communication

Not Sorry Bus

"Canadian bus crash"

“Canadian bus crash”

Our apologetic buses are kind of a joke. Image and text, a bus front with its route banner blank, reading simply, “SORRY”. More text, added, explaining something about Canadianness in general, politeness, deference.

That one word, sorry, has the potential to hold much deeper meaning. It can be the introduction to considering the impact of one’s actions on others, to feeling some kind of regret, to intending something better for the future. On a bus-face it’s perfunctory. It’s a pre-emptive shield against future rage. How can you be mad at me? howls a cloud of exhaust fading into the distance, I said I was sorry.

It falls out of warm lips inside buses as backpacks swing into faces, bodies wrapped in parkas squeeze together more than they all would like. It’s held out like a torch to part the crowds. Excuse me, sorry, sorry, coming through, sorry.

We speak to each other like a bus marquee. Hello. How are you. I’m good. I’m sorry. Words scroll across our faces, meaning long frozen and faded, a simple redundant sound. We mean oops, we say sorry, then we scuttle off like an empty bus.

There’s a second line not shown in this bus-borne sketch of laughable Canadiana, though, the companion to SORRY. The marquee cleans, and it reads NOT IN SERVICE, then back to SORRY, and on and on as the driver races to the beginning of the route or back to the garage for either home or dead time in the middle of an all-too-common split shift.

Maybe the second line doesn’t suit the meme-makers in its factual abruptness. It’s a sharp ending to a casual tale of apologia. I have nothing to offer you and I’m leaving, says the bus. Not the meme bus, though. Maybe the meme form wasn’t made for second lines, for nuance, for both/and.

Yesterday, as the -40 wind froze my lips, I watched a bus skate by, blaring its usual banner phrase: SORRY. But the side marquee told a different story.

In a frozen half second, a moment tinier than an ice crystal, I saw the line before the second line, before SORRY was cleared and NOT IN SERVICE took its place. Right in front of my frozen eyeballs the bus nonchalantly announced NOT SORRY, and then sped away.

Those who disregard the second line won’t care that it’s now been reclassified as third, won’t care that a middle chapter has now been etched into this mini-synopsis of Canadiana, our symbolic personality edified in photos of buses poached from news sites.

But we of the icy bus stop, of the wiggling toes and dwindling hope, we who squint into the darkness looking for that familiar constellation of lights that we recognize as warmth and mobility, we care about the new second line.

Even if it’s the most short-lived of all bus announcements, it’s the truest message I’ve ever seen transmitted from public service to public.

And so I present to you the modified mantra of the frozen, passengerless, Winnipeg Transit bus:

SORRY

NOT SORRY

NOT IN SERVICE

The Luxury of a Long Table

None of the other blog posts I planned to write today can possibly come to the fore, not after another announcement of a flawed justice system failing, not after watching waves of heartbreak ripple through my friends, both American and Canadian.

As the Ferguson Grand Jury verdict news came in, I was sitting in a room full of feminists. It was a long table conversation, with many voices at the table. Women – feminists, activists, women of colour, queer women, trans women, and more – spoke of their experiences living under patriarchy. They spoke of sexism, but more than anything they spoke of racism. They spoke of the ongoing legacy of colonization, here in Treaty One Territory, of institutionalized racism, of the subtle “polite” racism. They spoke of violence, their missing and murdered kin. They spoke of violence in threats and violence in words. They spoke of so much that I couldn’t possibly capture here, and that is not the point.

The point is that we are not so far away, and we are all connected to this. Maybe there are other white women sitting in Canada, like me, and other white men, and they can’t see the connection. The heartbreak, how crushing this verdict is. This is more than theory and a discussion, even if, as an ally, sitting and listening and maybe helping out a bit is the role to play at the moment.

We cannot forget that racism, entrenched institutionalized racism, does not exist in the vacuum. The system is upheld by individual people. People who exist in the world with each other and who uphold racist, white supremacist systems with their words and actions. Silence is an action. Using words without considering their meaning, without seeing the harm that can be done on the spectrum of violence, that’s an action too.

