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

‘I sit on a man’s back, choking him …’ July 10, 2013

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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  • Considering that they have no problem anti-boycotting things by inducing massive crowds to buy meals at Chik-Fil-A, I suspect that the real answer is it’s only bad when someone not in the tribe wants it to happen.

  • http://www.radio4all.net/index.php/program/60671

    Better grab it before some copyright rules lawyer thunders in and starts throwing around DMCA takedowns.

  • That kind of Memory Hole / War With Eur/East-Asia effect is amazing to witness in a kind of bizarrely horrifying way.

  • David W. Shelton

    Wow, thank you so much for posting the link back to my original post. What warms my heart more than anything here is that you get EXACTLY what I was trying to say. Again, thank you.

  • arcseconds

    Have you been reading Hegel, Fred?

  • Hexep

    Episcopalian missionaries.

  • Daniel

    How about the eminently sensible evangelical right? Surely they have to believe in space Jesus?

  • alfgifu

    Speaking as someone who was at school in the UK fairly recently: nope. No school prayer.

    Unless things have drastically changed in the past decade, there is either no such law or it is not enforced.

  • Daniel

    I should stress the only thing dependent on the result of the flip is who gets to be in control. It’s just a sad, smutty coincidence that the call they should have to make is either heads or tails.

  • I believe the evangelical right would assume any aliens to be abominations who only exist in the first place because they’re too obstinate to accept the truth of the bible — since they’re not mentioned in the bible, they only exist at all out of spite (much like gay people). And this is why we must bomb them immediately, then take all their resources and redistribute them to the wealthiest 1% of americans.

  • FearlessSon

    I believe the evangelical right would assume any aliens to be abominations who only exist in the first place because they’re too obstinate to accept the truth of the bible — since they’re not mentioned in the bible, they only exist at all out of spite (much like gay people). And this is why we must bomb them immediately, then take all their resources and redistribute them to the wealthiest 1% of americans.

    Oh, so like the Imperium of Man?

  • I will not lie. As I wrote that paragraph, I was thinking “In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war.”

  • FearlessSon

    I remember that from “The Priest’s Tale” in Dan Simmon’s Hyperion. He was a Jesuit priest who had a strong scholarly interest in archaeology and history, which is understandable considering this takes place long after Earth is destroyed by a catastrophic accident and humanity had a big interstellar diaspora. The Catholic church is still around, having relocated most of the Vatican from Earth (thanks to anti-grav technology making it easy) before the planet collapsed in on itself.

    There are no intelligent aliens that humanity has run into in this, but strangely there is evidence that extra-terrestrial intelligence did once exist, as many planets have strange artificial structures of unknown purpose. These are things the priest in question is researching. However, he becomes something of a pariah from the church when evidence he uncovers from some of his research leads him to conclude that Christ worship may have been practiced in some form, eons before Christ was actually born on Earth.

  • FearlessSon

    I remember reading somewhere that the casting choice was done, in part, because they wanted to ensure they distanced themselves from the image of an all-white race of alien ubermen for precisely the reason that neo-nazis revere the Norse pantheon as some symbol of white-superiority.

  • FearlessSon

    I remember what RationalWiki said about it:

    Authoritarianism is a very interesting phenomenon. Its adherents don’t necessarily want to “tell you what to do” – as long as, if they disagree with you, someone else in power will tell you what to do.

    This is why they seek to enshrine their particular values into law. That way the people they disapprove of can be punished by their authorities. For example, by outlawing abortion they do not reduce abortions by as much as preventing unwanted pregnancies in the first place, but they can punish those who seek them out with the full force of the law behind them.

  • Alix

    So if I’m reading you right, to authoritarians there either isn’t or (in their minds) shouldn’t be a difference between social and government (or other authoritative) actions. Someone doing something on a private or collective-but-not-governmental level is then, to an authoritarian, basically saying that they want the government/authorities to do the same thing. Boycott thus equals a call to censorship. Hm.

