Readings with the Red Queen

A friend mentioned recently that a certain establishment (not in this area) was not interested in attracting clients who pursued what it termed an “alternative lifestyle.” Once my first rush of annoyance had abated (I won’t say “worn off”—it hasn’t), I kept turning the phrase over in my mind.

“Alternative lifestyle” both has amused and bemused me ever since it began cropping up in conversation and the media—a conveniently anodyne phrase for the bigoted to label people they wish to denigrate.

“Alternative” is shorthand for “not ours,” while “lifestyle” implies not only choice, but also, in conjunction with “alternative,” the deliberate choice of an unhealthy, abnormal way of life. Not-us, wrong, and freely-chosen are carefully crafted subtexts, repeated ad nauseam until “alternative lifestyle” has become common parlance.

Being gay is not a choice, despite assertions to the contrary, while a lifestyle is. Gays who time-share in the Bahamas are living a certain lifestyle—as are many straights—but not one linked to sexuality. Homelessness is not a lifestyle. Locavore and bareback circus rider are.

“Alternate lifestyle” is a description, not a moral judgment on an innate sexual orientation. Any “alternative lifestyle” is abnormal, but only in that it is chosen and beyond ordinary.

Without knowing the photographer’s identity, I’d admired for years certain haunting underwater images in National Geographic. Only last July, following his untimely death, did I learn the photographer’s name was Wes Skiles, a freelancer. For 27 years, with a panoply of underwater gear, he had explored uncharted blue pools and stalagmite caves, bringing their mystery and beauty to the land-bound reader. His was an “alternative lifestyle,” brilliantly and exuberantly lived.

Philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote, “Language is the house of being. In its home man dwells. Those who think and those who create with words are the guardians of this home.”

But when guardians become dictators, words are wielded to harm, exclude, and demean. The most benign words and phrases (“alternative lifestyle”) are co-opted, and turned to assert one group’s claim of moral superiority over others. “Alternative lifestyle” is just one of many building blocks so employed. Keep an eye out—see how they’re used, and by whom.

Your assignment, should you accept it: Deconstruct the catchphrase “family values,” and determine exactly how yet-another positive, anodyne phrase has been manipulated into an instrument of superiority (for the wielders) and prejudice (against you).

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