The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 25, 2023 - 1:25:45

The Master-Slave Dynamic and the Price of Eggs

Kate Whittaker Cousino, Oct 19, 2017

So I've talked a bit about how the master-slave dynamic affects consent in romantic and sexual contexts, and how to reduce the cost of "no" to balance out differences in power and risk.

There are other relationships where this dynamic plays out, of course. Children are not in a great position to say no to their parents, or teachers, or other authority figures. We can't eliminate the imbalance of power in that case, but we can be careful not to ask our children for anything that might be damaging to them, and we can respect their emotional autonomy--you can ask for obedience, but you cannot demand a corresponding inward attitude of cheer or gratitude.

We can seek to reason or persuade adult children rather than yank on the strings of guilt or financial dependence to ensure compliance.

Our friendships, too, may be marked by the master-slave dynamic if a domineering or especially outgoing personality is matched with a subdued, timid, or insecure friend. It's possible to run roughshod over a beloved sibling or friend, not out of malice, but simply out of a failure to recognize an imbalance in influence or resources.

This is, of course, the lesson Jane Austen's Emma has to learn, having exploited her position of relative privilege to interfere in her friends' intimate emotional lives. At the conclusion of the book, Emma is only saved from the consequences of her meddling in Harriet Smith's life by the revelation that Harriet had not been quite so submissive as she appeared, having continued to see the young man Emma had decided she was too good for. Even in this moment of relief, the imbalance in their friendship is still evident in Harriet's confusion and shame over having failed to take the advice of someone who had been "so good" to her. 

Let me be clear: I am not drawing an equivalence between meddling in a friend's love life and rape. Not every temptation to dominance is equally monstrous. But...well, let me show you. 

In a week full of stirring confessions and emotional revelations, only one managed to bring me to tears. It wasn't a #metoo post. It was rarer, and powerful because of its rarity. It was this mea culpa from a scriptwriter, Scott Rosenberg, who worked for the monstrous Harvey Weinstein for over a decade. In it, he takes responsibility for his own slavishness, his own culpability: 

As the old joke goes:
We needed the eggs.

Okay, maybe we didn’t NEED them.
But we really, really, really, really LIKED them eggs.
So we were willing to overlook what the Golden Goose was up to, in the murky shadows behind the barn…

Rosenberg doesn't just apologize for failing to stop Weinstein's abuse of women. As he says in his post, who would he have told? What could he have done? It was the stuff of rumours and gossip for him and other bystanders. 

No, although Rosenberg's culpability includes repentance for silence, it goes beyond it.

So, yeah, I am sorry.
Sorry and ashamed.
Because, in the end, I was complicit.
...Harvey was nothing but wonderful to me.
So I reaped the rewards and I kept my mouth shut.
And for that, once again, I am sorry....

He was complicit because he allowed himself to be bought. He participated in a system that simply accepted domination as the price of comfort, luxury, success.

The cost didn't seem so great--just don't look too closely into the shadows. But in reality the cost was even greater, because the price was allowing the master-slave dynamic to go unchecked, affirming Weinstein's sense of entitlement and becoming part of the wall of silence that protected the worst abuses of power. 

This is the cost of accepting the master-slave relationship as the price of doing business, the norm of human relationships. 

I'm tired of paying that price. I'm ready to find another way to live and love and coexist.

Aren't you?

Golden Egg image by Nevit Dilmen (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons