What Gets Left Out of Conversations: Stephanie Zvan’s “Elisions”


I’ve decided that one weekday a week, I need to devote my time on working on my next books, and not write a whole new blog post. So for that day, I’m going to point to other blog posts that other people have written, comment on them briefly, and open them up for discussion.

A few days ago, Stephanie Zvan wrote an excellent piece called Elisions. I’ve been citing it a lot in comment threads, so I want to take a moment to post about it.

The gist of the piece: In discussions of sexist or sexually harassing incidents, when people say that feminists are over-reacting, they often leave out the very details that make the incident in question problematic. Quote:

It’s always fascinating to watch a tale be retold and see what gets left out. It says almost as much about the storyteller as what is left in.

In the case of the infamous elevator, sometimes all that has been left in is the coffee. Even the elevator itself is sometimes elided. The hours of opportunity for a single word of conversation generally disappear. Certainly all the hours of discussion of being tired of being hit on are gone. So is the expressed desire for sleep. That one never makes it into the story.

It’s not just conversations about sexism or harassment where this happens, of course. It happens in conversations about race, about class, about atheism. Homophobia. Transphobia. Etc. Pretty much any time people from a marginalized group speak out about their/ our marginalization, the story will get re-told in a way that omits the most pertinent details, the very details that form the foundation of the protest — thus making the protest look trivial and ridiculous.

Thoughts? Have other people noticed this? If so, what other examples have you seen? Will you now be linking to this piece every single freaking time someone says, “Sheesh, the poor guy just asked the woman for coffee”? Your time starts… now!

Comments

  1. John the Drunkard says

    Examples? Well…

    How about EVERY wife-beater?

    EVERY stalker?

    EVERY evolutionary psychologist rationalizer?

    I’ll stop there, plenty left for the next hundred comments.

  2. screechymonkey says

    This perhaps goes beyond a mere elision into flat-out distortion, but…

    the way that the italicized words have been dropped from the original fact that “D.J. Grothe claims that certain women bloggers have been saying TAM is dangerous.” Which then led to demands that these certain women bloggers PROVIDE EVIDENCE!!!!11!!!! for a claim they never made.

  3. says

    Other examples?

    Every right-winger and/or Libertarian who claims that the current laws are too restrictive while ignoring the history of how those laws came into being. Every discussion with said people where the propose a measure that will hurt people, and you call them heartless bastards for being eager to pass measures that hurt people, and they say you’re calling them heartless because of a “simple disagreement.”

    This has been my major grievance for YEARS AND YEARS AND YEARS AND YEARS.

  4. Yiab says

    It seems to me like this happens whenever one person disagrees with another over a story, rightly or wrongly. Part of it is that memory is imperfect (to put it mildly) and largely emotionally-driven, so if someone doesn’t empathize with, for example, the emotions expressed by Rebecca on relating the elevator story, they are likely to remember only the details they think are relevant, which are likely not to be the details relevant to the original teller.

    (By the way this is why I am always very hesitant to ascribe malicious intent when someone omits significant parts of a story.)

  5. says

    @karmakin

    McDonald’s coffee lawsuit

    That’s all I’m going to say about that.

    Possibly all anyone needs to say. I’ve actually seen someone claim that the woman was suing because she spilled her coffee and it stained her clothes and car.

  6. julian says

    Thoughts? Have other people noticed this? If so, what other examples have you seen?

    Improbable Joe took my example but it’s pervasive enough it couldn’t hurt to repeat it.

    Any discussion about laws, taxes and regulations with libertarians (here within the US. I can’t speak for abroad) goes this way. It’s understandable. Libertarians are opposed to unnecessary rules and fear what an oversized government/regulatory body could do to individual rights.

    But the concern is given a much higher priority than what it warrants based on likelihood and current needs. Yes we should do away with needless red tape, with over reaching rules and regulations that unnecessarily impede rights. That’s something you won’t get any argument from me over. But they need to actually be pointless/needless/overly cumbersome.

