Philosophising about the 'S'-word: Watch… and learn
In the third episode of the first season of Banshee, the new sheriff of Banshee (Antony Starr, Outrageous Fortune) barges in a mix martial arts tournament to arrest the national champion Damien Sanchez (Cedric Stewart, For better or worse) for rape and aggravated assault. Usually, in that small town, when a lot of money is engaged, stories of rapes are handled as mishaps and hushed up. Despite Kai Proctor’s attempts to come to an arrangement with the Sheriff Lucas Hood (his suggestion is letting Sanchez fight two more nights), Hood takes the massive champ down after a long bloody bone-cracking combat. Later on that night, Proctor pays him a visit to show him who the boss is:
KAI PROCTOR: You cost a lot of people a lot of money tonight. You cost me a lot of money tonight.
LUCAS HOOD: Why don’t you take it up with Sanchez? Can I help you with something, Mr. Proctor?
KAI PROCTOR: I always had very good relations with your predecessors.
LUCAS HOOD: Yeah, you bought them.
KAI PROCTOR: Sometimes laws need to be bent or broken for the greater good. I know you agree with that.
LUCAS HOOD: No. No, you know nothing about me.
KAI PROCTOR: Well, clearly not as much as I should. There’s a lot you don’t know as well. My family’s been here for 160 years. I’ve lived here my entire life. I am this town. I helped build it and I bled for it. Have you ever loved anything like that?
LUCAS HOOD: I have.
KAI PROCTOR: You see, people here don’t always approve of the way I go about things. But from what I’ve seen since you got here, you’re not very different from me in that regard. So what puzzles me is why you seem to hold me in such contempt.
LUCAS HOOD: I have no contempt for you. I’m just not afraid of you. I think maybe you’re not used to that. See, you call yourself a businessman and you dress well, you speak well, but you’re still nothing but a petty thug. You’ve been doing it so long, you actually think it makes sense to show up here in the middle of the night and ask me why you can’t own me like you own everyone else. That makes you delusional, which makes you dangerous. Why would I want to get in bed with someone like that?
KAI PROCTOR: Sheriff, do you know why they’re afraid of me?
LUCAS HOOD: Why is that?
KAI PROCTOR: Because they should be. And maybe you should be, too.
Kai Proctor rules over Banshee like Kim Jong-Un over North Corea. People fear him although they clearly outnumber him. This is a phenomenon that the French writer and philosopher Étienne de La Boétie (1530-1563) thoroughly described in a famous and short essay entitled Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, or the Anti-Dictator, that he wrote at the age of 18. From the beginning of his essay, his observation is as follows:
“For the present, I should like merely to understand how it happens that so many men, so many villages, so many cities, so many nations, sometimes suffer under a single tyrant who has no other power than the power they give him; who is able to harm them only to the extent to which they have the willingness to bear with him; who could do them absolutely no injury unless they preferred to put up with him rather than contradict him. Surely a striking situation! Yet it is so common that one must grieve the more and wonder the less at the spectacle of a million men serving in wretchedness, their necks under the yoke, not constrained by a greater multitude than they, but simply, it would seem, delighted and charmed by the name of one man alone whose power they need not fear, for he is evidently the one person whose qualities they cannot admire because of his inhumanity and brutality toward them. A weakness characteristic of human kind is that we often have to obey force; we have to make concessions; we ourselves cannot always be the stronger.”
According to La Boétie, the tyrant is a tyrant because the people let him be. And that people need not do anything for the tyrant to lose his power but simply want it:
“Obviously there is no need of fighting to overcome this single tyrant, for he is automatically defeated if the country refuses consent to its own enslavement: it is not necessary to deprive him of anything, but simply to give him nothing; there is no need that the country make an effort to do anything for itself provided it does nothing against itself. It is therefore the inhabitants themselves who permit, or, rather, bring about, their own subjection, since by ceasing to submit they would put an end to their servitude. A people enslaves itself, cuts its own throat, when, having a choice between being vassals and being free men, it deserts its liberties and takes on the yoke, gives consent to its own misery, or, rather, apparently welcomes it.”
So abiding oppression has nothing to do with cowardice (if there is a coward, it should be the tyrant himself), nothing to do with fear. Cowardice is when you are alone in front of someone bigger than you, and you have to choose between exposing yourself and protecting yourself and you choose the former. Cowardice is irrelevant when you clearly outnumber the person that dominates you:
“Shall we call subjection to such a leader cowardice? Shall we say that those who serve him are cowardly and faint-hearted? If two, if three, if four, do not defend themselves from the one, we might call that circumstance surprising but nevertheless conceivable. In such a case one might be justified in suspecting a lack of courage. But if a hundred, if a thousand endure the caprice of a single man, should we not rather say that they lack not the courage but the desire to rise against him, and that such an attitude indicates indifference rather than cowardice?”
So the dominated peoples do not lack the courage to rebel, they lack the will. Voluntary servitude is about willingly renouncing one’s liberty: “Liberty is the only joy upon which men do not seem to insist; for surely if they really wanted it they would receive it. Apparently they refuse this wonderful privilege because it is so easily acquired.” La Boétie states some paragraphs further.
