Café Discovery: Power

( – promoted by buhdydharma )

The other day I ventured into an essay.  God forbid that I read an essay here.

Dude, I read almost all of the essays here.  Telling me I should just not read them I think misses the point of the whole exercise.

And I observed something written by someone trying to write about identity politics, someone with whom I have had extreme disagreements about the exact same subject in the past.  I might have actually read the whole thing through at once, but I got trapped pretty close to the beginning because, like he has a habit of doing, the author assumed a power-over position.  So I stopped before finishing to address it.  

He didn’t intend to do so.  At least I’ll give him that benefit of the doubt.  The power-over position is so natural to some folks that they assume it without a thought most of the time.  In what I thought was a crude attempt at humor, he decided that the alternative to use to the set of men and women, out of all the words available to him, was “hermaphrodites.”

I made a cultural faux pas at that point.  I assumed a position of equality in order to point out that he was invoking his power and presumed to try to educate him about his choice of words.  He spent the rest of our discussion trying to deny me that position of equality, to reassert his manhood and restore order in the universe.

Mind you, this is only my view, from the position as a member of a traditionally powerless group.

Next day, another essay is authored, one which accepted the first author’s description of the first incident as fact and proceeded to explain how the power-over position was, in fact, the way things should be if we were going to win an election.  Moreover, there was the statement that I’ve heard all too often in my life that I was going to have to be twice as good to be taken half as seriously.

And them I was told that none of the discussion had anything to do with me and I was being self-obsessed to think it was.  And that hurt very much.  All acts of dismissal do hurt to someone who has spent a lifetime mostly being rejected.  That it was someone I considered a friend reinforcing my powerlessness hurt a whole lot.

And someone else said that people in the traditionally powerless position just needed to toughen up.

I could have left right there.  But buhdy wrote something that tried to explain what we should have been talking about.  And the first author eventually said that if he wasn’t going to be able to exert the power-over position that was his birthright, then he was out of here.


Then, from my perspective, it got worse.  Author #2 posted an “apology,” such as it was, to some other people who she had been arguing with for weeks.  As for me, I got a slap in the face.  She quoted author #1and applauded that quote, which included this little bit:

So instead of actually discussing the idea I am trying to articulate, … moral advantage (is sought) by harping on my terminology.  Basically, the ‘OMG! I can’t believe he said that!’ approach.

So his vision of me as someone “seeking moral advantage” by claiming the temerity of addressing him as an equal is accepted as a fait accompli and spread even further among the blog members, many of whom no doubt accepted that as fact.

That’s where powerlessness comes from.  That is how it is maintained.

And someone else said that people in the traditionally powerless position just needed to toughen up.  Because it is very easy to “toughen up” if you wake up every morning with the culture assigning you the power to do so.

The piece goes on…and on and on…as did her piece from before, changing the subject to banning words, something which was never suggested.  But that’s an easy way to avoid talking about the power.  And no matter how much I tried, I could not return the discussion to the initial one.  Because that is what happens when someone cannot invoke power-over.  We’ll talk about what you deign worthy of talking about instead of what we think is important.

And I should mention the red herrings of context and intent.  I may as well address them while I am here.

Does intent matter?  Of course it matters.  But it is not a Get Out of Jail Free card.  If you hurt someone with the words you use to express your thoughts, you still hurt them.  “I didn’t mean it” doesn’t take away the sting.  Acknowledging that there was hurt caused by the words is soothing.  Defensiveness pours salt in the wounds.  If someone tells me I hurt them with what I said, I listen.  I certainly don’t tell them they shouldn’t feel hurt.

And that context thing?  That thing where I am supposed to completely understand the context in which you use your words, that context being your life and how you see things and what you were thinking about when you said them?  Here’s a question:  as a reader, am I supposed to disregard the context of my life?  Is it unimportant?  Is this another way of asserting power-over?  Is the writer in no way obligated to read what is written from the point of view of those who may be in the audience?

Sigh.  I said this morning this was going to be a ramble.  I write my Sunday pieces on Sunday morning so don’t take as much time on them as I do the pieces I write for Fridays, the ones I write to illuminate my point of view to the potential authors here, in the hopes that maybe it will have some affect on things like thoughts and language choices.  On Sunday it’s more just stream of consciousness, prose written like my poems, which I spend an embarrassingly little time writing.

Even wandering has to stop somewhere, so I’ll end it soon.

I think pushing the personal buttons was just a freebee, something I have to live with because I do write about myself.  By telling people so much about me, I also tell what my buttons are and how they are so easily pushed.

I write autobiography.  I thought people knew that when I came here.  I write about ideals and concepts and progressive issues through the only lens I’m allowed to use within the constraint of our “common” language, which is the lens of my life.

