By Daniel Tippens
Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave tells an inspired story of Soloman Northup. Originally a free individual living in the North with a wife and children before the Civil War, Soloman 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?” Soloman rises to his feet and replies with a reproach: “My name is Soloman 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.” Soloman 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.” Soloman 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, Soloman. 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-gger” 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. Soloman 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. Soloman has an overriding reason to suppress his rage toward Master Ford, but Eliza is an open target for him to vent his frustrations upon.
Correspondingly, slaves quickly found that they also had reason to express gratitude toward their masters. Soloman thanks Master Ford vigorously for the violin he was given, despite the fact that Ford is — as Eliza points out — a slaver. He doesn’t deserve gratitude from Soloman for anything! It would be equally as absurd to thank the tyrant who disappears you for his choice in a quick death instead of an execution with a side of torture.
What McQueen and Tarentino are suggesting is that to be a slave is 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.
There are at least two things that are concerning about being unable to reproach someone else.
In order to understand the first concern, consider what a person is. 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 all sorts of different reasons against one another. You might chat with your girlfriend about whether this purchase of a pet will be a wise long-term move, i.e you might chat about prudential reasons for buying the pet. Or you might discuss whether you should make this purchase, or perhaps give the money to a long-time friend in despair, i.e you might deliberate over moral reasons.
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 vegitative 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 do. 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 do respond to reasons, 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 by them. Since moral reasons are among those that persons proffer, to be barred from offering them up in the form of reproach 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, but the slave isn’t allowed to. In this way, the slaves aren’t treated as persons, but the slavers treat each other as such. Hence, a hierarchy of inferior and superior individuals is formed.
People not treating someone else as a moral agent is the sort of situation one finds in horror films, where cries go unheard and plights go unhelped. Imagine if every time you were gravely wronged you screamed at your aggressor and it fell on deaf ears. They and others around you shrug it away as though you were a dog barking — the way the slaver shrugged off Soloman’s protest — and you don’t have the resources to make anyone see and treat you with respect. In horror films a protagonist often finds herself unable to contact anyone from the outside world to get help as they are attacked by a masked villain, who ignores all of her pleas for mercy and threats of retaliation. It is reasonable to suppose that a slave would feel similarly, being unable to get a moral message across to anyone much less their captors.
The other thing that is deeply 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 hatefor one another. Remember that Soloman yelled at Eliza because she was crying about her lost children. This is the sort of thing one finds in emotionally abusive relationships. Clearly, she and Soloman will find it difficult to cooperate in the future, and such cooperation is the only way to break their collective chains, absent help from other sympathetic white northerners.
If a society is a slave one, then, we can say that resentment is pushed downwardand 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, i.e 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 the chains their superiors have placed on them.
In the United States it strikes me that contempt goes down, gratitude goes up, and most Americans are subject to a superior. Before we touch on the ordinary workplace, let’s look at a plausible ‘bottom rung’ in society by considering the popular phrase, “beggars can’t be choosers.” The idea is that if you are accepting a favor from somebody else, you can’t complain about what they give you or make demands on them for alternative or greater forms of help. Indeed, what it means for something to be a favor is that it be an act of kindness that is more than is owed. In virtue of being a beggar, you’re receiving a favor, and so you can’t make a demand. This may seem innocuous and true enough, but the problem is that when we categorize someone as a beggar often depends on their social status alone and not their situation.
Suppose that a man is off the seashore, drowning, and shouting for you to help. Clearly in this situation, the man is not a beggar, and your assistance would not be a favor, it would be obligatory. It is precisely the despair he is in that warrants him in making a demand on you to help! Whether or not he has money or social importance, you would be culpable for doing nothing. If you shouted back at him, “I’ll help you in just a few minutes!” he could legitimately reproach you, “Fuck you, man, I’m dying! Save me now! You’re not doing enough!” Certainly, it would disturbing if you replied by reminding him that beggars can’t be choosers.
You can probably see where I’m going with this. The fact is that there are plenty of homeless people who walk up to us and ask for food money, and it is quite evident that they are in despair. But if a homeless guy says, “One dollar? That’s it? Fuck you, I need more than that, you’re not doing enough!” we are likely to reproach him in turn by saying that he is in no position to judge us, murmuring to ourselves that beggars can’t be choosers, and he should be grateful for what he is given. Count your blessings, man!
Now, you might say that the situation is different. We can’t know whether the homeless person is lying and/or he might just use the money for alcohol. Maybe his situation isn’t really one of despair, or worse, that giving him the money could be bad for him! The problem with the thought that he might by lying is that it was applied to slaves as a reason not to help — they have lying, sneaky ways! — and regardless he could never ‘produce his papers’ to prove his case. The problem with the idea that our donation might be bad for him is that it betrays the fact that we think of the homeless as we do animals, “how should we treat them?”
It would seem, then, that we take the homeless to be beggars — and thus not in a position to make demands– precisely because they belong to that social category of, well, being homeless! Those creatures who we are always doing favors for, who might be lying, and about whom we can only ask, “how do we treat them?” If a homeless person doesn’t say thank you with a smile — perhaps telling us a joke to earn his keep — we are prone to irritation, and they are prone to getting less money for food. In other words, the homeless have an overriding reason to never express resentment toward us, and only gratitude. They aren’t full persons to us.
As strange as it might seem at first, I think that many Americans in the workforce are in precisely the same situation, just with different superiors. People often hate their bosses for all manner of mistreatment, but don’t say anything for fear of losing their livelihood, possible loss of friends, worry about gossip from coworkers, concern about a change in schedule, or not getting that promotion this year. A particularly compelling reason for many young people is the chance that they might lose the networking connections that their superior affords them. Since many fields now select based on who you know, one can’t really afford to burn any ladders, only bridges — one can’t express their contempt upward.
For similar reasons, one is compelled to show gratitude toward their bosses. If you want your relevant superior to connect you with other people in the field, you’ll want them to speak well of you. As such, you have an incentive to be perhaps a wee-bit sycophantic. If you want to make sure you won’t be fired, showing gratitude constantly is a good idea. Focusing again on young people in particular, they are often told during their internships that, given competition rates in the workforce, they should be grateful to have the opportunity to work and bolster their CV at all. As a result, young people curry favor with their employers — or with faculty — and then aggressively and resentfully compete with one another to gain rank.
This isn’t a good condition for a society to be in, and so I propose that one condition for a just society or institution should be 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 the scarce resources amongst a population? Given the discussion above, I wonder if a good principle for distributive justice could be based on the idea of “fuck you money.” Someone has fuck you money when they have enough independent economic means to express resentment toward their boss/authorities without crippling fear. Maybe everyone should have fuck you resources: enough means to ensure that they can reasonably risk expressing contempt for the immediate authorities in their lives. This way of distributing resources would make sure that a society sends resentment up, and gratitude down, ensuring that nobody has to force a smile for someone they resent.