    If the red tape is there to prevent, say, bankers hiding fraud for half a decade, individual liberties (assuming they apply to organisations) lose importance. The reprecussions become so great it’s irresponsible to do away with the rule.

    And most realize this. Which is why they will never tell you the full scope of the issue. They ignore the complexity of the situation while accusing the opposition of over simplifying the problem! As if we haven’t considered what the potential rammifications are!

    We know. We, unlike them, understand all human interaction, all acts of governance, are a balancing act between different needs, priorities, ideals and peoples. That balancing act is done no favors by the libertarian approach to soceity. (again, here the US. Can’t speak for elsewhere.)

  7. Oenotrian says

    Firs example that comes to my mind was Crackergate. How many times was Webster Cook left completely out of the story?

  8. Erista (aka Eris) says

    God, yes, the McDonald’s lawsuit. To anyone who doesn’t already know what that’s all about, I offer this website.

    A few quotes

    *Coffee at that temperature [180-190 degrees Fahrenheit), if spilled, causes third-degree burns (the skin is burned away down to the muscle/fatty-tissue layer) in two to seven seconds;
    *Third-degree burns do not heal without skin grafting, debridement and whirlpool treatments that cost tens of thousands of dollars and result in permanent disfigurement, extreme pain and disability of the victim for many months, and in some cases, years;

  9. leftwingfox says

    Oh, I see this a lot.

    Take Tom Ball. Man burns himself on courthouse steps in NH, becomes martyr for the MRA. What the MRA constantly omit is that Tom Ball sent a final manifesto the the newspapers containing the following three points:

    1) He ADMITS to striking his infant daughter hard enough to split her lip in response to her licking his hand.
    2) Despite this, he blames the government for taking away his children rather than his own abusive actions.
    3) He calls for men, in response to this “injustice” to firebomb family courts.

    I have seen a large number of MRAs praise Tom Ball as a hero, but only a few will do so without eliding the contents of the manifesto.

    ————

    To be honest though, where I see this most is when celebrities or political figures screw up. Fans and supporters attempt to minimize those to make it seem more like a cultural transgression than a criminal/moral transgression.

    Worst of all, I don’t think this is limited to the political left-right spectrum. While authoritarian behaviour makes this far more prevalent on the right, I think there’s still a desire to preserve the political legacy or cultural achievements of the individual, even when they have crossed a moral event horizon. Julian Assange and Roman Polanski both come to mind.

    I don’t want to draw a false equivalency here, but rather to point out that improving our own behaviour when it comes to protecting the reputation of “our own” is a worthwhile goal we can strive for.

  10. says

    julian #7:

    And most realize this. Which is why they will never tell you the full scope of the issue. They ignore the complexity of the situation while accusing the opposition of over simplifying the problem!

    Eh, I think part of it might be the same sort of shot to the ego we give theologians when we tell them “that’s a bunch of bunk, provide your evidence”. They accepted a duel challenge and showed up dressed in a gladiator uniform only to find out that we actually own a gun, but they’re so invested in it they’d rather try to complain about how we used a gun and this is unfair (never mind that there was no rule banning guns in the first place) than accept defeat.

    What other example have I seen? Well, Improbable Joe put it fairly well at #3:

    Every discussion with said people where the propose a measure that will hurt people, and you call them heartless bastards for being eager to pass measures that hurt people, and they say you’re calling them heartless because of a “simple disagreement.”

    Only I’m not going to mince words here. My example is conservatives, who seem to be divided into two camps for this: one proposes the awful racist/sexist/classist/homophobic/transphobic/etc policies and actually tries to defend them, while the other jumps up and down throwing a condescending tantrum whenever someone points out bluntly that not only are those policies awful, they don’t work unless you’re already rich and this has in fact always been the case. This will be generally hidden behind dog-whistles like “tribalism” and “diversity of ideas”, as well as how liberals are “just as bad” despite the laundry list of right-wing awful right on up to not-very-subtle threats and even terrorism.

