Recently I was asked if I could make sure a presentation PG. The organizers were concerned that the message of the talk would be lost if I said too many provocative things or my language was too colourful. There may be some truth to that, and I am working hard to make sure everyone knows and appreciates that I amend my approach and language depending on the situation I am in and with whom I have the pleasure of speaking.
That said, PG ain’t what a lot of people think it is. The Motion Picture Association of America says a PG-rated film may not be suitable for children. The MPAA says a PG-rated should be checked out by parents before allowing younger children to see the movie. There could be some profanity, some violence, or brief nudity, however there will not be any drug use in a PG film. By this standard, I should be able to swear, hit someone and flash the audience, so long as I don’t do drugs in front of them. (Kidding folks…I won’t do any of that.)
It is true that I say things sometimes defined as provocative. I don’t do this to be disrespectful. I am not trying to change anyone’s personal morals. I am not trying to be sensational. What I am trying to do is open people’s minds to an alternate way of thinking about homelessness and solutions to it, while simultaneously being grounded in the reality of the people we serve. It is okay for people to consider alternate viewpoints and language to explain an issue without feeling their own morals are under attack.
Depending on the audience, the subject matter, and the intent of the speech, I may end up including items about substance use, dealing drugs, sex, sexuality, the sex trade, violence, self-harm, mental illness, and/or a range of other topics that may collide with a person’s own sensibilities, morals or world view. I am not out to disrespect anyone personally, though I can appreciate these matters make people feel uncomfortable. I firmly believe we have to be able to speak about some remarkably uncomfortable things if we truly want to be person-centered and meet people where they are at in our journey with people to housing stability. The people that we work with are no better nor worse than any of us that work in the industry, just different. Different does not imply “less than”.
In the updated Promoting Wellness and Reducing Harm training we unveiled a month or so ago, this text was on a slide at the beginning as people came into the training room:
- This presentation honestly, openly, respectfully, and at times graphically depicts mental illness, substance use, and matters of sex and sexuality.
- Some of the words, phrases, pictures and graphics may make some participants feel uncomfortable.
- You are encouraged to stay and learn despite your discomfort at times.
- You are encouraged to ask questions and open yourself up to a different way of thinking about mental illness, substance use and sex work.
Rather than shutting down the discussion about matters such as this, I think it may be best to open up the dialogue.
I have been known to use humour to take a sensitive subject that can be difficult to talk about and disarm people through laughter. In this regard I will own that I can push things even farther than some people are comfortable. Not everyone has the same sense of humour. Not everyone thinks the same things are funny. Some people are uncomfortable with themselves for laughing at things they wish they hadn’t found funny. And other times I will accept that the humour is so close to the line in my mind that it has crossed the line for others. But flirting with an imaginary line is also not an exercise in trying to be offensive.
Sometimes I hear after the fact that someone took exception to the language I used or the humour I used. Here is the thing…while there has been less than a handful that have been able to tell me they were offended with what I talked about or how I talked about it, there are hundreds – maybe even more than a thousand over the past year – that have gone out of their way to come up to me during a break or after a presentation, hit me up on FaceBook, mention @orgcode on Twitter, call or email me with compliments for being real and honest and “getting it”. I will always do my best to be authentic in what I talk about and how I talk about it. I am not saying this to be boastful. Instead, what I intend to illustrate is that while there may be a minority that can take issue with what is said or how it is said, it needs to be appreciated that there is a massive volume of people that love the style and approach that is used.
Know that I try to read my audience and the environment within which I have the honour of speaking. I will continue to say provocative things, but I will increasingly be aware that how I say those things can be very important or else the message is lost. And given the definition of PG, I can assure just about everyone that my public presentations meet that definition quite well.