Gratitude Up, Resentment Down

by Daniel Tippens

I.

 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:

“Yes, master”

“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.

Daniel Tippens is a PhD student at the University of Miami working in Moral and Political Philosophy. He currently blogs at The Related Public.

23 comments

  1. fuck you money is hardly a new concept, basically this is just UBI. All you are saying is let’s have an economic system where it’s actually impossible to exploit anyone. Not anew thought but everything always stalls on the mechanics. What’s your plan for step 1?

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    1. “Someone has fuck you money, when they have enough independent economic means to tell their boss to go fuck themselves and quit”

      A UBI is a broad set of ideas that gives people the resources that make them independent of economic exploitation.

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  2. Here’s just one reason among many: my account has implication for doomsday weapons. Nuclear weapons, on this view, are a violation of distributive justice since the fact of their existence make it impossible — regardless a developing country’s resources — for non-nuclear countries to express their resentment.

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  3. Let me put it this way, actually: UBI is one way, perhaps, to try and realize the Fuck You Resources account, but it is only one among many. My account is compatible with recommending stronger labor unions or legal teams made affordable to different people on the social strata, for example,

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    1. Only partially. These have been available in Europe for some time but also needed to be supplemented by strong Social Welfare systems. If you don’t consider the whole bundle of benefits from healthcare to housing, from childcare to pensions, you leave room for plenty of avenues of economic exploitation. Also, endless litigation is a pretty shit way of dealing with systemic exploitation.

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  4. As a resident in a social democratic welfare state I find some interesting parallels here in Denmark with your “Fuck You Ressources”

    Please have in mind, that the welfare state in Denmark is past it’s prime – I could hope that was just a local maximum we have passed, but that is another discussion.

    With these ressources we do not generally have to be overly protective of our work. If the boss is an asshole, you can talk back, or find another job, or indeed lose your job. Perhaps not without cost, but it’s not a live or die situation. It has been called flexicurity – the state and the private actors – Unions and Employers – have come to a set of arrangements, that both help the workers be secure, but also help the employers by supplying a group of educated, healthy workers.

    I’ll try to enumerate some ressources available to citizens in Denmark, in no particular order

    – Universal Healthcare
    While there is private insurance, everyone is entitled to healthcare, which is free at the point of contact. There is no relation between work and getting sick. If you are unemployed you get the same service as the employed.

    – Workers rights
    While the rules are actually different in different professions, there are some rights that apply generally
    1. Notice – For most people you start up with 1/1 months of notice, that is if you quit you have to quit at the end of the months, and give at least 1 month of notice. Your employer have the same responsibility. However based on how long your employment have been the notice from the employer side goes up – 3 months, 4,5 and after 9 years of employment you get 6 full months of notice.
    2. Termination only on grounds – In most professions you can only be terminated on grounds. It doesn’t have to be very intricate but you must be terminated for a valid reason. Typical reasons are changes in the workplace, revenue up or down, and if they just don’t like you it’s “issues with cooparation”. However not all reasons are valid. I recall a lawsuit where someone was fired for calling the boss a bastard. Since the tone in the workplace was generally rough – calling your boss a bastard was not a valid reason – and the former employee got some months worth of salary as compensation for wrongful termination.
    3. Sick days – as a rule you have the right to be sick of from work and keep you job. The rule of thumb is that if you exceed 120 sick days in a year you can be terminated – but I think that rule has been relaxed lately, so it’s easier to dismiss people who get longer periods of sickness.
    4. Vacation – Everyone has a right to 5 weeks paid vacation time, with rules about how it can be apportioned. Most people now get 6 weeks.
    5. Childs first (and second) day of sickness is covered like your own sickness some have 1 day others 2 days (per time the child gets sick)

    – Unemployment insurance
    We have governmental subsidized unemployment insurance, that guarantees you a minimum income if you meet the requirements.

    – Unemployment benefits.
    noninured or people not qualifying for unemployment insurance get a lower rate, but are still entitled to a basic income, and help for children, housing etc.

    – Universal pension
    Anyone who is retired from the workforce is entitled to a basic pension, with add ons based on your other income.

    – Mostly free education
    Most education up to and including university and graduate work is not only free for the consumer, but you will get a governmental stipend when studying.

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  5. The point wasn’t to spell out the practical details, but to say that the view is not “basically just UBI”

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  6. Hi Daniel. Do you think there are societies where there is, in your opinion, a healthy degree of publicly expressed resentment upwards and publicly expressed gratitude downwards? if not now, then at some place and time in the past?

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  7. I don’t think a “slave society” can be remedied through secular or systemic means. It is a spiritual issue and one of human frailty. Certainly the threat of starvation may well keep you from saying, “Fuck you”, but so will ones desire for greater social status. Wealth and prestige are seen by many as power, and a certain percentage of people (I believe a majority) have an insatiable appetite for more regardless of how much they have. And the kind of power they seek is to a large degree zero-sum. So, it seems animal instinct denies us personhood more than a bank account full of “fuck you money”. As such, it seems that kisses will find ass’ a target of affection for the foreseeable future.

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  8. Hi Robert,

    The only thing I can think of right now is labor unions at their peak in the U.S, between 1960-1980 or so. Labor strikes (which are plausibly expressions of resentment) involved collective action to correct for unjust treatment. But unions have been slowly dissolving since that time, which worries me. Can you think of any places where resentment has been vented upward? (besides, of course, violent revolutions. I wouldn’t want the account to go so far as to justify some of the heinous crimes committed during revolutions.

