A few days ago while climbing, several friends (whose names have been redacted to protect them from the vigilantes who roam the Internet like the gangs of scalp hunters in Blood Meridian), and I started talking about what we always talk about these days at the crag—equity, inclusion and social justice.
One person brought up a recent editorial in Climbing [No. 378] about “retiring” potentially offensive words.
“Apparently they’re not gonna print the word ‘biner”—slang for carabiner—”anymore,” he said.
“The editor wrote that if a Latinx climber overheard you say it, they might mistake it for a racial slur.”
“But if your intent—”
“Intent doesn’t matter,” someone else chimed in. “The word could cause harm.”
“But if it’s on a page and not being pronounced aloud, how can it be mistaken for a racial slur?”
“You got to watch your step out there,” another said, deadly serious.
“But … Orwell?” my friend said. “One of the defining characteristics of Newspeak was ‘cutting words from the lexicon.’ Is reading a word that sounds racist causing harm? That’s literally Thoughtcrime.”
“It might cause harm,” the second person said. “And that’s all that matters.”
A couple days after I’d been climbing in the forest, my sons and I were driving to Paia, the North Shore town closest to the surf Meccas Ho’okipa and Peahi (Jaws) with our friend Jess who was visiting from Texas.
As I drove, the boys started beatboxing and I improvised a rap about Rainbow Park, where people practice aerial silk routines and the dragonfruit cactus drapes the monkeypod trees.
Kai went high and Isaac, 11, sung the bass but after a couple of verses we couldn’t keep it together and we petered out in cacophony.
“I lose the beat when I think about it,” Kai said.
“Yeah, as soon as I think about keeping the beat, I mess up, too,” Isaac agreed.
It’s true (and weird) that you can’t keep good rhythm if you’re thinking about keeping the rhythm. The rule applies to everything: You will succeed to the degree that you can drop discursive thinking and just do.
With that in mind, I shared an anecdote about the time in the Dirt-weed 1990s at Hueco Tanks when I stepped off the ground to try to onsight the 60-foot Long Dong (V6), by today’s standards “offensively but not harmfully named”—the new criteria for names that Climbing will publish, according to the editorial. A nanosecond later I was at the top.
I’d climbed the entire roof in the blink of an eye and hadn’t the vaguest recollection of the moves, not an inkling of the intervening minutes between leaving the ground and hanging on the final jug.
“Did I just send that?” I asked my friend Kim.
“Yeah, dude, good job.”
As usual a line of tourist cars inched through Paia. I pulled in behind a red convertible Mustang and stewed. Outsiders were delaying me—again.
Just as we started to move, a local guy on a skateboard—saggy jeans, hat turned backwards, holding a bag of groceries—ripped past, weaving like a drunk hummingbird through the chaotic downtown jam. He shot between two cars at the red light and turned up the Hana Highway, seamlessly threading the deadlock like a pin pushed through a knot.
This, of course, enraged me and I yelled, “Jackass!” and, like any good parent, took the opportunity to displace my anger onto Kai, my impressionable teenager.
“That’s not right!” I yelled. “You can’t go around doing anything you want. You can’t go skating through downtown Paia where there are a million people.”
“Why not?” Kai asked.
“Because somebody might get hurt!”
“But that guy skated right through,” Isaac pointed out.
“Boys,” I said. “It’s not respectful. It’s against the rules.”
Yesterday I hiked up Manawainui gulch with the friend who’d brought the issue of “retiring” words. We talked about it some more as we slipped on our harnesses and warmed up our antediluvian tendons with stretchy bands.
“I can’t support it,” he said. “I cancelled my subscription. Seems like every single thing I read these days has a social or political message. Is the next Accident Report going to be about somebody using the wrong preferred pronoun at the crag? You should write that up, Jefe.”
“You might have a point,” I said, “except you’re a straight white dude with time and money, like me.”
“You at least have time. A magazine’s policy might twist your underpants, but it’s not really going to alter your gravity, and if it gets us thinking about how words affect each of us differently, it could be good for everyone.”
I pulled my rock shoes tight until my big toe knuckles cracked and set to work on the boulder.
When I was 13 years old, my friends Keith Wright, Larry Robertson and I took up climbing on a series of 30-foot rotten shale cliffs near a sausage factory on the border of Plano and Richardson in North Texas. One day a blue norther blew down from the arctic and it got bitter cold but we pulled our cotton socks over our hands and used railroad spikes and geology hammers to peel away the ice and scale the choss.
Later, wet and freezing in the stiff north wind, we walked to an abandoned highway and squeezed under a shell of concrete where the dirt had washed away from the abutment. In those days—the late 1970s—we all carried pocketknives, rabbit feet, and packs of Ohio Blue Tip matches. So we gathered dry weeds and twigs and kindling and wood, and attempted to get a fire going. We tried again and again but without fail we smoked ourselves out.
The goal became the “smokeless fire,” and we spent hours searching for and trying out the perfect materials: separated two-ply toilet paper squares, the velvety innards of a certain woody reed, resinous barks. We’d light the pile with three or four matches. Nothing worked and we always had to bolt spluttering and coughing out of the cave and into the wind in a boil of smoke.
The goal of non-harming reminds me of the smokeless fire. It can only happen if everything is combusted. As soon as something ceases to burn, the fire smolders and produces smoke.
Perfectly righteous action is spontaneous and thought-free—a mother dashing into traffic to save her child. In those instances you are keeping perfect time, burning completely. It can occur playing music or during an onsight or flawlessly carving through rush-hour traffic on a skateboard. But as soon as the slightest dogma, inclination or aversion enters, the intention is polluted, and like a skateboarder who loses focus and plows into a bystander, “harming” can happen.
It does not make a difference what “side” you’re on or how righteous your cause, like the smokeless fire non-harming is practically impossible. That’s because it’s infinitely conditional.
Life flows and every moment requires a different appropriate response. There is no rulebook or party platform that can guide you—nor should there be—but intention does matter.
These debates are predicated on the delusion that there are two sides: Republican and Democrat, right and wrong, black and white, good and bad. The reality is far more complex. Race and gender, for example, are fluid constructs that cannot be constrained by human rules, mores or political systems.
If science one day constructs a pair of glasses through which we can glimpse things as they really are, I suspect we’ll see a unified field of empty space, not a polarity. That will, of course, never happen. We are as always left with our limited vision, and will need to keep working to see clearly.