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Sunday, March 30, 2008

Demanding Gratitude from the Oppressed

Demanding Gratitude from the Oppressed
Image © Austin Cline
Original Poster: National Archives
Click for full-sized Image

Patrick Buchanan's article about how grateful blacks should be to whites has been subjected to much-deserved criticism, but I wanted to suggest that Buchanan's central thesis is one that applies across the spectrum of privileged power in America. Wherever you look, you can find signs of the privileged and powerful expecting gratitude from the oppressed for... well, for having been oppressed, quite frankly. The privileged aren't happy enough being privileged, they want to be thanked by the un-privileged for the privilege of not being privileged.

It's not just that blacks should be grateful to whites for their ancestors being enslaved (because it means they grow up here rather than Africa). Women should be grateful to men for having been disenfranchised (because at least they don't have to wear burqas, but those sluts really should cover up more). Atheists should be grateful to Christians for being despised (because that's better than being beheaded, but they should learn to sit down and shut up). Immigrants should be grateful to whites that there is a country they can try to sneak into (even if it means risking their lives). The poor should be grateful to the rich that they have a chance at any jobs at all (even if it means living paycheck to paycheck, without health insurance).

What is "gratitude," anyway? Being grateful isn't just a matter of being thankful, but of being "warmly or deeply appreciative of kindness or benefits received." Much more than one who is merely thankful, a "grateful" person is one who is "obliged" or "indebted" to another. You would be thankful to your neighbor for giving you a magazine of yours that was delivered to them by mistake, but you would be grateful to your neighbor for giving you a large insurance check that had been delivered to them by mistake.

Gratitude often carries with it some sense of duty. If someone has given you a benefit which is large enough to deserve gratitude from you, then you now have certain duties with respect to that person — you should be kinder towards them, more generous, more respectful, etc. You should be quicker to forgive their failings and slower to attribute errors to malice. Human gratitude towards gods has often been repaid through worship, sacrifices, submission, and following the gods' instructions. Gratitude cannot be shown simply through saying "thank you," but must be demonstrated through positive actions.

The nature of gratitude has important implications for this context. For one thing, an indebted person is necessarily in a subordinate position — you owe someone something. On a purely personal level between equals, like the situation described above, it's unlikely that any repayment would be expected and so being put on a subordinate level doesn't quite happen. In a political context, however, repayment is always expected. When one group is indebted to another, that subordinate status comes to define the relationship until repayment is made — assuming it ever can be, of course. John Lendon wrote in Empire of Honour about gratitude among the Romans: "All the inferior could do was to be ‘grateful,’ that is, he could remember and hold himself in readiness to repay forever." An inferior person may never have the power or means to truly repay a debt of gratitude.

What this means is that making a demand in the political sphere that others be grateful is effectively a demand that others adopt a more submissive attitude or behavior than they have thus far been showing. It's an attempt to assert dominance over those who are "obliged" or "indebted" to you: you did something very, very important for them and now you expect them to demonstrate the appropriate deference to you, their benefactor. They must hold yourself ready to repay you; if their entire race is indebted, then every member must hold themselves submissive and ready to repay — forever.

This raises a very important question: to whom are the "grateful" supposed to express their gratitude? Whom should they be prepared to repay? If blacks in America are supposed to be grateful that their ancestors were kidnapped and brought to America in bondage, to whom exactly are they supposed to be grateful? Assuming for the sake of argument that the position is valid, I'm not sure that question can be answered with any group besides the slavers. Maybe you could include the white slave owners over the course of several hundred years, since they created the demand for slaves, but that's about it.

Notice, though, that this isn't brought up by those insisting that black Americans be grateful. Instead, the implication seems to be that gratitude should be shown to upper-class white males today — inevitably the class of the person demanding gratitude — as if they were somehow the ones who bestowed upon black Americans the benefit of being descended from slaves. When it comes to issues like apologizing or paying reparations for slavery, though, aren't these the same people who are first to insist that they had nothing to do with slavery and so shouldn't be held responsible for it? They don't want to even apologize for slavery, but they seem to want to be the subject of "warmly or deeply appreciative" feelings for the same slavery.

Buchanan is quite wrong that blacks should be grateful to whites in America, and by extension it's wrong to expect any historically oppressed groups in America to feel gratitude towards their oppressors. First, there is no reason to show gratitude towards anyone who rights a wrong which they were responsible for in the first place. You don't show gratitude towards a thief who returns the car they stole (after it's half-wrecked). You don't show gratitude towards a murderer who reveals the location of the bodies of their victims (as part of a plea bargain to get a lighter sentence).

Second, giving someone a benefit as a side effect of an evil act is not one for which any gratitude is owed. Seneca addressed this sort of motivation as well, describing an assassin who tries to kill a tyrant but instead strikes a deadly tumor which the doctors had been afraid to operate on: "he did not, however, for that reason receive the thanks of the tyrant, though by doing him injury he cured him of the disorder to which the surgeons had not had the courage to apply the knife. You see that the act itself is of no great consequence, since it appears that the man who from evil intent actually renders a service has not given a benefit..." (De Beneficiis II)

Third, making demands of gratitude causes that gratitude to stop being praiseworthy. As Seneca wrote: "for in that case no one will any more praise a man for being grateful than he will praise one who has returned a deposit of money, or paid a debt without being summoned before a judge." (De Beneficiis III) Thus if we imagine that the gratitude which Buchanan is demanding were appropriate, we find that Buchanan is actually working to undermine whatever value or meaning that gratitude would have.

Finally, as Hilzoy notes, the actions for which Buchanan expects gratitude were done largely to benefit whites while excluding blacks (at least at first). Seneca was quite unambiguous in explaining that such intentions effectively prevent gratitude from being appropriate. Seneca further wrote: "Who is able to be grateful to another for a benefit haughtily thrust upon him [condescendingly], or pushed on him in irritation, or given out of a sense of fatigue in order to put an end to trouble?" (De Beneficiis I) It's hard to not see this as descriptive of Buchanan and his ilk.

Perhaps we can turn all this around, however, and argue in the opposite direction. Should Pat Buchanan be grateful to blacks and others who have been oppressed in America that they never rose up in revolution against their oppressors? Social change in America hasn't always been very easy and without conflict, but it also hasn't proceeded as a result of violent rebellion — except, of course, for that one time when the oppressors themselves initiated a violent rebellion in the South in order to preserve their ability to continue oppressing with impunity. Curious, isn't it?

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