Standing up and saying something is also an action. That happened too, here at the long table. When tonight’s conversation wound down, I felt hopeful, optimistic. I felt that people had listened, and people held each other through the difficult parts. I thought that hey, there are some pretty fantastic people in this city working to make it better, and I want to be a part of that. Maybe we can change the world, albeit slowly.

Then I pulled out my phone, checked the news, saw #blacklivesmatter all over facebook again, still. This theory, and the violence of language is part of it. But the actual visceral acts, of racialized physical violence, of murder, of protesting because there’s no other way to say that this is wrong, that’s the real consequence.

Tonight, in Ferguson, and elsewhere across the US, many folks will not have the luxury of coming to a long and open table to do the first step, to simply talk, to find kinship and build connections through dialogue, like we did in Winnipeg tonight. I only hope that those of us who are out here can support them in some way, whatever that is. Hold on to the hope when you find it, and reach out to those who are running low. Make space for the outrage. There is every reason to be angry.

If we’re talking about this, talk louder, talk more, talk to those who don’t quite get it yet.  And for some of us, those who have a disproportionate share of air space, talk less, and listen more.

Words mean things – a mini-manifesto

This may sound incredibly basic, but it’s important to keep in mind – especially when you’re asking someone (or have been asked) to stop using a word, and to recognize its meaning and effect.

Words mean things.

“It doesn’t mean that to ME”, “but I didn’t mean it like that!”, or “that wasn’t my intention” aren’t great responses to a reminder that words mean things. Why is that, you may ask?

1-Words have meanings, but these meanings aren’t stable.

The meaning of a word changes according to social and cultural context. Since the 13th century, this one word meant (very literally) a bundle of sticks; Today, it’s used as an insult towards gay men. Meanings change with time and context, and sometimes we don’t always keep up.

We may use a word that seems neutral or harmless according to what we knew about it, but its meaning can change right under our feet. When it’s brought to our attention, then WHOA – we learn something. But once we know more about the word, we can’t go back to using a literal or limited meaning and claim ignorance to its impact.

2-If you want to mean what you say, say what you mean.

If you’re still using a word despite its broader meaning, you’re messing with your message. If you’re asked to stop using a word because its meaning is harmful, perhaps this is actually a grammatical opportunity. No, you may not have that common, comfortable word to fall back on to describe that thing you’re describing, but now you get to collect some new words.

If new words elude you, maybe try saying exactly what you mean, even with a few more words at first. You may come up with a better understanding of what it is you’re really trying to say.

For example, in using a slang synonym for weak, what are you really saying? Maybe you’re saying that according to your standards of coping, another person is not coping well. Are you talking about their actions, or your own values and judgements? Is there another word you could use in service of your point? Think about what you mean, and eventually you’ll become more concise, discerning, and clear.

3-With best intentions, words can still hurt. Using hurtful words casually normalizes hurting with words.

I know someone who uses “queer” as a synonym for “strange”. We’ve talked about how this can also be a derogatory term (or a reclaimed term, depending on the tone of voice and on who is uttering the word) – but it no longer ONLY means strange. If she says, “Oh, that’s queer!” with a particular inflection (even if she just means “strange”), her speech echoes homophobic culture. Whatever her intention, she is normalizing the use of discriminatory words outside of their new context.

Intention doesn’t negate effect, and speaking words that have been identified as harmful – anywhere on the spectrum of harmful – feeds into cultural beliefs that these things don’t matter. If we only count BIG HURT words as hurtful, then we’re condoning little hurts (aka microaggressions). These can easily turn into big hurts – the kind made up of a thousand tiny daily scratches.

Words means things.

Reflecting on and talking about words that may not seem overtly discriminatory (to us) is a great start. If we can’t talk about words that may be hurtful in a (relatively) minor way, we don’t stand a chance with the big ones. And we all deserve better – not only better communication, but more kindness from and towards each other.