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637: Words You Can't Say

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

So Parker, let's talk about our disagreement about the Jews.

Parker

It's not a disagreement about Jewish people, Ira.

Ira Glass

Listen to how you said that.

Parker

What did I say? I said Jewish people.

Ira Glass

You mean the Jews?

Parker

Jewish people.

Ira Glass

The Jews.

Parker

Jewish people. I mean, I get the irony of me telling you it's Jewish people, but it's Jewish people.

Ira Glass

That's Parker, one of my coworkers here at This American Life, and our disagreement about the Jews/Jewish people started a couple of months ago here at our radio show. A bunch of us, including Parker, were going through a script together. It was about white nationalists, and the script had a sentence where the reporter used the word Jews. The reporter is not a Jew. Parker and another young staffer both literally gasped.

Parker

Well, yeah, because the term, Jew, depending on the person, can be viewed as a slur.

Ira Glass

Can I just say, buddy.

Parker

Yeah.

Ira Glass

I'm a Jew.

Parker

I know.

Ira Glass

I'm over 50.

Parker

That's true.

Ira Glass

And can I just say, I didn't get the memo on this one.

Parker

It's a generational thing, man.

Ira Glass

When did you hear it?

Parker

I think, all my life.

Ira Glass

I don't know how I missed out on this one. As a Jew-- excuse me. As one of the Jewish people, you'd think I would be the first to know. I don't find the word "Jew" offensive. Apparently, though, I am out of step on this one. Noted.

There were, in this case, no dire consequences. Nobody's feelings were hurt. Nobody felt judged. That's not how the story usually goes.

And today, on our program, we have the more typical thing. We have two stories where people used the wrong word, and there are big consequences. Big, angry, judgy, divisive fights.

And what's interesting in both of these stories is that these fights are among people who basically agree about most things-- who basically are allies. They want the same things, but then, somebody uses a word, and it's like, boom! I'm on this side. You're on that side. We are not on the same side. It's war, and we just get there so fast these days. This happens so often.

The first half of our show today is about words that have to do with sex. The second half is words that have to do with guns. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One: Video Killed the Video Star

Ira Glass

Act 1, Video Killed the Video Star. Laci Green is a YouTube star in her 20s. Because of that, people take shots at her. No surprise. Perhaps you've heard how the internet works. What is surprising is how over time, the kinds of people taking shots at her changed until she was under fire from the last people she expected, because they objected to certain words that she was saying.

Before we start this story, I want to pile up the warnings here, OK? This is a story about offensive language, so it is just chock-full of potentially offensive words. If you're not into that, don't listen to the story. This story not only acknowledges the existence of sex, it specifies some of the body parts involved-- probably not right for little kids. We have un-beeped the story here on the podcast. If you prefer the beeped version, there's one at our website. Our reporter is Kelefa Sanneh.

Kelefa Sanneh

So, if you want to be a YouTube celebrity, it helps to have a niche. Here's Laci Green's niche.

Laci Green

Well hi, babes. Let's talk about losing your virginity. The first thing you need to know about losing your virginity-- the foreskin is a highly elastic piece of skin that covers the head of the penis, and it's amazing. Aha! You've come to the right place. I'm kind of a vibrator connoisseur. When do I not want to talk about boobs? Boobs are great. Everyone loves them. I think if there's one thing that could bring world peace, it's probably boobs.

Kelefa Sanneh

You can tell she loves this stuff. She gets animated when she talks about sex and relationships and genitalia. It feels like her face was designed for YouTube-- very expressive features, and she includes footnotes on screen, like each video is a cheerful, little seminar. My producer, Zoe Chace, and I called her to talk about her first big hit.

Laci Green

Yeah, the first sex ed video that I made that went viral was called You Can't Pop Your Cherry, and it was about the hymen.

The hymen doesn't completely cover the vagina at all. It doesn't need to be popped. It doesn't need to be broken. The hymen is a very thin--

And it was about basic anatomy-- what the hymen is, and also a little bit of cultural analysis about the hymen myth and some of the sexism that drives it.

Zoe Chace

The hymen myth?

Laci Green

Yeah, that you have to break your hymen when you first have penetrative sex.

So, let's talk for a second about this misconception that the hymen covers the whole vagina and needs to be broken. Not only is it outright false-- wrong! It's also kind of violent. Ah! Big, bad penis needs to come in and pop your hymen and make you bleed and--

Kelefa Sanneh

Laci talks about sex like an enthusiastic nerd-- excited, totally unembarrassed. She started getting hundreds of thousands of views-- millions of views. The videos brought in steady money and opportunities. She went on Dr. Phil. She was the host of MTV's first YouTube series-- it was called Braless. All of this-- this whole sex ed career-- was basically an outgrowth of her childhood, or really a reaction to it.

She grew up in a small town near Sacramento, raised within the Mormon church, which she found stifling.

Laci Green

This is relevant because the Mormon church is strictly anti-masturbation, which absolutely did not stop me from doing it. It just made me feel really bad when I did. In my early teens, I was overcome with shame and guilt and anger-- anger at myself.

Kelefa Sanneh

Which brings us to the first word that got Laci in trouble. It isn't the kind of word you bleep in a radio story.

Laci Green

Yeah, I made this video called, 50 Reasons Why I'm a Feminist. That's kind of when the storm began, I would say.

Kelefa Sanneh

Feminist. She said it on purpose, and she knew it would provoke a reaction online, not just from people who watch her videos, but from people who can't stand feminism-- people who go searching for feminist videos to criticize. She knew she was about to get sucked into an endless cycle of reactions and counter-reactions.

Laci Green

And I waited a long time-- actually, sat on that video. I recorded the video and didn't upload it for nearly six months. I just sat on it and waited, until I felt ready to post it. And I never do that. That's not a common thing for me. I just was a little bit scared of what was about to happen.

The rumors are true-- what they've been saying about me. I have to come clean. I, Laci Green, am a feminist. What? You're a lesbian now? Man hater? Hairy armpits? Say it ain't so!

