‘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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  • FearlessSon

    Well what is a concern of mine is that, as I value equality, all it takes is someone who goes, “Screw equality, I’m gonna’ be on top!” to try and impose hierarchy, and without some way of effectively deterring them they will.

    Which is why I support putting the rule of law behind equality. Absent its enforcement, someone will try to ruin it, because some people are just not content unless they are imposing their will on someone else.

  • Alix

    Sure, and nowhere did I object to the rule of law or enforcing laws. But there’s a difference between the enforcement of a just law and oppressing or subjugating people, and it strikes me that our dear friend Erik up there can’t see the distinction.

    To run with the metaphor in this post: you don’t enforce a law against choking your neighbor by choking the folks who break that law. That renders the law a hollow mockery, and oppressive. You enforce an anti-choking law by other means – say, a fine, or something that isn’t “you break my nose, I’ll break yours.” Because otherwise you just legitimize the oppressive action (choking, in this case) and restart the whole cycle.

    Or so it seems to me.

    And I do think justice works better in a reparative, not punitive, sense, where the point is to get people to stop by making them pay for the damage they cause, not trying to deter people by indulging in our desire for vengeance. But this is starting to sound like the weregild discussion again, so I’ll stop while I’m ahead. XD

  • danallison

    I will concede you one point. Your Democrats actually believe what they say, whereas our Republicans do nothing but lie, pander, and grandstand.

  • Lori

    Yeah, yeah. We know. Conservatism can not fail, it can only be failed.

  • Actually, no. The no i’m not kidding they really have one and it is really this official position of the Catholic church is that the fall of Man applies only to humankind, and therefore there is no necessary reason why extraterrestrial intelligences would need Jesus unless they had a fall-like event of their own, which they may or may not have had, and even if they did, it would be jumping to conclusions to assume that God hadn’t provided them their own completely different path to reconciliation.

  • danallison

    Of course Harrison Ford gets a pass, like Alec Baldwin, because he’s a “movie star.” How about a new movement — Scapegoat Equality!

  • Alix

    … *blink*

    Wow. XD That’ll teach me to rely on half-remembered school memories. Thanks for the correction. That reminds me scarily of Lewis’ Space Trilogy.*

    Scary that that position extends more grace to hypothetical extraterrestrials than to fellow humans. :/ Because, of course, ETs might have other paths to God, but humans only have one.

    *I only ever read the first two, which, from what the internets tell me, is something I should be grateful for.

  • Kubricks_Rube

    I just read through some of your recent comments on other boards and I find the combination of views you espouse unique. Perhaps context renders some of these sarcastic, but it seems that you are anti-gay (because they are infiltrating the church and shredding the Constitution, natch), for gun control, against Biblical literalism, for raising the minimum wage, against mythologizing America and its founders, for second hand smoke, anti-choice, and are predicting an impending race war (although I’m pretty sure that one was sarcasm). Do I have these right? How would you classify yourself politically?

  • MikeJ

    What does Harrison Ford need a pass for? He supports marriage equality.

  • Lori

    Alec Baldwin is more than a bit of an ass, and it has cost him fans and probably jobs as well. The guy has baggage. That said, he’s never called for the criminalization of homosexuality, so he’s not in Card’s league.

    I have no idea why your undies are in a bunch about Harrison Ford. He stars in Ender’s Game, but has publicly stated that he doesn’t agree with Card’s extremist bigotry.

  • Emcee, cubed

    To be fair, I didn’t get necessarily that gays shredded the Constitution, just that it had been shredded, which would make it easier for the gays, who had infiltrated every church with over 150 people, to take over and destroy all the churches. Now why exactly he thinks that a document which specifically restricts the government from interfering in internal church matters would somehow protect the church from being taken over from the inside, I don’t really know. But yeah…

  • Emcee, cubed

    Since per a previous thread, most actual legal scholars say that the Full Faith and Credit Clause will NOT, in fact, make SSM legal in all 50 states, part of me wonders if this isn’t just “get everyone to think everything is done so they won’t work towards it any more, and we won’t have anyone fighting us in the next battle.” But I may be giving them way too much credit…

  • It’s a desperate attempt to smear you with a charge of hypocrisy for condemning an active, avowed bigot while not condemning people who don’t work for him and don’t share his views for daring to work on a movie based on one of his old books.

