Flipping The Drawing

People cry “Exploitation!” so readily that we tend to forget that this is the name, not of an objective property of the universe, but of a particular interpretation of the ethics of a situation. We should be particularly cautious when the cry is raised by one of the parties. For me to be “exploited” means that I have given you X and you have given me Y in return, whereas I consider that I “deserve” to be given Y+Z instead. That I “deserve” to be given more is easy for me to say; it is a matter of my own opinion of my deserts or contribution, which may be wildly inflated. I am here sitting in judgment in my own cause. And of course the same applies the other way around. “You exploited me!” may thus mean: “We both tried to rip one another off, and you did it better”.

Even from the outside of any given situation, however, it is by no means obvious who, if anyone, is exploiting whom. For we always bring our own preconceived notions to the business of interpreting partnerships.

Consider the arrangement that appears to exist between ants and aphids. Shall we say that the ants feed the aphids and milk them? The very fact that in our question we made the ants the subject of the sentence affects our view of the relationship; we are modelling the ants on our own active selves and the aphids on our passive domestic animals. Or shall we say that the aphids pay the ants in milk to look after them? By making the aphids the grammatical subject we have now suggested that they are no longer helpless domestic cattle, but are now a rentier class, exploiting those poor, hard-working ants.

Which we most naturally regard as the exploiter and which the exploited therefore depends on an a priori assumption about which is the superior animal. We see that the ants run around a lot, build and carry things, get into our picnics and bite us, so we assume that they are higher on the Great Chain of Being than the aphids, which don’t seem to us to be doing very much at all. That reflects our modern prejudice that busy-ness is a Good Thing. But had we not long ago forgotten all our Marxism, we might have remembered that the guys doing all the rushing about are probably serving the guys who are sitting still, and not contrariwise. We cannot interview the ants and aphids to discover which, if either, consider themselves exploited; and even if we could, all that would give us might be the tendentious lament of the failed exploiter, see above. There is therefore no “right answer” to the question of the ants and aphids, it is like the famous drawing that you can see as alternately Sigmund Freud or a naked woman.

The same situation may obtain with the transactions between human beings; except that the parties are not the mute subjects of our assumption-spinning, but actively plead their own causes – that is to say, they spin. In both cases, however, the decision whom to make the subject of our sentence, whom to appoint as the active agent and whom the passive object, is crucial.

The Finns have a folk event, a wife-carrying contest. This, too, is a drawing that can be flipped. One way of looking at it is to see the men competing with one another to demonstrate the strength literally to port their property, which may also be regarded as proof of the ability to defend their rights of possession – that is, a warning to weaker men not to encroach. The other way of looking at it would be in terms of the women competing with one another to demonstrate the strength of the “mounts” they have succeeded in acquiring and taming. If the proverbial Martian were to descend and attend this event, which sex would he (or she, or it) consider was the boss in the marriage, the steed or the rider? For us, the syntax is crucial: is the man carrying the woman or is the woman getting herself carried?

For another example, consider the relationship that exists between a woman and a handsome man. They have sex, a baby results, and the man goes away. Shall we now say that the man has seduced the woman, impregnated and abandoned her? In the same way as with the ants and aphids, the very fact that we have made the man the subject of the sentence affects our view of the relationship; we are modelling the man as active and the woman as passive, almost like the farmer and his fields or cattle. If we can mentally flip the picture and see the aphids as employing the ants, we should also be able to perform the same operation here, making the woman the subject of the sentence and the active agent in the transaction. She is now hiring a sperm donor and resuming her independence afterwards.

It is true that in this example there is no detectable injury to the man, and in some societies a considerable one to the woman; yet we could regard her as having to pay the price of her chosen sperm donor, not cash down to him but in the form of economic and social difficulties. The point remains that we can, if we wish, flip the drawing and see her as having acted, and the man as having been acted upon. Subsequent lamentations are not in themselves evidence of anything, as they may be necessary as protective coloration, required to appease the censorious and attract the compassionate. Because of these ingrained assumptions about agency and objecthood, the patriarchal assumption that the man must be the First Cause or Unmoved Mover, a woman can do pretty much anything she wants and still present herself afterwards as the passive victim of male initiative.

The same linguistic flip applies to the concept of “love”, which helps to cement the equivalent of the aphids’ view of the ants. The use of the active verb “love” suggests to our minds that a return is required: if we say that Jane loves Dick, this sounds as if she is doing something good to or for or with him, thus creating an obligation. But Dick may not have asked Jane to love him. We could equally well say that Jane “placed her love” on Dick. That suggests that she had a stock of love and chose him to place it on, driven by her own particular needs; which by no means creates any kind of obligation.

Now, as well as feeding the aphids, the ants guard them. Again, this can be seen either as the ants protecting their property, or else as the aphids hiring external security. When male lions attack and attempt to kill female lions in neighbouring prides, who benefits? The females of their own prides, of course. So, too, with us: if we regard the male as the primary and dominant creature, then his strength and capacity for violence becomes his resource for capturing and enslaving the passive and inferior creature, the woman; but if we flip the picture and regard the female as the agent and mover, then we have a case of the brains hiring the dumbass muscle to do a job of work. There are three basic functions for the hired human security: protecting against predators, protecting against other males, fighting one another to demonstrate who has the best genes, and suppressing the lineages of competing females. At the most extreme, we might say that “men” are devices used by women to kill one another’s children.

Governments create armies, who frequently proceed to overthrow their masters. Male oppression of women can be easily seen as the equivalent failure of “civil-military relations”, as it is known in academia, or “control of the armed forces”. Alternatively, the mayhem may have begun, not with the muscle starting to act on its own behalf, but with some women hiring male guards against other women’s male guards. History could perfectly well be rewritten, therefore, in terms of female lineages hiring male mercenaries to fight for the right to dominate posterity’s genetic profile. Both this scenario and the competition to show who has the best genes can be summarised by the well-known female slogan, “Let’s you and him fight”.

Similarly, Comanche Rules may be viewed in terms either of passive women helplessly being carried off by the victor of a duel, but also in terms of active women deliberately trading up in order to be impregnated by the best male specimen. It all depends on how you flip that drawing in your mind.

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