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The M-Words
7 November 2004

Words have power.

For several years I have been disturbed by the US media’s adoption of the term “ethnic cleansing.” It’s a euphemism for throwing people out of their homes and communities at best, and genocide at worst. Why did journalists so eagerly adopt the language of the oppressor? “Cleansing” conjures up notions of Mr. Clean and the happy American suburban lifestyle. We all want our kitchens to be clean, especially when Mom is coming to visit. Now, I would guess that “ethnic” is a red-flag word to very white folks (whoa, is that genie in a bottle an Arab?Cleanse Whew, no, he’s white – check out the picture). So as an American housewife, “ethnic cleansing” sounds to me like a good and proper scouring of my kitchen, where I throw out the Cajun Spices and Thai noodles. The term doesn’t sound like millions of innocent people being uprooted, maimed, and massacred because of their genetic, cultural, or regional affiliations.

American journalism claims to be objective. I think that “objectivity” in the news is (a) not informative, (b) boring, and (c) a lie. But to the corporations who own news media, “objectivity” is a must-have.  “Objective reporting” in recent years has primarily been expressed through the tried-and-true formula of “they said this, but then these other guys said that.” We are presumably to decide what we think about the issue after hearing what these various guys say about it. Given the absence of training in critical thinking in our public school curricula or in our pop-culture practice, it’s hard to imagine how that would happen. We should be able to trust a journalist, just as we should be able to trust a public servant, because we see how that person exercises judgment in reporting and in civic action. But that is not my point just now.

My point has to do with some other loaded words; for example, “gay marriage.” This topic is likely to have been the tipping point in the presidential election. You, gentle reader, are smart enough to understand that affording legal rights to partners in committed relationships is the real issue. But to the religious right, “marriage” is a very highly charged religious word. I am talking now, not about dictionary definitions, but about common meaning. While an educated person sees a distinction between a civil union and a religious ritual, right-wing religious types (RRs) do not, and we are not going to change their minds. So do we really need to insist on the M-word?

I can answer that from an emotional perspective – we should have the same rights as they have, and dammit, the M-word stands for those rights. But from a pragmatic perspective, the M-word is utterly beside the point. What we need is the right to have insurance benefits, to adopt, to visit our loved ones in the hospital, to inherit, to file joint tax returns. If the M-word is so damned precious to the RRs, then, folks, let them have it and just walk away. We are not going to change the fact that they’ve concatenated spiritual and legal meanings inappropriately. Deal with it. If we would stick to what matters we might get what we want. And a by-product might be educating people, indirectly, about the distinctions between church and state.

A digression: at dinner a few nights ago I was seated next to an RR who wanted to argue about the posting of the ten commandments in the courthouse. I expressed the view that it is not Constitutional for any religious group to post its particular creed in a public building. This guy just couldn’t see it. It wasn’t that he necessarily disagreed with the principle of separation of church and state (although he asserted, as many RRs do, that the founding fathers were good Christians); he believed that the ten commandments were obviously true for everyone and therefore not an expression of religion but of first-order truth. He worked this around to construct an argument that taking them out of a courthouse would be a violation of his rights and an immoral act. Whoa. Confronted with such deep category confusion, just walk away, ladies and gentlemen, just walk away. And ask yourself what you really want. I don’t care, frankly, whether this guy gets it or not. I do care about having his religion posted in my courthouse and my schools. I will fight against it, as diligently and intelligently as I can.

And as long as I'm offending people - well, I've always been befuddled by the fact that African slaves took up Christianity. I'm familiar with the pattern of the prisoner embracing the values of the jailor. I know it wasn't that simple. Still, I wonder why slaves seemed to adopt the very religion that gave their "masters" comfort in the correctness of owning another human being. As Randy Newman sarcastically put it, "we just think about Jesus and drink wine all day." Well, no. I remain puzzled why many peoples throughout history haven't seen the fly in the ointment of adopting oppressors' constructions of religion or spirituality. But I digress. As long as religious rhetoric is not invading public buildings that our taxes support, it's none of my business.

White Methodist Christianity was oppressive enough to me – an upper-lower-class mostly-white and straight-as-far-as-anyone-knew American – that I walked away (ladies and gentlemen, just walked away) from a construction that I saw would dwarf my self-esteem and keep me soaking in a binary stew of un-earned guilt and ready-made salvation. Since the day I made that choice, my relationship with the divine has improved considerably.

On election night I called an old friend who is now pastor of a Baptist church in Cleveland. He was tearing his hair out over the misunderstanding of the issues evinced by Christians in America. (Compassion? Acceptance? Tolearance? Love? Uh, no.) He related a tale that I found heart-warming. A few weeks before the election he drove by the church in the driving rain to find several Bush-Cheney signs stuck into the lawn. Aware of the Constitutional issues at play here, he stopped his car and leapt out in rain to uproot the signs from church property. He observed the silent approval of workers and citizens who witnessed the event. We laughed that this was perhaps his “money-lenders-in-the-temple moment.”

So yeah, hey - some of my best friends are Christians.

Let’s help the unenlightened among them get it straight about moral values. The press seems to be blithely perpetuating the ideas that “moral values” are the property of the religious right. Listening to the reporting on election night, those two words – “moral values” – were only associated with Republicans (and I was listening to NPR!). I smell an ethnic-cleansing maneuver. I don’t care about the sincerity or lack thereof by those who decided that “moral values” was their property. I care a great deal about the willingness of the press to go along with that assertion. If you are a social liberal or a Constitutional Conservative or just a nice guy, I encourage you to pepper your speech with these words. Straight white people can have the other M-word. Fine. My husband and I would be glad to redefine our “union” expunging the M-word, as it implies collaboration with an oppressive religion. They’re welcome to “marriage,” as long as Queer Americans get the rights that we are all guaranteed by the Constitution. But RRs don’t get to own the other M-word, morality. Marriage is loaded concept in a situated context that I can do without in my life, as long as my civil union is intact. But morality belongs to everybody. To call anyone who doesn’t share your values “immoral” is a Fascist move and we should fight it. 

In the face of post-election RR gloating, my natural tendency (oh, it’s liberal and feminist and deeply complicated) is to go and hide. I have to remind myself that my voice is no more or less strident than before the election, and that honest disclosure in meaningful discourse remains paramount.

...think I’ll go contemplate the Constitution over a bowl of curry.