It is an iconic image we are all familiar with. The courageously resilient hero standing strong and defiant against any attempts to dominate, enslave, suppress, or exploit. The good guy refusing to be defeated or abused by an oppressive villain.
It’s a compelling image and there are certainly times when it is necessary to not only defend our rights and freedoms but also to fight for them. Heroism, however, is defined by action on behalf of others not simply ourselves. In our current technologically enhanced consumer culture we have started viewing our personal comfort and convenience as fundamental rights and fighting for them makes us less ‘heroic freedom fighters’ and more ‘petulant children’.
The desire to do the things we want to do and avoid the things we don’t is not an evil impulse. It could be accused of being selfish but not all selfishness is corrupt and it is completely natural to be drawn to the things we enjoy and to be deterred by the things we do not. Pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain is a primal drive all living creatures share right down to single celled organisms.
As we evolved into sentient and aware creatures our interactions with the world became more complex than ‘toward to the food’ and ‘away from the fire’ as did our interactions with one another, but the fundamental principle is still present and you don’t have to squint all that hard to spot it at work. We seek those things which nourish us and avoid those which cause us harm.
Circumstances, however, do not always make the choices or options so simple. There are often barriers and obstacles which block our access to the things we seek or which force us to interact with sources of potential harm.
Whether we define pleasure in simple terms such as physical nourishment or in grand terms such as self-fulfilment we don’t automatically get to have it simply because we want it. And whether our definition of pain is as minor as discomfort or as severe as life threatening injury our personal refusal is no guarantee we will not ultimately be forced to experience it.
One of the primary mechanisms of living is figuring out how to navigate through the world around us in ways which maximize or access to pleasure and minimize our exposure to pain. From basic considerations like trying to obtain food when we are hungry or seeking shelter from harsh weather to more advanced societal phenomena such as finding employment which suits and fulfills us by utilizing our personal skills and talents or developing new medical technologies to prevent injury or disease the fundamental drive and process remain the same.
So we come by our desire to feel pleasure and comfort naturally, it is deeply rooted in all living things. And if we were completely alone in our existence on this planet the only barriers we faced would be those naturally occurring and our only limitations for combating them would be our own capabilities.
But we are not alone on this planet. There are just shy of 8 billion other people sharing this world with us, to say nothing of all the other living organisms, each with their own set of things they do and do not want. Though we are always most aware of our own thoughts and feelings the simple truth is, our personal pleasure and comfort are not the only things being sought or considered.
The core principle of the idea of equality among people is the concept of us each being able to pursue our own personal interests so long as doing so does not prevent others from doing the same.
Our planet may not be tiny, depending on your scale of measurement, but it certainly isn’t large enough for 8 billion people to spread out and pursue their own individual interests without intersecting and potentially conflicting with one another. As a result, even long before the number was anywhere near 8 billion, the wellbeing and facility of others has been an automatic and guaranteed factor in our attempted navigation of life.
As cultures and societies throughout history we have sought to simplify those factors through hierarchical power structures. Either through military or ideological conquest we have repeatedly manufactured systems which grant certain groups greater importance and others less, empowering certain sets of considerations to supersede others. World War II was essentially Hitler’s attempt to impose his personal set of considerations on a global scale and other nations uniting to refuse him.
Organization and leadership are always necessary thus at some levels there will always be hierarchical power structures in any society. The ideal undergirding the concept of democracy is that those assigned membership in the smaller group with greater powers are placed there for the mission of safeguarding the wellbeing of those who placed them there.
It is a noble and worthwhile ideal but the problem is once a small group is granted such enormous power it becomes increasingly difficult to oversee and enforce its proper use and application. And power of any significance can be an intoxicating and corrupting influence so we will always be grappling with those who allow themselves to be seduced into thinking those with less power are there to serve them rather than the other way around.
All leaders are human, and no human being is ever perfect. We all require external comparisons and information to calibrate and asses the effectiveness and veracity of our actions. And no ideology will ever be a perfect fit for everyone. Even amongst the most homogenous groups there are always disagreements on some levels thus differences of opinion, preferences, and needs will always be present and require consideration. So yes, there will inevitably be times when it is necessary to question, challenge, and even outright defy the edicts and dictates of authority figures and leaders.
The ‘you can’t tell me what to do’ stance might seem like a manifestation of such conscientious resistance but it is not. It is, in fact, the opposite of it. While it is a relatively close neighbor of ‘what you are trying to force on me is wrong’ it differs in one very important, and completely unheroic, way. It is focused purely on the power relationship between the parties involved, not on how that power is being used.
Person A telling Person B ‘you can’t tell me what to do’ is in part an attempt to decrease or check the power being exerted by Person B but it is doing so by simply trying to invert the relationship. The primary focus is not in challenging Person B’s power but rather immunizing Person A from it. It is an attempt to place Person A in a position of superseding importance rendering Person B’s considerations less significant and thereby dismissible. Rather than an act of challenging a potential abuse of power it is an attempt to personally overrule it.
