I was at a student training event yesterday. Completely unintentionally and without malice, the speaker illustrated a point by offering a group of people as an example of old-fashioned, not savvy, not with the times.
I can think of so many examples that could be inserted in that innocent sentence that would have sparked outrage — groups based on gender or ethnicity or education or religion — and that outrage would have been 100% appropriate.
But this group? Not so much.
When we do this — when we offer a group of people based on some characteristic as the don’t be like this group — we diminish them both as individuals and as a collective. We create a social caste system where some are less than simply because of ______________ (insert characteristic utilized to create “Other”).
But language is tricky — I acknowledge this. Further, I believe most of us are well-intentioned and would be horrified to know that we inadvertently insulted another and contributed to a social climate in which large groups of people are rendered irrelevant.
And we all make mistakes.
I recently described someone as sounding like he was from HeeHaw — do you remember that show? I realized later that it could have felt like I was insulting people from the South but that was not actually my intended comparison — it was mainly the big, booming, overly friendly and exaggerated voice that reminded me of a character from HeeHaw.
But I see now that my meaning could easily have been misinterpreted and I feel shame about that. Even with good intentions, we trip up — because we are human.
And those trip ups are simply learning experiences — if we can acknowledge them, which is admittedly not easy.
It is a special kind of painful to be in a social group whose label or title is considered an insult by the larger society. To be perceived as diminished in capacity, understanding, and value because of some role, feature or characteristic is a gut punch to the soul.
But even more — to suggest that grandchildren are the reason you are suddenly an example of Don’t Be Like That is to suggest that their existence is a powerful force of Destruction. Not cool.
Being a woman who is older already carries such social stigma — I feel that every day.
On the other hand, the sexual harassment I endured for decades has finally ended — either we are less desired as we get older or people know better than to mess with a woman at this age.
“Sontag — I want you,” said my supervisor when I was a lab tech for ATF as an undergrad.
That was not the first or the last time such a thing happened.
I was 17 when my boss said he wanted me to have his baby, and just 13 when a general surgeon, who was removing a small cyst over my eye, did a breast exam on well-developed adolescent me.
Every stage of life as a woman carries its own socially constructed and sanctioned House of Horrors.
And now, by virtue of three amazing new human beings, I have arrived at a stage in life where I am viewed as less than because of them. How incredibly insulting and infuriating is that?
So watch your language around me because I won’t be surprised into silence the next time someone uses “grandma” as a pejorative, no matter the intention. Instead, I will say, “Oh — you mean fierce, fearless, experienced, and much too full of love to let that kind of shit continue on in my grandchildren’s world?!”