Kelefa Sanneh

It covered the basics. Women are always judged on their appearance. Girls are called sluts, while boys are called players. But still, the people who loved this video-- they really loved it. The women's website, Bustle, said that it was, quote, "awesomely on point," and HuffPost wrote, "Laci Green reminds us why we all need to be feminists." But there was also a torrent of abusive messages-- messages that still show up at Laci's inbox every day, telling her that someone's going to kill her or that she should do it herself.

Laci Green

It was immediate-- just this immediate reaction. It started getting tons of response videos from all over the internet, blog posts, tweets. My Twitter timeline became a nightmare of people calling me names and calling me a feminazi and all this stuff. And all these people who were making these reply videos-- collectively, they had a pretty big audience. They would send their audience to my channel.

Kelefa Sanneh

Laci's video was supposed to empower young women, but it also did a pretty good job empowering guys who like to criticize young women-- guys who proudly call themselves anti-feminists. The whole point of being an anti-feminist is to mock and criticize feminism, which means that the anti-feminists on YouTube need to find feminists to mock and criticize.

Sargon Of Akkad

I haven't actually watched this video yet, but I know by the title, it's going to be fucking great. Here's Why I'm a Feminist, by Laci Green.

Laci Green

The rumors are true.

Kelefa Sanneh

Anti-feminists can mean lots of different things. It might refer to someone who obsessively harasses and insults women on the internet, or it might refer to someone who likes to crack jokes about the perceived excesses of feminist discourse. And on the internet, of course, it's not always easy to draw a bright line between harmless jokes and pernicious harassment. This guy, for instance, Sargon of Akkad.

Sargon Of Akkad

Back to the yucks.

Kelefa Sanneh

He's mainly known for acerbic videos about how liberals are irrational, but he did once tweet, "I wouldn't even rape you," at a female politician he disagreed with. He made a video where he mocked Laci's video, and it got nearly a million views.

Laci Green

I think that feminism is both kick ass and super important, and here are a few of my reasons why.

Sargon Of Akkad

Because feminist supremacy would make you a primary beneficiary of all the benefits it would bring to a privileged class? Oh, I'm sure that's not it, Laci. I'm sure it's not.

Kelefa Sanneh

Here's another video by a guy named Chris Ray Gun. He used Laci's picture to illustrate a satirical song.

Chris Ray Gun

(SINGING) Women infantilized every day. But not by the men who the feminists blame, but instead by the motto that constantly claims. The patriarchy is raging.

Kelefa Sanneh

Around the same time, Laci started taking a lot of heat from a different group-- the people who were supposed to be on her side. The people at the heart of her fan base-- college kids.

She still remembers the moment when she first came face to face with it. She'd been touring colleges as a speaker. Lots of students knew her from YouTube, so they'd show up to hear her talk about healthy relationships, and they would submit anonymous questions that they were too embarrassed to ask anyone else. So, this was four years ago-- 2014. Laci doesn't even want to mention the college's name.

Laci Green

And I walk in, and there's a bunch of students there. And some of the students are clapping and saying, yay, but there's a ton of boos in the audience. And I've never had that happen before.

Kelefa Sanneh

She was confused. She didn't know why they were mad at her.

Laci Green

I don't know what to do. These are my peers. I'm not that much older than them. I mostly ignored it. I actually couldn't even-- when I was up there, I couldn't even really hear what they were saying. I just knew that they were shouting things while I was talking. It's like, what are you doing? It's never happened to me before. I've never had students just yell. How rude.

Kelefa Sanneh

She gave her talk, despite the push back. But some of the things she said made it worse. Afterwards, the school newspaper described the scene.

Kelefa Sanneh

I'm looking at a picture of you in a plaid, flannel shirt, it looks like. They quote one of the students that was upset, and she says-- this is one of the students speaking, saying, "some of the things that she said," meaning you, "were very alienating to me, at least, and I think that one of them was that she used the homophobic slur, dyke, a couple of times, and not as a self-referential thing. Not as a self-identity, but as a way to describe a party she didn't like. I think I know where she's"--

Laci Green

That is not true at all. What the fuck?

Kelefa Sanneh

And the student said, "I think that she doesn't mean to be homophobic, but that's still a slur, and I still associate it, at least, with homophobia and with violence." So it sounds like you had mentioned in your talk, dyke parties.

Laci Green

But the parties are called dyke parties.

Kelefa Sanneh

Right.

Laci Green

That was definitely a thing that would happen in San Francisco and at Berkeley, where people would have dyke parties, where only women were invited, and it was just like a thing that happened. What do you want me to say? D-word party?

My problem is the way that she framed it as if I was calling people dykes or something. And it's just the deliberate sort of twisting of what you say and what you do all the time, to make it seem like you're just this evil, deep down homophobe who's just-- you're revealing your evil nature when you use various words or whatever and taking things out of context all the time.

Kelefa Sanneh

Dyke was the second word that got her in trouble. But that isn't even the reason they were upset with her from the moment she got there. That was probably because of the fallout from a third word she'd said, way back in 2009.

Laci Green

I had this video way back in the day where I said the T-word.

Kelefa Sanneh

The T-word. I'm not going to say it, either. But it's spelled T-R-A-N-N-Y. A word for transgender people, widely seen these days as derogatory.

Laci Green

So the short story is, I had made this fan video for Chris Crocker, who is a self-proclaimed T-word. I made a fan video saying I love him, blah, blah, blah. I used the T-word in the video, then later on, a bunch of social justice types dragged it up to prove that I am a evil transphobe.

Kelefa Sanneh

Chris Crocker. He's a YouTube personality who went viral back in 2007, when he made a video saying, "leave Britney alone!" Back in 2009, Laci made a video saying that she loved him, and she used the T-word. She thought it was OK because that's a word Chris had used about himself.

When someone asked Laci about it in 2012, she apologized. She unpublished the video. She said she had learned how harmful the word was, but some people objected that she used the word again in her written apology. And Laci says she was targeted and harassed by people who saw her as a symbol of transphobia.

Laci Green

It was really, really, really horrible. People came to my house. They took pictures of my door. They took pictures of me while I was in public and sent it to me through my email. It was nuts. That was absolutely insane.

Kelefa Sanneh

That's what kick-started the perception that Laci was transphobic and problematic, and that perception followed her to the stage of that college. Laci was stumbling across all these words you can't say, and of course, the modern archetype for what's supposed to happen with these words is the N-word.

