The New Normal

“Normal”, I have a bone to pick with you. Sure, you’re popular. You get invited places, and people nod their recognition when you’re thrown into conversation, usually with other popular words like “nice”. For a long time, you made people feel safe and comfortable. You were a quick, effective bandaid to throw on awkwardness and fear. Like your friend “nice”, however, you’re starting to mean less and less, becoming a shiny, candy coating with no chocolate inside.

I’ll be blunt with you, “normal”. I’d like you stricken from the record, taken out of rotation. Here’s why:

  • We’re currently up to over 7 billion on this particular planet, and that’s just humans, the ones that are still alive. Logistically speaking, a word like “normal” seems really stupid. Trying to get that many organisms to conform, to be normal, is the most vivid example of herding cats I can think of. We’re a busy planet, and I think our time could be better spent doing other things.
  • Can I be blunt with you, “normal”? You’re a judgy, cliquy snob. You act like you’re all about collecting us into a group, but really you only serve to exclude. As I said a minute ago, there are an awful lot of us, and when, inevitably, one or more of us don’t fit into your confines, we’re made to feel like crap. You’re a jerk, a creep, a standard that’s just as damaging as it is unattainable.
  • You don’t serve any common good, not anymore, anyway. When we’re in a pickle (and we seem to be in a few of them at the moment), you don’t help. Einstein once said something clever about doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, and when we insist on being “normal”, we do just that. We’re at a point in our history when we need as much not-normal as we can get, people who are willing to run screaming from you and try something different, think of something new.

So, I think we’re done with you, “normal”. It’s time to give you your walking papers.

But what do we replace you with? I’m going to be optimistic and hope that whoever invented you in the first place did so in the spirit of bringing people together, of highlighting what we have (or hope to have) in common. A little unity isn’t always a bad thing, right? After all, no one wants to have “abnormal” associated with them either. “Abnormal” is the stuff of funky moles and e-coli counts in scummy swimming pools. Being different has some nasty connotations.

Could we just simply learn to use you, “normal”, a lot more sparingly, for things like seasonal temperatures, or radiation levels, stuff from which it’s actually bad to deviate? Can you keep your big nose out of things like gender roles, career choices and population demographics? Is it possible to utter your name without making someone feel like they don’t belong? Can we be factual about our differences without getting judgmental?

What if we replaced you, “normal”, with “shared”? Would that leave room for us to feel connected to one another without expecting us to be the same? Could we use “shared” for little, but important things, and still have a whole spectrum of stuff that can be different? Could we celebrate the things we have in common without making them mandatory, and without stigmatizing those who, for whatever reason, don’t share them?

 

 

Emojis and Our Return to the Cave Wall

cave drawing

Every so often, a new crop of emojiis is released, and there are typically two reactions:

1. Hooray! Finally, I can express my love of giant squid, while telling the world I’m craving tacos and that I have a cramp in my big toe, all without typing a flippin’ word!

2. What is the world coming to? Are we so lazy that we can’t use real language to express ourselves? I mean, I know texting isn’t supposed to be long and verbose, but seriously? Are we witnessing the death of language as we know it?

I’m not exactly on board with reaction #1 (I still use punctuation-based emoticons, dusty relic that I am), but I want to address reaction #2.  I’m decidedly old school when it comes to language. Even in texts, I still try to spell things correctly (although auto-correct seems to work against me), I still use full sentences, and I do try to avoid major slang or short forms. When I heard that “LOL” and “YOLO” were on their way out, I wasn’t all that disappointed. I maintain that it won’t kill us to think carefully about the words we choose when we’re on our devices, and to express ourselves in language of which our 9th grade English teachers would approve. I don’t, however, think the ubiquitous presence of emojis is reason to pull a Chicken Little. Here’s why:

  • Humans like language. We’re kind of fueled by our inability to shut up. How we communicate has changed over and over again since we climbed out of the trees, but the fact that we like to chat hasn’t. I’m not sure that emojis will ever satisfy our need to blab.
  • Communication through gadgets is limiting. Short forms may be time-efficient, but they make it very difficult to convey the deeper stuff. Seriously, how many times have you been offended or shocked by a badly-worded text that really wasn’t intended to be nasty? I can live with a little smiley face or cartoon critter at the end of a message, if it means it’s less likely that someone will misunderstand.
  • Not all humans are verbal thinkers. I live to flap my gums and wave my pen, but I recognize and even enjoy the fact that there are those who rely on visuals. If emojis ring true with these kinds of brains, then so be it.
  • You’ve probably noticed this, but emojiis aren’t exactly new, at least as a concept. Remember neolithic cave paintings? Hieroglyphics? Runes? Yeah, we started using visuals quite a while ago. You’ve probably also noticed little pictures of people on washroom doors, pictures with lines through them in no-smoking sections, along with arrows, squiggles and hand signals on road signs. Is working them into our texts and social media really such a coup?

What if our fascination with emojiis is a symptom of something bigger (as these things usually are)? Modern mainstream media presents us with a lot of information, bite after bite of words and ideas, and even if you’re a wordy person like me, it gets overwhelming. There’s a lot more to read than there used to be, a lot more to process. Can you blame us for wanting to go back to something a little more simple and direct, back to the scribbles on the cave walls that told us food was here and danger was there? I’m by no means advocating for doing away with complex thoughts expressed in words, but what if emojis are merely representations of our need to take a little breather now and again? Is civilization really going to come to a grinding halt because of cartoon poops or a little thumb’s up? At the very least, we should take comfort in the fact that these ready-made cartoon doodles are meant to convey emotion (it’s kind of in their name). In an age of virtual communication and geographic distance, we’re still trying to tell each other how we feel. We’ve just run out of cave walls.

Winky face, high-five, octopus, everyone.

An Editor’s Guide to Intolerance

crumpled paper

Leave it to sarcastic, satirical Broadway puppet productions to make complex issues seem less murky. Case in point: Avenue Q, specifically, the song “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” (see below). This number says a lot. We’re human beings. We’re (often) colossal jerks to one another. We say incredibly inappropriate things to one another, but as far as discrimination is concerned, maybe it’s preferable that we just fess up, get it all out on the table, and deal with it. Better out than in, as the saying goes.

I have to agree that we’re all a little bit racist (and sexist, classist, ableist, ageist…oh brother) and I’m also on board with the notion that holding it in and pretending it doesn’t exist serves no one. I do, however, think there’s another step to be taken in our efforts to be better human beings, and it can be described with an analogy (sorry, I’m a writer. It’s how we function).

Aspiring to be less of a racist jerk (or a prejudiced jerk, in general) is kind of like being a good editor. Editors, like everyone else, make grammar errors, spelling mistakes, and typos. Even after years of practice, digging into the inner workings of language, they still screw up from time to time, and things get missed. The difference is that they’ve developed a kind of instinct for recognizing screw-ups, a type of muscle memory, if you will. They not only spot their own mistakes, but they know how to fix them. They know why this verb doesn’t agree with this subject, why they need to use an adverb instead of an adjective, why it’s inappropriate to use slang in some situations. They know why it’s an error. It’s this constant diving into the why of it all that helps them to develop their editorial Spidey Sense in the first place.

I’m a human being, and every so often, stupid thoughts about other human beings ping-pong around in my head. Honestly, I don’t even believe these things are actually true. These thoughts are basically echoes of historical and cultural “bad grammar”, bits of misinformation or ignorance that I’ve heard often enough to have them lodge themselves into the dark corners of my brain. For some reason, they’ve been allowed to stay on the page when they should have been run through with a line of angry red pen. Every so often, probably more often than I’d like to admit, these nasty little “grammar errors” pop up again, messing up the nice, neat, enlightened narratives I’m trying to construct about life. They’re misplaced modifiers, verbs that don’t agree with their subjects, adjectives that should be adverbs. I get that they’re not logical, not supposed to be there. I know why they don’t fit. Moreover, I want what I put out into the universe to be right. I really do, from the bottom of my heart, want to do better.

In a sense, we’re all writing narratives like this, and the trick isn’t to hope we’ll never make mistakes, but rather to develop a sense that something about them just isn’t right, that they’re the result of sloppy thinking, fatigue, or frustration. If we hope to be less discriminatory, we need to start thinking like editors. No editor has ever written something of their own that was spotless and perfect, but they do force themselves go back and figure out why they’re making mistakes in the first place, why it needs to be this way instead of that way.

