Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Definitions Belong to the Definer, Not the Defined: What We're Talking About as We Talk About Ferguson

Clever, but schoolteacher whipped him anyway, to show him that definitions belonged to the definers—not the defined (Tony Morrison, Beloved [NY: New American Library, 1987], p. 190).

Questions for you:

Who gets to shoot an unarmed teenager six times, twice in the head, and who gets to lie face-down in the street in a pool of blood for hours?  
Who gets to determine who plays whom in predictable dramas in which the complexion of the shooter and the complexion of the body lying prone on the street never vary?

Fenton Johnson:

It is the prerogative of power to take its way of being for granted. Power defines itself in its setting of the terms of the encounter (Keeping Faith: A Skeptic’s Journey [Boston/NY: Houghton Mifflin, 2003], p. 182). 

Who has the right to do what to whom: that's what we're talking about. Who gets to construct the human story of other human beings in a demeaning and reductionistic way? And who gets to be so constructed, to have her or his human story determined, reduced by skewed, carefully chosen and very partial fragments of narrative supplied by the one wielding guns, tear-gas canisters, and other symbols of power? 

Questions for you:

Who gets the right to shoot an unarmed teenager — six times, twice in the head — and then ignore the pleas of a nurse to administer CPR to that teen? And who gets the unenviable task of being that teen?    
Who gets the right to be handed a treasure-trove of high-powered weapons (weapons handed out like toys, like candy), and to point these at others? And who would be shot dead on sight if he dared to display such weapons or point them at others?

Constructing the human story of other human beings in a demeaning and reductionistic way is an act of violence in and of itself. Even apart from considerations of actual physical violence visited by the definer on the defined, it is already an act of violence to reduce the complex, nuanced human story of another person to the preformed narrative of the one who arrogates to himself the rights of defining. The one with the treasure trove of weapons, the canisters of tear gas and cans of Mace . . . . 

More questions:  

Who gets the right to release inculpatory videos of someone alleged to be a young man whose body recently lay for hours prone in the street after he was shot six times, twice in the head?   
And who gets the right, after he has shot that young man to death,  to go into hiding?   
Whose story (bits and pieces, that is, carefully selected details chosen by the definer and not the defined) gets to be blared to the world, and whose name is withheld for a week before being released after he killed the defined? 
Who gets to be turned into an object (and an object lesson) for the whole world to scrutinize in a single grainy video, and who gets the right to scrub the internet of all traces of his and his family's history for the week in which his name is being withheld from the public?  
As the young unarmed man shot six times, twice in the head, is objectified and as we are asked (without even knowing him) to pore over aspects of his history (Did he steal? Did he use drugs?) that justify his being shot down like an animal — or so it's implied —  who gets the right to have his complex human story concealed, kept from any scrutiny at all?

Because the act of constructing the narrative of others' lives as demeaned objects is already an act of violence, the customary response when those who have long been objectified in this reductionistic way demand the right to be subjects and not objects in their own human drama is more violence. Those who have long assumed that they are by divine right the definer and others the defined predictably react to any demand of the defined to define their own human dramas by heaping violence on top of violence: more violence to reinforce the initial violence of the superimposed narrative itself, the narrative set in place by the definer to interpret, control, and dismiss the intricate human lives of those he has chosen to define. 

 Questions to ask ourselves: 

Who gets to build a pen and put other human beings there? And who gets to be penned?  
Who gets the right to point guns at those in the pen, threatening to Mace them or tear-gas them if they try to leave their pen? Who gets to be penned? 
Who gets to engage in these actions while wearing no name tags? And who is expected implicitly to obey the commands of the gun-wielding anonymous public servants who built and control the pen? 

When the right of the definer to define is in any way challenged by the defined, the definer customarily responds by seeking (often, as brutally as possible) to shove the humanity of the one he has long defined back into the pen he has created for her or him. If the defined continue to resist, the definer then usually reacts by adding weapon to weapon, by multiplying the weapons used to demonstrate his right to define. 

Weapons which  demonstrate that the goal of the definer in defining the humanity of the defined was always violent, from the outset . . . . Weapons which demonstrate that the goal of the definer in defining the humanity of the defined was always to glorify and exalt himself at the expense of the vilified other . . . . 

When the long defined begin to demand the right to define themselves, the definer may (the definer will) do things like this: he may (he will) display and deploy the massive arsenal of weapons at his disposal to induce shock and awe in those he reserves the right to define. He may (he will) inform citizens assembled peacefully in the streets of their own community that they have the right to such assembly only if they keep moving, stepping to the capricious, ever-shifting commands of the definer. Who carries guns to reinforce his commands . . . . 

He may (he will) place journalists monitoring all of these actions in a pen of his own designing, threatening to do bodily harm to those journalists if they do not obey his commands, if they step across the boundaries he has created for them, if they demand to know his identity — which he has concealed by removing his name tag, though he is a public servant. Just as the officer who shot the unarmed young man — six times, twice in the head — and left his body lying face-down in a pool of blood for hours was allowed to conceal his identity for a week before his name was disclosed . . . . A week that allowed him further to erase traces of his identity from the internet . . . . 

This is what we're talking about this week in America. When we're talking at all, that is to say, and not cheering for the hyper-militarized shock and awe that portend the doom of the kind of democratic polity that permits us conversation necessary to sustain a democratic community . . . . Since, though that shock and awe may have been designed to assure that "they" remain in "their" places, it will inevitably point its massive arsenal of weapons at us, too — the pillars of the community, those on whom all definition hinges — if we demand the right to keep talking when it tells us to remain silent.

The graphic is from the report of Dr. Michael Baden on his autopsy of Michael Brown's body, as published in the New York Times.

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