I Appreciate Activist Language But It’s Not For Me

I.

Without activists, we could live in a world where the sex I have would throw me in jail, and where nazis would be granted carte blanche in all our public spaces. Trust activists. Trust antifascists. They are the heart of any democracy.

But they don’t speak my language.

I think this post is about some feelings I’ve had lately when I’ve tweeted, which is about the only way I speak up in a room anymore. 

Activist language orients the listener toward an issue, and makes direct, sincere claims about how the listener ought to feel or act regarding that issue.

For instance, this recent tweet someone in my feed retweeted:

You know what’s hard? Losing a loved one to cancer. You know what’s not hard? Not watching football anymore. Not supporting teams & businesses that support a racist, misogynistic president. Not teaching fiction written by problematic white men.

That language operates on one level. It’s sparse, which I’m using in opposition to “dense”, in that the language asserts its literal meaning. It’s denotative language. It is by needs unnuanced. [*] Activist language cannot abide nuance, because nuance deals with subtle differences in meaning, and subtlety works against the aim of activist language, which is to be heard and understood.

I find activist language is very easy to tune out: either its message is one I’ve heard enough to’ve come to accept and agree with it, or it asserts a claim too brief and certain for me to engage in.

Black lives matter. Yes, always, forever they do, so let’s start punishing the cops who keep killing unarmed black people.

God hates fags. Oh like you know.

 

II.

Here’s my least favorite example of activist language at work:

It’s from this Buzzfeed listicle, where a bunch of writers Buzzfeed knows deliver clear messages to the publishing industry run by an employee base that was, as of 2014, 89 percent white.

This is a problem. If we want our literature to capture the contemporary world, if we want that art to grow, staffing the infrastructure behind its dissemination with such a vast white majority stands in the way of that art’s becoming.

But “Read less straight white men” is stupid advice. It asserts that it would be better to read Ann Coulter or Dinesh D’Souza or Milo Yianopolous[†] over Matthew Desmond, whose Evicted has been heralded as one of the best books written about poverty and institutional racism in the last decade.

Pointing this out is to insist on nuance in an encounter uninterested, as I’ve said, in nuance. It asks people to use reason to make choices, not passion. Calls for nuance in an activist encounter are seen as attempts to silence the activist. They are seen as trying to argue against the issue.

I get it, though I disagree. I can also work to tear down the patriarchy and want more diverse workforces in publishing houses while saying that a sign that says “Read less straight white men” is simply (and doubly, given the grammar) stupid.

It makes me so embarrassed for the person holding that sign, but like god bless her for not being embarrassed to hold that sign. Every activist is brave for speaking up in a room. I know it’s not easy.

 

III.

You might chalk all this up to a lack of conviction or sincerity on my part, and you might be on to something. It’s not that I don’t stand for anything, or that the positions I stand for are safe and privileged. Abortion should be both legal and free. Decriminalize public sex. Abolish Megan’s Law. I stand for all kinds of politically unsavory things that I believe in my heart would make this a better world.

But I’m uneasy just saying it. Or maybe what I am is too easily bored? Because to me the most salient feature of activist language is its humorlessness.

Funny things seem easy to dismiss. The Oscars does it every year to comedies. The court jester is the biggest fool in the palace. Funny people assert that we don’t take them seriously—and we used to heed them, before we collectively lost our confidence in reporters and news media and turned to the Jon Stewarts of the world to tell us the truth.

But as every comedian knows, it’s difficult to assume a defensive stance amid humorousness. Good comedians can call you, or your mother, terribly hurtful things—stupid, fat, ugly, tiny-dicked, etc.—and get you to enjoy the fun of it.

Their language is multi-level language. It speaks, and any number of messages are getting across. This, I think, is what makes it my language. I can’t tune it out. Nor does it ignite me into a quick counterargument. I’m unsettled, nondefensive, and sometimes in that place some new understanding slithers through.

 

IV.

Some people call this “laughtivism” but I could use a 10-year moratorium on portmanteaus. My favorite example is Veep, which is as smart about politics and D.C. as anything I read in the news, and gets also to be very funny. My favorite more explicit example of what I’m getting at is this guy:

Matt Buck is smart enough to know that for some hateful people it’s delightful to be hated, but for people filled with seriousness and passion it feels like shit to be laughed at. It’s deflating. It’s like reports of the president fuming when women play his male cabinet members on TV.

Note: about 35 seconds in, the person filming, I think, offers some narration: “And this is what stupid looks like.” It’s activist language, and it makes me so angry. It does its one-level thing and clomps on the toes of Buck’s far more nuanced takedown.

That narration operates in the reverse direction of what I’m calling for. Like I said, we need activists to make a democracy function. And so we need their language. What I’m taking as my role, maybe, or just how I want to live my life and participate in this democracy, is to follow two steps:

  1. Hear activist language. Look into the messages it’s telling me.
  2. Make something new with it. Form it into art that sneaks the message into the minds of whatever audience I might be lucky to get, the way I’ve heard pet owners slip heartworm pills into their dogs’ canned food.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. For starters, you don’t know the nature of the relationship I may have with the person I’ve lost to cancer, or the agony we both felt living with their painful cancer for so long, nor do you know the nature of my relationship to my loved one who may make their living and pay our bills from working on televised football games. The world is vast and sometimes hard to imagine but it’s crucial that we do that work of imagining. What has been easy for you is not always easy for everyone, and they’re not bad people for their different difficulties.
  2. I refuse to check the spelling of his name.

My Year of Queer Reading: Recommenced

Welcome back. I took some time off to redesign the website, and I want up front to thank Beth Sullivan for the outstanding (and very patient) work she did on it. You should hire her.

While things were under construction, I was keeping up with my year of queer reading. To catch you up, here’s the list since Humiliation:

  • Are You My Mother? – Alison Bechdel
  • Andy Warhol – Wayne Koestenbaum
  • Zami: A New Spelling of My Name – Audre Lorde
  • Caroline, or Change – Tony Kushner
  • Less – Andrew Sean Greer
  • The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir – Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
  • How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays – Alexander Chee
  • Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl – Carrie Brownstein
  • Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl – Andrew Lawlor
  • Abandon Me: Memoirs – Melissa Febos

I’m also a slow reader. Expect a post or two about these once I’m back from the NonfictioNow conference. I’m happy and relieved to have this space back to work out ideas about books and queers and teaching and guitar tabs and whatever messes I get into.