‘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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  • de_la_Nae

    It still boggles my mind that the man who wrote ‘Speaker for the Dead’ can hold some of the views he seems to.

  • Guest

    It’s not illegal to teach the Bible in England. It’s also not illegal to be taught about the Bible in England. It is in fact a requirement that all schools have religious education, and it is in the law (for some reason) that every school in the country has a daily prayer. I don’t know why you think it’s illegal to teach the Bible in a country that has an established Church and whose head of state is the leader of that church.

  • AnonaMiss

    Dude, we have no interest on choking or stomping you, I promise.

    With the exception of a few kinksters with questionable tastes in men.

  • esmerelda_ogg

    Do they have any deeper or more substantial arguments than “that’s the definition”? – Daniel

    FWIW, I suspect that a large chunk of their objection (aside from plain ol’ unexamined squickiness) is that accepting same-sex marriage undermines their fondness for patriarchy. They insist that in a proper marriage the husband has to lead and the wife has to submit – but in a marriage of two men or two women, how can you enforce that rule? And if everybody gets used to seeing same-sex couples openly living their lives, how can opposite sex couples be compelled to stay in their “you lead all the time and you submit all the time” boxes?

  • Ross Thompson

    For second-hand smoke? What does that mean? I’m imagining cigarette-smoking machines hooked up to every air conditioning unit, so the maximum number of people can gain the benefits…

  • Null_void

    I weep that I can’t upvote this more than once.

  • Kubricks_Rube

    Just to clarify (and I do see now how my comment would read to someone unfamiliar with my views), I was presenting an obviously incorrect statement by another commentor as evidence of that commentor’s lack of credibility, not making the claim myself.

  • Isabel C.

    We discussed that at a party recently, actually: how certain words in a username or party group just scream that this person is not worth listening to.

    “‘Freedom’, ‘Family’, ‘Liberty’…um, ‘Tea’….”

  • Kubricks_Rube

    It’s more that he’s dismissive of the issue:

    The older people here remember that long before 1964, everyone knew cigarettes were bad for you. All the surgeon general did was create a group you could discriminate against with political correctness, and a new way for people to be self-righteous without actually doing anything.


    Amazing, the power of media suggestion. No one was EVER bothered by “second-hand smoke” prior to 1964.

  • Isabel C.

    Reminds me of Duane’s Young Wizards series as well: every species has its own encounter with the Lone Power (Entropy Guy, sort of Crystal Dragon Satan), each in its own way and with a slightly different choice as a result.

  • phantomreader42

    I read Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven in a collection of Mark Twain’s best short stories that I found in a secondhand bookshop. It was followed immediately by The Mysterious Stranger. Bit of mood whiplash there.
    The same collection also had something on the diaries of Adam and Eve.

  • I thought NOM rose out of the Prop 8 fight, which I know was heavily backed by the Mormon church

  • Ross Thompson

    Bah, I prefer my version.

    But: Everyone knew that smoking was bad for you, and no-one was bothered by it? That’s some messed-up people.

  • Love that series! I always felt a little sad that the first book’s ending was basically completely retconned. “Yes, you have saved the multiverse! In some paradigm or other. Actually, everyone’s still totally screwed. Yeah.”

  • de_la_Nae

    Ah yes, the old “We just need to keep it to swat down the occasional uppity Negro” defense.

  • chgo_liz

    Check your sarcasm meter.

  • VMink

    Or the hilarious opposition brought up by an all-old-white-man ‘concerned group of the faithful’ when they complained that Heimdall was, in the Thor movie, a person of color. Seriously, that made my nanokalpa.

  • VMink

    OSC used to actually be fairly agnostic, or at least comfortably tolerant. He was quite famous for the well-received ‘Secular Humanist Revival’ he did on the convention circuit. Then, at some point, he said he had a change of heart asked that there be no copies made of that one-man show, and he would not perform it anymore. I think most people complied (I’ve not been able to find a recording) and then he went off-the-rails irrational.

  • Isabel C.

    Hee! Yeah, me too. I suspect (having had something of the sort happen with my own work) that she wrote the first book, got it published, and then needed to figure out a way for there to be high-stakes sequels.

