I want to write about the “Vigorous debate, or verbal harassment?” panel at this year’s Wiscon, but i feel like before i do that i need to write about last year’s “Dissecting the language of fail” panel. And, before that, i should probably back up one more step and explain how i got here in the 1st place.
I’ve always been interested in words and language (hence the nom de web / nom de zine that i’ve chosen). When i was about 18 or so i fell in love with detailed textual analysis — looking at a piece of literature super closely, drawing my conclusions based strictly upon what appears in the text and not what “i feel” is happening in a story. Ten years later, when i was at my 2nd college, i discovered linguistics and it was like your classic movie falling in love/having an orgasm cut-away scene — fireworks, rockets launching, flowers opening, what have you. Close, detailed, scientific analysis of words and language?? Oh yes. Oh, my, yes.
The other thing i should note is that in 1982 my godmother-aunt signed me up for a 2-week BASIC camp. That, too, was love, tho’ it didn’t hit me as hard as discovering linguistics would almost 20 years later. I was attracted to the structured commands, to the debugging. I continued on with computers in middle school, but my high school didn’t have a good curriculum for programming. ALAS. One thing i can’t help wondering is how my life might have been radically different if i could have continued studying computer programming in high school — in the ’80s. Alas, indeed. And oh well.
Before i digress any further, i’ll come back to Wiscon. When i started to become involved with Wiscon’s anti-racism community naturally i couldn’t help but be struck by the same phrases that kept recurring by people overcoming (or not) their unconscious racism. The classic example being “I’m sorry if you were offended.” Why the “if”?
In late summer 2009 i had an interesting experience at my day job. A co-worker sent around an email [it’s a small, close-knit (sometimes too close-knit) office and they were long in the habit of “humorous” email forwards well before i arrived] to the entire office mocking individuals featured on that horrible “People of Wal-Mart” website. This offended me with its gross classism, so i simply replied to the entire group and asked to please not be included on such forwards in the future because they offended me — any of the individuals featured in the photos could have been any of my neighbors or relatives from growing up. Naturally, this caused the coworker who sent it to reply to me and chastise me for daring to “shame” them in front of the entire group. We had a very brief email discussion, but during that short time i realized — this person was using the same language, the same verbal constructs, the same justifications and defenses as everyone i’d ever discoursed with during anti-racism discussions. I’m certain i said several of those very things, used those very “defenses”, when i was beginning the process of un-learning my own racism.
My god, i realized: It’s all the same. The language of fail is the same across bigotries.
The thing about discovering BASIC in 1982 is that not only was it an age years and years before personal PCs were commonplace, but i was only 10 years old. To a certain extent, i imprinted on computer programming. Or, perhaps more appropriately, it reformatted my brain. I came to realize that there’s programming all around us. All of society? Just one huge self-replicating program — society programs each individual in it, and the individuals in turn create and continue the society they’re in.
And language? One great, big, huge programming device. This is why it’s important to consider what happens when we refer to all humans as “he.” This is why we should re-think using words like “gay” or “retarded” as by-words for “stupid.”
This is why it’s important for me to think about the structure of our conversation, the structure and language of our discourse. I do, truly, think about my approach as debugging a giant program.
Hence, “discourse debugging.” I’m just trying to improve the program, you see.