by Daniel Tippens
Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave tells an inspired story of Solomon Northup. Originally a free individual living in the North with a wife and children before the Civil War, Solomon is kidnapped and sold into slavery. After being drugged, he wakes up to find himself in a dark dungeon with his hands and feet shackled. He is confused when two slavers come into the room and one of them asks him, “well boy, how you feel now?” Solomon rises to his feet and replies with a reproach:
My name is Solomon Northup, I’m a free man, a resident of Saratoga, New York; the residence of my wife and children who are equally free and you have no right whatsoever to detain me…now I promise you, I promise you upon my liberation that I will have satisfaction for this wrong.
The slaver, unmoved by this protest, shrugs his shoulders, “Resolve this. Produce your papers.” Solomon raises his shackled hands, displaying through action that he is incapable of doing so while in chains. The slaver, rather than understanding this action as an indication of the folly of his question, takes it as a demonstration of his point, “you’re no free man.” Solomon is then beaten bloody and given the slave-name ‘Platt.’
When Platt meets his first master, Ford, he curries favor with his superior quickly by making a striking display of useful intelligence. Ford remarks, “Platt you are a marvel!” and Platt replies with sincere gratitude, “Oh thank you, Master Ford!” The master gives Platt a violin as a token of his generosity.
That evening, Platt is eating outside and hears another slave, Eliza, weeping over the loss of her children, who she was separated from. Platt grows infuriated with her troublesome noise and yells, “Stop! Stop your wailing!” Noticing that he is in part silencing her for the benefit of Master Ford’s ears, Eliza replies, “have you stopped crying for your children? … do I upset the master and the mistress? Do you care less about my loss than their well-being? … you luxuriate in his favor… but he does nothing [to free you]… you are no better than prized livestock, Solomon. So you settle into your role as Platt, then?” Platt grabs her with both hands and shouts in recrimination, “my back is thick with scars for protesting my freedom! Do not accuse me.”
Eliza responds sincerely: “I cannot accuse.”
In Quentin Tarentino’s Django Unchained, the fictional protagonist Django is a slave who is hired and befriended by a white bounty hunter who teaches him to shoot, kill, and hunt. After the two kill a number of white outlaws and cash in on their rewards, they embark on a mission to save Django’s wife from a plantation. Django, having killed white people, is unafraid of the slaves, white plantation workers, overseers, and even the master. He speaks back to them, once breaking the leg of a white worker who tries to ridicule him. Because of his tendency to talk back, Django is considered an “exceptional n—-r” and is treated with more respect than not just the other slaves, but even some of the slavers. Django’s ability to reproach white folk affords him a certain dignity.
The McQueen and Tarentino films share something in common: they show how something essential to slavery is that slaves only express agreeable sentiments toward their masters, but never distaste. African slaves would keep their eyes to the ground and utter only things such as this:
“Is there anything else I can do for you, master?”
“That’s a fine idea, sir.”
“Master is a great man.”
“Oh thank you for your generosity, you’re very kind master.”
“Master gives me food and shelter. How can I complain?”
What was not routine for slaves to do is say, “Fuck you, master John! You suck, and I hate you!” in front of all his fellow subordinates. Since Django does nothing but reproach white folk, it is hard for us to see him as a slave at all. Out of fear for their lives (or the lives of their family members), slaves did not express contempt or resentment toward their superiors; they would only express it toward each other. Solomon shouts at Eliza for crying, for example, but never yells at the masters. This, of course, is because he would be beaten or killed for expressing outrage toward the actual sources of his indignation. Solomon has an overriding reason to suppress his rage toward Master Ford, but Eliza is an open target for him to vent his frustrations upon.
What McQueen and Tarentino are depicting is that to be a slave is largely characterized by a particular pattern of sentimental expression in society. The slave expresses gratitude only upward and contempt only laterally or downward. The slave reproaches her fellow subservients and lessers, but always thanks her superiors. In this way, we can say that a slave society is one in which contempt and resentment is pushed downward while gratitude is directed upward, in the social hierarchy. The ruled only thank their rulers and take out their resentment either on each other, or on those of lesser rank.