It can be difficult to unravel all the threads involved in challenging or resisting authority in moments of contention or conflict but that phrase and attitude indicate a very different and toxic perspective. ‘You can’t tell me what to do’ has virtually nothing to do with perceived correctness, appropriateness, or fairness of the other person’s proposition and instead comes from a place of purely personal exemption.
The statement ‘you can’t tell me what to do’ tends to be viewed as rather juvenile because we first utter it in our early childhood. At the time it gets somewhat forgiven because of the naïve narcissism which can be inherent to our early years, wherein we are still learning to understand and connect to the world around us. When uttered in adulthood it reveals a blindingly over-simplistic self-interest, a no longer forgivable naïve narcissism, centered round the premise ‘I don’t have to listen to you’.
The sneaky and insidious tactic this attitude can employ as camouflage is to dress itself in apparent heroism, or even seeming patriotism, by way of villainizing the other party. ‘I don’t have to listen to you because you are bad, because you are one of them’.
The moral corruption or malfeasance of a leader are certainly grounds for challenging or resisting their edicts but when the main thrust of the argument is aimed at illustrating why ‘I don’t have to listen to it’ rather than why ‘you shouldn’t have the power to demand it’ it speaks far more to self-interest than it does to the greater good. Those two things can certainly be aligned but mistaking one for the other can be incredibly dangerous, toxic, and destructively closed minded.
‘This is wrong because it affects me in this way’ and ‘this is wrong because it affects me in this way’ are two very different statements. It can be all too easy to intoxicate ourselves with images of battling for a greater good when in truth we are merely angered on behalf of our own discomfort or inconvenience.
Constantly casting ourselves as the targeted victim over every discomfort can also lead to us actually requiring a villain for every scenario. In the absence of an actual villain we wind up creating them which is, in part, what drives the hungry fascination with conspiracy theories as they are the perfect vehicle for manufacturing convenient villains.
Again, our discomfort and the needs of the greater good can most certainly be aligned but if we are battling only for our own desires not only is it purely self-serving but once, and if, we achieve them we then perceive the battle to be over and won whether an actual greater good has been achieved or not.
Performative allyship falls into this category. It can be all too easy once we have engaged in enough protests, posts, likes, shares, and perhaps even seen some significant actions taken in response to feel as if the battle has been won. We then return to our normal lives freed from the temporary discomfort of inspired outrage whether or not the ongoing lives of those we were acting on behalf of have truly and sustainably changed.
True heroism requires persistent ongoing acknowledgement and awareness of the considerations of others. The understanding that our constantly changing and evolving societies will inevitably lead to conflicts and disagreements between groups and ideologies, conflicts which will only be truly resolved by acknowledgment and compromise not simply by overruling them.
We could all do worse than to take a lesson from the South African philosophy of Ubuntu, the idea we are all connected and that our meaning and humanity is both produced and defined by those connections.
You may have seen the endearing online story about Ubuntu wherein an anthropologist studying a tribe in South Africa sets a basket of treats at the foot of a tree and tells a group of children the first to race to it can have all the treats. In response the children all link hands and walk over together sharing the treats as a group. When the bewildered anthropologist asks why none of them ran ahead to have all the treats a little girl responded — ‘how can one of us be happy if all the others are sad?’
As the story offers no names, dates, or specific places it may well be an endearing fabrication but while it might be a bit convenient and vulnerable to stereotypes it does quite accurately portray the communally connective philosophy of Ubuntu. Professor Michael Onyebuchi Eze at the University of Cambridge offers a more academic explanation.
‘A person is a person through other people’ strikes an affirmation of one’s humanity through recognition of an ‘other’ in his or her uniqueness and difference. It is a demand for a creative intersubjective formation in which the ‘other’ becomes a mirror (but only a mirror) for my subjectivity. This idealism suggests to us that humanity is not embedded in my person solely as an individual; my humanity is co-substantively bestowed upon the other and me. Humanity is a quality we owe to each other. We create each other and need to sustain this otherness creation. And if we belong to each other, we participate in our creations: we are because you are, and since you are, definitely I am. The ‘I am’ is not a rigid subject, but a dynamic self-constitution dependent on this otherness creation of relation and distance.
Eze, M. O. Intellectual History in Contemporary South Africa, pp. 190–191
And Archbiship Desmond Tutu offers a more oratory ‘call to action’ type of explanation.
“Africans have a thing called ubuntu. It is about the essence of being human, it is part of the gift that Africa will give the world. It embraces hospitality, caring about others, being willing to go the extra mile for the sake of another. We believe that a person is a person through other persons, that my humanity is caught up, bound up, inextricably, with yours. When I dehumanize you, I inexorably dehumanize myself. The solitary human being is a contradiction in terms. Therefore you seek to work for the common good because your humanity comes into its own in community, in belonging.”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu
‘We are people through other people’ almost certainly leads to more complicated conversations and delicate navigations but from my view it also leads to a far more happy, healthy, and sustainable place than ‘you can’t tell me what to do’. Relegating all our interactions with others to that of opponents or enemies doesn’t connect us, it divides us.