5 Well-Intentioned Phrases That Have Been Ruined by Assholes
Most of the time, it's easy to avoid being a douchebag: don't make racist jokes, don't try to pick up people at funerals, don't deliberately push orphans into traffic. Sometimes, though, it's trickier to navigate those rocky shores. Because of unfortunate implications that we have no control over, a few completely normal statements and opinions can send you sailing directly into the crags of the Land of Douche. For example ...
"I Don't Own a Television"
There's nothing wrong with not watching television. Maybe TV shows just don't interest you, maybe you're too busy, maybe a television once murdered your family. And it's fine to tell people this, too. A lot of social interaction involves discussing television shows, so the subject is going to come up. Sometimes admitting that you don't watch television is the only way to shut down that one guy who is still trying to get everybody to watch The Wire.
"The last 30,000 recommendations didn't move me to try the show, but I'm sure yours will do the trick."
Unfortunately, there's another type of person who doesn't own a television. This person will bring up their lack of television viewing whenever they can and then use this revelation as a stepping stone to a story about their fucking wonderfully meaningful television-free life. "I can't even imagine owning a television," this person will say. "We use our living room for more culturally significant things, like reading Proust in the original French and then interpreting it into postmodern dance. Did you know that the average American spends 400 hours a day in front of a television set while slowly stewing in a pile of their own filth?"
This attitude has always been a bit obnoxious, but the advent of fast Internet has made it insufferable. There is nothing virtuous about disconnecting yourself from the TV screen when you can just download Game of Thrones on your MacBook Pro, you douchebag. Everyone knows that time you save from not watching television is not being used on learning Russian or developing your woodworking skills. You're going to fuck around on the Internet, just like everyone else.
"We like to watch porn in the original German."
The existence of these anti-television asshats means that if you're a normal person who just doesn't like television, you're trapped. If you want to confess your non-viewer status, you're hit with immediate pressure to prove you're not a douche, which usually involves following up with a weird little speech: "I don't own a television, but it's not like I look down on people who have televisions. A lot of my best friends have televisions. If my daughter came home and wanted to marry a television, I'd be completely- wait, where are you going?"
"Does It Have Gluten in It?"
Rates of celiac disease, an autoimmune condition that causes your intestines to start a historical re-enactment of the life of Vlad the Impaler if you consume food that contains gluten, have increased fourfold in 50 years. Nobody knows exactly why this illness and other forms of gluten intolerance are on the rise. But one good thing has come out of it: The general public is now largely aware that bread can make some people sicker than that time in college when you did shots out of a Taco Bell urinal.
As this awareness has increased, gluten-free diets have somehow become trendy. People have started seeing the "gluten-free" label on foods and have absorbed the vague idea that "gluten" is something inherently bad for everyone, even people who are symptom-free. Avoiding gluten, they apparently decide, will help them lose weight and/or get the attention that their father never gave them. And unsurprisingly, the "starting an inconvenient and time-consuming diet because I saw it on The View" category of people overlaps almost entirely with the category of "douchebag."
"I heard that gluten causes vaccines."
For people who need to follow gluten-free diets because of medical necessity, these dieters are like a person who looks exactly like you going around making farting noises at people and then running away. As soon as you go into a restaurant and ask for a gluten-free menu, you see the waitress cringe, and you know she is wondering whether you might actually be seriously harmed by consuming gluten or if you're someone who's avoiding it because their macrobiotic diet wasn't impressing their homeopathic knitting group friends anymore.
The worst thing, though, is that there is absolutely no solution to this problem. Yes, you could spend time assuring your harried, underpaid Applebee's server that your request is based on a legitimate medical need, but this will just take up more time she doesn't have. She wants to take your order and move on to the next table, and you're wasting her time describing your diseased digestive system. The only way you can make yourself look less like a douche is by making yourself look more like a douche.
These days, ordinary people have access to intimate knowledge about our own genetic heritage that was previously the sole province of Heinlein characters. All you gotta do is spit in a cup, and within weeks you'll receive a genetic report that will have you wondering how your great-grandmother who spent her entire life on Prince Edward Island managed to cheat on her husband with a Samoan. In a perfect world, we'd all be able to discuss these newly revealed ethnic backgrounds with complete neutrality, and no one would care.
Just like the "I don't own a television" problem, the issue here isn't with the words themselves. It's that people so often use them as a gateway drug to douchebag heroin. They'll assume the tiny race-sliver in their genes bequeaths some kind of Racism Invisibility Cloak that allows them to say whatever they want about an ethnic group without consequence.
"We're all originally from Africa, so why isn't it OK for me to use the N-word?"
Sharing a small amount of ancestry with an ethnic group does not make you a casual spokesperson for that group. If you are 1/8 Mexican and your surname is Green and you grew up speaking English and your paper-white skin burns after five minutes in the sun, you do not share the experience of a dark-skinned first-generation immigrant called Ramirez. You don't get to constantly bring up your Mexicanity as a trump card during discussions about race.
