The Manipulative Power of ‘You Understand’

Pussy Riot's Nadya Tolokonnikova at a TimesTalk on May 14, 2018. Credit: YouTube

Live journalism serves a few different purposes. It can seek to engage an audience directly in the process of producing journalism, sometimes as a means to combatting mistrust for the profession. It can seek to break news, live, on a stage.

At a TimesTalk featuring Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova and performance artist Marina Abramovic on in Midtown Manhattan on May 14, Melena Ryzik did a little of both.

Tolokonnikova spoke of a recent visit to the city jail at Rikers Island and her horror at the conditions at what she described as a penal colony in the middle of “supposedly progressive” New York. She found them, to her shock, worse that those in Putin’s jails. The pair of artists teased a potential forthcoming collaboration, perhaps stemming from a plan they have to work together on May 27. And at Abramovic’s urging, Ryzik screened two Pussy Riot videos, at least one of which was being displayed for the first time.

But the most powerful moment for me was when Tolokonnikova described what sounded like the watershed experience of her life as an activist. At age 13, she wanted to be a political journalist and write about environmental issues. She lived in a small northern town where the snow was always black due to pollution from the industrial business that the town was essentially organized around. She went to the local paper with an investigation into “who is responsible for making black snow,” and was told by the editors — who she said she’d written for before — that the story was good, but “you understand, we can’t publish it.” The company that was responsible was too powerful to challenge.

“‘You understand’ — that’s the keyword in Russia. ‘You understand,'” Tolokonnikova said.

Here is an image of a 13-year-old idealist being enlisted to participate in her own oppression. “You understand” is a phrase used to inure us to our own oppression, and make us complicit in the oppression of others. It draws us into the system that oppresses; tells us that we are already part of it; suggests that to reject it is simply to not get it. The implication is that to not understand is to somehow be lacking, to be not as smart as we would be if we understood. The young don’t understand, by their very nature. That is part of their power. They are not yet indoctrinated into the performance of the system; their powers of perception and inclination to question has not yet been eroded by years of bumping up against oppression both subtle and overt.

I thought of this when I saw the writer Quince Mountain’s description on Twitter of growing up trans. “To be trans is to grow up with a persistent and overwhelming sense of being lied to by those around you and a sense that those around you demand your wholehearted participation in that lie,” he wrote.

I thought of it again when reflecting on conversations with women abused by politicians. Women cajoled to participate in the continuation of their abuse, cajoled by agents of a system to preserve that system, agents who believe that the system is invaluable and the men who comprise it are, too. I thought of a line from Emma Gray’s Huffington Post essay after New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was accused of intimate partner violence by four women, one of whom he was simultaneously using to build his reputation as a feminist ally: “Thus the victim would be made to participate in the invention of the alibi.”

I thought about struggles I’ve had to convince editors that a woman’s story is deserving of consideration on its own, even if she is not accompanied by other victims. I thought about people who dismiss corruption because “everyone does it,” and “that’s the way it is” or because our laws are flawed, so bad acts aren’t actually illegal. I thought about all the times I’ve heard, “you understand,” and nodded.

Then I thought about the energy I got from teaching journalism students this year, from their almost unconscious rejection of the system we’ve become conditioned to accept as “just the way it is.” And I thought about Tolokonnikova’s assertion that resistance and activism is not something that is ever finished, that we ever achieve to some conclusive end. “You’re never going to get there finally, but that’s the beauty of human life, I think… It’s an everyday struggle,” she’d said. Ryzik had helped summarize for her: “Being a citizen is a daily exercise.” Agreeing, Tolokonnikova added, “You cannot win. You cannot lose. You have to keep working on it it, you have to find new ways every day… That’s a daily job.” Likewise, I realized, resisting the power of “you understand” is a daily practice.

Near the end of the event, Abramovic took issue with a question from an audience member who apparently had read some misinformation about an upcoming performance. She used the Trumpian phrase “fake news” twice, to raucous applause from the audience and my dismay. I thought back to Tolokonnikova’s statement earlier in the discussion that “artists should develop new languages to help other people, new languages that are not mainstream languages,” and was disappointed that Abramovic would perpetuate the use of language meant to sow mistrust and discord among a polity. It seemed less like resistance and more like another form of “you understand.” I remembered the Tolokonnikova’s statement on language: “We are not alive; we are dead if we are using the language that was given to us.”

And I remembered Tolokonnikova’s anecdote this week amid now-regular calls from conservatives and liberals alike for liberals to be nicer to bigots, to be more “civil.” When people — including Julia Ioffe, who later apologized — questioned why news outlets were following around a lawyer who threatened to call immigration on two women speaking Spanish, I thought of how these calls for “civility” seem to be veiled calls for complacency, or even complicity. For silence. I heard “you understand” in these calls. You understand why it’s better to be polite, to be quiet, to be “civil.” Stop resisting. You understand.