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Ideas | Laurence Scott

It’s not OK

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After the recent footage of Donald Trump and Billy Bush’s bus ride emerged, the author Kelly Oxford began trending on Twitter. She had posted details of her own sexual assaults and encouraged others to do the same. The associated hashtag — still going strong — was #NotOK.

“Not OK” has, in the last decade, become a rallying cry of righteous indignation, one of our most emotionally charged and prevalent judgments. But the phrase is curiously jarring because it assesses the most serious subjects (domestic violence, sexual harassment, racism) with huge understatement. Taken literally, or especially when seen in print, it can be startlingly glib. For example, a Christian activist group called Adventures in Missions, which works to counter human trafficking, writes on its website: “Slavery is not OK and our missionaries around the world have had raw, first-hand experiences fighting it.”

As the negation of a generic word, “Not OK” should be rhetorically frail, and yet it arguably gains more traction in today’s culture than the language of sin. “Not OK” immediately establishes a powerful binary of right and wrong. Perhaps its soberness is a response to the hyperbole of late-capitalist diction, in which a pizza can be “awesome” and a chocolate cake “sublime.” Maybe the phrase’s secular terseness suits the brevity of social media. But how has it become such a dominant category in our moral lexicon? “OK” was the first word spoken on the moon. Now its negation seeks to expose the lunacy of our times.

To understand the rise of “Not OK,” we should first consider its logical opposite. If “Not OK” is proliferating in the indecent climate of the 2016 election, the reason “OK” survived at all was because of another presidential race.

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“OK” first appeared in Boston in 1839, when the Morning Post used it as the playfully misspelled abbreviation of “all correct.” As Allan Metcalf explains in “OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word,” “OK” was one of many such comic short forms in circulation. But in 1840 it rose above its peers by being tethered to Democratic presidential candidate Martin Van Buren. His nickname was Old Kinderhook, after the upstate New York town from which he hailed. This coincidence of initials made “OK” famous enough for it to be given a false origin myth — namely that former president Andrew Jackson, who had been unfairly mocked for his bad spelling, used to sign off his documents with “OK,” as in “Ole Korrect.” It was this hoax that embedded the word’s present meaning in the lexicon.

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Metcalf describes “OK” as the “neutral affirmer” — it is so common because of its flexibility. Unlike affirmations such as “Excellent!” or “I’d love to,” “OK” signals agreement without the speaker having to evaluate the proposition. “It’s everywhere, but hardly noticed,” Metcalf writes, “Important yet inconspicuous.” In this sense, “OK” shares the invisibility and universality of the status quo, standing neutrally outside moral judgment. It is a phrase suited to hegemony, since it placidly discourages resistance: Don’t worry, everything is and will be OK.

“Not OK” is so potent because it calls our prevailing ideas of OK-ness into question. The phrase is often used to highlight the injustice of social norms and expose entrenched forms of violence that are both commonplace and frequently unpunished. The Canadian website Notokay.ca encourages people to protest all forms of everyday immorality using the hashtag #NOTokay. This organization’s manifesto proposes that “we live in a culture that teaches girls how not to get raped, instead of teaching boys not to rape. That’s not okay. . . . Accepting violence as a natural part of society is not okay. Together, we’re going to stand up and say it’s NOT OKAY.” Implicit in such a slogan is the mundane brutality of some of our cultural values. It seeks to shame the widespread toleration of social inequalities and systemic prejudices, which we collectively deem OK through our passive acceptance of them.

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As part of the discourse of oppression, “Not OK” has a necessary cunning, a built-in irony. The category of the OK, which contains the value system of the white, heterosexual majority, is the true target. It is, ironically, our sense of OK-ness that is not OK. The apparent complacency of the phrase’s diction purposefully reflects the bland, generic violence of what we, as a patriarchal society, deem to be acceptable. By challenging these norms, “Not OK” offers a new, humane vision of “OK” that is yet to exist.

While “Not OK” has become a motto of political resistance, its aims for social justice also include a psychological dimension. In 1999, Whitney Houston’s hit song “It’s Not Right but It’s Okay” separated morality from the category of the OK. The lyrics describe someone named Whitney exposing a lying, cheating partner and kicking them out of the house. This Whitney presents as strong and resilient — as someone who is “gonna make it anyway.” The situation is “okay” because this Whitney can survive it. But this song is from a different century, and there is now less of a sense in the air that injustice is something to be borne. The propagation in the 1990s of a particularly feminine kind of stoicism, which was part of the Girl Power phenomenon, has, to some extent, been replaced with a defiant refusal to endure the immoral actions of others.

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The pressure to be OK in hard times is thus another aspect of this category’s oppressiveness. Rather than signifying a general contentment and ability to function in the world, being OK can carry an air of duress, of someone forced by social expectations to be bravely silent about their grievances. This month, Paul Kawata, executive director of the National Minority AIDS Council, wrote a piece in the HIV/AIDS resource site The Body called “I am not okay.” He describes the horrors of the AIDS epidemic in 1980s and ’90s, the mass bereavement and the ongoing guilt of those, such as himself, who survived. “Given our life experiences,” Kawata writes, “it is reasonable to be in pain, it is OK to not be OK.” Declaring oneself as “not OK,” indeed, is becoming an effective strategy in the fight against the stigmatization of trauma. Similarly, a community-led movement in Texas has trademarked the phrase “Okay to Say,” advocating for the open discussion of mental illness and working to expand the boundaries of OK-ness.

Returning to the abbreviation’s origins, it should be noted that although Old Kinderhook, aka President Martin Van Buren, considered slavery immoral, he was against its abolition because the constitution sanctioned it. It is poignant, then, that the roots of OK are tied to this championing of the status quo over virtue. To paraphrase Whitney Houston, slavery wasn’t right, but it was bureaucratically all correct. “Not OK,” as the ironic challenge to our social complacency and normalized expectations of well-being in the face of injustice, demands that moral correctness and compassion become genuinely mainstream qualities of American life.

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Laurence Scott is author of “The Four-Dimensional Human: Ways of Being in the Digital World.”