    Hi Caleb,
    Certainly the threat of starvation may well keep you from saying, “Fuck you”, but so will ones desire for greater social status. Wealth and prestige are seen by many as power, and a certain percentage of people (I believe a majority) have an insatiable appetite for more regardless of how much they have…”

    I think you and I simply disagree that a majority of people are power-seeking and have an insatiable appetite for it. I rarely meet people in blue-collar jobs, the service industry, or amateur artists who manifest this vice. Many people just want a good stable job so that they can have a nice life with their family and friends. I think a normal life arc (as Dan K would call it) involves getting one’s power seeking ambitions out of the way when one is young, but later shifting one’s values in the direction of legacy. People come to recognize that there is much more to life than mere power acquisition. So, no, I don’t think our animal instincts deny us personhood more than superiors in the workplace do.

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    1. Hi Daniel,

      I kind of think that there has never been such a society. Perhaps hunter-gatherer societies for the first couple hundred thousand years of human existence? I’ve heard that those groups were relatively egalitarian, but even there, I’ve also read accounts of more contemporary hunter-gatherer societies where there was a big man figure who would occasionally kill a child because he was mad, and no one could do anything about it.

      Regardless, even if hunter-gatherers were egalitarian in your sense, if it’s true that there have been no other large-scale societies that had gratitude down, resentment up, it’s worth trying to figure out why that is.

      One possibility is this: the thing dearest to people is not material resources but rather social adulation. If you find yourself at the top of the social heap, then (on average) what you want most of all is not stuff but status. And that means that you’ll want gratitude from your lessers, and the ability to show resentment to your lessers.

      If that’s right–big, massive, “if”–then a G-down/R-up society is going to be almost inconceivable. It would be like having a society that had huge disparities of wealth, but where everything was priced in terms of proportion of one’s wealth rather than in dollars. What’s the point of being rich if if doesn’t get you more stuff? What’s the point of trying to make a name for yourself if it doesn’t get you more status? And what is status but the ability to say fuck you to those lower than you while they have to say thank you for doing it?

      This is grim, I know. And it’s HIGHLY speculative. But it’s what occurred to me after reading your post.

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        1. I don’t either, but I might if society started to move in a G-down R-up direction; and it could be that, even if you and I don’t think of status in that way, most people who pursue or get status do.

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  9. Daniel,
    I am hesitant to disagree with you because I want to believe in human virtue, and I realize the disproportionate influence of the minority but, if human nature were different, why has history failed to produce the society or conditions we desire? Wasn’t communism supposed to remedy the resource allocation problem and do away with the hierarchal slave society?

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      1. I would have liked to expire prior to the advent of the full blown information age. The problem is that brings one’s birth well prior to the Second World War, and I certainly would not like to have gone through the Depression or been shipped off to Okinawa.

        Seems to me the best of it was roughly the 1950’s through the early 1990’s.

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      2. DanT,
        As an American, I think our golden moment was just before the closure of the Western frontier; one could have done anything, been anybody, in that period, roughly between 1870 and 1890. I would have liked to have lived like Wyatt Earp, written like Mark Twain, read later Whitman and early Peirce. Once I got settled in, I would have voted for Teddy Roosevelt in my old age. He was a war lover and an imperialist (as my leftie friends never tire of reminding me), but he was also a friend to working men and women, a rigorous reformer, and a dedicated conservationist.

        We won’t see people like those I’ve named any time near in the future.

        (Romantic? OK, so what. I cry watching tragedies, I have no shame.)

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  10. EJ writes “our golden moment was just before the closure of the Western frontier” – I am reminded of the fact that the Australian Aborigines arrived here 55-60K years ago and promptly started expanding at 10-15 miles per generation. The clockwise frontier met the anticlockwise frontier (around the coasts) after three or four thousand years. This makes me think that getting away from your family (but perhaps being close enough to visit) has always been seen as a good thing.

    From the 40-70s, when unemployment was low, in many places one could usually leave any job that didn’t suit and find a replacement pretty easily (Hey, same after the Black Death ;)). So it’s not money necessarily – the MMT way of thinking is that having a Job Guarantee (ie an always available Public Service type job with an adequate set minimum wage) will get us back to that kind of a world.

    As to gratitude to the lower classes, the “Just World” way of thinking is that people doing unpleasant jobs at low wages have done something wrong (else they’d all be self-starting small businessmen, or they’re paying off bad karma from sins in their last life, or just lack moral fibre), and so don’t deserve respect or gratitude.

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  11. The closest society I can think of where you have a resentment-upwards, generosity-downwards dynamic is the ‘Big Man’ culture in certain parts of Polynesia. If you accrue wealth there, you are expected to share it with your community. The more generous you are, the more highly people think fo you. Not sharing or being stingy breeds resentment to the point where you can be socially ostracized.

    However, one difference is that these ‘Big Men’ rarely have any coercive control over the other members of their community. This strikes me as important. With coercive mechanisms I don’t believe a just society is possible. Not the way you state it at least. There will always be destabilising tendencies to silence resentment upwards and curtail generosity downwards.

    Removing coercion strikes me as a necessary condition for a just society. In particular, I suspect it would lead to one where the distinction between ‘Employee’ and ‘Boss’, or ‘Tenant’ and ‘Landlord’, would no longer exist.

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  12. Just a reminder: Agree or disagree, all this becomes esoteric hypothetical unless Trump is out of the the White House January 20, 2021. In a truly fascist state (and that would be Trump re-elected or refusing to go), one doesn’t talk about what makes a more just state, but about resistance and regime change. Only with Trump out can we have discussions like this, where liberals and conservatives should both be welcome.

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