‘I sit on a man’s back, choking him …’

Here’s Leo Tolstoy describing the difference between nice and good:

I sit on a man’s back, choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am sorry for him and wish to lighten his load by all means possible … except by getting off his back.

Tolstoy reveals the hypocrisy  — the impossibility — of trying to exert power over someone else while still regarding oneself as a good person. To become a good person — a just or a loving person — in the scenario he describes requires one thing above all else: getting off the man’s back. None of that other business about assuring everyone “that I am sorry for him and wish to lighten his load” matters in the slightest.

But I think Tolstoy also shows us here part of why this is so difficult for the powerful to do. It’s partly that being carried by the labor of others is easier than carrying ourselves, but it’s also the fear that getting off of the man’s back will allow the man to retaliate. Justice demands, before and above anything else, that I get off the man’s back. But I’ve been riding this man and choking him for too long to think of justice as my friend.

I sit on a man’s back, choking him and making him carry me, and therefore justice is to me a terrifying threat. If the world suddenly became a just place, I’d be the first one up against the wall.

In other words, part of the reason that any form of oppression continues is that the oppressor comes to fear the oppressed. That fear, like the guilt the oppressor dimly still feels (“I am sorry for him”) is in some ways quite reasonable. But both of those also, perversely, tend to reinforce the oppressor’s resolve because we humans tend to resent anyone who makes us feel frightened or guilty — to hate those we fear and to hate those we know we have wronged. And that hate makes it easier to continue sitting on the man’s back, choking him and making him carry me.

This fear is related to the inability to imagine any kind of world in which someone isn’t sitting on top of someone else. If I get off this man’s back, then, it must mean that he will get on my back, choking me and making me carry him. It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg question as to whether the fear comes from this failure of imagination or if the failure of imagination comes from the fear. A bit of both, probably, and either way the end result is the same: a firmer determination never to get off the man’s back.

David Shelton sees this chicken-and-egg problem and tries to address both the fear and the failure of imagination straight-on. This is Shelton’s 10th point in a long, helpful post on “How to Not Be Viewed as a Bigot“:

10) Understand that we’re not you.

What does this mean? Simple. We are not interested in squelching your rights like you have done to us for decades. We’re not interested in preventing you from getting married. We’re not going to pass a law that makes it legal for someone to fire you because you’re Christian. We’re certainly not going to make Christianity illegal. Our agenda is, and always has been for you to stop doing these things to us.

Frankly, you’ve been punching us on the face for years. It’s not an infringement on your rights to say “stop punching them in the face.” Never has been, never will be.

“We’re not you” has to be said, but I’m not confident that the people Shelton is addressing will be capable of believing him. “We’re not interested in squelching your rights like you have done to us,” he writes — identifying precisely the thing they fear. He’s trying to reassure them that retaliation isn’t his goal. He doesn’t want to sit on their back, he just wants them to get off of his.

But the problem with the message of “we’re not you,” is that it’s addressed to people who are, in fact, “you” — to people who can only imagine what they would do if they were in his shoes and thus what he would do in their shoes. It’s projection — the shriveled, diseased remnant of the empathy that none of us can ever be wholly rid of.

“Understand that we’re not you.”

So in their stunted imagination, somebody always has to be sitting on someone else’s back — somebody always has to be punching someone else in the face and somebody always has to be getting punched. The overwrought fears Shelton aims to dissuade — hysterical fears of impending “persecution” in which fundamentalist Christians will be fired or jailed — reveal these folks’ inability to imagine a world without such persecution. They have a zero-sum understanding that says if they stop punching someone else’s face, their face will become the target.

They can’t believe Shelton when he says “We’re not interested in squelching your rights,” because in their view he’s doing exactly that. He’s trying to squelch their “right” to sit on his back, their right to choke him and to make him carry them. (Or, as Sarah Moon says in a metaphor that parallels both Tolstoy and Shelton, to squelch their “right” to stomp on his foot.)

Here’s where I’d love to be able to conclude this post by explaining the magic solution to all of this — sharing my dazzling epiphany as to how to convince such people to overcome their fear and expand their imagination to allow the possibility of a world in which no one needs to be choked and ridden, punched or stomped. But I’m afraid that epiphany still eludes me.

All that I can think to recommend is that we keep saying what David Shelton and Sarah Moon are saying — keep insisting that no one has the right to sit on another’s back and that everyone has the right not to be ridden, not to be punched in the face or stomped on the foot. And perhaps to find some ways, some gestures, to reinforce what we are saying and to demonstrate that liberation can mean something more and something better than what they fear — a mere rearrangement of who sits on whose back.

That latter point is at the heart of the film Invictus, which tells the remarkable story of Nelson Mandela’s shrewd and saintly decision to embrace the Springbok rugby team beloved by white South Africans. In Anthony Peckham’s screenplay, based on the actual events, Mandela notes that his former jailers “treasure” their Springboks:

If we take that away, we lose them. We prove that we are what they feared we would be.

He was looking for ways to affirm the passions and the culture of his former oppressors, and thereby to demonstrate, in some small way, that they could believe him when he said, in effect, “Understand that we’re not you.” It was one small way of demonstrating that power need not always mean power over.

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