Something kind of awesome happened the other day. William Shatner showed up on Reddit, and then went on to introduce himself on their /r/startrek. I’m a big fan of his acting, and I think Bill’s just about the coolest 81-year-old in the world. Which is why I was a little surprised when he had some choice words about the site.
The unsavory aspects still exist — I am appalled by some of the immature, horrifically racist, sexist, homophobic, ethnic … etc … posts that are just ignored here.
This kind of took me aback. I consider myself pretty good at getting on the Internets. I’ve gone on 4chan/b to see what all the hubbub is about. I was on Slashdot, Fark, and Digg back in the day. So, I guess I’ve been taking for granted the fact that some people use words that… Well, let’s just say words that, in my day, were only allowed in rap lyrics, and because I am a fat, white man, from me certain words sound offensive no matter what the context.
As God as my witness, I though turkeys could fly. As God as my witness, I thought that was just the way young people talked these days.
If people use those horrible hurtful words without thinking because those words have no negative connotation to them, I don’t necessarily consider that a bad thing–I drop F-bombs like I own stock in the F-ing company, a sin which would have gotten me stoned (not the good kind) in 1950s America. I’m a big fan of words not hurting people, and I’m all for taking the teeth away from those words.
Here’s the thing that Bill Shatner made me think about: Even if they were meant ironically, if someone reads those words and interprets them as hateful, does it matter if they were meant ironically? And is there is a darker side to this as well? Are there closet racists who hide behind hipsterism, or are empowered because they don’t understand the intent of the words they’re reading?
Hell, I don’t know. I don’t even know if these comments were meant ironically.
As a member of the privileged class–I didn’t sign up for that–I also struggle with racial issues in my writing. Should I mention that I mentally see a character as black? What if I didn’t mention another character was white? Growing up in Iowa, white skin is definitely my default*. Can I say black or should I say African American**? The only thing I am sure I can do is offend someone. Ironically, I usually enjoy offending people, but racially, I’d rather not.
* I think I was seven years old before I saw a person with black skin, and I was very confused. From what I had seen on TV, I didn’t know whether I was supposed to burn a cross or be mugged, neither one of which would have been easy in the crowded Strawberry Point swimming pool. Things only got more confusing when I asked my father about racism, and he told me Irish people were once considered racially inferior. I’d always thought we were just drunks.
** I once went to a party where a drunken gentleman explained to an African woman that she was “African-African American.” She insisted that she was not an American, and therefore she was an African who was black. She then pointed out that there were white Africans as well. The drunken gentleman explained that white Africans were her European opressors, to which she responded, “My father is white.” The conversation ended there.