Thoughts on Clybourne Park & the Use of Offensive Language

When I first heard about this play, all I knew was that it was supposed to be hilariously funny. After finding out the basic plot, I remember having serious doubts about whether a play that concerned racism and property ownership could possibly be in any way funny as opposed to upsetting and disturbing.

Having just seen the play, I can confirm that it is, actually, very funny. And also very thought-provoking. I walked out of the theatre at the end and kept thinking about what it was that caused people to be prejudiced against others, to discriminate, to be offensive and hurtful. I came to the conclusion that the principal cause is not arrogance, ignorance, stupidity or even blind hatred of those who are different to oneself. I think the main reason is laziness.

Laziness means not bothering to see past the stereotype. Laziness means not bothering to think about why some words make you feel awkward and uncomfortable when you hear them or say them. Laziness also means that you don’t think much about what it’s actually like for the other person, how they might feel. Jokes that are based on stereotypes are appealing because those who believe the stereotype think that “it’s funny ’cause it’s true” and those who realise the stereotype is false find it funny because it is so obviously inaccurate.

The main way to combat this laziness is, I feel, to rely on real experience rather than basic broad assumptions. By experience, I don’t mean: “I overheard someone on the bus the other day saying X”. I mean listening to people who say things like: “my sister has Down’s syndrome”. “My best friend is gay”. “I am a Muslim”. Listen to people who can tell you what it’s really like to live with things, not those who pass on random, misheard information that probably doesn’t even apply to the situation.

When I read some of Rilke’s writings recently, I discovered that he was keen on cultivating a serious hard-working attitude towards life and I remember feeling disappointed at his apparent lack of fun and enjoyment. But actually, thinking about it now, I believe he was right, particularly when it comes to relationships with others. It’s not good enough to think that just because you’re a friendly person who likes everybody, you’ll be able to get on with everyone easily. It takes more than that, you need to work on understanding other people, empathising with them, listening to their stories in an open-minded way. It is so easy for our thoughts to be clouded by prejudices and stereotypes and we mustn’t become complacent about it. We might think that we are tolerant and understanding people already, but this does not mean we will never fall into traps or forget occasionally.

Another thing that the play touches on is the use of words and language. There are several jokes told in the second half of the play which, I imagine, most people would find extremely offensive. In the context of the play they have amusement value, but I think most people would agree that, regardless of this, they are crude and ugly.

Offensive words are like weapons – we use them to hurt others. Of course, firing a gun at someone is very different to insulting them, and therefore the type of hurt that it causes is also very different. Name-calling (particularly when based on stereotypes) creates wounds that don’t always heal over. They just sit, raw and open, oozing resentment and hurt. A wise person once said:

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will always hurt me. Bones mend and become actually stronger in the very place they were broken and where they have knitted up; mental wounds can grind and ooze for decades and be re-opened by the quietest whisper.”

It is useful to think of offensive words as being like a gun. We can see that if a gun is just lying on a table in an empty room, it is not dangerous. It is not going to hurt anybody, in the same way that an offensive word written down on a piece of paper is not going to hurt anybody.  But guns are still thought of as being dangerous. Why? Because they have the potential to hurt and wound people, just as offensive words have the potential to hurt people once someone picks them up and decides to actively use them in conversation. And the reason that people are required (at least in this country) to actually have a license and undergo a safety inspection before they are allowed to own a firearm is because it is so terrifyingly easy to pick up such a devastating weapon and use it against someone in the heat of the moment, when there is anger and frustration. The same applies to words.

At one point in the play, someone says “you lot are allowed to use that word with each other, but we can’t”. The use of certain derogatory terms does sometimes occur within the group of people to whom they refer. The gun/word analogy may perhaps explain this. When people within the group use such a term, it is like handling a weapon which is unloaded. Without bullets, the gun is not capable of harming anyone, it has no potential. It can be passed around from person to person without anyone getting hurt. But as soon as someone outside the group decides to use the same term, the very second they open their mouth to say it, the word-gun becomes loaded with the hard little bullets of all its historical and cultural associations and thus now has the potential to harm those at whom it is directed, even if it is only meant in jest.

Anyway, that’s how I understand it. Perhaps others will see it differently, and to be fair, most of this was thought about on my way home just now, so there may well be some half-formed thoughts and not-quite-there-yet points which don’t really make much sense. I may read over it later and delete it all in a bout of shame and remorse. The last performance of Clybourne Park is this evening, but it may well go on some sort of tour thing afterwards. If it does, and you have the opportunity to see it, I strongly urge you to do so. It really is an excellent play.

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