When it comes to catching discrimination, there is no “spell check” option. We can’t rely on mechanical, one-size-fits-all solutions. Every form of discrimination has its own ethos, it’s own aesthetic, it’s own history and evolution, as does every individual who willfully perpetuates it.  Every story has to be edited as a living thing, by another living thing. Even the most enlightened, tolerant, free-thinking soul will spend his or her entire existence going over their worldview with a fine-tooth comb, looking for slip-ups. The style guide with which they edit will change over time.

You’ve had the sensation of looking at a word or a phrase you’ve written and thinking “What am I missing? Why doesn’t that seem as it should?” The fact that you’ve had alarms go off is good, right? What do you do next? You take another look, show it to someone else, look it up, try writing it another way. You do this enough times, and it becomes instinct, at least the drive to look at it again, to revise, becomes instinct. Most importantly, you know you want to do it properly, to fix what’s askew. When you want to be less racist, sexist, any-ist, you do the same thing. You accept that the mistakes will be there, and the only crime is in not wanting to catch them.

You heard it from your grade 9 English teacher, and now you’re hearing it again: In writing, and in the pursuit of being a better human being, you need to proofread. We all do.

 

 

The Stories We Tell In Swears

despair

Okay, all you language instructors out there! What’s the first thing students of all ages ask about when they step into a classroom to learn another language? What’s the most satisfying part of one’s own language? Yes, it’s swear words, cursing, cussing, expletives, and dirty words. You want someone to care about how people talk in another part of the world, you entice them with forbidden stuff, the things you’re not supposed to say if you intend to kiss your mother or avoid getting a mouthful of soap. It works every single time.

We all have a need to speak dark things. The right combination of dirty phrases can be ridiculously satisfying, stress-reducing, possibly even peace-making. There’s more to swearing than expressions of anger, though. Learning to swear in any language is an exercise in cultural anthropology. I’m constantly amazed at how specific dirty words don’t translate between languages. What’s absolutely filthy in one barely gets you a shrug in another. The things a society chooses to include in its lexicon of naughty words speaks volumes about what’s important, what’s taboo, and what’s amusing. The same is true for language in general, but swearing seems to be a concentrated, condensed version. It’s immediate, direct, and emotionally-charged in a way that the rest of a language isn’t. Recent studies suggest that it’s indicative of a broad vocabulary (I really want this to be true). It’s also pretty funny.

In teaching others English, and in learning other languages myself, here’s what I’ve found:

  • Some cultures are pretty hung up about their bodies (including English). They swear about stuff that goes into them and things that come out of them, and they get nervous about being reduced to or associated with said bodily functions. Children are pretty good a this type of swearing, although in diluted form. Get my drift, Doodie Head?
  • Other cultures are not fond of animals. If you want to really let someone have it, you call someone an animal, or even a combination of non-human critters.  This one’s a little troubling, as animals are sometimes more civilized than we are. Maybe they call each other things like “big, smelly, noisy human” when they get upset.
  • Others are particularly protective of mothers. Swearing in this regard ranges from moms wearing army boots, to moms who are hamsters (and fathers who smell of elderberries), to moms who keep questionable company…because, you know, moms don’t have enough to deal with already.
  • Swearing can also extend to one’s spiritual persuasions as well. If you want to really pack a wallop with your cursing, you can drag superior beings into the conversation.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, and the cool thing about swearing is that it not only varies from culture to culture, but also between regions and generations. There’s a great deal that can be learned about a person, both as an individual and as a member of a bigger group, from what comes out of his or her mouth when he or she is irritated. If animals do swear, I wonder what might be in their canon of questionable language. As robots become increasingly intelligent and human-like, will they evolve their one set of verbal no-no’s? Should we be including a few nasty things in our communications with other intelligent life forms in the universe, so that they’ll really get a full picture of what it’s like to be us?

Something to think about the next time you curse a blue streak.

*Please forgive my lack of actual swear words in this post. Although I’m semi-pro at using foul language (I might even be genetically predisposed to it), I try to keep this blog relatively PG.