I’m worried that many Americans are stuck in this vicious pattern of expression, only with different coercive pressures. People may not be whipped or beaten anymore, but they often hate their bosses for all manner of mistreatment and suppress their resentment for fear of losing their livelihood, possible loss of friends, worry about gossip from coworkers, or not getting that much needed promotion. A particularly compelling reason for many people to hold back their indignation is the chance that they might lose the networking connections that their superior affords them. Given the abysmal and discouraging competition rates in the job market, one can’t really afford to burn any ladders, only bridges. One can’t express her contempt upward.
For similar reasons, people have a strong reason to smile for a superior they don’t like. Given those aforementioned competition rates, employees — and especially interns — are often reminded that they should be grateful to have the opportunity to work and bolster their CV at all. If you want your boss to connect you with other people in the field, you’ll want her to speak well of you. So, it makes sense to be a wee-bit sycophantic. As a result, people curry favor with their employers and then aggressively and resentfully compete with one another to gain rank. Graduate students in particular manifest this trend with disturbing salience, only by cozying up to reputable faculty.
There are at least two things that are very wrong with being unable to reproach a target of your indignation, the first of which draws on the idea of personhood. A person is an agent with rational standing; the sort of entity that is responsive to reasons. Persons can think about what to do or believe by weighing different sorts of reasons against one another. You might chat with your girlfriend about whether this purchase of a pet will be a wise – prudent – move. Or you might discuss whether you should make this purchase – morally – given that the money could go to a friend facing financial crisis. We can consider prudential and moral reasons, among others.
Human beings typically become persons. Infants can’t talk about the moral merits of abortion, but as these little humans develop, they eventually become responsive to, and exchange reasons with, other people in communicative intercourse. Some human beings – like those in persistent vegetative states – aren’t persons, and you can imagine some non-humans — e.g. intelligent aliens – being persons.
Being a person affords you a level of respect and dignity that not all humans or non-humans have. Dogs cannot respond to reasons, and so are not persons. As such, if a dog barks at us all we can ask is, “What should we do with it? How should we treat this dog?” But since people are reasons-responsive, when they yell, we can and should take pause and ask, “shit, how do you want to be treated and why? Let’s talk about it.”
When someone is not allowed to reproach another class of human beings, he is being denied full personhood. Moral reasons are among those that persons proffer, so to be barred from offering them up is to be treated as lesser than a full person. This is what makes someone a superior as opposed to a mere authority. The slavers can and do exchange moral dialogue – and so treat each other as full persons – but the slave isn’t allowed to participate. In this way, a hierarchy of inferior and superior individuals is formed.
Another thing that is concerning about individuals being unable to reproach upward can be understood at the societal level: it makes collective action amongst the ruled (those less powerful) very difficult. When individuals can’t express resentment up the social hierarchy it is pushed downward, and so those with the least power will face a strong barrier to working together. Namely, their hate for one another. Remember that Solomon yelled at Eliza because she was crying about her lost children, which is the sort of thing one finds in emotionally abusive relationships. Clearly, she and Solomon will find it difficult to cooperate in the future, and such cooperation is the only way to break their collective chains. Absent, of course, any help from other sympathetic white northerners.
If a society is a slave one, then, we can say that resentment is pushed downward, and gratitude is sent upward in the social hierarchy. Such directionality would indicate two things. First, that everyone in this hierarchical society is lesser to someone else — everyone has a superior. Second, that collective action among the least powerful is unlikely since they express their resentment toward one another and not the actual sources of their indignation. In a slave society, the lessers won’t be capable of coming together to break their collective chains.
So, I propose that one condition for a just society or institution is that resentment is broadly vented upward toward those with more coercive power, and gratitude downward toward those who have the least. This facilitates collective action, prevents sentimental slavery, and lets personhood flourish in the polity.
An age-old question in political philosophy has to do with how one ought to distribute resources within a society – what are the just ways to divvy up scarce goods amongst a population? If a just society sends gratitude down and resentment up, I wonder if a just distribution of resources could be based on the idea of “fuck you money.” Someone has fuck you money, when they have enough independent economic means to tell their boss to go fuck themselves and quit. Maybe everyone should have fuck you resources: enough means to ensure that they can reasonably risk expressing their contempt upward in their pursuit of happiness. This way of distributing resources would make sure that a society sends resentment up, and gratitude down, seeing to it that nobody has to force a smile for someone he resents.