So you’re out to dinner and your friend’s friend just said something offensive. Maybe it was a sexist remark to the waitress, a homophobic slur under his breath or a racist joke. Whatever it was, you decide to say something, because you’re a decent person.

A: (something offensive)

B: Whoa, come on, man; there’s no need for language like that.

A: Oh great, here comes the PC police.

B: Really, the “PC Police?” What are you, a hacky stand up comic from ten years ago? I just think saying things like what you said is unnecessary. If you’re upset, there are a million different ways you can express that; choosing one that is offensive to a lot of people is just needlessly mean-spirited. Political correctness doesn’t mean censoring your thoughts or emotions; it just means trying to express those thoughts or emotions like less of a jackass.

A: Whatever. I didn’t even mean it in an offensive way.

B: It doesn’t matter what you meant to say. That’s what you said. You don’t get to dictate whether or not other people are “allowed” to be offended. If you set a house on fire and people get hurt, you don’t get off clean because you thought the house was empty. You are responsible for your actions, and your words.

A: It’s okay, I offend all groups equally, I’m an equally-opportunity offender.

B: So you’re someone who likes to participate in the oppression of all kinds of different people? You think that excuses you? That’s a hundred times worse!

A: It’s just a word. You should care more about the real problems in the world.

B: That’s assuming that language doesn’t impact the “real problems” in the world. It does. It’s also assuming that I don’t already care about the “real problems” of the world. I do. It’s possible to care about big issues and little, everyday issues, and the real key is seeing how they’re all intertwined.

A: But it’s freedom of speech!

B: I’m not trying to make it illegal for you to say stupid shit; I’m trying to talk to you directly about why you shouldn’t. That’s a big difference. It’s legal for you to commission a painting of yourself riding a unicorn across the Grand Canyon, but that doesn’t mean you have to do it. It’s legal for you to cheat on your partner, eat jellybeans for every meal and listen to the Black Eyed Peas, but that doesn’t mean you should do any of those things. And it’s not like you’re saying offensive things to make some larger point or comment on some grand, radical idea. You’re just being offensive for no reason. To hide behind the “freedom of speech” argument is pretty cowardly.

A: Why are you being so sensitive?

B: Why are you? Why can’t you just apologize for saying something hurtful? Why do the people who say or do offensive things always get so defensive? Why can’t you just admit that you said something you shouldn’t have, try not to do it again and move on? Why do people like you cling so desperately to your “right” to be an insensitive jackass and cry so readily when anyone tries to call you out on it?

A: Fine. But explain to me why it’s offensive.

B: Do I owe you an explanation? It’s not like anyone is arguing that you shouldn’t use the letter “H” or that all proper nouns are racist. That would be inconvenient. The language that the so-called “PC police” want people to avoid is stuff you probably don’t say that much anyway. For example, do non-Black people really need to use the n-word? Like, are you just DYING to use it all the time? Does it offend or sadden you that you’re not “allowed” to use it? Probably not. So don’t use it, ever. Believe it or not, it’s incredibly easy to live your whole life without ever calling someone a “fag” or saying that you “got jewed.” A person kind of has to go out of their way to be offensive, and that’s part of why it can be so frustrating to deal with.

A: Okay, okay. I’m sorry. But I’m really not a bad person.

B: Most people aren’t “bad people.” We all make mistakes, we all have issues to work on and we all could do better. The important thing to remember is that the impact of your language/actions is always more important than your intent. Friendly, decent people can still take part in oppressive systems, and language is one of the most common potentially oppressive systems that we have to deal with. We have to take responsibility for the impact of our words and actions, no matter what the intent behind them may be.

A: Thanks for the lecture, Professor Buzzkill.

B: You’re welcome.

(RELATED: “Invalid Pop Culture Arguments”)


UPDATE: This is the newest version of this piece. The Button Poetry version has a million+ views (plus 10 million more on Facebook, which maybe speaks to how these ideas are striking a chord with people right now), but I think this one captures a more polished performance.

If you like it, here’s a good intro to ALL of my work.

***

New piece. I really hate those Miller Lite commercials, but it’s definitely bigger than just that. Felt good to talk about it on stage.

