Culture is the good that you celebrate and the ill that you tolerate

My friend Jenny wrote a big piece this weekend about being at a hen do. I’ve never been to a hen do, which I understand is the point of the thing. In it she makes some great points about what we choose to celebrate and how we do it.

I’m going to try to build on what I’ve taken from it, which centers around culture, capitalism, and the slow development of rights outside the mainstream. It’s a braindump, but maybe someone cleverer than me will draw out what I’m trying to say.

if you can buy it it’s okay

But first: my theory. If you can buy a greetings card for a life event, then it is mainstream, because we celebrate what we perceive to be good or acceptable behaviours. The corollary is true: if you have to buy a blank card and write what you want to say, it’s not yet something we celebrate.

Why do you have to buy a blank card? Because we don’t have words for the thing yet. Words put a shape around things, and delineating the space makes things easier for us to understand. It’s why metaphor and analogy are powerful. It is, in my opinion, why ‘gay marriage’ is easy to understand and ‘cohabiting partners in a long term relationship uninterested in the institution of marriage’ is really hard. ‘Anniversary’ is easy, and doesn’t necessarily need the baggage of marriage first. Where we can grab words that have nice easy meaning attached, we do, because it’s the quickest way to short-circuit someone’s brain and move straight to the emotional centre.

That works both ways, though: the use of the phrase ‘The Silent Holocaust’ by anti-choice activists leans on the common understanding, and emotional reaction, of the inhuman actions of the Jewish Holocaust.

There’s something symbiotic here. Having words to describe a space allows us to explore that space. Having words to hand that already describe a similar space means we can piggyback on that meaning to explore the space with more ease. Normalising the words we use to delineate the space allows other people to use them to describe a common understanding.

So using words that have baggage allows you to get the meaning across quickly. It also traps you in the baggage though, like a bellhop trying to move all of the travelling cases for a royal visit at once. Gay marriage is a huge step forward, but it’s also acquiescence to an institution. We get recognition that non-hetero relationships are to be celebrated[mfn]if the bar were lower we’d trip over on the way to the altar[/mfn] but we also have to do them like the hets™.

So what if there’s no word for the thing we want to celebrate?

if there’s no word for it, is it real?

Or: what about the words that we don’t use any more? I seem to be suggesting that we no longer consider spaces inside them worth defining. If we lose the words to describe something, then perhaps it speaks to the possibility that we don’t need to carve that space out as specific from the rest – for example, it’s strange today to hear ‘actress’. Everyone who acts, regardless of gender, is an actor. And this is for me at once an advancement but also understandably a frustration, because it means the space carved out (with difficulty) by women to be recognised in the profession is now elided. It is not impossible to imagine that people in power might use that elision to redefine the neutral word to be what it used to be: people like the people in power.

(And we all know what that demographic looks like.)

So it might also speak to the destruction of the idea of that space. For example, thanks to the colonialist attitude of my forebears, we have lost entire vocabularies, entire perspectives on the world, because of our destruction of native populations. There were once words that described experiences that we can’t access any more. Consider how using Uluru rather than ‘Ayers Rock’ to describe the monolith in Australia changes the space inside the words from something Western (and with overtones of ownership) to something that is distinctly Not For Westerners.[mfn]This is the source of my least favourite kind of fetishising of the Mysterious Other: the absurd reverence attached to the word ‘namaste’ by overwhelmingly white yoga instructors who can’t pronounce it. It’s done because it makes yoga mysterious and exotic and it’s fucking awful. Stop it. It’s bad enough that we went around invading people. It’s just rude to then turn around and steal their culture, butcher their language, and cut their religion up into commodities that you can have as a snack between a chai latte and facial. Just have a stretch without trying to make it magic.[/mfn]

If there’s no word for it, then we have to make words. We have to normalise it ourselves, and we can only hope to do that in a capitalist system with the support of people willing to buy stuff. This is why Clintons has a choice of two cards for ‘Dad and your girlfriend’ and only one for Rosh Hashanah, a festival celebrated by more than a quarter of a million people in the UK.[mfn] I don’t have figures on dads with girlfriends: if it’s half a million or more I guess the numbers add up[/mfn]

This is important because the more normalised it is, the less friction there is when it comes to celebrating it. Everything that adds friction to this process makes it harder, because a social event that you have to educate your friends about – that doesn’t have a greetings card – adds workload to an event you should be enjoying. Before you invite people to, for example, Rosh Hashanah, you have to explain what’s being celebrated. And before you do that, you’ve got to be sure you’re not talking to an anti-semite. And that’s extra cognitive load you don’t need. Instead, you fall back to familiar metaphor – it’s a big party! – or you draw back from sharing it.

What am I trying to say here? I think I’m saying that there are times when we can’t rely on existing vocabulary and symbolism any more, because it carries too much baggage. We can’t say that Hannukah is Jewish Christmas, because it takes away the space that Hannukah exists in and drowns it in pre-existing ideas of what ‘Christmas’ is. Hannukah is Hannukah.

in the beginning was the word

If there is going to be new celebrations, there first have to be new celebrations. If we’re going to celebrate the list of things Jenny suggests – and I think we should – then we should just start at once by doing. If we have language for a thing, we can describe it to other people. Once we can do that, we can convince Clintons to stock a card.

And at that point we’re pretty much there.

Now the first step to normalising something is just to do it, but like all sentences with ‘just’ in them there’s a mountain of emotional labour hidden inside it. To be the pioneer of a social change, even a small one, is to spend social capital in the pursuit of something that some people are going to push back against. It’s not always fun and I think it’s okay not to want to do it.

But listen, if you’re having a non-engagement party, let me know.

I’ll buy a blank card and write you poetry.

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