    Likewise, right-wing protests (like Tea Parties) don’t seem to raise too much concern from police and media, and even generally get treated fairly seriously. Left-wing protests on the other hand tend to get condescended to, dismissed when they don’t follow authoritarian narratives about ‘message’ and ‘leaders’, and conveniently are always visited upon by relatively small but violent black blocs who are (regardless of how much the protest group declares peaceful protest) used by the media to “balance” the police turning the protest into a war zone. Mainstream news tends to elide a lot of those little details.

    In fact, it seems to me that in general liberals and liberal viewpoints get this sort of unfair treatment in social justice debates, with the regressives claiming that anything else is unfair. I think the best example is the abortion debate, where anti-choicers spend most of their time trying to redirect the debate and terms to favor them, and raising hell when any pro-choicer decides to be all uppity and blunt about what anti-choicers are and do.

  11. Nurse Ingrid says

    Here is Tom Tomorrow’s excellent summary of the McDonald’s coffee story:

    http://www.thismodernworld.org/arc/1995/95-04-05-McDonald's-coffee.gif

    I was seated on the jury for a civil lawsuit in the mid-2000s, a good 10 years after this case. You guessed it, almost every potential juror had to answer questions about how they felt about the Infamous McDonald’s Coffee Blah Blah Blah. I was very irritated that they didn’t ask me that particular question, because I had a whole tirade ready to unleash. It’s not that I think there’s no such thing as a frivolous lawsuit, but what other options do we have for recourse when a big corporation is grossly negligent? Invisible hand of the marketplace? Please.

  12. says

    Actually, there’s even a specific example of libertarian dishonesty in the Elisions thread, since I had to deal with a libertarian in there.

    First post

    My response

    Their (non-)response

    All the libertarian does is elide all of the substance of what I was saying; they don’t address me so much as just not quote me so they can try to make it look like all I did was say “libertarians are just more mean righties” without any explanation, then proceed to condescend to me about how I don’t understand what libertarianism is. Because I said mean things about libertarianism, which is to say that I decided to dispense with the rhetoric and call it for the toxic privilege that it is.

    Another example, a self-identified conservative on the Litmus Tests thread here positing themselves as an “outsider”…and then throwing out not-so-thinly-veiled hints about how we’re divided, taking up social justice causes might make us just another leftist political organization, we’re just assuming that the regressives are always wrong, and of course that aforementioned phrase, diversity of ideas.

    Elided are the details about the regressive positions themselves, as well as any sort of evidence. Or, for that matter, even the fact that skeptics are supposed to be bound only to evidence, because apparently diversity of ideas is more important for skeptics than skepticism. At least, when skepticism might conflict with the poster’s ideology…

  13. 'Tis Himself says

    Setár #14

    I’ve had conversations with many libertarians who claim they hold both major American political parties in disrespect. Then when you ask who they’re going to vote for, it’s always the most far-right candidate available. Also while they claim to be anti-Republican, they spend all their efforts denouncing the policies of the Democrats and never find the time to say anything disdainful about the Republicans.

  14. notmyname says

    Setár #14

    All the libertarian does is elide all of the substance of what I was saying; they don’t address me so much as just not quote me so they can try to make it look like all I did was say “libertarians are just more mean righties” without any explanation, then proceed to condescend to me about how I don’t understand what libertarianism is. Because I said mean things about libertarianism, which is to say that I decided to dispense with the rhetoric and call it for the toxic privilege that it is.

    As the person who wrote that, I am not sure where you got my motives from…it was not from me. You also left out one of my responses to you. I did not quote you and go point by point because I did not want to fill up an otherwise interesting comment thread about something else with my correcting you about your understanding of libertarianism. If it is condescending to point out that I think you made a mistake, then fine I am being condescending. I also linked you (in the one of my posts you did not reference) to the actual tenet of libertarianism that I was referring to (as opposed to the one you made up).

  15. scrutationaryarchivist says

    When dealing with someone who uses these elisions, would it be a worthwhile tactic to interpret the elision as agreement?

    People don’t usually point out what they agree with when the reply, they usually only write about disagreements. So, would it work to start your reply to them by saying, “So you agree about X, and Y, and Z. That’s great!”

    Force them to say that they disagree with plain facts, or arrived conclusions. Force them to continue to talk about the things they really don’t want to talk about.

  16. says

    notmyname #16:

    I also linked you (in the one of my posts you did not reference) to the actual tenet of libertarianism that I was referring to (as opposed to the one you made up).

    You mean the tenet of libertarianism that is used to conveniently justify one of the most privileged positions of all, which is the removal of all taxes on the basis that we shouldn’t have to make people pay for the equal access to and upkeep of the society that they benefit from living in because that’s somehow an unacceptable use of force?

    I saw an entire thread on Pharyngula go down in the dust when one libertarian took it on themselves to try and say that taxes are force but finance somehow is not. I am not going to sink into playing those games here, sophisticated libertarianism and invisible “left-libertarians” be damned.

    If you want to save the face of libertarianism, go tell the Paulbots, Teabaggers and other hard-rightists to shut up, don’t whine at me for pointing out that the Paulbots, Teabaggers etc are defining libertarianism. By coming after me, not only are you letting them define libertarianism (like how ‘liberal’ Christians enable fundamentalists by turning their complaints at the atheists who point fundie idiocy out), you also look much more like a concern troll than someone who has an actual point.

  17. notmyname says

    You mean the tenet of libertarianism that is used to conveniently justify one of the most privileged positions of all, which is the removal of all taxes on the basis that we shouldn’t have to make people pay for the equal access to and upkeep of the society that they benefit from living in because that’s somehow an unacceptable use of force?

    No, I mean the one where it says I should intervene on the behalf of other people who are having foce used to compel their behavior. You know, the one I linked to. Though on that topic, at what point is a bully justified in coercing you to comply with something? Very few libertarians want zero government (and thus no taxes, just different taxes which are admittedly less progressive).

    …sophisticated libertarianism and invisible “left-libertarians” be damned.

    So the groups of people who agree with most of what you want…yeah damn those people, they are just awful.

    If you want to save the face of libertarianism, go tell the Paulbots, Teabaggers and other hard-rightists to shut up, don’t whine at me for pointing out that the Paulbots, Teabaggers etc are defining libertarianism. By coming after me, not only are you letting them define libertarianism (like how ‘liberal’ Christians enable fundamentalists by turning their complaints at the atheists who point fundie idiocy out), you also look much more like a concern troll than someone who has an actual point.

    When I see them say incorrect things I do correct them. Are you saying I am not allowed to attempt to correct you when you paint with too broad a brush (or are in error in some other way)? I should shut up because of other people, people we both disagree with…

  18. bad Jim says

    My candidate is the revisionist version of the Civil War (aka “The War of Northern Aggression”). Slavery, of course, had nothing to do with it.

  19. karmakin says

    The problem with Big-L Libertarian as a whole is that it doesn’t recognize power imbalance as another form of coercion, or it only does when it comes from an official government.

    The best example I can give for this, is that the lack of a universal health care programs gives employers more coercive power over their employees. This is an example on how a “bigger government” can result in more aggregate freedom for more people.

    The big deal here is we’re discussing the difference between negative freedom..that is focusing on government restrictions on freedom..and positive freedom..maximizing individual freedoms for as many people as possible.

  20. graeme says

    I think elisions are unavoidable in any storytelling.

    When relating a story you can’t include absolutely everything that occurs, so you have to stick to only the important or relevant details. Now, what you think are relevant details and what someone else thinks are relevant details are likely to be quite different.

    For me this often (always?) comes up when believers tell me about miracles that have happened. They will tell the story and then challenge me to explain how it could have happened without a miraculous intervention by god.

