Slave Morality

I watched a philosophy video by Natalie Wynn yesterday that blew my mind. In it, she talks about Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil and “slave morality”.

This somewhat undermines my whole view of morality where there is some difficult to define, but possible to discern “right” and “wrong” and puts it in a more ambiguous space. That there are two competing “rights” that really are more situational than they are universal. Situational ethics has generally been frowned upon.

Natalie included a quote from Dr. King which showed his understanding of the situation, “What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.”

So, we need both love and power.

I was introduced to the idea of social justice in the ‘90s at the Lesbian Resource Center in Seattle by the young women of color who worked there and were willing and patient enough to explain things to me. I was not initially on board with much of it. I idolized my very libertarian father and step-mother and I integrated much of their worldview. It certainly helped me in my life, especially during the time where I was helping to start The Onion and The Stranger. I considered myself a powerful person who could do anything I set my mind to. I had much to offer the world and the world would be doing itself a favor to make room for me. Not necessarily at the top, which is something I never really wanted for myself, but somewhere firmly in the middle class where I had plentiful resources, eager colleagues, and the wherewithal to make good use of them.

Then I announced in the mid-1990s that I would be transitioning from male to female: that I would be getting what we called back then, a sex change. All of that braggadocio went away once I started hormones and changed my name. I went from master to slave in the span of about six months.

The first thing I learned about being a slave is that the initial fall isn’t even the worst, most painful part. That plummet was merely the initiation into a milleau of regularly scheduled pain and neglect. I also learned quite quickly that I was not gifted at birth, nor by upbringing, with a wealth of tools for navigating adversity.

I learned quite quickly that laying low and playing dead were the best strategies to escape most beatings. This was reinforced by what I learned from growing up queer, quiet, and clever. The people we go to for learning social coping strategies are unavailable to queer kids who feel we had to hide much of our internal life from responsible adults and older peers. We have fewer friends and more unstable relationships. While other kids are collecting marbles and Pokemon cards, we are collecting mental illnesses.

Usually after we get out of high school and enter university, or leave our hometowns to travel to bigger cities with more opportunity, or just to escape the feeling of being caged we experienced growing up; most of us are able to reinvent ourselves. Not always as who we truly are. Everyone is different. For me, I found characters in fiction that moved me emotionally. I wanted to be a writer, so I patterned myself after famous writers: Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Robbins, and Douglas Adams were my favorites, so I created a holistic hippy hitchhiker persona that got me through the early years of my young adulthood.

I thought I was free, though the whole time I knew I was not being myself. I had no idea what my self could be at that time. My fears of exposure were so great, I was still hiding. I was trying on bits of what other people liked about people I liked and building a persona out of it. This served me well as I got further into my publishing career. I built a master persona out of the wreckage of a slave child’s painful upbringing.

I was a success.

Success is, however, transient for even the most successful. Eating away at me all that time was a feeling that something wasn’t right, that I was being untrue to my most basic needs.

This is the part where the standard trans biography and mine meet: Something feels not right, explore what that something might be, turns out it’s how I feel about my body and the social role I’m playing. At least where I grew up, our bodies determine the social role we’ll be playing. It’s a chicken and egg game to determine whether changing the body or changing the role is easier. What I can say from experience is that personal physical changes are always easier to make than social changes. Personal physical changes may be painful, or drawn out, or imperfect, or all three; but even the most expensive cosmetic surgery is preferable to undergo than to take on the deeply-held beliefs of a group of people who benefit every day from those beliefs. Even when those people are trusted, loved, and considered friends.

Our experience of sex and gender roles is less tangible than we would like it. Even cissexual people report feelings of being unsure they are happy inhabiting their own sexed body. Most people, however, though they wince at some aspects of the role, are accepting of the body they have. And those who aren’t often take steps to make it a more idealized form of what they already inhabit.

Those who are unhappy with the role make great efforts to change society to be more accepting of alternatives to the few predefined archetypes that are generally accepted. Subcultures are created and real creativity happens in the space where people are reinventing themselves to express aspects of themselves that have gone hidden for far too long.

My mother asked me early on in my transition, “Why don’t you just keep it something secret? Why not live a life in public that adheres to the agreed-upon roles, then you can be anything you want in the privacy of your own home.” I now know that this is what she did with her life. She sublimated her desires into motherhood and homemaking. What those long lost desires were, we may never know. I suspect they were her aptitude for numbers and accounting, which my sister seemed to inherit and excel at. Who knows what my mother might have accomplished had she pursued her dreams. Perhaps she had conflicting dreams and wasn’t able to be both mother and mathematician. At that time, the 1970s, pursuing both was considered to be impossible.

But we make decisions based on incomplete information. We do our best with the information we have at hand. We build flexibility into our plans so that we can act on new information as it comes in.

The makeup and identity of the trans community has changed drastically in the last fifty years, for the better. We’re far more diverse and interesting than we started out.

For a group of people, most of whom are just trying to survive as best we can in communities that are at best view us with antipathy, we are doing incredibly well.

So yes, we create ideologies, ethics, and morality of slaves and we identify with other slaves against the masters. It feels so right and correct to be on this side of the struggle because it’s a fight for our existence. Of course it feels right.

I think what I was missing is that when I was a master, I felt the same way. I was fighting the good fight. There were winners (hopefully me) and losers (usually other newspapers, rarely individual people, but in the case of individuals who were highly identified with their newspaper: fair game). While a moral case could be made that I shouldn’t have been as mercenary, I was often acting less so than my business partners. I advocated for more women to be involved, for more people of color to be involved and because I was in a position of power, I got listened to and while it wasn’t near enough by today’s standards, The Stranger was a role model for other newspapers. We helped create the more just world we live in today where people feel free to ask for an even more fair world.

That’s how it’s supposed to work, right?

I often say that the most important civil rights advance was integration. I believe integration is so important because that’s the one thing that hasn’t changed all that much from the 1960s. The world is a segregated place: by race, class, and gender. The United States still has a long way to go and in some ways we have gone backwards since the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and 1970s where we had so much advancement in other areas.

Having a thriving Black middle class doesn’t make us stronger if it just creates two segregated middle classes. History has proved to us that the Black middle class will come out with less due to the complexities of American history and how race relations play out in American culture, even more chaotically and tragically now in the 21st century.

I have a lot of thinking to do about morality, I think. I’m willing to accept that morality is more complicated than I was taught in Sunday school. At the same time, I believe that it’s more important than ever that I examine my notions of morality and see where they can be brought up to date.

And of course, all of this nuanced and subtle rumination is completely incompatible with twenty-four hour cable news, social media, and the ideologically-segregated communities we live in today.

Published by

Johanna Wilder

Yes, indeedy.