Of Monkeys and Porches
©2012 Ross Williams
Chicago’s Cardinal George, sometime before Christmas, made a comment to the Chicago media reaffirming the Catholic church’s stance on homosexuality, and during the course of that reaffirmation the good Cardinal likened the gay community to the Ku Klux Klan. He was referring to their ability, like the Klan one time had, of intimidating others into acquiescence with their “agenda”.
But all many people heard is that gays, according to the Catholic church, were like the Klan; then they stopped listening.
Intellectually, I can understand why someone would stop listening – it’s an emotional knee-jerk to a rather foolish simile, and many people do not possess the brains to set aside their emotionalism. Not that the simile is necessarily incorrect. The Klan did indeed, and for decades, intimidate many people of otherwise good conscience into silence through fear of violence, though it should be noted that the Klan no longer has this ability; they have been rendered functionally irrelevant. They intimidate very few of us any longer. They are a wildcat declawed, hissing and spitting to no one but themselves.
One would have to be in serious denial to fail to see – and seriously dishonest to refuse to see – that some groups of people in America today are effectively above criticism of any kind. Would-be critics are cowed into silence through the imposition of social guilt. Among those groups are, yes, homosexuals. You criticize homosexuals, you are immoral, you are a homophobe.
Pat denunciation of critics, guilted into silence, has become a cottage industry among emotional knee jerks who feign enlightenment; its historical use had been limited to The Church. A significantly better analog to the manipulation of the social conscience in the name of one or more brands of civil rights would have been to claim that the gay community was, in fact, like the Catholic Church more than the Klan. The Klan intimidated with physical threat; the Church intimidated with guilt.
George was arguably correct. But seeing as he undoubtedly had a considerable amount of time at his prior disposal to formulate an explanation as to why the Catholic church maintains its doctrinal quibble with homosexuality, he has no excuse for failing to intellectually comprehend that a great many people hearing his Klan explanation would emotionally respond the way they did. It was utterly predictable.
True to form, Chicago’s gay community reacted with outrage and righteous indignation. And the same pointless and dull cycle of taking offense, demanding apology, and pouting all the while was reaffirmed at the same time as the church’s dinosauric doctrine.
As far as I’m concerned, the Chicago gay community missed a terrific opportunity to rid itself of their entrenched faux piety and take a step forward. You can’t prevent stupidity, but you can mock the stupid. And George was stupid even if he wasn’t altogether incorrect.
Non-violent change comes to institutions only when they are shown to be foolish – as happened with the Klan, not to mention several doctrinal follies of the Church – not when they are shown to be wrong. An institution can always rationalize why being wrong is actually right and the smart thing to do: witness TSA. But when they are shown to be foolish, when they are laughed at, when they are mocked and made irrelevant ... doesn’t matter if they’re right or wrong. Institutions can withstand criticism; criticism often makes them stronger by creating an issue to steel themselves against. They crumble under mockery.
Chicago’s gays should have kept their prissy mouths shut about how ridiculously “offensive” it was to be likened to the Klan, and instead showed up to Catholic Mass wearing pink, yellow and rainbow colored bedsheets [plaid flannel for the lesbians] with cowl hoods – assless chaps optional. Here’s your Klan, god-boy; how ya likin’ it.
Cardinal George would have been rendered a laughing stock overnight, and Chicago’s gay community would have been celebrated for their inventive response to a stupid statement. But instead, we were treated to yet another tired rehash of mindless creed versus weepy self-pity. Boring! Boring, predictable and non-productive.
Also non-productive is hanging onto outdated outrage. A recent internet discussion I was late in attending had a goodly number of individuals all a-lather about someone who had come by to ask a question about children, which he referred to as porch monkeys.
Despite my fondness for being aware of idiomatic terms and phrases, I had never heard this combination of words before, and my initial reaction was, “What a fantastic way to describe the impish playfulness of children of a certain age.” It was clear that children were being referred to, and in a not obviously scandalous or offensive manner.
It wasn’t until later in the discussion – when some of the participants had gotten well on their way into a full-on froth – that I googled the term and learned that among its uses was [and I stress was] “a lazy black person”. The image that it evoked was one who sat idly on his porch and did nothing productive.
