Robert B. Simpson: What can you say?

November 16, 2013 

Everything seems to change with the passage of time. Modern technology accelerates the process, and as you grow older, you find the landscape becoming foreign and the earth seeming to shift beneath your feet. Globalization moves the process to previously unrealized levels of speed. Here are a couple of examples.

For the past eight years, I have spent 'way too much time exchanging views and arguing about modern life, politics, and current events with a discussion group on the Internet. The members are of widely varying ages and backgrounds. Most are from this country, but a fair number are from other parts of the world. Recently two subjects brought out passionate, sometimes angry, and widely varying beliefs, and I found myself astonished at how out of touch I seem to be.

First, while discussing a well-known political figure, one of the men made the apparent mistake of referring to her as a "female." Turns out this is a no-no in modern life. He had accused another member, a woman who had disparaged the politician, of simply being "jealous of her because she's a successful female." He was quickly attacked from several directions and informed that he should have described her as a "woman." To describe her as a female was belittling, suggesting that this was a person somewhat less important than men, simply because of her gender. He would not, several attackers pointed out, have said that a man who disparaged President Obama was "jealous of him because he's a successful male." It would have been assumed that any jealousy would have been for reasons other than gender.

My first reaction was annoyance, because to me women are females and men are males - there's no denying it - and I've never thought of either designation as a put-down. But more than one woman in the group, many of whom I respect for their obvious brain-power, clearly saw it differently and were not happy about being classified as females. And after I thought about it, I could see their point. I refuse to feel guilty about it, but I can see where they're coming from.

No more than a day later, the next weird issue came up. A member from Australia, a woman (female?) described a party where a good number of the guests were 20-somethings. She heard an 80-ish gentleman, talking with a group of the younger ones, ask one of them where he was from. The answer was politely given, but she later overheard the members of the group say, "How rude!" She had thought it was nice of the old gent to take that much interest in these young folks, but they were incensed. When she asked about it, she learned that most of them felt that asking someone "Where are you from?" was loaded with possible racism, was an attempt to categorize by social group, and could make one feel like an outsider. Not to mention being a general invasion of privacy. The Australian lady and I agreed, probably because we are both older than most of those involved in the discussion, that this was an unwarranted point of view. Many of our fellow members, though, Americans and otherwise, bought the 20-somethings' position whole-heartedly. I felt like I'd awakened on another planet.

The whole point of my bringing these two arguments up is to ask where we are going from here. In a nation of rapidly shifting ethnic mixtures, where Democrats and Republicans hate each other, Libertarians hate both groups, and Independents desperately look for a rational middle ground; where society is dividing itself into a small segment that has more and more, and a massive group that has less and less, where are we going? We no longer even speak the same language.

Even if you know of a sensible answer to my question, if you're younger than late middle age, I probably won't be able to understand you. But rest assured, if you're a woman, I won't call you a female. And I don't want to know where you're from.

Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."

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