Deflection 101

I’ve talked a lot in these past few weeks about deflection. I’ve written about how it’s applied to derail meaningful conversations, and to protect wrongdoers. This is with good reason, as deflection is probably the most frequent and effective way in which oppression is not just perpetrated but preserved. However, it’s also one of the most insidious ways in which this happens, and one of the ones that we can feel the most pressure to excuse. So I thought that his week it might be somewhat useful to dive deep into deflection, to quickly study what it is, how it works, and what we can do about it.

The deflection playbook, so to speak, is actually a somewhat simple thing. It consists largely of one rule, applied over and over: make the  conversation about how you’re not the problem. When conversations about rape culture and casual sexism are sweeping through social media, we see deflection in the rise of the hashtag #notallmen, an attempt by men to distance themselves from casual sexism. When discussions of racial biases and the way these are rising up in our national discourse we see a fleet of apologist proclaiming that they aren’t racist, and that anyways, biases are completely normal! When talking about homophobic laws or business practices, deflection rears its ugly head once again by trying to divert discussion toward the first amendment and religious freedom. Over and over and over again we see deflection intruding into the national discourse in a way just as constant as it is frustrating.

The problems with it are also fairly obvious. After all, deflection stands squarely in the way of each individual person in society critically engaging with their own part. This creates a ripple effect, however, expanding outward from an individual denial of culpability to a cultural one. This, in turn, stifles any critical conversation around topics related to oppression. When we as a society deflect, we choose sacrifice the well-being of others on the altar of our comfort, trading our own peace of mind for the rights of those we aren’t biologically predisposed to care about.

So what’s the cure, then? The answer here is somewhat difficult, as deflection is a textbook case of emergence, the phenomenon in which a group becomes far greater than the sum of its part. Most individual people engaging in deflection don’t actually want to perpetrate systems of oppression; they want to distance themselves from an uncomfortable reckoning. However, large groups of people engaging in deflection together. The dream, if impractical answer to this conundrum is for people to be better, to accept having difficult  But of course, wishing on a star for us to be better people is both foolish and impractical. If we want to see actual change, perhaps we need to reframe the way that we talk about racism in popular culture, discussing it not as the sought-after result of the villainously cruel few but as the inevitable side-effect of the uncomfortable and lazy many many. I am, of course, not the first person to advocate talking about racism in this way, to suggest that considering it a force perpetrated less by conscious savagery than unconscious disregard could be a helpful tool for ending it. But perhaps the vocabulary of emergence can help shed some light on this topic, and help illuminate the path to a solution.

With excitement and optimism,

Alex