family values

“Family values” is a term politicians use when they are trying to win votes.

It’s supposed to make you think of a mythical 1950s dinner table with a checkered tablecloth and a turkey on it, 2.5 children, a dog, a yard, a mother who wears makeup and a dress while she vacuums, a father with a briefcase.

But what does it mean, really? Some people use it as a euphemism for their opposition to legal abortions and gay marriage. Others say it purely for the effect above — the warm, fuzzy, safe, stable feeling some people associate with family.

It doesn’t always work, but that’s the idea.

Here are some things you already know: Not every family is happy, not every happy family looks like an episode of Lassie, and just being in a family doesn’t predispose you to adopt any particular set of moral principles. Remember that stuff next time you hear a politician or a preacher saying “family values” into a microphone. Have some questions ready.

agenda

Maybe you’ve heard your friends on the internet fretting about the Islamic agenda, the radical feminist agenda, the gay agenda, the atheist agenda, the liberal agenda, or the conservative agenda.

Everyone has an agenda. We all have ideas about how things should work, how people should act, what people should think. But if you pay attention, I think you’ll notice that nobody ever uses the word “agenda” to describe his or her own ideas.

An agenda is what those other people have. Those scary, unreasonable, crazy — yet highly organized — people who all want exactly the same things. They meet twice a month at their secret headquarters to vote on the agenda. Every vote is unanimous because those people can’t think for themselves.

Do you see what’s going on here? They have an agenda. We are just trying to do what we think is right. The fact that it’s never the other way around should give us pause. It probably won’t, but it should.

gotcha question

A “gotcha question” is an unreasonably specific question that has little or nothing to do with the subject at hand. Like if a candidate for public office is being interviewed on a major television network and the interviewer asks her which publications she reads to keep up with current events. And let’s say the candidate never reads anything longer than the warning label on a semi-automatic assault rifle, so she can’t answer.

No, no. Wait. I got that wrong. Can we start over?

A “gotcha question” is a question a public figure doesn’t know the answer to. Either that, or she doesn’t want to answer because to do so would reveal, starkly, her ignorance of the topic.

The reason some public figures fear the gotcha question is that they are afraid to say the words, “I don’t know.” They think not knowing the answer to a question is a sign of weakness.* Unfortunately, they are not the only people who think so.

*Not knowing the answer to a question is not a sign of weakness, but sometimes it IS a sign of incompetence. You wouldn’t want to stump your brain surgeon in neurology trivia.

bad words

“There are 400,000 words in the English language and there are seven of them you can’t say on television. What a ratio that is! Three hundred and ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety three to seven. They must really be bad.”
— George Carlin

Have you ever thought about swearing? I mean really thought about it? The idea is that some words are so bad you shouldn’t say them — or even write them down unless you replace one of the letters with a blank or a punctuation mark. Like maybe if you write “f-ck,” nobody will know you meant “fuck,” and it’s really important not to be caught saying “fuck,” because it’s a bad thing to say.

Why is it bad? It just is. Bad.

If you’re trying to hurt a person with words, to express anger or contempt, to get laughs, or to shock or offend, you don’t need bad words to do it. Sometimes all you need is a well-placed “no” or “goodbye.”

But swearing is fun. If a certain kind of person didn’t gasp and sputter every time they overheard us telling a deserving party to suck a bag of dicks, we wouldn’t enjoy the words half as much. Part of the joy of swearing comes from letting uptight people know you don’t give a fuck what they think.

And notice: There is no way to convey precisely what not giving a fuck feels like without swearing. It’s not the same thing to say so what, you don’t care, you couldn’t care less.

Bad words can be just as nuanced as other words. Use them well.

honor killing

Honor killing is murder.

You can probably guess why a certain type of murderer would make up a term like “honor killing.” It helps the murderers feel better about killing their spouses or children for “crimes” against the family and keeps other people from asking too many difficult questions. Makes sense, right? Of course they’d call it honor killing.

But why do we call it honor killing?

People who use “honor” to justify murder are telling a story about themselves: They’re not murdering their daughter — they’re defending the good name of their family or community. When we say “honor killing,” we’re repeating that story. Whether we agree with it or not, we are telling it again and again.

Like “freedom,” “honor” can mean just about anything. But “honor killing” always means murder.

wellness

What’s our word today? Wellness? Oh, that sounds nice. It’s the quality of being well! Like the picture of health: glowing skin, great posture, the ability to jog several miles at a stretch. Like yoga. Carrots. Right?

Here’s a decent rule of thumb: If a word sounds nice, but you can’t say exactly what it means, there’s a pretty good chance that word is bullshit.

People who want you to buy the things they’re selling use words like this all the time. The way it’s supposed to work is, you hear “wellness,” you think “jogging!” and you shell out $28 for a box of sugar pills (or better yet, nothing pills) or wellnessberry mucus tea or whatever.

A good question to ask when someone tells you a product helps with your wellness is, “How?” Another one is, “What is wellness? Can you just tell me what you mean by wellness? Be specific. I have all day.”

freedom

Freedom is the ability to do what you want, more or less. Sometimes a lot more and sometimes a lot less.

Everybody loves freedom. That’s because we all have our own personal definitions of what it means to be free. For some people, freedom means speaking openly about controversial topics without fear of punishment. For others, it’s running stark naked through a crowded city square. Still others believe freedom is owning five hundred assault rifles, marrying the people they love, smoking indoors, taking drugs recreationally, driving a car, riding a bike, paying no taxes, paying only certain taxes, telling children the world is six thousand years old, leaving the country without the permission of a male relative, owning property, going to school, not going to school, dancing, writing, yelling, or feeling safe enough to leave the house.

There are as many definitions of freedom as there are people who want to be free. That’s why it’s so easy for us to confuse “freedom” with “things we like.” It’s also why we should be extra critical of people who use “freedom” to justify their actions.

superior

You know what “superior” means. It means “better than.” Now, if you’ll keep that in mind, I’d like you to notice that it also means “boss.”

Years ago, I worked in a small retail establishment where I earned an hourly wage just barely north of minimum. The owner was a man who smelled like a sweaty outhouse into which a small mammal afflicted with hepatitis had crawled and died. I’m not exaggerating for comic effect here: He smelled like sweat and shit and death. He apparently had enough money to take long vacations to Asia every so often, but not enough to have the high-traffic carpets in the front of the store cleaned more than once a year (or pay his employees a decent wage). Was this man my superior? I’ll let you decide.

In the meantime, be aware that the way you talk about others can affect the way you see yourself. Don’t say people are better than you if they’re not.