A couple of years ago I wrote a post on another website about defensiveness, which, if nothing else, proved that I’m never going to be able to get the spelling of defence/defense consistent.
Defensiveness is still on my mind so I thought I’d repost it with an otter-dog strip to add to the conversation. Hilariously, I now think the post below is a bit defensive. Or perhaps that is appropriate.
The delusional narrative of the overdog
The thing that has always stuck with me from high school Classics about Socrates is that more people sentenced him to death than had voted him guilty of corrupting the youth in the first place. In his “apology” or “defence”, as the translation goes, because apology doesn’t mean that anymore, he had managed to piss his audience off so much that even though they had voted him innocent, they chose execution as his punishment. And yet, I admire this arsehole – this beautiful misogyner and forefather of Western thought. I can’t work out why I like Socrates’ defence when other similarly self-assured and self-important defences in the modern day repulse me. I put this down to him being the underdog. Despite being able to enforce the status quo he chooses to disrupt it. And he doesn’t get defensive. He, in Plato’s rendition, unapologetically asks to be rewarded for his search for knowledge and “corruption of the youth”.
Then the problem about the difference between a defense and defensiveness rears its semantic head. Surely, I shouldn’t be able to dismiss an argument because I find it defensive. This is complicated because there is so much unpleasantness in the world and on the internet and many people who come from a position of powerlessness have a reason for arming themselves against others, for being defensive. People without power expect to have to protect themselves because they are used to being attacked. The assumption of being attacked becomes the norm, rather than the exception. However, I feel like I’ve seen the most defensiveness from the overdog – people who are generally expected to succeed and have not faced the barriers of persecution the less privileged have experienced. They offer defensiveness when anyone points out inequality. The meaning of apology, for these people, doesn’t seem to have made it into the 21st century. But these are no Socrates. They do not pursue knowledge. Instead, like clams with scorpion tails, they hide any tenderness within stony walls and wildly stab and things they refuse to see, hear or understand. Clams, in my conception of them, have little sensory ability.
The problem with defensiveness from people who have power is that they are blindly trying to reinforce privilege that they often don’t even realise that they have. This makes sense to me. It is very hard to understand a problem exists if you have never been faced with it. This is another reason I love Socrates. He was ready to admit that he didn’t know anything. Defensiveness is the opposite of this. Defensiveness is a way of localising the argument, of making it about yourself. I am sure I am guilty of this in my own way. It is easy to feel accused and become a clam about it. In fact, I frequently do this in personal arguments with my partner. The problem is that being defensive when you are not being attacked in the first place is pretty undignified.
What I struggle to understand is why admission of power in any situation seems as anathemous as admission of liability. It’s like the ‘nerd entitlement’ thing that Laurie Penny discusses. Just because someone has experienced suffering, doesn’t mean that they don’t come from a position of power. It certainly doesn’t negate another person’s experience in the way that you would balance an equation. When my father told me that ‘girls can do anything boys can do’ it belied an underlying truth: That he was compensating for something. He, however unintentionally, was letting me know, in the most positive way that he could, that the world was not built for me. My father, very lovingly, admitted his power, while trying to deny its existence.
My theory for why people in power are instinctively defensive, is that narratives, or at least the narratives I’m familiar with, are obsessed with the underdog. The main character, usually a white man, has the odds stacked against him. No one in the story expects him to succeed, and yet, he does, because he can’t not. Even superheroes must be the underdog. They have a lot of societal and physical power but must be made emotionally powerless. Both Superman and Spider-man struggle with work-life balance. This enables the mediocre overdog in the audience to construct themselves in the position of the victim. When anyone who is not in power questions power structures or even makes a comment about finding their life hard they are usurping the position of the rightful underdog. “But I’m the underdog!” The powerful cry. “No one else can be. You can tell because all the stories say so.” I wonder if this is the ironic disadvantage of being a person in power – ending up with no authentic way to be the underdog and needing to construct one in order to possess the narrative power of the underdog in real life. Even if no-one was having a go at you in the first place. This is the true delusional disenfranchisement of the powerful. It isn’t about truth or discourse. It’s about winning.
I guess the problem is that the true underdog hardly ever gets to triumph in the end in the way that popular narrative implies. It seems to me that people with a legitimate non-defensive defenses to make, like Socrates, are painted into the villain’s corner. They are expected to be dignified when others will not show them the same courtesy. They are silenced through defensiveness and dismissal of the problem. More sentence them to internet death than said they were guilty in the first place, because how dare they question the overdog’s position as the underdog, the centre of the narrative universe.