I sigh a lot. At the end of the day, after five hours editing stories, three hours developing programs, and eight hours sorting library books, I sigh. When I see on the news that a parolee committed another crime, I know the narrative it feeds, so I sigh. When The Bachelor airs on television, I turn the channel after I sigh. Lately, I’ve been reading op-eds and letters to the editor about diversity in the workplace, specifically about James Damore’s memo, “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” and Google’s subsequent firing of Damore. The diversity debate is circular on all sides, but each time the circle comes around to reverse discrimination—or to state it without the doublespeak, discrimination against heterosexual white men—I sigh.
As a black person, my first reaction to “reverse discrimination” is a tightening of my insides. The tightening is an early alarm system, muscle memory, a wall I erect to protect the legitimacy of my lived experience. In that moment, it feels like the only way to honor my truth as a marginalized citizen, to guard the ground gained in my struggle, is to insist on the absurdity of Damore’s truth. I’ve been wrestling with how to move beyond my mental and physiological reaction and instead respond to a notion that seems to mock the oppression I’ve survived.
Reverse discrimination isn’t absurd. It is, however, a misnomer resulting from a cultural split combined with imprecise language and a general inattention to how words function. I’ve come to believe that Damore and I are saying different things when we say “discrimination,” and our mutual mistake is insisting the other mean exactly what we think they should mean. The result is that we talk in circles, get nowhere, write memos on op-eds for those who do share our meanings, and create our own echo chambers. This process is one of the roots of deteriorating politics in America.
George Orwell explores the connection between imprecise language and deteriorating political conditions in “Politics and the English Language.” Of imprecision, Orwell writes, “The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, [such as me, reacting to “reverse discrimination”] or he inadvertently says something else [perhaps Damore’s claim: “Discrimination to reach equal representation is unfair”]. The culprits of bad English in Orwell’s essay are dying metaphors, verbal false limbs, pretentious diction, and meaningless words. The culprit of Damore’s echo chamber, and mine, is the fallacy of ambiguity—i.e. we’re applying different meanings to a single word—but whether fallacy or stale language, each category of bad English implicates Orwell’s conclusion:
If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration.
Clarity: I imagine for Damore, discrimination is a word in the dictionary that means “Treatment or consideration based on class or category, such as race or gender, rather than individual merit.” (As states The American Heritage Dictionary, 5th Edition.) But the progenitors of English language dictionaries didn’t draw discrimination’s definition from people impacted by discrimination. They instead proscribed a definition (however well-intentioned) and called it “consensus.”
Reader, can you imagine that for historically oppressed people, discrimination isn’t the word in the dictionary? Imagine discrimination is a history, a Plexiglas ceiling, that unfortunately marginalized people have only the words of the uninformed consensus to describe. I can imagine Damore feeling frustrated if, in his world, “diversity” means he faces a decision between conformity or ostracism. This is the point in the conversation where we’re approaching the end/start of the circle—what I’ll call the this-is-what-I-need-NO-THIS-IS-WHAT-I-NEED complex.
The progenitors of English language dictionaries didn’t draw discrimination’s definition from people impacted by discrimination. They instead proscribed a definition (however well-intentioned) and called it “consensus.”
No simple answers exist to reconcile competing realities. Media often examines the realities of people like me, like Damore, by studying systems of racial and gender inequality. Perhaps we can break new ground by examining a system fundamental to human development: society.
In healthy societies, individuals temper the impulse to honor themselves with societal obligations to instead honor each other. No clear formula dictates what this balance should look like, but for me, I couldn’t see and honor what Damore might need until I honored something in me. Particularly, I needed to honor a feeling that a male-dominated culture taught me not to honor: fear. That tightening of my insides, my wall, the battleground for my truth, it’s fear. Fear of erasure. Fear that my country will never change, will never fight for me like it fights for heterosexual, white men. It wasn’t until I acknowledged and honored my own fear that I began to think beyond it.
I am not erased. I’m here, more visible than I’ve ever been writing this column. My country is changing. Charlottesville, the debate over diversity: these are reactions to the change in my country.
The first step toward escaping circular debates about diversity is to acknowledge and honor our fears—facing ourselves without the shame associated with fear by masculine culture norms. Then we can begin to have the conversation we’re yearning for. How do we stop leaving each other behind?