Or common language does not acknowledge that I exist.  If we are not allowed to negotiate language, I am…we are…denied the chance to change the society into something that will accept me/us.

The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.

–Audrey Lorde

Some people find the master’s tools sacrosanct, in the name of Freedom of Speech.  Your freedom to say anything debasing about me that you wish is codified in law.

Am I even allowed, on my part, to ask you why you would want to?

Ah, gees, there I went on, just talking about me.  Self-obsession is a hardy foe.

But the thing is, I’m not writing to express my moral advantage.  I’m rather hoping to establish yours.  I always have hoped that and I always will.


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    • Robyn on June 29, 2008 at 8:02 pm

    The photo is the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, just south of Beale Street..  I was in the room when it first opened to the public, before the museum part was even there.

    Perspective is a powerful thing.  The ability to see through the eyes of another takes a lot of hard work, patience, and willingness to learn.  And it requires us to acknowledge being wrong some of the time, but the patience to keep trying.

    Above all, it requires the desire to be able to develop the ability rather than the snap-judgment that it can never be done.

    Then there is the question of whether we at a progressive blog would think it better to understand the perspective of those who have the power or those who don’t.  I know where my attention lies.


    • kj on June 29, 2008 at 8:08 pm

    just to laugh.  i love these sentences. 🙂

    I made a cultural faux pas at that point.  I assumed a position of equality in order to point out that he was invoking his power and presumed to try to educate him about his choice of words.  

    • kj on June 29, 2008 at 8:17 pm

    just to get mushy for a second.  mush to you.

  1. I’m going to get all self-obsessed and whiny.

    I thought I was done crying about all this. But here I am again…

    Thank you for the tears. They are full of meaning.

  2. This is a powerful essay, pardon the pun.

    How do you teach people to study the dynamics of personal power relationships?  Usually the people who need to understand this the most are the ones who shut their minds to it.  In other words, the people in power, or who benefit from that power.

    I love what you have to say, it has illuminated my entire spirit and I thank you.

    • Alma on June 29, 2008 at 9:01 pm

    evolution on the power of words. (I know thats not what this essay is about Robyn ;))

    Most of the words that degrade and hurt people, weren’t meant to do that at their origination.  Hateful and fearful people twisted their original meanings around.

    I used to think that we should take the original meanings back from those who use them as slurs.  It took me awhile to figure out that theres no going back, because the hurt has already been done.

    I don’t always know the proper term to use about things, but the last thing I want to do is hurt someone, so I’m glad we have people here that will let one know if one is being offensive.

  3. on both the big scale and the personal level are perhaps the least understood dynamic that we deal with on a daily basis.

    Especially by the people who wield the power.

    For some reason, though, people who are on the short end seem to be willing to do the work to understand it.

    The privilege of not having to look at how privilege works is perhaps the greatest privilege of all.

  4. The photo stopped me.  To me, that will always be the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.  Every time I look at it it tears me up.  Sorry to self obsess.

    I’m not writing to express my moral advantage.  I’m rather hoping to establish yours.  I always have hoped that and I always will.

    Thank you.

    • Viet71 on June 29, 2008 at 10:50 pm

    Hey, Robyn.  You can be who you want.  IMO.

    Guess that applies to everyone here.

    I’ve got issues, like everyone, but they’re my issues.

    Prefer a good, clean debate but will accept messiness.

    No need for emotions in a debate, except for emphasis.

    • pfiore8 on June 29, 2008 at 10:51 pm

    i have no problem with disagreements. fierce disagreement. what i can not abide is the dishonesty in the portrayal of what happened.

    here’s the link to the back and forth between us.

    and, for the record, you’re the one who said “twice as good”:

    I pretty much read your comment the same way, pf8.  (4.00 / 5)

    I went looking to source this quote, but it’s probably lost in antiquity:

       I have to be twice as good in order to be taken half as seriously.

    The cutting of slack is uneven.  You expect more of me why?

    When all is said and done, what really matters is whether or not you are happy.

    by: Robyn @ Thu Jun 26, 2008 at 14:14:44 PDT

    but maybe you do Robyn (4.00 / 2)

    what we think people should be isn’t always what they are

    transgender issues are important to YOU, not Night Owl. so maybe you do have to work twice as hard. maybe that’s the way it is. but i’m thinking that we, who think the world can be a better place, are all working twice as hard along with you.

    the playing field was never even.

    Well the first man comes along that can read Latin is welcome to rob us, far as I’m concerned. I’d like a chance t’ shoot at a educated man once in my life. Gus McCrae, Lonesome Dove

    by: pfiore8 @ Thu Jun 26, 2008 at 14:35:57 PDT  

  5. … I have no specific idea what this essay is about … but this power-over stuff seems like teh suck.