Lots of people feel like the N-word is so ugly, so damaging, so scary, that non-black people aren't allowed to say it, ever. It doesn't matter if they're quoting a song. It doesn't matter if they're reading from an antebellum novel. It doesn't matter the context. They can't say it. Then the question is, how many other words are like the N-word? How many other words can't be said?

Laci Green

That was kind of when I started to notice the more social justice warrior side of things.

Kelefa Sanneh

OK, so just in case you haven't heard this one, social justice warrior-- an insult that can be thrown at anyone who speaks up against racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, all the other -isms and phobias.

Laci Green

Students felt like it was OK to be rude, to call names, to degrade and disrespect people because they weren't woke enough or something. This idea that the words themselves have more meaning than the context that they're in.

Kelefa Sanneh

There were other words she couldn't say-- words that were more fundamental to the kinds of videos she made.

Laci Green

People got mad when I would say male or female in a video to refer to anatomical stuff, like female orgasm or male sexuality or whatever. Yeah, people said, can you not say male or female?

Kelefa Sanneh

That's the thing. She makes sex ed videos, so she talks all the time about genitals, about reproductive health, about sex. There's basically no way for her to avoid these words without making some pretty fundamental changes to the way she talks, like how do you talk about someone who's intersex? Born with sex organs or traits that don't fit traditional definitions of female or male?

Laci Green

Yeah, I made a video about intersex conditions. And in the video, I talked about sex development in the womb and sex differentiation and how we become male and female, and they're somewhere in between. And people didn't like that I used the terms male and female, but literally, how do you explain intersex without male or female? I've thought about it so many times. I don't even know. You have to use anatomical terms.

Kelefa Sanneh

And how do you talk about sex and anatomy without saying male and female?

Laci Green

Well, I start using the terms vagina-owner and penis-owner. I was trying to be creative. I want to address the genitals. If you have a penis, is it applicable? And that's kind of the route that I've taken since.

Kelefa Sanneh

Did you get positive feedback when you started talking about penis-havers and vagina-havers, as opposed to males and females?

Laci Green

No. I mean, yes. But also no. Some people liked it. I'd say more people didn't like it. They're like, why are you calling me a vagina-owner? And I'm like, ugh.

Kelefa Sanneh

So, if this is new to you, and you're wondering why some people want to avoid the words male and female, the idea is this. When you call a penis a male sex organ, you're kind of implying that having a penis makes you a man, and that's not true for everyone. You're leaving out some transgender people, for instance. None of this satisfied the growing number of people who thought Laci was totally problematic.

On Tumblr, someone put together a list. It was called "Masterpost-- Why Laci Green Sucks." It had 93 entries, accusing her of hypocrisy, ignorance, insensitivity. It explained why her commentary had been hurtful, not just to trans people, but to women, people suffering from mental illness, Muslims, millennials, vegans of color. When she first started making videos, it felt like freedom, and now it felt like the opposite.

Laci Green

It started to feel like being back in Mormonism. You've got this sort of doctrine-- the social justice doctrine that you hold on to. The intention is good-- to make us better people, to do better by each other, to become more moral. They're both moral systems, and they operate in similar ways. Using shaming when you get out of line.

There's just sort of this feeling of repression on your chest, where you just can't speak freely or be freely in the world. And it felt exactly the same to me, like I was policing my own thoughts and words. I felt like a bad person all the time.

Kelefa Sanneh

After being mocked by the anti-feminists and then being assailed by the social justice crowd, she scaled up. She started attracting the hostility of a much bigger, louder group-- Trump supporters.

Laci Green

Well, I tweeted that night of the election. I said, "fuck white America," when Trump won.

Kelefa Sanneh

The tweet went viral. Conservatives passed it around to make fun of liberals who were losing their mind over Trump. Here's what her original tweet actually said. "We are now under total Republican rule. Textbook fascism. Fuck you, white America. Fuck you, you racist, misogynist pieces of shit. Good night."

Laci Green

Oopsie.

Kelefa Sanneh

And some people noticed that the day before, or on election day or the day before, you had tweeted, "regardless of the outcome, we are clearly a deeply divided and broken country. So much work ahead to mend, heal, and restore the U in USA."

And some people noticed that there had been a change in tone and thought that that was funny or revealing. And one person actually wrote to you on Twitter, "Hey Laci, do you, like, not see how you're acting like the very thing you claim to be opposed to?" Do you remember who wrote that tweet?

Laci Green

No.

Kelefa Sanneh

It was a guy who is known as Chris Ray Gun online.

Laci Green

I knew you were going to zing with that. I knew it was coming.

Kelefa Sanneh

Chris Ray Gun-- an anti-feminist with a YouTube channel. A guy who liked to make fun of people like Laci. A guy who liked to make fun of Laci herself. Chris is the one who made up that song.

Chris Ray Gun

(SINGING) The patriarchy is raging.

Kelefa Sanneh

Laci is giggling because Chris Ray Gun, the YouTubing anti-feminist, is now her boyfriend, which is a pretty wild twist in Laci Green's story, considering the trolling that she went through from him and from his friends. And to explain it, we have to back up. Laci had booked a series of talks on college campuses in the weeks after the election.

Laci Green

As soon as I came out on stage, people started screaming, fuck you, cunt. Fuck you, bitch. You lost. Trump, Trump Trump. Started throwing pencils and paper and whatever crap had in their backpack at me. I was really scared. I was scared that one of these students was going to rush the stage and hurt me. That's all I could think about. I can't do this. My mind's not in this place. It's not worth it.

Kelefa Sanneh

Online, the vitriol against her and her feminist allies got 10 times worse after the election. And after a few months of that, Laci decided she'd had enough of everyone ranting at each other, especially ranting at her. She'd try something different.

She'd reach out directly to one of the antagonists, Blaire White. Now, Blaire is a conservative who's also a trans woman, and she'd become an unlikely hero to anti-feminists. Blaire had been making nasty videos about one of Laci's friends, so Laci began a careful approach to Blaire.

