In What Ends Up Not Being a Defense of Elvis

I saw this post by Donna over at The Silence of Our Friendsand was about ready to launch into a spirited defense of Elvis when I followed on of her links back to Theriomorph’s and read this comment by Kai:

More importantly, however, I just want to note that POC and/or anti-racists hear this kind of misdirection, evasion, and white-recentering and reframing all the time. The basic pattern never changes: when anti-racist arguments start cutting too close to the bone, defenders of white privilege simply shift the subject, move the goalposts, pivot the grounds of argumentation, assign new categories and labels, open up broad cushy areas of tangential discourse, then put on completely straight faces and pretend that this new conversation is the one which was taking place all along. When we respond with, “What the hell are you talking about?”, they usually say something along the lines of, “I am sorry that people like you get upset when you cannot grasp my true and noble words.”

I do that all the time! 

I suppose you’ve noticed.  Not deliberately about anti-racism, but I do very deliberately “pivot the grounds of argumentation” when it suits my needs.  Sometimes, it’s an overtly political act.  I want men, for instance, to think about how our gender roles hurt both of us and so I’ll take an issue, one I know they expect me to be all feminist about, and I’ll talk about how it screws over men.  Sometimes it means, “Yeah, I agree with everything you’re saying, except this.” (Which was about to be the core of my Elvis argument.)  Sometimes, it’s a defensive thing, when you get too close to something that hurts me, I’m off on some other tangent.  And sometimes, it’s a thing I do to be an asshole.

I bring me up because, if Kai can see it and articulate it and I can, upon hearing her articulate it, recognize it in myself, it means it’s there.  So, there it is, this tendency.

Which, clearly, as a rhetorical strategy, we’re taught.

Why?  What purpose does it serve?

Like I said, it’s broader than just being a racist strategy.  I find myself employing it for all kinds of reasons.  But it is for sure about keeping people out.

But Kai says something else here too that made me think–about how it recenters the discussion on whiteness.  The thought I ended up with doesn’t clearly follow from that, but that’s the idea that sparked it, so anyway…

Okay, here’s what I realized.  This is also about establishing, or in some cases, reestablishing who gets the prime real estate in people’s heads.

To use an exaggerated example, if I were to say, “I’m the smartest person here.  Here are my grades to prove it,” we’re having a conversation based on evidence and can argue about the merits of using grades as a measure of smarts or even what constitutes smarts in a group as large as the one I’m speaking with.

But, if we were then having a heated discussion and I was suddenly “Yeah, well, I so jump over the lazy dog.” and half the room makes some acknowledgement that they get it–that I’m referencing “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.” and, in calling myself a fox, am calling attention to how clever I am–and the other half never took a typing course so they have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sending another message.

And I think that message isn’t just “If you want to have discussions with me, you must share this basic knowledge,” but is also “It’s your job to imagine what’s going on in my head and anticipate the mental leaps I might make.  I, of course, don’t do that for you.”

Anyone who’s been in an abusive relationship is familiar with that tactic.  Refusing to speak plainly to someone, to acknowledge that you hear and understand what they’re saying, and then forcing them to guess what logical leaps you might make, and punishing them if they don’t guess correctly (or sometimes, even when they do guess correctly, because you don’t like being so easy to figure out) is a kind of violence.

We can do violence in self-defense.  I’ve got no problem with that.

But violence just for the sake of violence, just so you can feel like you “won”?  Just so you can feel the abuser’s rush?

That is a problem.

And frankly, it is about racism, and it is also about the system(s).

And I feel like we’re skirting around something large here that I don’t quite know how to articulate.

So, I got nothing else right now.  Just that feeling.

And Elvis singing in the background.

10 thoughts on “In What Ends Up Not Being a Defense of Elvis

  1. I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you.

    Eric Hundin

  2. Bridgett wins the internets this morning.

    Now I’m going to pivot the discussion (at least in this one comment), to say that this post has just provided me with an epiphany about some behavior of my father’s. Long after I had let him see that he couldn’t abuse me any more, physically or verbally, he would insist on having what I used to think of as arguments to the death. They were never about anything that mattered much — sometimes he would literally say, “what do you think about obscure topic X?” and I’d say, “oh, let’s not have an argument about that,” and he’d say, “no, it’s not either of us cares much, so let’s just argue about it,” and you couldn’t make him stop without hanging up the phone or walking out of the room. And it would go on and on, and I’d be feeling more and more exhausted and unreal about the whole thing, and then at some point he would announce “I won” or even “you won” and it would be over, except that he’d be all cheerful and even tell people what a wonderful argument we had just had. And you have just put that behavior right smack in the middle of all is other abusive behavior and even named what he got out of it: the abuser’s rush. Wow.

    Sorry to pivot and derail, but I’m just so struck by this.

  3. NM, but see, here’s the thing. I think that, in a space where those are the explicit expectations–and I’ve said repeatedly that I don’t believe there’s any such thing as derailing a thread here–it’s okay. It tells us something about ourselves, those places where we get hung up and sent off in some other direction.

    And I think that, as long as it doesn’t stop us from listening to others, I find it very useful.

    Here, too, is what I’m trying to understand how it fits in–because I think it does–I read an article, ages and ages ago, about how there are certain roles people play in families where one member is alcoholic and that, if the whole family doesn’t address that, when the kids–for instance–go out into the world and replicate those same dynamics. They didn’t always find an alcoholic. Sometimes you could find them in situations with everyone but the alcoholic present, but still. And their kids would do the same thing, to a lesser extent.

    I wonder about that, and how it fits in with how we treat each other, a lot.

  4. But, Slarti, if you’ve misunderstood, it’s easy enough to say, once you’re aware that some misunderstanding has happened, to admit that, right?

  5. Aunt B, hehehe no problem! I just stumbled upon this post, but fyi my name and what I tend to talk about have created gender confusion many dozens of times on the tubes, and every time I say: being mistaken for a woman can only be taken as a compliment. So yeah. We cool. Thank you.

    This is a terrific post. You nailed it with the phrase, “prime real estate in people’s heads”. That’s what we’re talking about. That real estate serves as a foundation for various systems of privilege and oppression. That’s it, right there. Who gets to build there. Who has paperwork for building there. Who sets up the architectural structures of their choosing and to their liking and benefit. Who lives there and who works for minimum wage there. I think you really saw something in all that.

    Slartibartfast, you actually don’t have to say any more, because saying that you don’t wanna say more is the same as saying more. We got it.


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