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Verbal self-defense 2


I wanted to say a few more things about Suzette Haden Elgin’s system for ‘verbal self-defense’. The central idea she presents is that we can use language to create an abusive environment, or we can use language to create a non-abusive environment. Where the ‘self-defense’ comes in is when you’re in a situation with someone who is being abusive – there are some ways to feed the abuse or escalate it, and other ways to basically deprive it of oxygen.

Elgin has made an overview handout here.

I’m tempted to reproduce the handout and explain each piece, but I will trust that people who are interested can follow up. Instead I’ll just discuss two pieces, and their relevance to political work and debates.

The first piece is the main reason I stopped getting into long email debates except when there is a public forum and a very good reason, and it is from Elgin’s ‘Metaprinciples’:


A. Anything you feed will grow.
B. Anything you starve, smother, or neglect will fester or die.
C. Every language interaction is an interactive feedback loop.
D. The only meaning an utterance has in the real world is the meaning the listener understands it to have.
E. Mismatch is a warning sign; watch for it.

Elsewhere in her work Elgin discusses how verbal abusers get certain ‘rewards’ for what they do. They attack in order to elicit an angry response, in order to get your undivided attention, in order to shut you down or silence you or put you in your place. Any of these different responses is a reward to a verbal abuser, and hence ‘feeds’ the abuse. In my time, I have fed a fair amount of it, before I came across Elgin’s work and the simple statement that ‘anything you feed will grow’.

The other piece I want to discuss has to do with the benefit of the doubt. I am frequently amazed at how ready people who know each other reasonably well are ready to jump to the worst possible interpretation of what someone says. Accusations then follow. This particular problem could be avoided through the use of what Elgin calls ‘Miller’s Law’:


“In order to understand what another person is saying, you must assume that it is true and try to imagine what it could be true of.” (George Miller; 1980.)

Our tendency when we hear someone say something that strikes us as unacceptable is to assume that it is false and try to imagine what’s wrong with the person who said it. (As in: “That’s ridiculous! He’s only saying that because he’s stupid/biased/ignorant/trying to trick me/…” and so on.) This guarantees communication breakdown; instead, use Miller’s Law. The proper response when someone says, “My toaster has been talking to me!” is to give the speaker your full attention, ask, “What has it been saying?”, and then listen carefully.

Why do I think this matters for leftists? Two reasons. First, there is an intrinsic value here. We have all been verbally abused. Probably all of us have been verbally abusive at times. Removing this from our lives by not doing it ourselves would add a lot of quality to our lives, and some of that can be done now, without having to dismantle all the systems of power and oppression.

The second reason is that our society is so atomized and that alienation has deep effects, one of which I think is a craving for community, meaning, and intellectual stimulation. These are all things that leftists could potentially offer, do reasonably well, and cheaply. When people do have interactions – at work, with family or friends – these are often loaded and fraught with verbal abuse. If leftists could offer an environment free of such abuse, people would be attracted to it out of sheer relief. The reverse is also true. My own experience is that leftists are exactly as abusive as other parts of society. A bit less in some ways, a bit more in others. At times I have felt like left events were tests of endurance: if you can sit through two or three hours of this boring talk or meeting, sacrificing social or leisure time, you can really show you care. The result is leftists offer no relief from everyday pain and alienation, which means missed opportunities.

If folks are interested, I’d welcome comments about verbal attack experiences activists have had and Elgin’s system (esp miller’s law and metaprinciples).

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