And ... well ... okay. I can see that, ... I guess. Though it takes quite a bit of imagination to be sure: the image conveyed by the “monkey” half of the porch monkey phrase tends to be a bit more active than “sitting idly” would seem to indicate. Monkeys bounce around and swing from branches; wouldn’t porch monkeys bounce around and swing from porch rails? Grease monkeys bounce around automobiles, don’t they?
But regardless, the context of the comment being criticized was clearly referring to children, and in no way that I, try as I might, could see any racial specificity. It was a once-racist idiom used non-racistly; it was racially neutered. This is the natural progression of language and an event that those of good conscience should rejoice in.
Yet the maker of the comment was called a racist and virulently so, and I became puzzled.
Context is critical. Our ability to discern context means the difference between our being brain damaged or not. A deliberate refusal to discern context , and for arguably the most idiotic of motivations, politics, marks the difference between an ideologue and a rational human being.
Even a dog, as the saying goes, knows the difference between being kicked and being tripped over. If a dog responded to being tripped over by biting the ankle of the klutz who tripped and anyone who came to his aid, wouldn’t we impound the dog and euthanize it? A lot of the time, yes we would. Dogs which cannot tell such crucial differences are dangerous.
So why don’t we do that for people who refuse to discern context? They’re just as dangerous. They propagate static notions that perhaps have not been relevant to society at large for decades, and which acts to prevent society from growing the hell up.
Nothing is static, and that is especially true with language. Meaning shifts over time, usually slowly but sometimes quite rapidly. It doesn’t matter what a word or phrase meant 30, 40 or 50 years ago. What matters more is what it means now, today. What matters most is what the speaker intends by using it.
Speaker intention is gauged by context. If the listener is incapable of gauging context, he is brain damaged; he’s not even got the wits of a dog. If the speaker refuses to gauge context and declares that the word or phrase itself is the only thing that matters, then he’s being a pig-headed asshole of a type that we would, frankly, be better off without. Pig-headed assholes were the ones who gave us presumptively rude terms for each other in the first place and it’s other pig-headed assholes who refuse to allow the language to absorb and repurpose the terms to something that is useful but not presumptively rude.
How many Welshmen get fighting mad at the phrase “welsh on a bet”? It was coined in the 19th century in the first place because the Welsh were considered thoroughly dishonest [by the English, who actually were themselves]. And while it may rankle a bit to know its etymological origin if one is, like I am, Welsh, it’s a useful term that has ceased having anything specific to do with the Welsh long before the year 1900.
How many Romanians or Balkan Egyptians start bleeding from their eyes when someone talks of being “gypped”? It was first used centuries ago to allude to the Gypsies’ supposed thievery. It has also stopped denoting Gypsies in any meaningful way.
How many people who use “welsh” or “gyp” today are accused of racism [technically, ethnicism] for using these terms? The short answer would be zero.
Unless you consider it fun like I do to look up the origins of words, you won’t even know how the word started. Even if you do know that “it refers to a group of people”, you don’t likely understand the purpose of using “welsh” to describe someone who skips out on his debts – the historical motivation is not linguistically relevant and is excluded from the etymology. You cannot be racist without knowing why the term means what it does – the racism is manifest in using the term for that reason only. Using it for any other reason is, by definition, NOT racist; it is, as most, careless and innocuous.
I continually hear people say that we need to get over certain events and circumstances from our past. And that is very true. But the ones saying this are invariably clueless how to accomplish it. They advise getting over the past by clinging to it and every term and artifact associated with it. They treat those unsavory aspects of the past as if it were a life raft giving purpose and validation to their individual politics.
Worse, they treat the past as if it were current, thrusting past motivation upon individuals who are ignorant of the motivation and may not have been – and likely weren’t – even born. They cast the past in stone and don’t allow its terms to migrate into the future ... or even, for that matter, the present.
You get over the past by getting over it: leave it in the past. Dwelling on it means that you are living at a dead stop at some point in the past, which is a personal problem not appropriate to impose on others either by threat of force as the Klan once did, or by imposition of social guilt which many self-involved false-enlighteneds use today. Dwelling on it is the embodiment of stupidity.
I cannot prevent stupidity, but I can mock the stupid. I actually enjoy doing so.
Let the porch monkeys swing. They’re having more fun in the present than some people are having in the past.