On a side note, I know there are a ton of spoken-word pieces out there about masculinity.  I’ve got this one too.  But I think it’s important to keep talking about these issues, especially if you can do it in a creative way, or at least have a new angle or hook.  I think there’s a bad tendency in spoken-word circles to dismiss any poem that covers well-trod territory (like “here’s another hip hop poem,” or “here’s another domestic violence poem”) and while I completely understand where that’s coming from and agree that we should be pushing ourselves in terms of subject matter, I ALSO believe that certain topics deserve the attention.  Especially as someone who works with young people–particularly young men– I like to have three or four of these kinds of poems in my pocket.

Anyways, hope you like it.  Might be a bit of a “preaching to the choir” piece in some ways, but that all depends on with whom we all share it. Any FB posts, tweets, tumblr posts, re-blogs and whatever are much appreciated, as always.

UPDATE: A few more thoughts:

I see a lot of comments informing me that the phrase “man up” actually means “to take responsibility and handle your business.” And it’s like, yeah, I know that. The point of the poem is less to question that advice (although there are times when it should definitely be questioned), and more to question why we *gender* that advice, why we don’t just literally say “toughen up” or “handle it” instead– why we always seem to equate competence, strength, and resolve with maleness.

It’s also about what the implications of that are.

Because there’s a bigger point here about the inability of so many to make connections, to see beyond the specific. This is not a poem about one specific phrase that I happen not to like. It’s a poem about language, and habits, and how the “little things” we don’t always think critically about connect to larger realities of harm and violence. If to be male means to always be strong and in control, what happens when we aren’t? Or what happens when are, but that “strength” and “control” become violence? What percentage of mass shooters are men? What percentage of killers, abusers, warmongers, and exploiters are men? Why is violence so often associated witih masculinity– in pop culture, in policy, and in everyday experience?

The poem doesn’t have room to answer all those questions, but it’s trying to point in a particular direction, and trying to make some connections. It’s also trying, if nothing else, to encourage us all to think a little more critically about the messages we receive about gender– where they come from, who benefits from them, and what kind of world we might be able to shape without them.

TEN RESPONSES TO THE PHRASE “MAN UP” (words are for the updated version)

1. Fuck you.

2. If you want to question my masculinity, like a schoolyard circle of curses, like a swordfight with lightsaber erections, save your breath. Because contrary to what you may believe, not every problem can be solved by “growing a pair.” You can’t arm-wrestle your way out of depression. The CEO of the company that just laid you off does not care how much you bench. And I promise, there is no lite beer in the universe full-bodied enough to make you love yourself.

3. Man up? Oh that’s that new superhero, right? Mild-mannered supplement salesman Mark Manstrong says the magic words “MAN UP,” and then transforms into THE FIVE O’CLOCK SHADOW, the massively-muscled, deep-voiced, leather-duster-wearing super-man who defends the world from, I don’t know, feelings.

4. Of course. Why fight to remove our chains, when we can simply compare their lengths? Why step outside the box, when the box has these bad-ass flame decals on it? We men are cigarettes: dangerous, and poisonous, and stupid.

5. You ever notice how nobody ever says “woman up?” They just imply it. Because women and the women’s movement figured out a long time ago that being directly ordered around by commercials, magazines and music is dehumanizing. When will men figure that out?

6. The phrase “Man Up” suggests that competence and perseverance are uniquely masculine traits. That women—not to mention any man who doesn’t eat steak, drive a pickup truck, have lots of sex with women—are nothing more than background characters, comic relief, props. More than anything, though, it suggests that to be yourself—whether you, wear skinny jeans, listen to Lady Gaga, rock a little eyeliner, drink some other brand of light beer, or write poetry—will cost you.

7. How many boys have to kill themselves before this country acknowledges the problem? How many women have to be assaulted? How many trans people have to be murdered? We teach boys how to wear the skin of a man, but we also teach them how to raise that skin like a flag and draw blood for it.

8. Boy babies get blue socks. Girl babies get pink socks. What about purple? What about orange, yellow, chartreuse, cerulean, black, tie-dyed, buffalo plaid, rainbow…

9. I want to be free, to express myself. Man up. I want to have meaningful, emotional relationships with my brothers. Man up. I want to be weak sometimes. Man up. I want to be strong in a way that isn’t about physical power or dominance. Man up. I want to talk to my son about something other than sports. Man up. I want to be who I am. Man up.

10. No.