In recent years, there’s been a loud discussion in the black community on the merits of the N-word. Specifically, people have disputed the value of ‘claiming’ the word. Many have offered eloquent arguments on either side of the issue, but few have looked for lessons in history. Those lessons exist; here is a familiar and recent one.
The word ‘dirtbag’ is an honorific in the climbing world. It refers to devotees whose total commitment to the sport has led to a de facto vow of poverty. Nowadays, the word calls to mind the romanticized, early days of climbing in Yosemite, where the pioneering resident climbers, in the course of surviving in the Park, earned the label as an epithet.
The Park Service and the concessionaires saw the climbers as parasites – dirtbags who camped illegally and stole food scraps while contributing nothing to the park or society in general. The authorities were correct, too. Most of the climbers were parasites, due to lack of means and a single-minded desire to climb. They didn’t pursue parasitism, they fell into it by default, abetted by the availability of a corpulent, plethoric, degenerate host. Besides, their parasitism produced results.
Climbing thousands of feet of seemingly impassable rock may not be worth anything to society at large, but it might buy you a word. To the original users, ‘dirtbag’ meant someone who was nothing but a worthless nuisance. A ‘dirtbag’ who could climb El Cap. might still be considered a worthless nuisance, but it was hard to say that was all they were. Plus, not all those who lived to climb were rootless kids looking for an outlet for their dissatisfactions. Always, some dirtbags chose an austere life to pursue their visions.
The latter group planned to work only enough to buy gear, subsist on cat food, and climb as much as possible. Their’s was a long-term plan, and it became a template. Over time, they emerged from the rest of the ‘dirtbags’ but never disavowed the name. Through them, ‘dirtbag’ came to mean ‘the opposite of dilettante’. So much so that modern climbers see ‘dirtbagging’ as a rite of passage and a special opportunity.
By this definition, all sorts of people, from artists to Buddhist monks, are dirtbags, and many of them have taken to using that shorthand description for their lifestyles of devotion. Of course, the original sense of the word will persist. No derogatory term can escape its origins, and the American conservative libertarian will continue to call everybody who chooses to live low and climb high, a dirtbag in the original sense of the word.
That’s one of the good things about dirtbagging, though. There may be some true libertarian dirtbags – people who believe in the myth of the Yeoman farmer. There are precious few American conservative libertarian dirtbags – people whose credo is: “Everyone must be free; free to be just like me”. Just as being a dirtbag can teach one the difference between voluntary frugality and true poverty, wearing the word can be a reminder of the source of its negative content, and serve as a warning against perpetuating that negativity.
Nevertheless, claiming the word is a perilous trick. The term is a poisonous thing at heart, and it’s hard to play with it without getting any on you. However, some people are going to call climbers camped at a crag with nothing but a rope and a rusty Subaru to their names, ‘dirtbag’ anyway. Tucking tail and slinking away or trying to teach stupid people a lesson don’t seem like better strategies, and overall, owning the dirtbag label has worked out pretty well for the climbing community. For what it’s worth.