Not okay is not okay.

September 6, 2017


[N]early one in five women in America has been a victim of rape or attempted rape. And more than one in four women has experienced some form of domestic violence. It’s not okay.

— Barack Obama

We need to . . . get back to debate and away from believing or supporting the idea that if someone doesn’t live the way you want them to live, you just buy a gun and kill them . . . . That is not okay.

— Jimmy Fallon

Did you get that? Rape and domestic violence are “not okay.” Murder is also not okay. I’m glad we cleared that  up.

When my daughter was younger and I picked her up at preschool a few times a week, I would occasionally hear an adult disciplining one of the children. Without exception, the admonition was “That’s not okay.” Whether the transgression was a refusal to share a toy, hitting someone, or stealing the minibus and driving it through the crowded playground, it was always met with the same brutal, withering reprimand:  “That’s not okay!”

Never “bad,” or “wrong,” or “evil,” or “depraved.” Merely “not okay.”

No, wait—that’s not true. In the most extreme cases—for example, if the joyride with the minibus resulted in multiple fatalities—the action might be described as “really not okay.”

No one has ever explained it to me, but I believe I understand the thinking behind this expression:  you can’t ever tell a child that what he’s done is bad, because that could suggest that the child is bad, and that would just be devastating. Of course, there are no bad people—only good people who spend their entire lives doing bad things. Sorry—I mean “not okay” things.

As we now know, this attitude has not confined itself to child discipline; it long ago seeped into what now passes for adult conversation. Among a significant portion of the populace, there is no harsher condemnation than “That’s not okay.” When news broke two years ago that a gunman had killed nine people in a Charleston church, the very first on-line comment I read was “THAT’S NOT OKAY!” (All capitals and an exclamation point—another way of saying “really not okay.”)

There is an “It’s Not OK Campaign” on Facebook that is all about family violence in New Zealand. Another “It’s not okay” website focuses on fighting sexual exploitation of children. Yet another is devoted to ending slavery, especially sexual slavery, worldwide.

There is a book titled It’s Not Okay to Be a Cannibal. It is not actually about cannibalism—the subtitle is How to Keep Addiction from Eating Your Family Alive—but there is no hint of irony or parody in the title.

To review, here is a partial list of things that are not okay:

  • rape
  • domestic violence
  • racially motivated mass murder
  • sexual abuse of children
  • slavery
  • cannibalism

If  “not okay” is as bad as it gets, then presumably “okay” is as good as it gets. In today’s language, those labels seem to define the spectrum of human conduct, and of human beings. Good and evil don’t exist; on a morality scale of 1 to 10, everyone is between 4.5 and 5.5. Reporting to work on time is okay, and so is ending world hunger. Killing and eating someone is not okay; taking the last cup of coffee without making a fresh pot is also not okay.

For a little perspective, it may be helpful to see where some of the best known figures in world history land on this scale. For starters, I think most of us would agree that Jesus Christ, Light of the World, was okay. (I believe the Doobies even had a hit song to that effect.)

Hitler, murderer of six million Jews, was definitely not okay. Stalin and Pol Pot—also not okay.

Lincoln, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr., were okay. Vlad the Impaler was not okay. The Roadrunner was okay; Wile E. Coyote was not okay.

Saddam Hussein—not okay. And Satan, ruler of demons, prince of darkness? I’m going to go bold here and pronounce him really not okay. I hope no one thinks I’m being too harsh.

If there’s anything good about Donald Trump (I said “if”), it’s that he skips mealy-mouthed expressions like “not okay” and says what he thinks. True, it’s not a virtue in his case, just a lack of mental capacity, but I can understand how some people would find his uncensored comments “refreshing.”

The good news is that you don’t have to be as dim-witted as Donald Trump to use plain language. Plenty of fully evolved primates have managed to do it. Winston Churchill was a master. Harry Truman made it his trademark. Ernest Hemingway elevated it to an art form. Among contemporary American politicians, John McCain and Howard Dean built campaigns around straight talk. I believe none of them would have described rape or slavery as “not okay.”

So here is my suggestion, which I believe I have offered before:  talk like a normal person. Some things are beyond “not okay.” Lying and stealing are wrong. Rape and murder are bad. Slavery is evil. Sexual slavery is really evil. Lincoln was good. Hitler was bad. This is not difficult.


Update:  After the recent unpleasantness in Charlottesville, Jimmy Fallon had this to say:  “What happened over the weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, was just disgusting. . . . The fact that it took the president two days to come out and clearly denounce racists and white supremacists is shameful.”

Holy moly! “Disgusting” and “shameful”—from the same guy who previously pronounced random murder “not okay.” Maybe there is one more good thing about Orange 45. Maybe he will force a reconsideration of our vocabulary. I sense that words like “vile,” “heinous,” and “loathsome” are poised to make a comeback, and “not okay” may be sent, appropriately, to the dustbin.