Handing Us Over


It’s not the case that I feel unable to do all normal things since the election, but I have experienced confusion in doing normal things that are meaningful to me, including writing.

Lidia Yuknavitch said recently “Writing is just a different way to march.” I believe that. And, some writing I can do would be like me marching, and some would be more like taking a nice nap and pretending we aren’t where we are. (And, wherever you personally believe we are or are heading, I hope this compilation of 900 hate incidents in the 10 days after the election matters to you. Because jesus god.)

So on the one hand, I think all the writers and teachers are right that we just have to write our thing, whatever that thing is. And it’s also true that we have to write in the world we live in…and I don’t know how to write in this world yet, with doom and love and justice and resistance and fear in new proportions and relationships to each other. But here we go anyway, because what else can we do?

A word that keeps striking me in online writing lately is “betray.” Everyone’s been or will be betrayed by someone–this candidate by these voters, or the reverse, or these voters by these other voters, or people who didn’t vote at all. And to be clear, some of this resonates with me, particularly the betrayal of women of color by white women who voted for a man and a platform that views all women as less-than,  and women of color as even-less-than. I’m also aware of the moral dimension of this word–it carries an implicit “…and that’s bad,” so a proposition naming betrayal makes a moral claim about the world. Statements about “feeling betrayed” seek to circumvent this–we’re just expressing our feelings, and feelings can’t be “wrong,” so even though we totally are slipping in a moral claim about the world, we don’t have to admit it and we just get to be right. (There’s a whole set of ideas about how to not do this, called Non-Violent Communication or Compassionate Communication, which stresses the importance of only using words that actually describe emotional or physical states after “I feel…”).

Anyway: that’s just to note that it is not an uncomplicated word to be throwing around. So: what even is it?


Basically, we know all those definitions, but what’s interesting to me is where it started (recalling that the 1934 Webster’s International puts earliest uses first, rather than most prevalent ones), and how that connects to its etymology. Note the link to Latin tradere; we can’t really see it here, but tradere is its own whole thing. It mean“hand over” and comes from trans– (“across”) and dare (“give”).  The prefix be- in Middle English has a range of meanings but was often used as an intensifier, adding the sense of “thoroughly” to a verb, and that seems to be how it was used here (more if you want it). So “betraying” started off as “handing right the fuck over to the enemy.”

And that’s not as clearly a moral claim, actually. Your “enemy” is someone you believe is on the wrong side or something, but to say people are enemies doesn’t take a stand about one side being ethically superior. I think “betray” used in this way does have an implicit claim, but it’s a claim about vulnerability–handing me over to my enemy only matters if that enemy has the power to harm me. So when I play with interpreting modern uses of “betray” in this light, I find I can co-sign the ones where vulnerable people are exposed to greater danger as a result of the claimed betrayal–danger in terms of threat to material conditions in their lives.

This also helps me process what is shocking about the election for me. As many (including me) have argued elsewhere, certain expressions of shock about the election results read as blindness to the racism and misogyny (in particular, but also xenophobia, heteronormativity, ableism, and classism) that course through life in the United States. People whose material conditions are not constrained by these forces get to not really notice them, and then be shocked when their power is revealed. But as Erin points out, there is still something shocking about where we are now, and maybe this is one element of it: not that many of us are vulnerable, and not that vulnerable people have enemies who don’t even consider us to be full people, but that we handed vulnerable people right the fuck over to an enemy.


2 thoughts on “Handing Us Over

  1. To me, “reveal” is the most telling alternative definition here…we have revealed who we are with this election, whether or not it is a surprise.


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