First, she followed her on Twitter. Blaire noticed, and she tweeted, "Laci Green just followed me. Was that an accident, girl? lol." "Ha ha, nope. Been watching your vids and appreciate your perspective. Sometimes, I agree. Sometimes, I'm confused. Want to chat?" Nerd face emoji. "Yes, honey. Let's talk."

The people on Twitter couldn't decide whether this was a good idea. More than one of Blaire's followers responded with an image of Admiral Ackbar from Return of the Jedi saying, "It's a trap!" In fact, when Laci and Blaire finally streamed their 2 and 1/2 hour long video chat, it was pretty civilized.

Laci Green

Do these opinions and feelings need to be expressed in such a mean, cruel way?

Blaire White

Yeah, I mean--

Laci Green

I don't think it does.

Blaire White

Yeah, like I said, there are certain content creators where their MO is just to destroy a person and others who--

Laci Green

I knew when I was talking to Blaire that I was basically speaking to that entire community, because they were all watching.

Kelefa Sanneh

Laci started hearing from other people in the anti-feminist world. They wanted to talk, too.

Laci Green

Very, very eager to have these conversations, and not even publicly-- wanted to just sit down and have lunch at Chipotle, have a Skype on a Friday night when we're all just bumming around.

Kelefa Sanneh

Talking to a celebrity YouTube feminist like Laci was a good way to get viewers. The idea was that Laci was making friends with her enemies-- people from the other tribe. In this world of YouTubers, it was a major plot development. Everyone wanted to see what would happen next. Was Laci undergoing some kind of conversion? Was she switching teams?

Laci Green

Talked to Andy Warski.

Kelefa Sanneh

He's a hyper-aggressive YouTuber. He once said that social justice warriors should be shot-- metaphorically, he added, for legal reasons.

Laci Green

Yeah, I talked to Sargon.

Kelefa Sanneh

That's the guy who got almost a million hits on his video making fun of Laci's feminism video.

Laci Green

I talked to Bunty King, who is now one of my best friends.

Kelefa Sanneh

He's a Canadian guy of Indian descent who loves to mock social justice warriors.

Laci Green

All of them. I've had conversations in some capacity with all of them.

Chris Ray Gun

Take 45. Take 41. Take 97. Take fuck my ass. You've got a friend in me! Hey, everybody. Welcome back to the Ray Gun Recap. Chris Ray Gun here, coming at you live from an unyielding whirlwind of physically and emotionally crippling stress.

Kelefa Sanneh

OK, so this is Chris Ray Gun, the patriarchy is raging guy. After Laci made a video about all these conversations, he made a video about her video, using her video in his video. That's how this world works.

Laci Green

People have been pretty kind to me, and I'll be honest. I didn't really expect that. No judgment, no vitriol. I even feel like I have a really good connection with a couple of new friends-- couple of new friends-- couple of new friends.

Kelefa Sanneh

At this point, the screen goes black and white, and we see a close-up of Chris popping his collar in slow motion.

Chris Ray Gun

Yeah, that's right, guys. That's the main part of the video that a lot of social justice types seem to have a problem with. And there is certainly more to that video than just that, but this appears to be the main point of contention. It's essentially just a video where Laci Green says, hey, you know, not all anti-SJW YouTubers are sub-human, Nazi pieces of filth, and I'm actually open to having a dialogue with them.

Kelefa Sanneh

Then he makes fun of some of the feminist men who criticized Laci, but there's also a moment of journalistic disclosure.

Chris Ray Gun

Now, with all that said, what do I think about this whole Laci Green thing? First, I should let all you guys know that I've actually become pretty good friends with Laci Green. We've been hanging out quite a bit, recently. So, that is a thing that people should be aware of-- ethical standards and all that. I'm letting you guys know that there is a bit of a conflict of interest here. But here's what I really think.

Laci Green

He just cracks me up. He's so funny, and he's such a sweetie. He really is. He's got the biggest heart. You might not know it from his YouTube channel.

Kelefa Sanneh

Chris and Laci had lunch at Chipotle for four hours, then they kept hanging out, and Laci made a decision. She wouldn't Google him. She knew he was part of the anti-feminist tribe, more or less. But that was about it.

After all those years of straining to take everyone seriously, she liked the fact that he didn't even try. To him and to many anti-feminists, it was all a big game-- people trolling each other, making dumb jokes, sometimes arguing. He didn't take it so personally. And that's why she liked him. Also, they like each other's company.

Laci Green

Some debates over dinner or breakfast.

Kelefa Sanneh

And sometimes they talk about the same things they talk about in their videos.

Laci Green

We have talked a lot about what rape culture is, the extent to which the United States is a rape culture. He actually does see it pretty much the same way as I do, and once we change the language, we talk about it as not rape culture, but as coercion culture. The ways that our--

Kelefa Sanneh

And of course, once people found out she was dating Chris Ray Gun, it was kind of a big deal. The website, Vox, published a story that accused Laci of dating an alt-right troll. The story quoted an activist on Twitter who had written, "don't date alt right. Don't date white supremacists." And it quoted a popular Facebook post that accused Laci of turning her back on people of color.

It should be said that it's kind of strange to describe Chris Ray Gun as a white supremacist or a member of the alt-right. He's more like a sarcastic Puerto Rican guy from the Bronx who loves video games and thinks the social justice movement is ridiculous. More and more, Laci found herself hanging out with Chris and his friends, the anti-feminists. This made some feminist YouTubers really upset.

Riley J. Dennis

If you're happy to associate with people who've sent their mob of shit heads toward me, then I just don't care about you.

Kelefa Sanneh

Like Riley J. Dennis, the old friend of Laci's, who had been targeted by Blaire White on YouTube.

Riley J. Dennis

Maybe it's a this is our group and this is your group thing. But that group has done so many terrible things to me that even if you haven't directly done it, if you're still buddy-buddy with all these people, that hurts. That's like you're basically cosigning it.

Kelefa Sanneh

Some people were saying that maybe Laci had never been a real feminist.

Kelefa Sanneh

This seems to have had much more fallout for you than it has for him.

Laci Green

Yeah, it definitely had more fallout for me.

Kelefa Sanneh

It kind of feels like you're the one who paid the price for this.

