I’ve been thinking about the expression “disreputable person.” It has come up in my reading about Lord Alfred Douglas and Oscar Wilde. After Wilde was released from prison, he wished to be reunited with Alfred Douglas, but when the lawyer for his wife got wind of it they cut off Wilde’s allowance. A term of his divorce agreement was that she would pay him some support as long as he did not associate with “disreputable persons.”
“I do not deny that Alfred Douglas is a gilded pillar of infamy,” Wilde wrote to his agent, “but I do deny that he can be properly described in a legal document as a disreputable person.”
It struck me what a strange expression this is. It implies that being “disreputable” is a quality inherent to a person. In fact, it is other people’s gossip that gives someone a reputation. The person himself has little control over that. Only the people who accuse and judge have the ability to determine if someone is “disreputable” or not. By claiming Douglas was a disreputable person, they made him so. There was only one thing necessary for Douglas to stop being “disreputable” and that was for other people to shut up.
By the way, if you’d like to read some of my past posts where I mused on the words we use try this one about the word “lovers,” this one about the expression “struggling with” and this one about “the lifestyle.”
Oh, and another “by the way,” according to my word press logs, my most popular posts are the ones I’ve done that mention Lord Alfred Douglas. Not sure why.
Seth Godin has posted an article that is getting a lot of tweets and retweets.
It is called A marketing lesson from the apocalypse. His thesis is that preachers can come along generation after generation and convince followers that the Rapture is on hand because of a simple marketing truth:
“Sell a story that some people want to believe. In fact, sell a story they already believe.”
As I thought about this I began to wonder if this is an explanation for why artists are so often “starving”—why fine arts have so often counted on grants and philanthropists rather than sales or box office receipts to survive.
As a professional writer, I can attest to the truth of Godin’s statement. It is much easier to sell a idea for a book if it is much like other ideas that have shown success.
For example, successful self-help books are often repackaged variants on the same self-esteem indoctrination we’ve had all through our lives: dream it and you can be it, if you work hard enough you can make anything happen, it is easy to become rich in America, stop sabotaging yourself… People already believe this. They buy more books that reinforce what they already believe than books that challenge their underlying assumptions. (At least the publishing industry expects them to and invests in literary properties and marketing priorities accordingly.) This is also why we have so many copycat television programs and movies. No one sits down to one of the many CSIs or NCIS or Law and Orders or… because they want their assumptions challenged. They want to see generally what they have come to expect and to be entertained.
It occurred to me that “pre-belief” may mark the difference between “art” and “entertainment.” The job of art is to challenge or expand the audience’s belief, expectation or perspective, while entertainment reinforces it.
This is where my brilliant closing paragraph would go if I had drawn any conclusions from this stream of thought. But that is just what you would be expecting me to do, and I am an artiste…
In it Kate describes how images of a loving same-sex couple (pictured here) appeared in her search for images to illustrate an article on furnaces. Gay couples apparently show up when you search for the term “heat.”
“Seriously?” she wrote, “Maybe two scantily clothed men making out in front of the fireplace. But two gay stockbrokers with their chihuahua? Hardly… why is it that ‘gay’ in all of its forms implies a licentiousness or luridness?”
I was reminded of a quote by Yale professor John Boswell who described some of the pitfalls of translating terms for emotionally charged vocabulary related to love, relationships and marriage.
“Modern English has no standard term for same-sex partners in a permanent, committed relationship, so it is virtually impossible to translate ancient terms for this (of which there were many) accurately into contemporary English,” he wrote. “Probably the most common word in contemporary English is ‘lover,’ but it is quite misleading… A heterosexual ‘lover’ is generally not the equivalent of a spouse: it is either someone to whom a heterosexual is not married (or not yet married) or a love interest in addition to a spouse, seen on the side and usually clandestine… these associations are not apposite to ‘lover’ as applied to same-sex couples, for whom the world almost always designates the primary and exclusive focus of erotic life, usually intended to remain so permanently. Using ‘lover’ for same-sex partners implicitly suggests that all same-sex unions are illicit relationships, comparable to what passes between a heterosexually married male and his mistress rather than to the man’s union with his wife.”
We say it when we are pointing out something about someone’s social identity. The thing we are identifying is held, by some groups, to be a pejorative. Using the expression says that you are not one of those small minded people. You are mentioning a distinction in passing, but it is not that important to you. It doesn’t define how you see that person. You hardly even notice it really.
Except you pretty much only use the expression in a context in which the distinction actually is important. You would probably not say, for example, “I handed my friend Julie, who happens to be a lesbian, the book.” That would be weird.
You’re much more apt to use it when you’re speaking in a context in which the information about the person’s race/religion/political affiliation/gender identity is relevant. For example, you are talking about how the state of Virginia combined Martin Luther King Jr day with a celebration of Confederate soldiers and ended up with a compromise that pleases no one— “Lee Jackson King Day.”
One of your friends had something pithy to say about this and, by the way, she “happens to be” African-American. In this context, you bring her race up because her perspective as a person of color is actually a relevant part of the story.
Yet you don’t want the listener to think you just go around all the time calling Lois “My Black Friend.” “Happens to be” signifies that we’re comfortable with the difference we’re pointing out. That’s what we’re trying to say with the words. What we’re also saying, less intentionally, is that we’re uncomfortable talking about this difference. That’s a lot of work for three little words to do.