    The petulant resorts to fake martyrdom and deflection of responsibility for their own behavior from those on the Right don’t surprise me anymore, but I am still amazed by the specifics from time to time. Not this time, though. That was weak.

  • I suspect that Jesus must have gone other places before he ended up in Judea. See: John 10:16.

  • But what incentive will they have to stop choking or stomping you without someone to choke or stomp them? Think of what kind of position you’re putting these poor men into!

  • The what? I tried googling “sodal ye” and got nothing but “soda lye”.

  • Yep, Dawg forbid that an actor take parts that he thinks are cool. Some people got all confused when atheist Ian McKellen was in The Da Vinci Code, and he had to explain that he thought the story was fun and that audiences just might be able to separate fact from fiction.

  • A fish-like creature traveling the world, preaching the end is coming. It is unable to travel on its own and must ride on the shoulders of someone else.

  • Kubricks_Rube

    Well, at least we got a testable prediction: that it will be illegal to teach the Bible in the US within two years. Just like in England and Canada.

  • Veylon

    I find the Right’s embrace of Orson – like their embrace of Romney – to continue to be baffling. When the heck did Mormons stop being scary heretics and suddenly become A-OK? It doesn’t feel like it was too terribly long ago that Catholics weren’t really Christians either.
    I mean, I can envision Progressives changing their views – progress is right in the name. But these guys build their reputation on never changing their perfect doctrine. How can they do this? I really would like to know.

  • Lori

    When the heck did Mormons stop being scary heretics and suddenly become A-OK?

    When their votes and their money became necessary for keeping power.

  • Emcee, cubed

    See, here’s the thing. Right now, the Right is realizing that they are losing on a lot of issues that define them. (The biggest one, though hardly the only one, is QUILTBAG rights) Therefore, they need new alliances. Also understand, that should this strange right-wing “paradise” even actually come into being, alliances with the Catholics, the Mormons, etc. will immediately end, and they will again become “not-real-Christians”.

  • tatortotcassie

    Yup. That tallies with the response the priest told me when I was in high school and tipping my toes into sci-fi.
    “The Sparrow” and its sequel “Children of God” are so far the best religious/philosophical sci-fi books I’ve read. (Think the author is Mary Russell?)

  • MarkTemporis

    If I want to convert to Gel-Jesus (Gelsus?) I have to wear a little salt shaker around my neck? That’s at least more functional than a crucifix.

    BTW, PERPETUAL LIGHT is a very old SF anthology of religiously themed stories, many of which are pretty great. I read it years ago and remembered it mainly for Robert Silverberg’s “Pope of the Chimps”.

  • All I have to say about OSC is to quote the following.

    “Laws against homosexual behavior should remain on the books, not to be indiscriminantly enforced against anyone who happens to be caught violating them, but to be used when necessary to send a clear message to those who flagrantly violate society’s regulation of sexual behavior cannot be permitted to remain as acceptable, equal citizens within that society.”

    — Card, 1990

  • Alix

    …over and above the bigotry, what gets me about that quote is that he apparently can’t decouple social norms from laws.

    Which is something I’ve seen pretty frequently among other authoritarian types, so. :/

  • Brad Ellison

    Ray Bradbury explored some of that territory in “The Fire Balloons.” The first rocketload of Catholic missionaries to reach Mars is led by a priest who theorizes that alien biology will mean the alien beings they encounter will necessitate the existence of alien sins. Asexual beings can’t commit adultery, but we may not be able to imagine what transgressions they might be able to commit that we cannot. And so he leads his team into the wilderness instead of the Human colonies, seeking out the remaining intelligent native life on that planet, a race of glowing blue spheres comprised of pure energy. On making contact with them he learns that they had a Savior of their own, and now live in a state of grace, though they appreciate the thought.

    Really good story.

  • Alix

    (Replying to myself, what.)

    In light of the discussion of boycotts of Card’s film, I wonder if this same attitude is behind the chronic inability of these people to separate a consumer-driven boycott from government censorship. If they really truly see no difference between social disapproval and government actions … well, that explains a lot.

    But I’m never sure how much authoritarian types believe this, and how much they’re bullshitting.

  • Brad Ellison

    Bradbury wrote another one about an exploratory expedition that touches down on a tranquil world where none of the natives seem even slightly interested in the fact that an alien race just arrived out of the sky looking to make first contact. Turns out, there was a guy there who went around teaching and healing and performing various miracles and opening hearts, and he left yesterday, so by comparison they’re small potatoes.

