My entire life, one of my great pet peeves has been the misuse of the word “literally.” You probably know what I’m talking about. When people misuse literally they are literally using it in the exact opposite way it is intended to be used – i.e., your head did not literally explode when your first child was born. (Because gross.)
“Open a dictionary!” I would command those who would misuse literally. And one day my buddy (who had just made the outlandish claim that basketball star LeBron James was literally carrying his team on his back through the playoffs) retorted “You open a dictionary.”
So I pulled up Merriam-Webster on my phone. And staring right back at me was a new definition of literally, following the first formal definition:
Literally. Informal. Used for emphasis or to express strong feeling while not being literally true. (Gah!!)
I recall that moment now, as I have listened over the past weeks to one sexual predator after another – captured in the media spotlight like a jail breaker scaling a fence – express regret for “mistakes” made in how they have treated female colleagues.
So I have a new grammatical pet peeve, albeit one with higher stakes now.
That. Is. Not. The. Definition. Of. Mistake.
A mistake, our friends at Miriam-Webster tell us, is when you intend to do one thing and you do another by accident. For example, you mean to buy black beans but you accidentally get kidney beans. (Did that this weekend. Mistake.)
Well, Merriam-Webster, if you’re adding a second, informal definition of “literally” just because everyone is already misusing it (and if everyone else jumped off a bridge would you do it too, Merriam-Webster?), then it is time to add an informal definition to the word mistake.
Mistake: Informal. Regret that one was caught doing something totally disgusting and/or criminal and is now hoping that the word ‘Mistake’ will imply that their limbic system had been hijacked by an alien super-race that turned them into a perverted marionette forced to bend to their will.
That’s not a great definition. But you get my point. These were NOT MISTAKES. These men intended to do the evil that they did. And it is evil. When you use your power to subjugate others, that is a conscious decision. It is literally the opposite of a mistake.
So there’s that.
But there is a larger point to writing all this in this blog: Look how easy it is for me to point the finger away from Conor.
Don’t get me wrong – I am not a sexual harasser. I, like you, am repulsed by the abuse of that particular power. And it is one of the great victories of our generation that these sick men are being brought down. Because if you know even one woman (and I bet you do), then you know somebody who has been affected by sexual harassment or assault – usually severely and often traumatically. These men deserve every scrap of the punishment and humiliation they get. I hope that justice continues to be served.
But back to me and my deflection of responsibility.
“Men! Don’t sexually harass women!” Conor and the Other Good Men of the World shout on Facebook, fist raised to the heavens. There! Problem solved!
It is safe for men like me to shout this from the rooftops, because we are not guilty of sexually harassing women (I should speak for myself here, at least). That’s their sin! Their crime! And it’s always easier to shout about stuff that you are not guilty of, right?
This is why civil rights movements like the #MeToo movement are so incredibly difficult to start. Because even if a movement does ignite, we immediately quarantine it so that it doesn’t affect our own behavior.
That’s about them. It’s about what they are doing wrong. And they should change! Change, other people!
But civil rights movements are about power and how people abuse power and how to shift that dynamic.
So let’s try this one instead:
“Conor! Stop using your power to control others who have less power so that you can control your environment and affirm that you are a worthy individual who commands respect!”
Ah. Not so easy, that one. Doesn’t fit neatly into a hashtag, for one thing.
Whom do I have power over and where does it benefit me to wield it?
What would people say about how I use the power I have? Give them truth serum before you ask them. People whom I work with, waiters and waitresses who serve me, my wife, my kids, the customer service rep from AT&T that I spoke to on the phone the other night and treated with utter contempt because I was upset that I wasn’t getting what I needed.
It wasn’t a mistake. I chose to act that way.
When I force my will on people, I do it out of a fear that their decision will turn out badly for me. So I take control of the situation. Less chance of getting hurt, less chance of feeling pain or disappointment. Avoid those feelings at all costs. Stay in control.
And then on Tuesday evenings, leading a bible study in my house along with my wife Liz, I talk about how God has a plan for me! And God is in control! And I want His plan, not my plan! And how I need to love others, and that means caring about people, and standing up for women, and protecting those whom society has left behind!
Then last week I’m ripping the customer service representative for AT&T.
Sexual predators are on the front pages these days. That’s a good thing. But in order to turn this civil rights movement into a bonfire that shreds away the inequality of women (and basically anyone that isn’t a white male) in our society – and we have a long way to go – then we need to start talking about how we all use our power.
I need to get purposeful about how I am using the power I have been given. I need to get the word Mistake out of my vocabulary and own my bad decisions and ask for forgiveness. I need to catch myself when I am using my power and examine if I am using it righteously and fairly or if I’m using it to make myself feel in control at the expense of others.
I will make mistakes. I will make poor decisions. I will work on them. And I will try not to confuse the two.