More than twenty years ago I began and ended my career as a formal activist, working as an outreach fundraiser with a progressive political organization in Pennsylvania. My co-workers were serious, committed people with definite ideas about how the world would be a better place, which for the most part I shared. Among the things they knew for sure was that there was no place in a right and just world for words that, because of their racist, sexist, ableist, or other oppressive histories, were hurtful to folks. This notion is still alive and well among people I respect and admire. I have heard many passionate and/or well-reasoned arguments for it. But I have some doubts.
I grew up in a lefty family, so oppressing and hurting folks was never my thing. We are also a family of smart-asses, with a special penchant for word play. Our punny humor often involves using words according to their sounds rather than their definitions, pulling them out of context and incidentally showing how arbitrary their meanings are. It’s like speaking a second language. Explaining this to my activist organization’s co-directors was of no help; I got ten minutes-worth of consciousness-raising about the inherently offensive nature of the word ‘chick’, especially in substitution for the word ‘check’. Hm. Noted. “Progressive” is an especially inflexible language.
Contrasting with my privileged linguistic oafishness was my colleague Bobby P. Bobby was a real catch for this group. He was a working class boy from northeast Philadelphia, a real man of the street. I liked him and so did everyone else. He made the middle-class organizers feel like they were effectively reaching out and creating cross-class coalitions. What made Bobby even better is that he came with the right principles, took the cause very very seriously and quickly became a polished speaker of Progressive. Perhaps I should have been more like Bobby.
The second-drunkest I have ever been in my life was the night Bobby and I went out and did Jack Daniel’s and Schlitz boilermakers for hours while we shot the shit about this and that. Bobby liked me a whole lot because of my honesty. He always knew what I thought and where he stood with me. I was authentic to him. So after a couple of hours he clued me in to his purpose at work. It was to get paid and get laid. He didn’t give a damn about ending sexism or cleaning up Superfund sites. And he’d figured out that the chicks at work (he knew to call them women) were suckers for a line of snappy progressive patter in politically-correct language from a real nobly-oppressed man of the masses. So he fed them what they wanted to hear — one after another. In a matter of months he slept with half a dozen women in the organization, that I know of, including one of those co-directors. Bobby was a smooth operator. I knew his type. Politics does make strange bedfellows. But we never went out drinking together again.
To be continued.