We often hear people talking about how words have
power.How the way in which our thought
processes, even our worldview, are shaped and molded by the words we use – the words
we have available to us.
In my office we deal with word and word meanings all the
time.What one person calls another in
the workplace, and the connotations that can be associated with the word or
words used, can be the difference between a peaceful work environment and a
poisoned one that drives people to do terrible things.We all know the words I am talking about,
though we never say them in polite company.The “N-word”, the “F-word”, all manner of racial and ethnic hate rolled
up into tiny little words.And of course
it isn’t always just races and ethnicities that are the targets of hateful
words, classes, sexes, orientations, you name it, if there is a way to
differentiate people based on some trivial or inane characteristic, someone,
somewhere has invented a way to mock and ridicule those people.
It isn’t just linked to hateful words either.We attach tremendous importance to words of
our own.My colleagues and I spent
almost two years designing a new process for our office.We created it, almost completely without
managerial interference, and we’ve been using it to tremendous success for over
a year now.There is a great deal of
pride in the halls of my office when we talk about it.But… there’s always a but, isn’t there?We were recently asked to change the name of
the process.Not how we administer
it.Not where, when, what or how we do
it, just its name.The level of
defensiveness that has sprung up, over the name of it alone, took me quite by
surprise.After all, they are just
The truth is, they aren’t just words.Words embody our sense of identity.They give us the framework by which we
communicate our sense of justice, our hopes and fears, our prayers and our
condemnations.They define who and what
we are.And when some of these words are
used against us, or against those we stand with, they can hurt.
The other day, while walking with my youngest son (now aged
four), I was moping my sweating and bald head with a handkerchief.It happened to be a rainbow handkerchief, a
holdover from proudly walking in Halifax’s Pride Parade last year.I hadn’t given any thought it when I grabbed
it from among the others in my drawer, to me it was just a way of keeping the
sweat from running down by brow and into my eyes – shaving your head in the
summer has a few unintended consequences!
As my son and I walked, sweating, down the path, a young man
passing us looked at me with a great deal of disdain and snarled “Fucking
faggot” as he passed us.For a moment, I
had no idea where it had even come from, until I realized he had been staring
at the handkerchief.When that
realization hit, I was momentarily stunned – it certainly wasn’t the first time
someone has assumed I am gay, likely won’t be the last – but what stunned me
was the hate in his voice.This was a
complete stranger, someone I had never seen before, and likely will never see
again.And he hated me, for what he
thought I was.
I was enraged. Not at what he had called me, because even if
it were true I don’t attach any judgement to that and no doubt also because, as
a mostly straight person, I don’t have a history with that word being used
against me as a weapon.I was enraged
because he saw fit to let that hate show, in front of my four year old
son.My boys are being raised to
understand and accept all difference – to acknowledge the truth that we are all
human beings, and our differences, as much as our similarities, make us unique,
cherished and worthy of basic dignity and respect.It was fortunate for him that I did have my
son with me though, as my first instinct (which I have not felt in a very long
time) was to react in a physical manner.
Instead, I reigned in my anger, smiled at him and said “Thank
you!” and kept walking.But I am still
fuming over it.
It is not the first time I have been the subject of
stereotyping, and won’t be the last.As
a privileged, white (pink really), (over) educated, young(ish), straight (mostly)
and able bodied male, it is very rare for me to be the target of an “ism” but
it has happened, and no doubt will happen again.But that hate, that level or disdain - that
was new.Even when I have been (in my
misspent youth) beaten up for being the wrong [fill in the blank]- I never
felt the level of hate in those actions that this young man held for me on the
basis of a brightly colored handkerchief.
Ironically, when these things happen to me, all they do is
strengthen my resolve to continue the work I do.As long as there are bigots out there who
hate for no real reason, as long as the insanity that is racism/classism/sexism/etc.
exists, I will fight it.In big ways (my
career) and in more important ways (teaching my kids) I will continue to do
what is right.
So I hear your hateful word good sir.I hear your “faggot” and I counter you with “hope”.Because that word, that idea, is more
powerful than your hate will ever be.It
will sustain and nurture a generation raised to know that differences are
powerful and that diversity is magnificent.It will light the way forward, while you and your ideas will cower in dark
places and wither.
Yesterday I took my boys out for the afternoon to visit the
Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History, one of three “education-type” places
that we hold memberships at. Don’t tell
my kids, but the places they love to visit are the same ones that I want them
to go to – they’ll learn more if they think they are having fun! But before we could begin our day of fun at
the museum (snakes and lizards and scorpions oh my!) we had to fuel up. So we stopped at McDonalds for a bite to eat.