  • opsarchangel22




  • Panda Rosa

    The first thing that sprang to my mind on reading this was the devious Jason Fox, of Amend’s comic strip Foxtrot. God knows why.

  • Well, I was speaking more metaphorically than literally; but it’s why Canada has propagation-of-hate-advocacy on the books, for example.

  • Alix

    It’s still worth noting that enforcing anti-bigotry laws isn’t actually oppression, no matter how much bigots like to pretend.

    Stupid question – so hate speech is illegal in Canada? Or openly advocating for hate crimes?

  • 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.

    This kind of basic failure of imagination is really one of the most frustrating things about persuading the kinds of people who’ve been Number Ones for so long that the Number Twos, Threes, Fours, etc are not going to suddenly mirror-flip their respective situations after the Number Not-Ones get the same social and cultural and economic advantages the Number Ones have taken for granted all their lives.

    It’s like those kinds of folks among the Number Ones, even as they heatedly deny, longly and loudly, that they have any kind of unearned advantage over the Number Not-Ones, actually maybe have a fleeting guilty realization that they do enjoy such advantages. and they can only imagine that instead of trying to work for a better world for everyone, that the whole of humanity has to work on a tit-for-tat principle in the grandest example of zero-sum thinking ever observed.

  • The case of James Keegstra probably best illustrates the basic situation in Canada re: hate propaganda.

    Also, for all that we have laws against hate crimes and that racist or other bigoted motives for commissions of serious crimes can be considered aggravating circumstances, courts seem very reluctant to use them in sentencing people for crimes against QUILTBAG people.

  • Alix

    Thanks for the info.

  • fraser

    But now Christian means “believing God’s will is interchangeable with the Republican party platform” so no problem.

  • Notasaltine

    To some degree, that has happened already on Earth. The Catholic Church has been, historically, in favor of using locally appropriate metaphors to explain things.

  • News to me. Last I looked it was still perfectly fine to sell, read, give away, do whatever you like with a Bible in my country. :p

  • Well, no, but some people don’t seem to know how to think through “don’t choke your neighbor, that’s a bad thing to do.” So you have to capture them and throw them in jail so they presumably learn not to do it again.

  • Alix

    Again, granted. It’s still not the same as, y’know, turning around and choking them back, which is the error dear Eric makes upthread.

  • Mary Doria Russell. I haven’t read her, but one of my co-workers at the old bookstore loved her.

  • 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.

    Never mind that inconsistent application of the law is not only a tool of oppression, it serves to weaken the authority of all law.

    I’ve also heard it from some anti-choicers — one who still sometimes comments here, even — that the point isn’t about decreasing the actual number of abortions or putting women’s lives at risk, it’s about sending the proper message.

  • Ah, thanks.

  • Daniel

    There is a shockingly small amount of internetty stuff about the sodal ye. I keep looking for pictures, but it seems I’m the only one who’s all that bothered about it. It is a super evolved dolphin that rides on the back of a very stupid human host. It’s in Brian Aldiss’ book Hothouse (The Long Afternoon of Earth in the US.)

  • Daniel

    “I don’t think there’s any reason to assume that the self replicating
    gelatinous folk would know anything about Jesus’ time on Earth”- I don’t think they would either, but for there to be a consistent universal religion based on what he teaches presumably the two sets of stories would have to coincide. Also, in finding out about his time with the gel people we would know that we were not the most important part of God’s creation, which sort of undermines the basis of Christianity. Sort of.
    At least the trinity would be easy to explain to gel people- Aquafresh.

  • Daniel

    Ace. I’ve just read that and I really hope he was talking about space. Like The Ballad of Halo Jones, but with a real halo.

  • Daniel

    What might you use to explain death and rebirth to a species that does not die?

  • Daniel

    I’ve not read a lot of Bradbury, I’ll have to look that up. I do love the idea that when a new sentient species is discovered, it is vitally important that sins be invented for them.

  • Daniel

    No, a packet of silica gel should be worn around the neck. As per the instructions on each bag, Eucharist cannot be taken. Following this logic, every piece of flat pack furniture is like a hotel, and every packet of silica gel is a Gideon’s Bible.

    The Lord thy God is a Gelous God.