Friday, February 5, 2010
In response to my brother
My brother turned sixteen this week, when his bestfriend texts him too often, he gets irked, understandably. Today the impassioned friend texted my brother several questions and then, receiving no reply, sent him a series of question marks. My brother’s response was to say, rather aggressively to his phone, “What? Faggot.” and then freeze, on the realization that he was in the presence of (in his framework at least) a bona fide faggot.
It was obvious he wasn’t intending to offend me, and yet, I was honestly more mortified by this off-the cuff, tip of the tongue nastiness, than I would have been were it pre-meditated and directed specifically at myself. (That I can deal with, that I am used to.) I was given a privileged look through that momentary crack, into my brother’s true vocabulary, the language he uses, the way he communicates, when he is not under supervision (or rather not under pseudo-parental supervision – obviously he is always under supervision; social, legal, cultural). I saw a casualness in the slur, it was the obvious choice, and he did not search for it.
The inappropriate leanings of his friend into his personal space, particularly in this teen drama cliché of technologically aided bombardments of affection, (which marvelously allows the offending party to be both here and there, in the space necessary to motivate the dramatic development, and far enough away to not muddy the directness of the scene unnecessarily) are just too close to the nerve, and in fact imply a reciprocal set of feelings in him, and so have to be rebutted. I was, for once in my verbose life, speechless.I could see on his face that he was sad to have said what he said, not because he thought it an offensive turn of phrase, but rather he was sad to see me sad.
As the only two of eight siblings biologically sexed as male, our relationship is different to any of the other relationships I have with my siblings sexed as female. (Of course, each relationship is different, depending on age, personality and mood but the identification process I think differentiates this relationship more so). He has been in many ways an ersatz-son to me, and the vessel for a lot of my projections, my hopes for his future and in fact my own, intimately connected as they obviously are. He is almost twelve years my junior and not long after his birth I effectively took over parenting him for close to a year, as my Mother underwent a very deep period of depression. The bond you form with a child who wakes you up in the middle of the night, every night, to be fed and who later wakes you at dawn to be fed and changed and loved, is a very distinct one. I still to this day feel towards him something akin to how I feel towards my nieces, a love unsullied by the irritating effects siblings naturally provoke in each other.
In my teens I dreamed of going to college, reading law and returning home the all-conquering hero to elevate him and the rest of my family out of underprivilege and into higher education. As silly, petty and bourgeois as this Promethian myth seems in retrospect, it did however provide me with a lot of solace, justification even, for long nights of catch-up study to compensate for so many days of missed school. Whilst I did go on to study at esteemed establishments, I didn’t quite meet these lofty, noble goals. In fact I departed from that path as soon as understood it for what it was; a tedious betterment fable, based on the exact exploitation of everyone it proposed to help.
So, when I hear my brother use that word, I hear a reprimand at once for leaving him still with so little, and simultaneously for inflicting all of my second-hand glamour into that life, for infringing on the persona he’s developed for himself in order to move in that world. In short without aiming it at me that “faggot” is aimed at me. The gap widens, it reveals to me the nonchalance with which he turns to such resentful language, and how entirely unproblematic it is for him to do so. He is (or is becoming) the universal, the centre from which all criticisms, judgments and insults are issued, the arena from which expulsion and exile is always a threat. When I myself use the same word, it is as part of a very complex, semi-ironic, knowing investigation of the power structures around me. If I say it, it’s as a product of exploration, as a delving into the implications of the word, the much discussed reappropriation, I use it from the bottom of the trash heap, he from significantly closer to the top.
That one word spins out and I can read within it what has previously only been implied in jokes made in bad taste, an equally casual and blunt racism. In a word, that one word represents a whole system of values, and judgements that posits my brother the heir to all that straight, white, male inherited power he imagines to be waiting for him through the threshold of manhood. (He is as yet naive enough to not see his economic background as the disadvantage it truly is.) I don’t fault him for wallowing in this glory, surely we’re all prone to enjoying the fabulousness of our own situations whether real, imaginary, projected, fantasised, drug induced or aimed for. What pained me so was the direct comparison of myself at his age and my brother at his, how I was already militantly anti-sexist, anti-racist, anti-homophobic and actively trying to grapple with the injustices I made myself aware of through whatever puny channels I had at my disposal (letter writing campaigns, visible insistence on a political identity). He is, in direct opposition, uninterested in standing up for anything but his own right to a good time (again no bad thing as an element of one’s personality, it is only when it becomes the personality that the problem arises). He has nothing to fight for (or so he thinks) and rather than acting from this position of privilege to ease the burden on anybody else, he selfishly celebrates and doesn’t share that (relative) freedom. I feel I’ve failed him.
I suppose in my own vain manner, in my self-construction of myself as wise but exciting older sibling, I expected that all the social histories and Marxist critiques I’d assimilated over time would somehow seep into his consciousness, through an overwhelming osmosis perhaps driven by nothing more than the sheer power of my charisma. That somehow I would exist as a flaming beacon for knowledge, for intellectualism, for adventure and empowerment. But rather, I find that this interest is itself, just another thing that separates us, to him it’s a burden, not a freedom, and he still in denial over the fact that options for escape from his bleak situation are severely limited (to be frank to the army or into education). I suddenly understand The Lion in Winter, I (as the eldest child with no extended family) suddenly understand the tyranny of lineage, and what it means to be told in school – “You’re going to be trouble, just like your brother.”
And this is what Jonny Woo has to say on the subject: