Warning: unsavory words below.
It was five of us in the car. We were driving up to our annual debauchery cabin in rural Vermont, where nine others would join us for the weekend. Our driver – I’ll call him Carl – is a character. As we crossed the state line into Vermont, he yelled:
“Nigger faggot cunt purple piss shit faggot shitter fuck cunt faggot faggot faggot faggot!”
This wasn’t unexpected. Carl loves his expletives. He loves saying and doing what is forbidden. Not to piss anyone off. It’s just part of his shtick. His timing was celebratory: Vermont is our safe place to not give a fuck. For most of us, that means getting drunk, stoned, and playing mafia. For Carl, it’s that plus getting to yell “nigger faggot!”
But there was a difference this time around. Among the five of us in the car was Zach. Zach is a newish friend. This was his first time coming to the cabin and meeting most of the usual group, including Carl. Zach also happens to be gay.
It occurred to me that we really should have warned Zach. Too late for that. Here we were, in the car, and Carl was doing his thing. Should I interject? What could I say? “Hey, Carl, just so you know, uhh, Zach is gay.” Or, “Hey, Zach, umm, Carl is — well, you’ll see, he’s harmless really…”
You might wonder why it took me so long to address this. Why haven’t I talked to Carl about this before? Because he’s an adult. He knows these words are offensive. He says them anyway. I’ve talked to him about politics and culture. I know he has an issue with what he perceives to be “political correctness.” These outbursts express both his dissatisfaction with culture and his sense of humor. He knows what he’s doing.
I didn’t say anything. None of us in the car did. The ride went along smoothly. As we arrived at our destination, Carl was in the middle of one his rants about political correctness.
He directed his final sentence to Zach: “And if anything I say offends you, just me tell me to shut the fuck up and I will.”
Zach: “Nah man, you’re cool.”
I wasn’t quite sure how to read that. It seemed possible that Zach was uncomfortable and just placating Carl. I was eager to get a moment alone with both of them to get a read on the situation.
I never did – never needed to. Before the end of the first day, Zach and Carl were bonding. Soon Zach was making jokes about Carl’s, um, socially challenging tendencies, right along with the rest of us. When the trip ended and we all gave our parting hugs, I took notice of Zach and Carl’s goodbye. It was tender. They really connected.
I take two lessons from this:
- I don’t need to step in. When people are clearly in need, then I help. When they’re not, I let them figure it out. They know what they need more than I do.
- Political correctness culture really does suck. It had me looking at Zach as a potential victim and Carl as a bigot. They’re both just people. Compassionate, intelligent, capable people. I am constantly exposed to discussions about the right and wrong ways to behave toward certain kinds of people. They’re useful and interesting conversations. But their omnipresence dwarves an important principle: in social life, recognize a person’s individuality and personal power before all else.
This isn’t a defense of the indiscriminate use of offensive language. I prefer to be more careful about potentially hurting someone with my words than Carl is.
All I’m really here to say is that I gained a lot of respect for both Carl and Zach this weekend.