Laci Green

Yes. That is definitely true, because none of his followers care. They didn't turn around and be like, Chris Ray Gun is dating a feminazi, and she's just like this evil, horrible, man hater, baby killer. That just didn't happen. They just did not respond in that way, at all.

I feel like the feminist side of things is just much more negative and eager to bring people down. And that was my perceived tribe, so of course it makes sense that I paid the bigger price for it. And that's one of the things that's bothered me all along, is this sort of gleeful willingness to just try to destroy people.

Kelefa Sanneh

But you do still identify as a feminist.

Laci Green

Yeah. I do feel sort of squished in between these two rocks that are just getting closer and closer. I don't always know how to handle it-- what to do.

Kelefa Sanneh

In the last year, Laci hasn't posted many videos, and the ones she makes now don't have that same bubbly confidence and clarity. Lately, she presents an issue, like whether toxic masculinity exists or whether it's OK for little boys to be drag queens, and tries to look at it from different angles. She doesn't sound as if she's teaching-- more like she's trying to translate between two groups that don't talk to each other.

Laci Green

This term, toxic masculinity, sounds like you're saying masculinity is toxic. And I think that this is a bigger problem in social justice land. A lot of the language that is used to communicate sounds kind of shamey. Personally, I don't care if we call it--

Kelefa Sanneh

Here's the thing about words you can't say. You can say them, if you want. It's just that there are consequences-- consequences you might not be able to predict. Like, Laci said feminist, and that set off a chain of events that ended with her dating an anti-feminist and leaving some of her feminist allies behind.

Ira Glass

Kelefa Sanneh is a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine. Coming up, you shouldn't bring a toy to a gun fight, especially a gun fight in the state legislature. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Two: Trigger Warning

Ira Glass

It's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, "Words You Can't Say." Stories of people saying the wrong thing and accidentally picking a fight with the very people they thought they agreed with. We've arrived at Act 2 of our program, "Trigger Warning." So in this story, a politician uses a word that she loves-- a word her constituents love, in fact, and it backfires. Dana Chivvis tells what happened.

Dana Chivvis

Dodie Horton is in her first term as a state representative in Louisiana, and last year, she made kind of a rookie mistake. She's a Republican who describes herself this way.

Dodie Horton

I'm just a regular Joe representing regular people like me.

Dana Chivvis

Dodie's version of regular Joe is pretty far to the right. She's pro-life, pro-gun, voted for a bill to prohibit the removal of Confederate statues in Louisiana. She supports a travel ban, still thinks Barack Obama was born in Kenya, and after Donald Trump was elected President, she felt like--

Dodie Horton

America's-- it's rejuvenated again. I saw that in my own district. I see that when I go to the capitol. The excitement of being an American again, he has brought. God had mercy on us. He had mercy on our country because we were headed straight into socialism.

Dana Chivvis

But last spring, something happened that she never expected-- she got beat up for not being conservative enough. It all started at a school in Bossier Parish. They call counties parishes in Louisiana. Bossier Parish is the area that Dodie represents, and back in March, 2016, a high school student was caught with a handgun at a school there.

No one was shot, but word went around there were other guns at the school. The Sheriff's department, the local police department, and the fire department all showed up. They put the school on lock down, brought in gun sniffing dogs, and searched some of the students. They even flew a drone over the roof to see if anyone had tossed a gun up there, and they did find another gun in a trash can.

When Sheriff Julian Whittington arrived at the scene, he asked one of his deputies to show him the two guns they'd found. They were locked in the deputy's squad car. The sheriff studied them closely. There was something weird about them. Here's Sheriff Whittington.

Julian Whittington

Well, I went and got my deputy that had secured it in his vehicle, and I said, I thought you told me both of these were real. And he said, well, they are. I said, no, they're not. Let's look at them closely, here.

Dana Chivvis

As it turned out, one of the two guns wasn't real. It was an imitation of a real gun. But the imitation was so good, the deputies hadn't noticed it was fake. It even fooled the Sheriff, at first.

Julian Whittington

I'm telling you, I've handled guns all my life and have a bunch of them, and these things are so real, you literally cannot tell the difference until you literally try to find the clip and what caliber weapon it is. That's how real they are.

Dana Chivvis

So even holding the fake one in your hand, it has the weight and sort of the metal feel of a real gun?

Julian Whittington

After about three or four minutes of holding it and turning it over and looking, you finally determine for certain that it's not a real weapon. That's how real they look.

Dana Chivvis

Oh my God. It takes you three or four minutes?

Julian Whittington

It does.

Dana Chivvis

Wow.

Julian Whittington

What if that weapon were in a kid's hand, pointing at you? You don't have three or four minutes.

Dana Chivvis

Meaning the cop will shoot whoever is pointing that fake gun at them, even if that person is a kid. And I should pause for a minute to explain something I hadn't truly understood before reporting this story. These fake guns the Sheriff is worried about-- they're not colorful, plastic guns like a Nerf gun or a Super Soaker, or even one of those plastic cap guns that make a loud bang. Those are what I would call toy guns.

These fake guns, like the one the Sheriff's deputy thought was real-- these are basically guns, except they don't use gunpowder to shoot a bullet. I'm sure lots of people are familiar with them-- BB guns and these other ones called Airsoft guns. You can buy them at Walmart and at sporting goods stores. Actually, you can buy them on Amazon. You can buy replicas of AK-47s and M16s on Amazon. The M16s will run you about $30.

Some of them use compressed air to shoot plastic or metal BBs. They fire at a lower velocity than real guns, so they're not as dangerous. But you can still get really hurt if you get shot by them. The ones that shoot metal BBs can even kill a person. They're so close to the real thing, the police use them in training. But because they don't use gunpowder, fake guns aren't subject to federal firearm laws and regulations. This incident at the high school rattled the sheriff. He and his deputies weren't sure what they could do to punish a kid who brought a fake gun to school.

Julian Whittington

It was actually the next morning. My guys were talking to me about-- Sheriff, we don't really have a-- we're going to charge him with-- I forget what all. Disturbing the peace, maybe. But they said, since the gun is not real, we can't charge him with having a weapon on campus. I said, what? And so that's when we decided we need to clear this up.

