Crossposted from my political blog, because it’s relevant to writing, too.
I was having a discussion last week, about how the privileged don’t get to decide what is or is not oppression. I shared a meme on facebook, and it started one of the most thought-provoking arguments I’ve had. Only, it wasn’t our discussion of the meme itself that provoked thought.
The reader (my friend Aly) and I simply could not agree on the literal definition of the word ‘decide’ as used in the meme, even after referring to the dictionary. Now, Aly is someone who keeps me honest. She fact-checks, she analyzes my writing for political bias, she is forever infuriating me in ways I find absolutely invaluable, because my every disagreement with her hones my rational and rhetorical faculties and my ability to stay on target in a discussion. So the idea that we still couldn’t get together on what a word as straightforward as ‘decide’ meant really threw me for a loop. It was wild and unforeseen, and I was having a really bad day, so my overwhelming impulse was to throw the conversational equivalent of a kidney punch at her and storm out, clothed in righteousness and mighty in victory.
Thankfully, I instead managed to step back, wait, and compose myself. And I’m really grateful I did, because, well, my righteousness was one of those new imperial garments. Not much there.
Aly and I were literally not speaking the same language, pulled apart by lived experience, a force more powerful than anything Merriam & Webster have in their arsenal. When we got into it again, acknowledging each other’s honest confusion and good will, exploring as a team the source of our trouble, we found that the phrase “you don’t get to decide” was one that had been weaponized against Aly, used to shut her out of conversations. The definition was still the same, but the deployment was way different. To me, decide still lives down the block from its dictionary cousins ‘resolve’ and ‘conclude.’ The power of decision is the power of authority – “you don’t get to decide” didn’t mean “shut up and sit down,” it meant “you’re not the boss of me.” It meant, “you are not in control of this conversation. You do not get to set the terms.” It meant not, “the conversation is done,” but “the conversation is NOT done.”
So of course, when I hear “you don’t get to decide,” I cheer, hearing assertive defiance of unfair power. And I do believe that’s what the meme meant. But Aly heard “you are forbidden from speech,” and naturally, Aly’s just as tired of people shutting her up as I am of people shutting me up (maybe more).
We don’t get to decide what decide means. The definition is written in the dictionary of our lives. So let’s not shut each other up. Let’s keep talking, keep listening, keep defying authority, keep surrendering our authority, because the discussion we have becomes more powerful for every argument that becomes, instead, two people together raising a lantern to look for the truth.