So, I recently read this book, that I saw someone mention either on LJ or on one of the blogs I read. I read the title and the description and I said to myself, “Self, I think it would be beneficial if you would read that book.”
So, you know, I got myself a copy. The book is Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts and it was absorbing reading and I recommend it.
So the “hidden transcripts” this book is talking about are the things groups of people don’t say in public. In the case of the powerful, these are things that, acknowledged openly, would undermine their claims to power and authority. And in the case of the less powerful, they’re things that can be downright dangerous to say in the hearing of the powerful. Sometimes the hidden transcripts of the less powerful become visible, for various reasons, but mostly they don’t make it into histories, they don’t get officially acknowledged. Because that’s kind of the point.
So, very little of what the author presents is particularly new to me–I’ve had varying amounts of power, relative to various other folks in my life, and I’ve seen the hidden transcript thing in operation. None of the examples surprised me at all. Mostly what I liked about this book was the way it connected things together–like, I already knew this and this and this–did it occur to you that these were connected in this way? And gosh, it should have because that makes so much sense.
For instance, the author points out a thing that of course I’d noticed–that (relatively) more powerful groups often consider less powerful groups to be unreliable, shifty liars. It almost doesn’t matter what less powerful groups you pick, right? The author here suggests that it’s due to the fact that the more powerful can see that the “public transcript” isn’t all there is–usually when a hidden transcript pops into view, it’s veiled or deniable, but sometimes it’s obvious there’s more to what someone is saying or doing, no matter how veiled, no matter how plausibly or strenuously denied. But they don’t actually have any access to the subordinate group’s hidden transcript. And for various reasons there’s no percentage in admitting the existence of that hidden transcript (see above, undermining legitimacy). How to resolve this problem? Easy! That class of people are just naturally dishonest.
“I should totally have thought of that myself,” says I. Because I should have. But I didn’t.
So, another thing the author points out–or at least that I came away with–is that when you ignore the hidden transcript of a subordinate group, those moments when that transcript becomes suddenly, plainly visible–someone finally snaps and tells off someone more powerful, or a whole group of the less powerful up and revolt–those times when that happens quite literally make no sense if you don’t know about or acknowledge the existence of the hidden transcript. Now, because of who writes history, those hidden transcripts just don’t show up. So you get stuff like theories about how crowds can be whipped into a hysteria or whatever. Without acknowledging the existence of that entire back-channel, there’s no way to acknowledge the agency of the people in that crowd. So you get theories of how these things happen that do not attribute agency to the people who are acting. It’s mass hysteria, it’s the madness of crowds, it’s people being whipped up. *
And I thought to myself, “Self, that’s like Wossname you used to know, who had married three or four times and every single time, after however many months or years of wedded bliss, his wife would just all of a sudden inexplicably lose her mind. Completely out of the blue!”
And then I said to myself, “Self, this is making me think of all the “witch hunt” and “lynch mob” comments I’ve seen lately.”
It used to be all this stuff was back-channel. If you were a cis, white, straight guy, you could go your whole life and never see that hidden transcript out in the open. You never had to, and like as not the non-cis, non-white, non-straight, non-guys around you never really let on, because it wasn’t safe. I mean, like, physically safe. But things are changing a bit, and some of those groups who would never say anything aloud before? Are now saying things aloud. And since you (cis, white, straight guy that you are) don’t know of or admit the existence of those hidden transcripts, what could it possibly be except agitators, mass hysteria, the madness of crowds whipped into a killing frenzy by…uh…somebody?
There’s more to dig into, there–like, actual witch hunts and lynch mobs weren’t actually something the less powerful ever did to the more powerful, and like, there’s something about a member of a relatively powerful group framing the deliberate actions of one relatively powerful group against a less powerful group as being without agency (hit publish instead of preview by mistake. Edited to add–framing it as without agency so you can compare it to the powerless defending themselves from the more powerful) that’s just messed up. But that’s beyond what I’m up for right now.
No, what I’m intrigued by is the idea of the invisibility of the hidden transcript. The fact that this anger has been there for ages, I’ve been seeing it plainly all this time, and seeing hints of it from groups I’m not a member of, but it’s only ever been behind scenes–whispers to avoid this or that guy, complaints and commiseration in more or less safely private places, just seething in furious silence because you just can’t safely speak. We’ve been soaking in it all our lives, some of us, women and PoC and folks who are LGBTQ, or some or all of the above. So it’s genuinely baffling when someone’s response to actually seeing that anger is “Wait, this must be mass hysteria! This is a mob and you know how mobs work!” Because we know it’s really just the obvious outcome of the anger we’ve been living with all our lives–but they’ve never seen it and apparently don’t really believe it exists. *
This is something I’ve felt for a while, whenever I run up against that “but this is just a lynch mob!” thing. I just couldn’t articulate it, why it was so baffling and wrong, why the people saying it couldn’t even begin to imagine that all these people are angry because they’ve got a good reason to be and it’s been there all this time and just got too much for people to contain, or people have found themselves in a place where maybe they won’t be hurt too catastrophically if they express it. The people crying “witch hunt!” can’t even imagine any other way to process it except to dismiss it. Because to acknowledge the hidden transcripts is to begin to undermine exactly what keeps them in the position they’re in.
Not a world-shattering insight, I guess. But that’s kind of what I got out of this book–nothing in it was exactly mind-blowing, but when I was done reading, some things just made a lot more sense.
*Note to self–this same set of assumptions is perhaps inseparable from the ever popular “What these people need is a honky” plot.
**This works, of course, wherever you’ve got groups with relative power differences, so even though women have their own hidden transcripts with regard to men, when white women catch sight of WoC’s hidden transcripts, the reaction is often much like when men catch sight of women’s. Or, you know, any other set of groups with an obvious power imbalance between them. “So,” I say to myself, “Self, don’t go feeling smug because you know all about it cause you’re a woman but when they do it, they’re just a mob.”