. None of that fancy, dark night of the soul, melancholic stuff. You needed topical balms for this, not therapy. (Though I suppose opiates would help both varietals.)

Incident Numero Uno (in which I inadvertently receive a varietal of a Male Brazilian): Shortly after I had finished working out at my gym this afternoon, I collected my sore body and my gear, and began the walk back to the subway station to catch my train back home. On the way, I stopped to talk to a friend of mine; she was crossing the same street. We commiserated about some bureaucratic nightmares she is currently experiencing, and as we talked, I began removing a pair of taped straps from my wrists. I had been using these while performing two sets of heavy front squats a little earlier, and had forgotten to remove them. This procedure is always a little painful, thanks to the presence of hairs on my wrist–I am not unusually hirsute and carry a standard complement in that location. As usual, I moved gingerly and slowly, an action which did not fail to catch the attention of my friend who offered to help by delivering a short, sharp yank to the remaining part of the white tape. She did so, perhaps adding an emphatic flourish, and I let out an agonized yelp.  We both stared in some astonishment at the strip of tape that had just been torn off my right wrist: it was flecked with many a hair that had formerly adorned my wrist. At that moment, I felt deep empathy and sympathy for all those countless women who have undergone the agonies of a Brazilian to prepare for a season at the beach. How do they ever do it? Why do they? Patriarchy has a lot to answer for.

Incident Numero Dos (in which I am reminded of my ethnic origins): I returned home, my wrist still smarting, determined to feed myself well after my grueling workout. I entered the kitchen and set about making some scrambled eggs to accompany a leftover hot Italian sausage from last night’s dinner. After whipping up a rather tasty looking four-egg medley, I moved the pan over to where my plate lay and then, absentmindedly, reached for a serving utensil to begin ladling my preparation out. I had cooked the eggs with a wooden spatula, but forgetting that momentarily, I reached for one with a metallic handle. Unfortunately, this one, lying on the cooking range, had been exposed to the flame of my cooking for several minutes. As I grabbed it, a searing, agonizing, pain shot through my hand. I dropped the spatula, and stared at my hand, which showed two burns forming rapidly–one on my little finger, and one on my palm–even as I cursed loudly and pungently. Two cusswords had emanated. Both were in Punjabi. Modesty forbids me provide any more detail than that. Old instincts die hard. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

On Being Of Only Average Intelligence

Around the time that my teen years were to commence, I took an IQ test. My brother had stumbled upon one of HJ Eysenck‘s famous IQ books–it would have been either Know Your Own I.Q. (1962) or Check Your Own I.Q. (1966)–and after testing himself, insisted that I do so too. Intrigued by this mysterious entity called ‘intelligence quotient‘ and possessed of a–what else?–childish trust in the power of quantification to reveal reality’s contours, I took the test.

The scores were humbling. I emerged with a 120 (on a scale of 200, if I remember correctly). Eysenck’s scale informed us that this score placed me in the ‘average’ category. Well above the ‘deficient’, the ‘retarded’, the ‘mentally infirm’ but well below the Mozarts of this world. And certainly well below some pesky teenager the Guiness Book of World Records had anointed the world’s IQ king. I had arrived at the same score as my brother, so at least he hadn’t bested me, but this was scant consolation; I had been hoping to show up–in this cerebral domain–someone who was certainly my physical superior.

My score was mortifying. I had been assured by many around me–my parents mostly, but also many of my aunts and uncles–that I was ‘very smart’, that I was ‘so bright,’ destined for bigger and better things. This assessment of my intelligence was, I think, based on two factors: one, I read a great deal at a rapid pace, and two, my spelling was impeccable, the closest I’ve come to achieving perfection in any walk of life. But now, this strange test that asked me to–among many other species of mental trickery–manipulate shapes and find patterns in numbers, all the while keeping one nervous eye on the clock, had rudely brought me down to earth. I was one of the lowing, bleating herd; I was unexceptional; I was a follower, not a leader.

Unable to fully reconcile myself to this demotion on the grand totem pole of human worth, I resolved to take the test again. I did so. My score unblinkingly returned to the same point on the scale. Distraught, I told my mother the bad news. Contrary to her suffused-by-motherly-love assessments, I was only ‘average.’ My mother told me to not worry. A little later, when I conveyed my grim tidings to my father, I received much the same instructions. (I do not know if I invited them to take the test; perhaps my anxiety about finding out that my parents too were merely ‘average’ stayed my tongue.)

It was with some relief therefore that I greeted the skepticism directed at these quantitative assessments of a supposedly monolithic entity: I was suitably receptive to the arguments that scorned the crude shoehornings of something quite as indeterminate as human intelligence into a neatly marked off numerical scale. Such claims fell on fertile ground; I was ready to receive reassurance all was not lost, that I could hold my head up again and hope for vindication on some other intellectual battleground.

I’m still waiting.