Dana Chivvis

Oh, wow. I see the difference now. I don't think I'd appreciated that before. The thing is acting as a weapon, but you can't charge it as a weapon.

Julian Whittington

No, since it's not a real weapon under the current state law, we couldn't charge him with having a weapon on campus.

Dana Chivvis

It's already illegal to carry a real gun on school campuses in Louisiana. Sheriff Whittington just thought you also shouldn't be able to carry something that looks exactly like a real gun into a school. He's aware of all the news stories about kids with fake guns getting shot by cops.

In California last May, it was a 15-year-old. In Arkansas, a 16-year-old in July. In the last three years, at least 113 people were killed by cops while holding fake weapons, according to data collected by the Washington Post. With all that in mind, the sheriff asked Dodie to sponsor a bill.

What were you thinking when he's telling you the story about this incident at the high school?

Dodie Horton

Well, I am a gun enthusiast. I support all of our constitutional rights, and we are a huge Second Amendment right district and state, and I'm always packing. Always.

Dana Chivvis

Are you packing right now?

Dodie Horton

Absolutely.

Dana Chivvis

Can I see it?

Dodie Horton

Well, yes.

Dana Chivvis

And you just keep it by your desk?

Dodie Horton

It's always in my purse.

Dana Chivvis

Oh, you just keep it in your purse. Oh, OK. Look at that.

Dodie Horton

Yes, that's it.

Dana Chivvis

What kind of gun is it?

Dodie Horton

It is a Glock, and what it is-- it's a 9 millimeter. Smaller and easier for me to carry, but just as deadly as if it was a bigger gun.

Dana Chivvis

I see.

Dodie Horton

But I like it because it fits easily in my purse that I bought because I have that middle section and I zip it up, and so I'm always in control of it.

Dana Chivvis

After talking to the sheriff, Dodie agreed to sponsor a bill that would make it illegal for anyone to bring an imitation firearm to school, to school events, or within 1,000 feet of a school. First time offenders could be fined $250 and sentenced to six months in prison.

Dodie Horton

Our sheriff did not want one of the officers in Louisiana to shoot a student and have to live with that the rest of their lives.

Dana Chivvis

Of course.

Dodie Horton

And the parents, as well. And so that is why I agreed to carry the legislation.

Dana Chivvis

Dodie's legislation became House Bill 43, or HB 43. It went public on March 6, a month before the start of the legislative session. Dodie and the sheriff were interviewed about the bill on talk radio shows around the state. A lot of people thought it seemed totally sensible.

Don Dubuc

I don't see anything good that could come in from keeping a right for students-- kids, basically-- to bring these fake guns to school.

Dana Chivvis

That's Don Dubuc on his radio show, More Outdoors. It's a hunting and fishing show. His guests that day were a firearms instructor and the manager of a gun store. Don had run a poll about the bill the day before. 65% of listeners who weighed in were for Dodie's bill. Only 35% were against it, which still surprised one of Don's guests, Devin Burgess. He's the one who manages the gun store.

Devin Burgess

I was surprised how large of an audience was opposed to that. You did a poll during that show, and I think it was 65% to 35%. I don't see any reason that someone would oppose that.

Don Dubuc

I think it's a good thing, and we'll see what happens with it. It's House Bill 43, and we'll watch it as it progresses through the session. What else did you guys want to talk about?

Gavin Chachere

Well, Devin brought up the three guns you would have during the apocalypse, and I always--

Dana Chivvis

The three guns you would bring to the apocalypse-- the gun version of what three books would you take to a desert island, only way more practical. The enthusiastic response Dodie got on More Outdoors is not what she remembers about the bill. What she remembers is the backlash she got from her own people, mainly Republicans around the state. This is a radio show called Tom Gresham's Gun Talk.

Tom Gresham

Yeah. And how did Louisiana come to this?

Dana Chivvis

The host, Tom Gresham, was not a fan of Dodie's bill. Gresham lives in Louisiana, but it's a national show.

Tom Gresham

Elected lawmakers always feel they must do something. We must do something. That's what we're here for. We have to do something. State representative-- this is Louisiana, Dodie Horton, Republican.

So, she's introduced a bill in the legislature that could put a student in jail for up to six months for bringing a fake gun to a public school or a school event. They say, well, these guns just look real. We can't tell the difference.

Well, OK. I understand that there's a problem. I understand that you're concerned. But this isn't the way to do it. This has so many downsides.

Dana Chivvis

Dodie told me a lot of the concerns she heard on talk radio were about real guns. People thought HB 43 was a gun control bill. She says she went on seven different conservative radio shows in Louisiana to talk about her fake guns bill, and--

Dodie Horton

It was amazing how I found Republicans eat their own. Republicans were the ones who were coming at me, and just calling me all kind of names, but I'm very thick skinned. I know who I am, and it just blew my mind that they could not wrap their head around imitation-- imitation firearm.

They just thought it was just infringing, again, on Second Amendment rights. They thought it was a gun control bill that could be amended in some way to allow real guns to be implemented in it. And I would never have allowed my name to be attached to any bill that implemented gun control in any way.

Dana Chivvis

I mean, did you find yourself just saying, over and over again, these are fake guns we're talking about.

Dodie Horton

I did, over and over. So I say, have you ever seen one of these imitation firearms? Have you seen it? Have you held it? Has anyone pulled one on you?

Dana Chivvis

What did they say?

Dodie Horton

No. But we still don't like the bill.

Dana Chivvis

Dodie was perplexed. She told me she ran the bill past a friend of hers-- a guy who is a state trooper and a firearms instructor, to make sure there wasn't something in it she was just totally missing. She said he couldn't find anything wrong with it, either. But he told her the problem with her critics was--

Dodie Horton

They refused to hear. They're refusing to hear because they've heard from the liberal media so much about gun control, they're on edge.

Dana Chivvis

Wait, just to break that down for me a little bit more. What is the fear coming out of the liberal media?

Dodie Horton

It's gun control. To people that are gun enthusiasts, they just fear that the liberals are coming to get them. They're coming to take our weapons away.

Dana Chivvis

And so you're a liberal, then? You're the liberal in this case.

