Action Barriers Part 1: Defensiveness

I have a series of thoughts on, basically, giving a crap, speaking out, and some common reactions to that. The reactions can basically be summed up into guilt, defensiveness and blame. They all tend to be interconnected, but I’m going to take them one at a time—they’re all long, but frankly, I’m okay with that.

To start, defensiveness. The general, well-known form that this takes is for a member of the privileged group—white, male, hetero, with no disabilities, Christian, hell, even first world—or some combination of privileged classes gets into a conversation criticizing sexism, racism or other forms of oppression. Privileged individual—let’s call him “P”—hears me talking about (for example) ‘male privilege’ and relating the concept to rape culture and he interprets what I just said as “All men are rapists”. So he gets angry at me, and defensive.

This is a silencing move. The conversation is no longer about men who are rapists, it’s about men who are not. I’m angry about the ubiquity of sexual violence—I’ve experienced it personally and heard countless other women (and several men) talk about their experiences with it. We talk about being shamed and silenced, and we talk about being afraid of having it happen again and angry that we have to feel that way. But P and I aren’t talking about that anymore. We’re talking about how angry P is, how afraid he is to be considered a rapist.
I often coddle defensiveness in my real-life spaces, generally because I don’t have the energy to deal with the inevitable response. It’s natural to get one’s back up when confronted with people talking about systemic violence and drawing connections from the horrifying to the banal. The implication of defensiveness, however, is “I am just as powerless in the system as you are, and I don’t have to change my behaviour to right these wrongs.” This statement in itself conveys privilege and participates in the problem–I have to change my behaviour because of the existence of rapists, and so does every woman I know, so the fact that you aren’t forced to is a privilege we don’t share. Don’t get me wrong—I know P didn’t ask for the privileges he has, didn’t personally set the patriarchy in motion back at the beginning of civilization or whatever, and can’t single-handedly turn it on its head. I just don’t know what that has to do with the conversation.

I’ve been considering both my own privilege and my “ecological footprint” recently, and I’ve been realizing just how much I tend to legitimize these kinds of responses. I’m ashamed to admit that I probably coddle it more when we’re talking about privileges—such as whiteness—that I share and have always shared, so I’m more willing to flip into sympathizing with P and drop the point I was making. I commented on someone else’s blog a few weeks ago on the theme of white Canadians excusing ourselves from dealing with the current status of Canadian indigenous peoples and blaming nebulous, anonymous ancestors. Here, P’s standard line is “If I didn’t have anything to do with smallpox-infested blankets or stealing children to place them in residential schools, and if these things have stopped now, then I’m okay. I don’t need to hear about the current suffering”.

As if what P didn’t do matters, as if it’s enough. If these people are Christian—God didn’t ask us to come into the world, try not to rock the boat too much and hopefully, at best, leave it no more damaged than it was when we got here. He calls us to be like Jesus, who spent his life healing, repairing, advancing the status of the oppressed, in big as well as small individual ways. Even if you’re not Christian, my question would be: You haven’t slaughtered, beaten or raped anyone because of their race? Good for you. Your scorecard is now at zero. “Did not directly participate in genocide” seems a pretty bare minimum to expect of people, so I’m pretty confident that it’s not an accomplishment you really want to be too proud of.

Defensiveness is destruction, because P walks away from the conversation feeling better about himself, contented that he’s a Good Person (more on this later), and I walk away knowing that he’s still doing his part to maintain the status quo, he still won’t notice the next time he hears a buddy in a bar talking about sex in a way that actually describes rape. When P is in a conversation like this—when I, as a person with several axes of privilege, am in a conversation like this, it’s not a trial, it’s an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to get into the plus column. Again, if I’m striving to be Christ like, I need to see that he was taking small chances to advance the status of marginalized groups, however slightly, from women in general to prostitutes and prisoners.

If “not a rapist, murderer, or active perpetrator of genocide” is your definition of “good, upstanding moral individual”, then go ahead and talk about how you’re sick of being tarred with the same brush as the worst of men/white people/straight people etc. I’d prefer to aim higher.


7 thoughts on “Action Barriers Part 1: Defensiveness

  1. amberbug says:

    Much defensiveness in some knee-jerk “I didn’t do nuthin”. So, he’s WAY pre-emptive in defending himself. So, he’s WAY pre-emptive in defending himself. I dream up ways to respond. If there is another person present, just tell him to calm down, and don’t say ANYTHING until his lawyer is present, as if you know something.
    For me that “defense” is a way to get the focus off of them onto anyotherman’s, so P can float around disembodied from his corporeal form, unrecognized, pure, and less (and shhhhh- inVIsable too!) He gets mad when he even suspects you know he’s there (You can’t see me! Redo!spoken angrily). Mad that you might have seen him and ruined the game.
    I infantilize ‘P’. He blurts out silly off topic things during discussions. The problem with my response of infantilizing him in my mind, to others, and flipping into coddling OR ignoring OR sarcasm is that P is 6’2″, and I have no urge to baby him. It’s just my only reaction-until I think on it more. Thanks for bringing this up, I really need to think out the responses to these all too common conversation stoppers. There are plenty to come.

  2. baby221 says:

    Just dropping by to say that I heart this post, especially the bits about “not directly participating in genocide” being a pretty friggin’ low standard of basic human morality.

  3. purtek says:

    amberbug–you’re right, it is a way to get the focus off of him and onto anyone else, as long as what we’re talking about is “the problem”. In my experience, if we’re talking about anything but who the problem is, then P and his ilk can’t handle anyone even suggesting they’re *not* there and the most important person in the room, to boot. But the way you’re expressing it has me stumbling onto something of a paradox in the psychology of privilege–it seems there are many.

    baby221–thanks. 🙂 I was perhaps a little too enamoured with the variation on the old St Peter at the gate image involving St Peter checking some guy’s forms and saying “Oh, you *didn’t* give entire populations smallpox infested blankets? Step right in, we have a VIP lounge for you guys.”

  4. […] About Purtek ← Action Barriers Part 1: Defensiveness […]

  5. […] 11th, 2007 · No Comments Part 1: Defensiveness Part 2: Guilt Part 3: […]

  6. […] Action Barriers, Part 1: Defensiveness Action Barriers, Part 2: Guilt Action Barriers, Part 3: Blame Action Barriers, Part 4: The Good Person […]

  7. danadocus says:

    “Did not directly participate in genocide” seems a pretty bare minimum to expect of people, so I’m pretty confident that it’s not an accomplishment you really want to be too proud of.

    that made me lol. *clap*

    back at the beginning of civilization

    well, at least some civilizations, such as our lovely Western one, yeah. the more i read, the more i see patriarchy coming into so many places along with colonialism.

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