  6. the shit here but the word hermaphrodite is actually to me a beautiful ancient word. It consists of the male Herma and the female Aphrodite, two opposites sharing the same body. The yin and yang in one form. Having missed the ensuing brouhhahah, and tuning out of the thread at the point you came in which made me go OH OH not again, I figured why continue, this is going to be nothing productive not at all enlightening for any place I want to be. I or Night Owl may hate identity politics but we are not your enemy Robyn.

    I do not hate your identity I find it most informative most entertaining and helpful as your experiences run the gamut.I identify on all levels, my sexual one, my political one, my social one, my human one. I find it makes your art universal. I find Night Owls pretty expansive also. As a male he is pretty amazing and as a human too. Power is sought by both of you and although you may have eschewed your gender roles to a liberating personal height, you still have a lot of the yang, the power yourself. We all pay dearly for our ‘abnormal’ lives here. I lost my children for a time because I was a dirty hippie and a powerless woman with a big mouth.

    So I’m saying “Come on people smile on your brother (and sister) everybody get together try to love one another right now.” We are all a mix of everything and to only identity with that which we perceive ourselves to be  only limits our lives and our ability to realize where all in the fucking same boat. Peace and if you get a big hate on for me I still love you your art and what ever you have to say.            

    • Viet71 on June 30, 2008 at 3:01 am

    My suggestion:  Let’s return to reason.

    I love the fights.

    But really regret they have cost this site edger and geomoo.

  7. I think it is the obligation of those of us with the privilege to work to hear those who have been marginalized…and not the other way around.

    that was NL’s comment from a previous essay.

    Now, here’s what I think is key, specifically how it relates to Robyn: I’ve never thought of Robyn being marginalized here. She’s one of our main voices. It’s good to know, for the real world, what we might want to avoid saying, but here, at this site, there is no marginalization and no reason to react as if this were the outside, day to day, talking, seeing, speaking life.

    We have neighbors across the street, a group of renters so occasionally a person or two will move in who the others don’t know. There’s a point here… A couple moved in and one accused the other of violence. What convinced the household who was the violent one was when the one who’d been accused would occasionally flinch when spoken to.

    How the rest of that played out isn’t important here. It’s the fact that that person flinched when it wasn’t necessary to. When one has been subjected to violence, physical or mental, it’s hard to get past the flinching stage, even when it’s safe and there’s no need for it.

    So I don’t see any of this as a power thing or a control issue. I see it as a disagreement. I see it as some people being less sensitive to others and some people taking offense where none is given.  

    • kj on June 30, 2008 at 5:26 am

    here, Robyn.  what has yet to be seen, on either an individual or a collective level, about the power of words and the power of self-definition and the power of words to marginalize and dismiss self-definition, not to mention accountability, personal or otherwise, has removed scales from my eyes that i didn’t know where there.

    the collective is in worse shape that i thought, and i haven’t  thought much of the collective for several years now, lol!

    okay, back to Dune.  the Sleeper Shall Awaken.  even the one who didn’t know she was asleep.  there’s one, anyway!  it wasn’t all for naught!  although my message and method of delivery will need re-honed.  perhaps this is what i’ve been looking for all along. because i see it, i see it. i didn’t before.

    • kj on June 30, 2008 at 6:09 am

    comment, made for binary posterity:

    “We don’t know what we know until we live it.”

    ~~paraphrased from the poet Kabir.

    Thanks, Robyn.

    • frosti on June 30, 2008 at 6:58 am

    Some disagreements here would not be expressed face to face in polite company.  

    Some take offense when none is intended.  It sounds like a bit of self-righteousness.  Remember that other people do not know you well, don’t know your past and know little about your overall beliefs.

    • frosti on June 30, 2008 at 8:19 am

    I try to remember that though I read what people write, I don’t know how they act, gesture, laugh– whether they are quiet or loud, quick to laugh or to be upset, etc, in reality.

    I know that Robyn has given of herself quite a bit over these months, but not everything, or at least everything from my perspective as I remember it.  I am her sister.  The thing I fear the most would be potential for her to withdraw, as I have witnessed it before. Into her room, for years.  This is why people need to be gentle with one another.(Well, and this would be a good time to say that we don’t always know things that people choose not to disclose–I had no knowledge of any of these gender issues as a younger sibling).

    Also, I think many in my family, including myself, could be accused of seeing things a little too black and white, and also could be accused of objecting too strongly that life is not fair.  I used to think it was or should be, but by now I have given this up.  Things are not fair, though we can appreciate each other’s differences and  treat each person fairly.

    I mostly was trying to say that Freedom of Speech is important, but so is judgment on appropriate use of speech. Words hurt. Apologies for unintentional misuse of words matter. Apologies should be accepted. Move on.

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