As we sat, munching our way through the communal pile of
tasty french fries (we always just pile all our fries together and share them
all), I could not help but overhear the conversation between two older gentlemen. They started off their conversation talking
about the “ladies auxiliary" at their church, and went on at length about how
things were going in the church. They
veered to hockey and football for a time, before one of them pushed the
newspaper across the table to his friend, with a gruff “You seen this yet?” What follows is their conversation, not quite
verbatim, but close.
“Nah, what’s it about?”
“New premier of Ontario is a woman. And she’s gay.”
“Damn. Pretty soon,
we’re going to be the minority around here.”
At this point, I was almost set to interject into their
conversation. That statement, coming
from the mouths of able bodied, straight, educated, white males always gets my
goat. But I bit down on another fry and
tried to mind my own business. Partly
because I was having a great time with my boys and didn't want to ruin it, but
partly because I just did not have the energy to engage in that debate all over
again. Either way, I am damned glad I
did keep my mouth chewing instead of talking...
“Maybe that’s a good thing.
We had our chance, and we really screwed things up.”
“Yeah, you’re right.
Time to give the lesbians a chance.”
understand what everyone is so upset about – it’s just about giving everyone
the same equality.”
“Exactly. People get
too worked up about stuff that shouldn’t matter to them. Hey, you heard that Mike’s kid is going to
I nearly hugged them.
It reminded me of my own prejudices; based on their chatting about their
church, their patterns of speech and their age, I had already put them in the “old
white Christian bigot” category – a form of discrimination all its own. It reminded me that we all need to revisit
our stereotyping constantly – we all do it, and it’s not a bad thing in and of
itself, so long as it doesn’t lead to value judgements.
So to all you old white Christian males out there, I’m sorry
for sticking you in a box. I promise to
try and remember that you aren’t all the same, and that many (most) of you are
good and decent people, who care about people and their human rights just as
much (and often more) as me and my young, atheist, “liberal” friends. We have a lot more in common than we think,
and we have to remember that from time to time.
Here in Halifax, we recently decided - wait... "we" in this case means the elected officials of our fair city, and "recently" means two years ago (we Haligonians consider anything that happened after the 1917 Halifax Explosion to be recent) - to make the temporary skating oval that was designed for the 2011 Canada Games into a permanent winter fixture. Tubing and cooling equipment, far to complicated to go into great detail on here (and because I don't have the faintest idea how it works, I think it uses science), make the Oval usable even in slightly above zero weather, which is good, because Halifax "winters" are rarely consistent.
The nicest part about the Oval is that it was kept alive due to the public response to it. You see, when it was originally constructed back in 2011 for that year's Canada Games, it was left open for public skating for the rest of that winter season, but was due to be dismantled and turned back into the vacant park field that it came from. But the public responded so positively to its existence, and put so much pressure on HRM's city council, that it was decided to keep it open, and even to slowly upgrade it.
The other nicest part about the Oval is that the city has managed, so far, to keep it free to use. Despite the assuredly high costs of running it every year, it is free for anyone to head out and skate upon. It is maintained, and kept in very good shape, throughout its open period by tax dollars and corporate sponsorship (note the name after all, our power company hard at work spending its obscene profits). So anyone with a pair of skates (and a CSA approved hockey helmet if you are under 12 years of age) can head on down and skate at will (during public skates times of course).
But wait! The other nicest part about the Oval is that if you don't own those aforementioned skates and helmet (see, I used aforementioned in a sentence, that law degree is totally worth the $40K I paid!), then they will lend you a pair of skates and / or the helmet you need. Just turn over a piece of government issued picture ID, and the very efficient staff members will get you the gear you need - for free! And they do it quickly too - a line of about sixty people can be processed in as little ten minutes.
OK, the last nicest part about the Oval though is the sense of community that it inspires. There is a real sense of small town community, an almost Rockwellian vision. People are all there to skate and to be part of the larger Halifax community - they help each other up, there are few collisions (and being Canadian, more apologies than strictly necessary), people look out for each other and each other's kids.
But the real nicest part about the Oval is that it gave me the chance to take my boys skating for the very first time today. They had a blast. The first lap took about thirty minutes, and Doc wiped out about forty times. But he kept getting up, kept trying. Even when I could see he was getting frustrated, he didn't throw in the towel. Gee on the other hand, rarely fell, due in part to his very low center of gravity, but even more to the bob-skates he was wearing.
Both boys had the time of their lives, red cheeked and covered in snow. They laughed and grinned with each fall, and Gee made a point of trying to get as far ahead of me as he could. Doc just kept going, and he swears that many of his falls were not due to trying to impress the pretty girls. I suppose their proximity was just a coincidence, twenty six times. What? It could totally happen.
I had the best day I have had in a really long time (and that is out of some pretty damned good days!) watching them, coaching them, and just being their dad.
Thanks for taking me skating boys. We'll do it again, very soon.