    Watsonian-ly, I sort of figured that the first book ending was catalyzing what happened in all of the subsequent ones.

  • Check your “:P” meter! :)

  • I try and emphasize when something is going to be a process or instantaneous. Although the ending of my current writing sets it up for an eventual lasting resolution, there’s a lot of room between now and then which I intend to address in the sequel. :p

  • VMink

    This is something that I see from a large number of social reactionaries I know in my circle of acquaintances and former school-mates. It’s been positively eye-opening, and a little bit sad, to see them weeping about how they’re being called hateful, evil, bigoted, horrible people for not supporting marriage equality. They’re saying they’re being bullied. Seriously. The last I checked, nobody had ever been killed for being heterosexual.

    All I’m seeing on their part is an immense amount of fear, and now that the arc of history is turning against them, they are *terrified* that they’re going t be oppressed and murdered the same way they have to the people they’ve Othered and vilified.

    The part of me that loves to have its schaden freuded is snickering, but that’s not going to make for a lasting resolution to the culture clash going on.

  • Bullshit nobody was. I bet dollars to donuts I could find someone who was srsly allergic and had to go to restaurants during “off” hours so they wouldn’t be inundated with cigarette smoke.

    And hell, let’s look to chapter 7 of the 1954 book The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov, written in a social milieu that far more encouraged smoking than today:

    Baley lit his pipe and tightened its baffle carefully. The Commissioner, like most non-indulgers, was petty about tobacco smoke.

    Right there. BOOM. People knew about non-smokers who didn’t like being near second-hand smoke.

  • Alix

    …I love that series. It’s one of the ones I bring up when people insist all YA stuff is juvenile and unsophisticated, and could never appeal to adults.

  • Daniel

    I see. I’d be worried about that if I was a man. It’s lucky I’m just a compacted mass of scurf held together by left wing ideals and tea.

    I submit in response that the good lord gave us fingers and coins for a reason, and that if the overturning of traditional patriarchy is at the heart of their objections (I think you’re probably right there, by the way) then every gay marriage should include, right before the rings, a “you may now flip the coin” section to decide who gets to be the “man”. They then agree to abide by the coin’s decision until such time as they renew their vows. I know this seems like a ludicrous solution, but I’d also suggest it’s one that fits the ludicrousness of the problem.

  • Michael Pullmann

    Wonderful thing about LOLcats is that it has rendered the acronym as ridiculous as the organization itself.

  • Michael Pullmann

    There’s a joke similar to that, where missionaries land on an alien planet to spread the Gospel and find out Jesus visited there a long time ago and liked it so much he comes back all the time. The punchline is “Why, what’d you guys do?”

  • Michael Pullmann

    So does Peter David, but people didn’t give him a pass for writing a video game based on one of Card’s novels. (Not the Ender series.)

  • Daniel

    “what would gels think was a horrible way to die?”
    Presumably all at once, simply because someone had taken a dislike to who they were as a species. You know, gelocide.

  • esmerelda_ogg

    Once I manage to stop laughing, I’ll see if I can come up with a suitable reply.

  • Jamoche

    My example’s from 1969, but I can promise I hadn’t heard of “second-hand smoke” at the time: My grandparents said “Mind if I smoke?” – not asked, mind you, because nobody meant it as a question – but I didn’t know that, so I said “yes”. I was 4, so they all laughed – but they didn’t light up, either.

  • Re: Lewis’ Space Trilogy:

    The third book, That Hideous Strength, has some excellent ideas and scenes. It also pissed me off more than any other C.S. Lewis book (and I’ve read many of them, both fiction and nonfiction), and reading it usually makes me need to read Till We Have Faces again just to wash the bad taste out of my brain. But THS genuinely does have some good points all the same.

  • Lori

    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.

    Plenty of people would no doubt take it that way and totally freak out, but there’s no reason that it has to be true. Christianity is not based on humans being God’s favorite. It assumes that we’re the only ones on this planet who have souls and therefore the need for salvation and all, but I don’t think there’s anything in the Bible that would cause the whole thing to collapse just because there are other soul-having beings on another planet.

    At least the trinity would be easy to explain to gel people- Aquafresh.


