Thursday, December 20, 2007

Eighty Percent Of Americans Consider Themselves Above Average

I work as a dishwasher in a cafeteria, and we see a lot of wasted food on dirty dishes. One night my helper, a gay male student, was so outraged by the mess that he screamed, “This is retarded! I thought that was pretty funny, given how much yammering I hear in the gay community about hate speech, so I assumed my Old Hoosier Voice and said, “Now, there ain’t nothin’ wrong with bein’ retarded, I’m gonna be retard myself in a couple years.” (For any reader unacquainted with US English dialects, “retard” is how an Old Hoosier pronounces the word “retired.”)

I don’t remember what, if anything, he said to that. What I do remember is that about a week later, I overheard the same boy pontificating to some straight friends that “Nobody says ‘That’s so gay’ around me! I don’t allow anybody to get away with that kind of talk.”

Now, that was funny. (And now that I think about it, it was what inspired the title of this blog.) I’d already noticed that epithets like “bible-thumper” and “redneck” were acceptable among nice liberal folks. In fact using such words was virtually a declaration of one’s liberal credentials. Later on, “wingnut” (short for “right-wing nut”) spread like a radioactive virus over the liberal blogosphere, where it enjoys wide use. Don't call them "pwogs," though -- they'll get pissy about your incivility. And “retard,” along with its many spinoffs (fucktard, diptard, and many more) turns up on liberal blogs and websites, usually in the comments sections, where liberal dittoheads signal their contempt for Rethugs and the Chimp while deploring Republican hate speech like “the Democrat Party.”

Not that I have any objection to polemic, invective, or contumely. As anyone who reads this blog should know, I love ‘em. I’m not even surprised when people commit the same language offenses they deplore in others. I’m just sayin’.

But then, this morning, I was on a GLB panel speaking to a high-school class. One of the other speakers is much younger than I am (isn’t everybody, these days?), and is getting ready to be a teacher. So she’s highly alert to “hate speech,” and insisted that any hateful epithets should be corrected immediately by teachers. The thing was, she kept referring to various people (some family members, some of her students) as “morons,” “idiots,” and other similar terms. After the fourth or fifth time, I began watching the faces of the kids we were speaking to. This was an alternative high school, where kids often go to escape from the wonderful American mainstream. I wondered how many times they’d been called “morons,” “idiots,” and worse, not only by other kids, but by teachers?

Many years ago (you don’t want to know how many), I dated a slightly older man, a person of great sweetness and vulnerability, and not at all stupid. But he wasn’t an intellectual – by which I mean a person who likes to work with ideas the way that a mechanic works with cars, taking them apart and putting them back together for the sheer pleasure of seeing how they work – and he hadn’t done very well in school. He was impressed by my big collection of books and records, and kept deploring his inadequacy where the life of the mind was concerned. I was young and had my own issues to deal with, so when mere reassurance failed, I began putting distance between us. I still feel bad about that, but I still don’t know how I could have handled his neediness better. Since then I’ve dated other non-intellectual men who didn’t constantly apologize for themselves, and got along all right. If they don’t mind my inability to rebuild a carburetor or recite the complete starting rosters of the NBA, I don’t mind their ignorance of philosophy or poetry.

But Jerry’s pain, combined with what I learned from reading educational critics like John Holt, reminded me that kids who don’t do well in school are not only penalized with bad grades, they may be shamed and humiliated in the classroom by their teachers. They’ll probably suffer less from their peers, who may not be academic stars themselves and will prefer to torment bookworms and teachers’ pets instead. While some such kids may not really care that much, if schoolwork really doesn’t interest them, it still does no one any good to be told that they’re stupid, inadequate, and will never amount to anything.

It took me many years to get over the intellectual snobbery I learned in school. I was very lucky that in my junior high and high school I didn’t get picked on for being a bookworm and a sissy. For whatever reason, other kids respected my intelligence, which freed me from the need to be defensive, and made it a lot easier to get over myself. (I had more trouble with a few of the teachers.)

One of the things I learned from Noam Chomsky was how to treat non-intellectuals with respect, even when I don’t agree with their opinions, while taking the gloves off for the elites. I’ve often noticed that the smartest people I’ve encountered, like Chomsky, don’t feel that smart themselves. They are all too aware of their ignorance and the times they missed solutions that were staring them in the face. It reminds me of the time a graduate student I knew told me, sweetly and almost shyly, “I don’t say this to many people, but I think of you as my intellectual equal.” I thanked him, embarrassed, because I realized that though I hadn’t thought about it before, and don’t go around making such comparisons in the first place, I didn’t consider him my intellectual equal.

Even if the young teacher-to-be this morning learns to contain the insults while she’s in front of a classroom, they'll leak out through facial expression, body language, and her total attitude toward her students. I’ve heard horror stories from gay kids who were mocked by teachers for being sissies, and have long told education classes that they need to think about how they treat gender-nonconformist kids whether they’re gay or not. If I don’t accept the excuse, made by many, that “That’s so gay” doesn’t really have anything to do with sexual orientation, I’m sure not going to believe that “moron” and “idiot” have nothing to do with scholastic ability. A teacher who uses such terms so casually should not be given power over children.