The Greek sage Epictetus (AD c. 55 – 135), whose name means “servant, bought man” was a former slave. His philosophy is in keeping with the doctrine of stoicism, a doctrine according to which human freedom is something that does not depend on the human will but that results from a cosmic determination. So the stoics would not fight for their freedom, they would simply try to achieve happiness thanks to their sole virtue, and resign to any goal that does not depend on them, for destructive emotions such as fear and sadness result from an error in judgement. In The Discourses, Epictetus’ major work (written by his disciple Arrian around 108 AD), there is a text entitled “How One Should Behave Towards Tyrants”. Epictetus imagines a conversation he could have with a tyrant:
‘All men pay me attention.’
Yes, and I pay attention to my platter and work it and polish it and I fix up a peg for my oil-flask. Does that mean that these are superior to me? No, but they do me some service, and for this reason I pay them attention. Again: do I not pay attention to my ass? Do I not wash his feet? Do I not curry him? Do you not know that every man pays regard to himself, and to you only as to his ass? For who pays regard to you as a man? Show me. Who wishes to become like you? Who regards you as one like Socrates to admire and follow?
‘But I can behead you.’
Well said. I forgot, of course, one ought to pay you worship as if you were fever or cholera, and raise an altar to you, like the altar to Fever in Rome.
What is it then which disturbs and confounds the multitude? Is it the tyrant and his guards? Nay, God forbid! It is impossible for that which is free by nature to be disturbed or hindered by anything but itself. It is a man’s own judgements which disturb him. For when the tyrant says to a man, ‘I will chain your leg,’ he that values his leg says, ‘Nay, have mercy,’ but he that values his will says, ‘If it seems more profitable to you, chain it.’
‘Do you pay no heed?’
No, I pay no heed.
‘I will show you that I am master.’
How can you? Zeus gave me my freedom. Or do you think that he was likely to let his own son be enslaved? You are master of my dead body, take it.
When the Stoic philosophers and their followers put up no resistance to violence or mutilation or even death sentence, it was not because they were afraid (Epictetus does not sound afraid at all in the above text when he speaks to his tyrant. On the contrary, he sounds pretty cheeky!) The Greeks who followed the doctrin of stoicism assumed that their lives did not belong to them. It had never be up to them when and where they would be born, and in the same way, it was not up to them when or where they sould die. Everything depended on Zeus and one had to comply with that. In the sixth chapter of the Discourses of Epictetus, “On what is meant by ‘indifferent’ things”, we can read:
“(…)how is it a hardship that what was born should be destroyed? The instrument of destruction is a sword or a wheel or the sea or a potsherd or a tyrant. What matters it to you, by what road you are to go down to Hades? All roads are alike. But, if you will hear the truth, the road the tyrant sends you is shorter. No tyrant ever took six months to execute a man, but a fever often takes a year to kill one. All these complaints are mere noise and vanity of idle phrases.”
Religion tends to affect the way people react to hardships and oppression. The Stoics, as we see it, abandoned themselves to the will of Zeus. Believing in life after life and in a protecting god that helps to be happy in the suffering is a state of mind that prevents rebellion. The French philosopher Albert Camus (1913-1960) protrays it very well in The Rebel (1951), a major essay in which Camus questions the motives of an act of rebellion: why does a slave one day say no to his owner’s whipping after years of enduring even worse trials? Why would prisoners in a Soviet gulag commit suicide to protest against the hardships that their friends and fellow prisoners are put through? Camus studies the issue at length in The Rebel. He says something about Christianism:
“(…)the New Testament can be considered as an attempt to answer, in advance, every Cain in the world, by softening the figure of God and by creating an intercessor between God and man. Christ came to solve two major problems, evil and death, which are precisely the problems that preoccupy the rebel. His solution consisted, first, in experiencing them. The god-man suffers too, with patience.”
The Judeo-Christian attitude of praying and turning to God in order to overcome the oppression, that tendency to put every desire, every wish, every complaint in the Hands of God and to avoid carrying one’s yoke oneself is not conducive to rebellion.
Rebels claim for rights that they are convinced they should have. They are convinced that they deserve them. Deep down inside them, they know they are better than that, they know that no one should deprive them of being who they really are.
Freedom is our natural state, fighting for it is up to us. In the beginning of this article, I quoted La Boétie who said that submissiveness is “a weakness characteristic of human kind”. I will finish with my favorite excerpt of his Discourse on Voluntary Servitude. It describes how animals show us how precious liberty is:
“The very beasts, God help me! if men are not too deaf, cry out to them, “Long live Liberty!” Many among them die as soon as captured: just as the fish loses life as soon as he leaves the water, so do these creatures close their eyes upon the light and have no desire to survive the loss of their natural freedom. If the animals were to constitute their kingdom by rank, their nobility would be chosen from this type. Others, from the largest to the smallest, when captured put up such a strong resistance by means of claws, horns, beak, and paws, that they show clearly enough how they cling to what they are losing; afterward in captivity they manifest by so many evident signs their awareness of their misfortune, that it is easy to see they are languishing rather than living, and continue their existence more in lamentation of their lost freedom than in enjoyment of their servitude.
What else can explain the behavior of the elephant who, after defending himself to the last ounce of his strength and knowing himself on the point of being taken, dashes his jaws against the trees and breaks his tusks, thus manifesting his longing to remain free as he has been and proving his wit and ability to buy off the huntsmen in the hope that through the sacrifice of his tusks he will be permitted to offer his ivory as a ransom for his liberty?”
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Originally posted on TIME:
Some of our most powerful and lasting ideas about the world around us are learned at school. Hard work pays off. Success comes from working together. Girls’ bodies are dangerous and harassment is inevitable. This might sound inflammatory, but it is not an exaggeration. It is the overriding message being sent…