Dodie Horton

That's how they were looking at me, and I am just far from that. You know?

Dana Chivvis

Dodie was convinced the bill didn't infringe on anyone's Second Amendment rights, but she still tried to reassure people. She said she'd work with the NRA to get their input on the bill. Depending on how you look at this, that move is either obvious-- because hello, the word "gun" is in the bill-- or totally nonsensical, because the word "imitation" precedes the word "gun" in the bill.

The Second Amendment, of course, gives Americans the right to bear arms, not the right to bear fake arms. But the NRA has a lot of influence in Louisiana. More than 2/3 of Louisiana state legislators have a grade of A-minus or better from the NRA. Even Dodie, who's always packing, only got a B from them. So she got in touch with Art Thomm. He was the NRA's lobbyist in Louisiana at the time. She said she spent about a week working with him.

Dodie Horton

The NRA had come back to me and said, we just can't get on board. I said, give me a reason why. We just don't like it. And I said, but it's an imitation firearm. And so I said, well, if you take no position, then that's fine.

Dana Chivvis

No position. Her goal was just to get the NRA to officially take no position, which is actually kind of like taking a position-- one that says, we're neutral on this. Make up your own minds about it. But they wouldn't do it. Instead, they just said nothing about the bill, which indicated to their supporters and to legislators that they should oppose HB 43.

When I first heard about this story, the main thing that interested me was the possibility that the NRA was opposing the fake guns bill on Second Amendment grounds-- that they believed Dodie's bill might somehow erode or endanger our right to own real guns. The NRA has opposed fake and toy gun laws in California, New Jersey, and Maryland.

The NRA wouldn't agree to an interview with me about this, so I can't say for sure if they're doing this out of a fear of gun control. Fortunately, the president of the Louisiana Shooting Association did talk to me. They're an independent organization affiliated with the NRA. Their president's name is Dan Zelenka, and he was unambiguous about Dodie's bill.

Dan Zelenka

It clearly was treated as a gun control bill.

Dana Chivvis

While the national NRA wouldn't take a stand on Dodie's bill, the Louisiana Shooting Association flat out opposed it. When Dan first read the bill, he was shocked to see Dodie's name on it.

Dan Zelenka

I sent her an email immediately, saying, what gives? Because this is not you.

Dana Chivvis

Yeah. What did she write back?

Dan Zelenka

Thank you for contacting me. I am and will always be a strong Second Amendment activist. This bill does not infringe on our gun rights, blah, blah, blah, blah. OK.

I asked her, what exactly are you trying to accomplish with this? Because there may be a way to accomplish it without having any kind of anti-gun, even though it's a toy gun, but anti-gun implications.

Dana Chivvis

How does a bill about toy guns lead to a fear about real guns?

Dan Zelenka

Let me try to figure out how to put this correctly.

Dana Chivvis

OK.

Dan Zelenka

Even though it doesn't actually impinge on or infringe on Second Amendment rights, OK, there's no actual infringement, but there's an appearance of infringement. Does that make sense?

Dana Chivvis

Dan says the problem with a bill like this isn't that it chips away at gun rights, directly. The problem is about messaging. A bill like this might send the message that guns are inherently bad, and this fear lies at the heart of a battle going on between gun rights people and gun control people-- a battle for attitudes, Dan calls it.

He brought up a speech that Obama's attorney general, Eric Holder, gave in 1995, years before he was the attorney general. Gun rights people refer to this speech a lot. In it, Holder lays out a vision for combating gun violence-- an information campaign.

Eric Holder

And what we need to do is change the way in which people think about guns, especially young people, and make it something that's not cool-- that it's not acceptable. It's not hip to carry a gun any more, in the way in which we've changed our attitudes about cigarettes.

Dana Chivvis

He goes on to say that he's asked ad agencies to help them with this.

Eric Holder

It's not enough to simply have a catchy ad on a Monday and then only do it every Monday. We need to do this every day of the week, and just really brainwash people into thinking about guns in a vastly different way.

Dana Chivvis

That word, brainwash, is kind of a trigger for gun rights people-- no pun intended. And even though Holder was talking specifically about getting guns off the streets in Washington, DC, where he was the US attorney at the time, this idea that gun control groups are trying to brainwash kids into disliking guns-- that's enough to raise red flags over a bill like Dodie's.

Dan Zelenka

I just think criminalizing mere possession of a toy, without having somebody committing a crime-- I just don't think we have any place for it.

Dana Chivvis

And what does that indicate to you, in terms of society? You brought up Eric Holder.

Dan Zelenka

I am not sure what that indicates, exactly. But a five-year-old kid was suspended from school for eating his Pop-Tart into the shape of a gun.

Dana Chivvis

Yeah.

Dan Zelenka

So, if that is not brainwashing that guns are bad, I'm not sure what.

Dana Chivvis

This Pop-Tart he's talking about is probably the most famous Pop-Tart that ever existed. It was chewed into the shape of a gun by a second grader in Maryland. He was seven, by the way, not five. He was suspended from school for two days, which led to a slew of so-called, Pop-Tart gun bills, in which state legislators passed laws saying that kids couldn't be punished in schools for imaginary gun play.

Dan says in this battle for attitudes, if you're writing a bill that criminalizes imitation guns, that's sending the message that guns are bad. And he says that's not the only reason the Louisiana Shooting Association was opposed to Dodie's fake guns bill. They also thought that local school boards should be the ones deciding what to do if a kid brought a fake gun to school, not state legislators.

And they also thought the law wasn't necessary, because any kid who threatened someone else with a fake gun can still be charged with assault, even if they can't be charged for having a weapon, like the sheriff wanted. Of course, the NRA is running their own campaign in this battle for attitudes.

Grant Stinchfield

All right, I love toy guns. Even at 47, I still play with toy guns with my 7-year-old son. I also play with my real guns, too. The anti-gun left, though, as you can imagine, doesn't just hate real guns, it hates all guns-- even fun, toy laser guns that my 7-year-old happens to play with for hours.

Dana Chivvis

This is Grant Stinchfield. He hosts a show on NRA TV, the NRA's 24 hours a day, seven days a week broadcast network. They have 36 shows that stream on their website and on satellite radio, including one hosted by Oliver North. Here's Stinchfield.