    My response is always that by the time they are telling me, the story is usually third or fourth hand, having been retold by people who very much believed that a miracle occurred.

    Without needing to suggest that any of them were deliberately lying, they will each have naturally played up the facts about the story that makes it look like a miracle, and played down those aspects that point away from a miracle as being irrelevant.

    I, therefore, find it impossible to unpick all of that from the beleiver’s description of the story to explain what really happened.

  21. Greta Christina says

    I think elisions are unavoidable in any storytelling.

    graeme @ #23: Of course that’s true. But which details are left out can be very telling. And if the details that get left out are the exact most pertinent ones, the very ones that make it clear why the the incident being described was troubling — and if this happens again and again and again — it reveals a pattern. Especially when it keeps happening with certain kinds of stories, about certain kinds of incidents, happening to certain kinds of people.

  22. graeme says

    Greta @#23

    Agreed. My reading of the piece was that you were saying that elisions were necessarily bad and only used to misrepresent.

    My bad.

  23. jackrawlinson says

    And of course, the elisions come from this side too.

    The extent to which elevatorgate became all about the elevator incident and not at all about Watson’s public call-out of Stef McGraw – which was, of course, what many of us were concerned about – was noted. As was the subsequent relentless and aggressive straw-manning and misrepresentation of any attempt to look even-handedly at that issue and the subsequent raging reports of harassment and sexism at conferences. This was a process of elision: ignore your opponents’ valid points; grossly distort and wilfully misinterpret any ambiguous ones. The constant refusal to offer the slightest respect to anyone not persuaded to march fully lockstep with the approved version of these events was also noted. The shameless hypocrisy of the vicious, near-hysterical abuse of dissenters by those complaining about abuse and harassment was, and continues to be, noted. We note also the relative silence from the righteous freethinkers about Greg Laden’s recent threat of physical abuse. We do not see large ranty blog posts filled with scorn and condemnation for that particular harasser. No, he has just been given a nice quiet exit from FtB.

    Yeah. Elisions. Matthew 7:3, as our biblically-inclined chums might observe at this point.

  24. Jeremy Shaffer says

    karmakin at 5 had a good one with the McDonald’s coffee lawsuit. Another good one involving a lawsuit is one Ronald Reagan would often tell about a California man that sued the telephone company after being struck by a drunk driver as an example of frivlous lawsuits and a need to tort reform. What Reagan always left out of that story was that the man receieved his injuries because there was demonstrable and long- running negligence on the part of the phone company to keep the phone booth he was in properly repaired that largely contributed to the man’s injuries. Ultimately, the man rightfully sued the phone company because they held fault.

    Another example of elisions was a Christian group that was arrested while protesting a gay pride parade years ago. While they were no doubt hateful and annoying, they didn’t seem to have done anything that would call for being arrested. At least, if you only went by what they said about it. If you looked at the incident in full you would have found that they were being highly disruptive and had been asked to stop by the police several times before any of them were arrested.

  25. julian says

    We do not see large ranty blog posts filled with scorn and condemnation for that particular harasser. No, he has just been given a nice quiet exit from FtB.

    Here’s a perfect example of elision.

    Ed Brayton has made it clear what happens in the back channel is largely confidential and not something he can just disclose without violating everyone’s confidentiality. There aren’t any long ranty posts following TF’s departure except for a couple that only rebuke accusations of silencing him.For the most part the bloggers have treated both men’s expulsion with the same level of difference.

    Going of jack’s description you would think it strange and a sign of hypocrisy instead of what it was, bloggers respecting each other’s privacy.

    There are other examples (the constant belittlement of people who did agree Stef McGraw got a raw deal, like myself and Ophelia Benson) but that’s the big one that jumps out at me.

