Folks elsewhere have been commenting recently on Lester Bangs's excellent essay "The White Noise Supremacists", wherein he shook his head at the way the punk/alt-music scene of downtown NYC in 1979 had become such a virulent breeding ground for racism. Bangs turned his gunsights on himself as much as he did his peers, and came to the conclusion that racism is always most invisible to the people who are never hurt directly by it — which is why they're often the first ones to bleat about its supposed nonexistence or the alleged overreactions of others.
Bangs had it in particularly hard, and rightly so, for the sort of snide hipsterism that has become the stock-in-trade in many corners of the Internet, and is spilling over out of those corners and into plenty of other places too. It's all well and good to josh around with your friends and use epithets that would start a fight somewhere else, and it's becoming easier to pretend we live in a world where everyone's either in on the joke or one lightbulb-moment away from being in on the joke. C'mon, can't anyone here lighten up?
The problem is, we don't live in that kind of world. But we can sure surround ourselves with what amounts to a dandy simulation of that world. Bangs's comments about building your own concentration camp seem all the more relevant with each passing year. When your friends' lists and comment feeds consist of an increasingly self-selected and insular group, it becomes that much easier to open your mouth and let fly something that sounds like a nifty laugh riot to you and your friends but amounts to a razor through through the spleen for the people who just walked in the door. And if they, in turn, let fly at you, you can't plead ignorance or, god help us, the consequences of privilege as a defense.
I was like this once (I hope to god I'm not like this now; I try not to be), and it came home to roost most pointedly one evening about ten years ago when I was at a friend's party and was being pretty careless with my language. It's starting to become less and less cool to use the word rape to refer to anything except an actual act of sexual assault, especially when the word is thrown around in a sloppy George-Lucas-did-this-to-my-childhood sense. Heck, it was uncool ten years ago if you had the wax out of your ears, and I had the wax scoured out of my ears good and proper at the time. It didn't help that the scouring was courtesy of someone who, for reasons tangential to all this, wasn't someone whose advice I was inclined to take. Now I know good advice is about more than whoever utters it.
Talk like this inevitably compels some people to step up and talk about someone they know who's a loudmouth and who says a lot of things that sting, but they don't really mean it, or they are just like that, or some other wince-inducing variation on that idiot formula. I've had more than a few such people, Offensive And Proud Of It, drift through my life, and my patience for that kind of "gotta be me" arrogance evaporated long ago. Yes, some people can "get away with it", but does that mean they should? Or that you need to subscribe to such do-it-yourself cretinism by following their example?
Paradox time. On the one hand, writers make their whole living — and a good deal beyond that — invoking the power of language. On the other hand, some of us (and a great many others besides) are stupefyingly inconsiderate when it comes to the way those words lance into people when they're coming outta the mouth instead of coming off the page. I am not talking about easy targets like the f-word and the s-word, which may be vulgar but have the benefit, however marginal, of not deriving their power from the denigration of any kind of person.
When certain people I know open their mouths about Jews this or women that and then turn around and exempt local company from the bloodletting slashings of their invective, I know they are speaking out of ignorance more than anything else. What I wonder is, how long does it take before they themselves twig to their own ignorance, and start letting experiences speak louder for them than their own mouths? Answer: too damn long.