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Language Log

Thursday, Feb. 10, 2011 - 12:57 p.m.

Two things today: FIL forwarded a joke email that revolved around your usual negative stereotypes about women. It was couched in scientific jargon, so I guess he thought that made it clever. MIL responded to my response by saying she didn't pay any attention to that kind of junk, because that's what it is-- junk. A nice way to chide both of us at the same time, I thought. So, having made my point already, I let it drop, but I'm still thinking about my response, other possible responses. When to make people uncomfortable by taking a "joke" seriously. Now, my FIL doesn't let things slide when they offend him (to say the least), and I'm not going to either. At the same time, I'm not trying to pick a fight. That's not how it was intended. But women are often expected to let those sorts of jokes slide. I don't like to. I also don't like to let jokes about men slide. Stereotypes piss me off. Particularly gender stereotypes. Women on the whole are not irrational golddiggers. Men on the whole are not giant children.

And then on FB, someone posted a link to an article about how some celebrities said on TV that they thought people shouldn't breastfeed in public, because it makes people uncomfortable.

And yesterday, someone else posted a thing about fat acceptance, how in opoular culture fat people are not supposed to display affection where others might see them, because it makes people uncomfortable ('disgusted'). That reminds me of people talking about how fat people shouldn't wear bikinis at the beach and so on.

And that brings me to John Waters and his movies, that great champion of all people whose existence makes other people uncomfortable.

These are half-baked thoughts, obviously. On the breastfeeding thread, I said something like, "who cares if you make people uncomfortable? It's good for them!" and someone responded, well, that's a reason many women cite for not doing it. And as a result, breastfeeding never really gets off the ground for lots of mothers.

Okay, so. Why is it we're so against making people uncomfortable? Maybe it's because I've been uncomfortable for most of my life, but I hardly think it's something to worry about too much. I don't like being uncomfortable. It's true. Some things that make me uncomfortable: being panhandled; being a linguistic, ethnic, or cultural minority in a crowd; witnessing aggression or violence against others; display of sexuality that seems out of place given the setting; being proselytized to. I think all of them are healthy and normal reactions; some I'd like to get over, and I try to put myself in that situation when I can (e.g., being a minority). Others, like the violence thing, I'm not gonna try to get over, because I think it's healthy. And the sexuality bit doesn't really come up all that often. All in all, it's not the end of the world to be made to feel uncomfortable, and so I don't get why other people are so disturbed by it, or why other people try so hard to not induce that feeling in others.

When I was less mature, I would have said it's always good to "get people outside of their comfort zone". Now, I don't think it's ALWAYS good. That's too much a blind shock-for-its-own-sake thing. First year art student stuff. I think it depends on what the subject of the discomfort is, and who it is being discomfited.

Making people uncomfortable can get people used to things that they should just get used to. Help them get rid of their reflexive fear of the other. It can also cause them to lash out. Form militia groups, that sort of thing.

One thing is certain, if you make people uncomfortable, chances are they aren't going to like you as much. That may or may not be a price worth paying, depending on what you're talking about. I guess if you make others uncomfortable, they can in turn make you uncomfortable (sometimes disproportionately so). People will make faces, mutter (or shout) things. Try to stone you. I certainly understand wanting to avoid that.

I wish people would say, for example, "I don't want people to try to get me kicked out of the restaurant because I'm breastfeeding. It's embarrassing and disrupts my evening" instead of, "I don't want to make people uncomfortable." That would put the blame where it belongs. Instead of making it sound like you're the one who's doing something to them, in virtue of just going about your life.

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