    It would be nice if the Trinity actually made sense to someone.

  • Lori

    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.

  • Alix

    I may have to give it a shot. I don’t know.

    I remember checking it out once after reading the first two, but all I really remember is trying to start it and feeling like it didn’t really feel like the other two books, though I can’t remember why or if I was even right to have that impression.

  • esmerelda_ogg

    Very interesting link! Thank you. (It’s always fun to see other people come to the same conclusions, and to read the argument so clearly expressed.)

  • Srsly. First of all, I don’t recall Heimdall being one of the gods who was noted as having distinctive physical features, unlike, say, Golden-Haired Sif. Second, it’s the Marvel Asgard — word of Jack Kirby is that the skalds in the Marvel universe got some details wrong.

    Also: http://24.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lr7y7qT2oI1qzznfko1_400.jpg

  • Flagged as inappropriate. Also, are you trying to get arrested again, Dennis?

  • AnonaMiss

    I think we all have some questions about that first paragraph.

    Such as: What kind of tea?

  • Daniel

    If you’re asking by brand, I’m afraid I don’t advertise. If you’re asking by composition- I believe it’s an assam-ceylon blend in something like a 70/30 ratio. I can’t say for sure- it fluctuates depending on what’s available. There is also Darjeeling in trace amounts.

  • Veylon

    Yeah, I understand that it’s convenient for the not-believers on top, but how do you sell this to the rank-and-file who’ve been worried about the Mormon Monster waiting to jump out from under their bed all these years? That’s the part that confuses me.

  • Daniel

    Apparently it is possible to serve God and Mormon.
    [strokes chin and looks smug]

    I have very little to contribute except lame puns.

  • AnonaMiss

    So a British tea? I mean obviously Indian by place of growth, but British by design?

    I have to say I’ve never really been a fan of British teas – I prefer my tea to be drinkable plain. And they’re nearly all blends, with the quality control issues that brings – but it sounds like you’ve got a supplier you like enough to keep a secret, so I guess that wouldn’t be an issue for you!

  • Daniel

    Definitely British. I mean, I like a pure darjeeling, Ceylon, Assam, Russian Cravan, Gunpowder and Jasmine every now and again too but you need a day to day no frills tea to keep you together. It built the empire. I’m not being cagey about a supplier- rather following BBC rules and not doing product placement.
    But I don’t like Earl or Lady Grey. Which is a shame, because I consider myself pretty liberal.

  • Lori

    I think that the tribalism is so well cemented at this point that as long as they have the right positions on the important theological issues (women aren’t fully human, gays are gross, every elected office in the land should be held by Republicans in perpetuity) most Evangelicals aren’t too bothered about the rest. They don’t consider them Real True Christians, but the tribe’s thought leaders have stopped whipping up anti-Mormon and anti-Catholic animus and instead given them the thumbs up.

    That means that the rank & file can now prove their tribal loyalty not by hating those Satan worshipers, but by “open-minded” enough to set aside trivial issues like the status of the Pope and the Book of Mormon to focus on the really important inter-faith work of saving the baybees, stopping the gay agenda and fighting the Islamofascistcommie Lie-berals.

  • I should clarify that the Catholics at least do specify that there is only the one Jesus; aliens either didn’t fall, or were graced with some non-Jesus-based-means of reconciliation. Sadly, no space-Jesus.

  • Lori

    Do they mean that in the sense that Jesus was specifically the human incarnation of the Son of God and therefore specific to Earth or do they mean that the Son of God wouldn’t/couldn’t have also had an alien (and therefore not non-Jesus) incarnation?

    If it’s the former, OK. If it’s the latter what is the basis for this belief? I don’t recall ever reading anything in the Bible that would in any meaningful way preclude a non-human incarnation.

  • Wait a second, is that the one with the guy who has the faulty translator that doesn’t translate properly, and he thinks he’s chatting with a guy who’s ready to become a new convert but who actually has almost no idea of what the priest is saying?

    Like, one sentence I remember is “What is it, my son?” and all the translator can properly render is “… my son?” which leads the native Martian to wonder why this man who isn’t his father is calling him his son.

  • opsarchangel22

    i wonder who is in control here?