Grant Stinchfield

The latest article is written by a gay dad for a gay publication. He ends his piece saying, quote, "I am well aware that toy guns aren't the same as real guns, but the way I see it, they both kill people, even if it's only in our imagination. And I'm not OK with that. Not on my watch." Only a liberal can think killing in your imagination and killing in real life are the same thing. They aren't. Stop wussifying our children. Let boys be boys. It worked for me.

Dana Chivvis

So, yeah. The NRA is putting up a fight of its own in this battle for attitudes. Besides NRA TV, they have at least eight Twitter accounts, five magazines, seven content producing web sites, and a lifestyle brand they call NRA Country, an attempt to attract young people by connecting the NRA to country music stars.

But anyway, back to Louisiana-- springtime, 2017. Dodie pre-filed her bill, and it pretty quickly got the attention of a state representative named Blake Miguez. He's considered one of the go to guys for gun rights stuff in Louisiana-- keeps his eye on everything that's being proposed.

Blake Miguez

See, what I'll do is I can search the bills that are gun related, and I'll look and I'll see-- let's say there's 15 that pop up. But I like to do that every session.

Dana Chivvis

So he's doing that, and he sees Dodie's bill.

Blake Miguez

And I know that she is a supporter of firearms. There's no point in-- I know that she's not passing a piece of legislation, or I'd like to believe and presume she's not going to pass a piece of legislation that's anti-gun. So I'm going, is this a gun issue or is this not a gun issue? It looks and it smells like a Second Amendment bill, but it's not actually one.

Dana Chivvis

It was the imitation part of the imitation guns bill that threw Blake for a loop. In the end, Blake decided the bill didn't threaten the Second Amendment, but he was still against it for some of the same reasons as the Louisiana Shooting Association. But he also gave Dodie some advice about the NRA.

Blake Miguez

It's hard to pass a piece of legislation that is perceived to deal with guns without the NRA's support.

Dodie Horton

Blake said, you don't want to go against them. If the NRA opposes it, then it validates the other Republicans' fears that it's a bad bill. And he's right. He was right.

Dana Chivvis

By the time Dodie got to Baton Rouge for the start of the legislative session in April, she had the impression her bill was doomed-- that it wouldn't make it out of committee.

Dana Chivvis

What was the advice you got from your fellow Republican legislators when you were having this backlash? What advice did they give you?

Dodie Horton

Drop the bill. Pull the bill. You're our friend. We don't want you to go down on this. It will not pass committee.

Dana Chivvis

What were they worried would happen to you if you kept at it?

Dodie Horton

They just felt that I would be ostracized in some way, possibly. They didn't want to see me being known within the Louisiana Republican Party as someone that needs to go-- that I've just crossed a line as a Republican.

Dana Chivvis

So Dodie pulled the bill. She made the decision after meeting with some members of the Criminal Justice Committee, where she had planned to introduce it.

Dodie Horton

I felt defeated. I look at timing and open doors-- they were shut when I walked in that capitol. They said, look, we understand it's imitation, but the public doesn't. And I'm going, golly, guys. Not you, too. Not y'all, too.

Dana Chivvis

She never thought it would come to this. An NRA loving, Trump Republican with a loaded Glock in her purse. Somehow, she wasn't Republican enough. Some people even used one of the worst insults you can sling at a person like Dodie.

They called her a RINO, which, of course, stands for Republican In Name Only. It stung. She felt betrayed. She felt let down by her fellow gun rights supporters and by her fellow Republicans across the state.

Dodie Horton

They turned on me. I felt that my own party turned on me, and I never have experienced that before. And it was unreal.

Dana Chivvis

The fake guns bill lived and died in a matter of five weeks, and if now, in retrospect, that seems inevitable, consider what happened in Dodie's own district, Bossier Parish, months before she sponsored HB 43.

A local version of the fake guns bill came up in the parish government-- it's like a city council-- and it passed, unanimously. Sheriff Whittington was behind the local ordinance, same as he was behind Dodie's statewide bill.

Dana Chivvis

Did you have any push back, locally?

Julian Whittington

Not a bit.

Dana Chivvis

Everyone was on board with it?

Julian Whittington

Not one bit of resistance.

Dana Chivvis

And it's not like you're in some gun hating liberal pocket of Louisiana.

Julian Whittington

No, we're not. We're probably one of the-- out of all the parishes, probably the top three most conservative parishes in the state.

Dana Chivvis

It passed in the parish and not the state house because, first of all, generally, nobody pays attention to local politics. So, the whole discussion took place outside the hyper-charged, us versus them, never give an inch battleground, where so much of the rest of our politics takes place. The Bossier Parish sheriff said he wanted the ordinance. The parish lawyer assured everyone it did not imply they were anti-Second Amendment, and voila, as they used to say in those parts. It passed.

What happened to Dodie at the statehouse was just the normal, run of the mill way that so much political debate is snuffed out in this country. Liberals see a bill that restricts abortions in any way, and they're automatically and unequivocally against it. Conservatives hear about legislation that expands any rights for undocumented immigrants, and the conversation is ended before it's begun.

We often don't even get to the point of agreeing that there might be a problem worth fixing because we're so scared the other side will get to decide the solution. Maybe Dodie's bill, in the form it was in, wasn't the best way to resolve the problem the sheriff was facing, but the problem the Sheriff was facing was certainly a problem worth discussing.

Ira Glass

Dana Chivvis is one of the producers of our show.

Credits

Ira Glass

For our program-- was produced today by Stephanie Foo. The people who put this show together include Zoe Chace, Dana Chivvis, Sean Cole, Damien Gray, Kimberly Henderson, Chana Joffe-Walt, David Kestenbaum, Miki Meek, Alvin Melathe, Ben Phelan, Robyn Semien, Lilly Sullivan, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, and Diane Wu. Our senior producer is Brian Reed. Our managing editor is Susan Burton.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, ThisAmericanLife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, I have to remind him sometimes that I am really, actually in charge of the radio show. His response is always the same.

Chris Ray Gun

(SINGING) The patriarchy is raging.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

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