    That explains a great deal, though I now find myself wondering if and how this apparent conflation of societal and governmental action plays into their insistence that things like government assistance can be replaced by private charity. It’s like they conflate the governmental and non-governmental spheres, but only in a punitive sense.

    So apparently people of an authoritarian mindset see the primary role of government as punitive?

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    The People’s Free Democratic Republic of Nationsville is probably a totalitarian dictatorship, and the Family and Marriage Children’s Protection Fellowship is probably a fundraising group for brainwashing pray-away-the-gay camps and not-quite-Westboro campaigns.

    On TV Tropes, this is called “People’s Republic of Tyranny”. The more adjectives about Democracy in a country’s official name, the nastier a dictatorship it is.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    It’s interesting that Narnia has been given a pass, but sci-fi is one of the last hold outs for Christian Right ire. When you build your whole identity on hating, fearing, and hoping there won’t be a future I guess that’s understandable.

    I run with writers who are trying to write F&SF from a Christian viewpoint (not repeat not “Christian(TM) SF”) and encounter flak from both sides. In my experience, the good Christian SF authors usually come from one of the Western-Rite Liturgical Churches — Catholic, Anglican, sometimes Lutheran.
    The Evangelicals (Official Christianese authors) limit SF to Left Behind knockoffs with Altar Call Endings. They have no Future, and what Future they have has all been signed over to The Anticrhist.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    seem to remember, from way back in Catholic school, that the Catholic Church has at least somewhat addressed the hypothetical of extraterrestrial life. Damned if I can find a good article on it, though.

    The original First Contact Protocol written in a Catholic context was Ratramnus’ 9th Century “Letter regarding the Cynocephali”. (“Cynocephali” — the “dog-headed men” — were one of the Monstrous Races of Medieval travelers’ tales.) Basically, it was written to a missionary travelling to a far land where Cynoecphali were supposed to live, and attempted to figure out from the stories whether they were animals or people. (Ratramnus’ conclusion from the traveler’s accounts were that they were people.) There used to be a good essay on this somewhere on the Web, but I haven’t been able to find it.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    So the Catholics have drafted a Mormon to help them?
    So have the Fundagelicals. Remember Glenn Beck?

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    The Mormon’s were the source of a very high percentage of the money that pushed Prop 8, but the Catholics threw a lot into the pot as well and the Church is the only significant source of funding for NOM.

    And don’t forget that unintentional pusher for Prop 8, one Barack Obama. In a classic example of “unintended consequences”, Obama’s name on the ballot in 2008 caused massive black and brown voter turnouts — both from very macho subcultures which are very straitlaced when it comes to the gay issue.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    Poor, oppressed Orson Scott Card, getting his book turned into a major motion picture and all.
    Actually, it took him well over 20 years to find a movie studio and production crew he could trust to do the job right. According to his website, he had to deal with Hollywood shmucks and suits and “I’m an M.B.A.s” and auteurs who wanted to remake Ender’s Game in their own image — one even wanted to make it into a John Travolta star vehicle. (This was long before Zombies or Sparkly Vampires.) I’ve written fiction myself, and some of Card’s non-fiction books on writing have been my best handbooks, so I cut the guy some slack when it comes to this aspect.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    Of course such laws wouldn’t be enforced indiscriminately. Rich conservative gays who remain properly in the closet would get a pass, despite any number of scandals. It’s only the shit-disturbers who would have to worry.
    Islam is very anti-homosexual (to the point that the main theological debate is which of the three methods recorded in the Koran is the TRUE Godly way to kill them off), yet Sultans and other powerful figures routinely kept harems of boys. (The Turks were especially known for this.) Rank hath its privileges.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    OSC has also written several non-fiction books on the craft of writing (published by Writer’s Digest), which are some of the best how-to books for newbie fiction writers I have ever come across. The guy can write and he knows his craft. I especially recommend his Characters and Viewpoint.

  • I’m given to understand that “Prop 8 won because of homophobic minorities who turned out to vote for Obama” has been largely debunked as a myth: “black and brown” voters voted in favor of prop 8 at round and about the same rate as everyone else, excepting the one demographic that voted overwhelmingly for prop 8: Old White People.