  26. Cactus Wren says

    bad Jim @ 20: ACW revisionists usually like to put it in terms of “States’ Rights”. It wasn’t about slavery at all, it was about States’ Rights. I like to respond, “You’re right, of course. Some Northern states — notably New York — wanted to declare that there was no such thing as slavery within their boundaries: that any man or woman who set foot in that state became, by that simple act, a free person. The Southern states objected vehemently to any state claiming that right. That’s why, when the Confederate Constitution was written, it specifically incorporated a law that no Confederate state would ever have the right to forbid slavery. Because the Confederacy was so deeply concerned with States’ Rights.”

    Jeremy Shaffer @27: My very favorite elision was on the Usenet newsgroup talk.abortion some years ago: someone recounted a news story about a group of gentle, peace-loving Christians being arrested for reading the Bible. He went on to explain that this happened in a public park, and a group of people had gathered for a Bible reading, and the leaders were arrested for just reading the Bible.

    The elision in this case was the phrase, “through a bullhorn”.

  27. smhll says

    Ooh, also it hasn’t been that long since Rush Limbaugh elided out almost all of Sandra Fluke’s testimony about her friend whose hormonal birth control pills weren’t covered by Georgetown’s health insurance for students. Elided out were the part of the tuition money that pays for health insurance, the friend, the fact that the friend wasn’t fucking men, the cysts, and the ovaries, and the cost of the surgery to remove an ovary, and the impact on the friend’s future reproductive capabilities.

    A whole bunch of bullshit about how much sex is too much sex was “elided in”. (OK, bad usage.)

    Pretty sure Rush can win the title of Master of Elision once again this year.

  28. says

    Thanks for the link, Greta. I agree with some of the political examples given above (e.g. Improbably Joe @ #3).

    Some examples I think apply:

    When people try to give religion credit for civil rights, leaving out a) religious groups that were staunchly against civil rights, b) non-religious people who were in favor of it, and c) verses in their text which support discrimination.

    When people claim that women are wearing certain types of clothes (e.g. hijab, veil, and so on) voluntarily, leaving out consequences that these women would face if they decided not to wear it, anything from violence to being shunned from their families, which makes it difficult to determine who’s really doing so voluntarily and who’s being forced.

    When people want to be allowed to discriminate or deny medical services based on personal beliefs, and they claim this is an example of individual or states’ rights, leaving out the following:

    a) It would be the people who have the beliefs of the majority who would be allowed to discriminate. It’s unlikely, for example, that a Jehovah’s Witness would be allowed to deny blood transfusions to patients, since they’re a small(er) denomination, but certain evangelical Christians and Roman Catholics think they should be allowed to deny contraception, since they’re in the majority.

    b) Even when they want a law that would allow any person to deny services or discriminate based on their beliefs, they leave out demographic differences that would make this disproportionately more difficult for minorities.

  29. says

    Another one: the mainstream media and left-wing protests. MSM will gladly report about the “clashes” and “violence”, contrasting pictures of police violence with the ever-present black blocs.

    Elided:

    1) The “violent protesters” were disproportionately few
    2) The -police- turned the protest into a war zone
    3) Any unfair treatment from police towards protesters
    (and, possibly, 4) skepticism regarding the motives of the “violent protesters”)

  30. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven says

    Every conversation with my ex-wife about the past, ever, especially those that include the phrase “displaced homemaker,” though I’m often distracted by the changes in what is included.

  31. Eric O says

    I’ve certainly encountered this online, most noticeably in arguments about Elevatorgate. Admittedly, I don’t have the patience to argue about this subject anymore because I hate having to go over the details of the situation every single time someone brings it up

  32. says

    Ooh, also it hasn’t been that long since Rush Limbaugh elided out almost all of Sandra Fluke’s testimony…

    Not to mention that she wasn’t asking the taxpayer to pay for contraception, contrary to what Rush claimed (and probably knew to be wrong).

    Tell you what Rush, let’s implement single-payer health care in this country, and then you can complain about taxpayers having to foot the bill for contraception.

Leave a Reply