And stop pretending you're Irish enough to wear that shirt.
Obviously, there are perfectly good times to bring up one's obscure racial background: you're talking about family history, you're explaining why you've always wanted to travel to Cambodia, you're telling people how you inherited a rare genetic condition found only in Samoa. But realize that as soon as the phrase "one-sixteenth Native American" comes out of your mouth, everyone around you will probably start looking desperately for a way to stab themselves with their cellphone.
"But What About the Children?"
The adult world is a cruel mistress, and tiny people who don't yet have the emotional maturity to deal with it should be shielded from its worst parts. Sometimes this involves complaining to authority figures. In 2013, a family was on a United Airlines flight when the plane's drop-down screens started showing a movie that included explicit torture scenes. Because they had a 4-year-old kid with them, the parents asked that the crew perhaps consider showing something more appropriate for a captive all-ages audience. Understandable, right? Sometimes you gotta stand up and proclaim: "For the love of God, how hard is it to show a goddamn Pixar movie?"
The whole idea of "protecting children" in modern America has become a punchline.
That family that complained about the movie? The airline responded by diverting their flight to a different city and having them questioned by the FBI. That's about what you'd expect from United customer service, but when news coverage of the diverted flight reached the Internet, swarms of commenters declared that the parents deserved everything they got, even though the guy who directed the film said that he agreed with their complaint.
"You want us to show children a movie without torture scenes? WHY DON'T WE JUST FART DIRECTLY ON THE CONSTITUTION."
But you can't really blame people for this reaction. The last few decades have seen countless child-safety campaigns that consisted of taking away everyone's fun for the sake of parents who want the government to be the one to decide whether their 2-year-old should play Grand Theft Auto. Years of authority figures trying to ban violent video games or filter the entire damn Internet for the sake of "the children" have caused a bunch of people to start thinking that the entire concept of protecting children is something to laugh at.
The majority of people who think this way don't spend much time around children themselves, which is fine: Children poop everywhere, after all. But it also means they've never had children in their care go looking for cartoon pictures online and find fan drawings of My Little Ponies raping each other. If you bring up the slightest concern about child safety, even if it's something as inoffensive as "I think pony rape should not appear in filtered Google search results," people will start to back away, desperately trying to sweep their gaming consoles beyond your pro-censorship reach.
Thankfully, this issue seems to be improving: People on Tumblr recently started holding Safe Search days, in which they report inappropriate images that have slipped through search engine filters. But the tendency to panic every time someone brings up childhood innocence is still around, so if you must bring it up, make sure you carry around some pony-rape pictures to convince nonbelievers.
"Well, I agree now that we should censor the Internet, but I also think that we should burn down the race of man."
"Actually, That's Not True"
We live in a world of poorly sourced Facebook forwards, cable news, and acquaintances who never question where the hell their information is coming from. So it's cool if we correct others when they spout off an incorrect fact, right? We wouldn't want to be wrong about something, so the same must apply to them.
You're at your local Thursday night Babylonian re-enactment group. An acquaintance mentions that Easter is named after the goddess Ishtar, and that the spring festival in her honor was Christianized by the Romans. You interrupt to tell him that in most languages the word for "Easter" is derived from the Hebrew word for "passover," which sounds nothing at all like "Ishtar," so his theory doesn't make sense unless the Romans had a time machine that predicted the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons several centuries in the future. The speaker, shockingly, does not react with gratitude to your correction. Instead, he'll probably stop talking to you. Why? Because nobody likes getting corrected, especially to their face, especially in front of others. You've just made someone look like an idiot, all for the sake of something trivial.
You also offended the Great Lady Ishtar, asshole.
But correcting someone about a "fact" they're reciting isn't always easy to avoid. If a dude has you cornered at a party and is eagerly telling you about how Mr. Rogers was once a Navy SEAL, your only options are to correct him or to nod and say "I didn't know that." The second option involves both telling a lie and betraying your sense of personal integrity, and you'll probably spend the rest of the party crying into your drink and avoiding the scrapbooking table.
Scrapbooking is what people do at parties, right? I don't go to many.
Besides that, isn't it in some sense your duty to correct him? In 20 years, the guy you're talking to could be president, giving an important speech about how we must honor the memory of the great Navy SEAL Mr. Rogers by avoiding a war with Russia. The press will seize the incorrect Mr. Rogers attribution and ignore the speech's peaceful message. Good job ruining the world, jerk.
There is simply no way to win in this situation. You either come off like a dick or spend the rest of the day questioning whether you were right to hold back on acting like a dick. The only way out is to give up on social interaction altogether and devote your free time to the honorable task of adding those little "citation needed" tags to Wikipedia articles.
C. Coville has a Twitter here and a Tumblr here.
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