Germaine Greer, the Moseleys and the Master-Slave Dialectic

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You’ll have to forgive me, I have no idea how to make this link all embedded and sexy and turn you on and make you come. Instead, self-deprecating editorializing! – LET’S GO.

Watching Question Time* recently, with Germaine Greer terrifying audiences with a post-Freudian Freudianism and Peter Hitchens admirably sticking to a party-line of reductive (yet profitable) nonsense, I suddenly found myself asking the same sort of questions as must be asked in a debate like they were having: are children overly sexualised? Is the media to blame? Or is it the corporations? Or is it the parents? And speaking of the parents, where are we to draw the line between a goodnight kiss and an act of subtle incest?

(And believe me, I’m not joking – there are lines to be drawn.)

There’s a line Slavoj Zizek likes to repeat, and I think he makes a very good point with it: A while ago, with the more authoritarian familial makeup, your father would say to you: “You are going to visit your Grandma. I don’t care if you don’t want to, or if you don’t like it – it’s happening.” Nowadays, Zizek says, the line goes more like: “You know your Grandma loves you. Now, you don’t have to visit her if you don’t want to. But just remember that she loves you, and she’d be delighted to see you.”

He emphasizes that the message is the same: “I want you to see your Grandma.” But only in the second example, (an example, he claims, of postmodern liberal parenting), is the message: “Now only do you have to see your Grandma, but you have to ENJOY it.”

I think this is very pertinent: when we deal with any social issue, be it sexualisation or crime, dogging, what-have-you, (and I’d love to hear Germaine Greer sound off on dogging,)** – we are torn between these two competing tendencies. The first, an authoritarian tendency to command, and the second, a passive-aggressive tendency to manipulate and influence.And while the word “authoriatian” has, quite reasonably, acquired a derogatory tone, on a par with “fascist” or “Moseley” (Max or Oswald, depending on your age), I suggest that the second, passive-aggressive tendency, is much more dangerous.

If there is one thing that is truly terrifying, it is a power which is not willing to admit to being powerful. A tyrant on a throne is an awe-inspiring and intimidating figure, but he gives you something to aim at; a tyrant who hides behind the throne, or in the mob, is a much trickier one to deal with.

And I think it is this tyrant who rears his head when you hear the sort of generic comments that are often made on Question Time and met invariably with raucous applause. Things like (and here, I am unashamedly making things up) “I think that the important thing is to make sure that everyone gets a fair deal,” or “I think it’s the duty of the government to look after its people, and to provide them with the best service it can, and in this vein…” – and so on. I value the comments of Peter Hitchens far more highly than these catch-all, quasi-aphoristic nonsenses. Peter Hitchens, while clearly a very arrogant and opinionated man, has clearly thought over his point and it willing

to make it despite the kind of booing that would drive an actor to suicide. These people with their “I reckon”s and “It’s important that we”, and “Speaking as a father”s, – they are what truly terrifies me. Because it’s easy to kick Peter Hitchens in the bollocks, but it’s not so easy with a softly-spoken father of two.

I would suggest, rather, that consensus politics must be counterbalanced. I am not suggesting a headlong rush into prescriptive draconianism – rather, I’m simply suggesting that the authoritarian approach is more honest and less manipulative than the passive-aggressive approach. If we don’t want our children to be oversexualised, it’s our duty to act on that – the idea that we should “leave it up to” the children themselves is preposterous. It’s like saying that helping someone who’s being repeatedly kicked in the jaw by a grinning, sociopathic businessman wouldn’t be empowering, and that we should leave them to it and let them make their own decisions about being
held down and kicked in the jaw.

It’s this desire to be liked that causes problems. And I’m not accusing the whole government, or all of Question Time’s speakers, or the whole of anything – merely something that’s shown up in culture. Being liked is good, but not when you’re actively trying. That’s manipulation. If you want people to like you, then it behoves you to show yourself for the horrible bastard you are. Respect is the only honest form of being liked.

Finally: if we are to go about being authoritarian, prescribing, combating the sexualisation of children by all these forces – in effect, protecting our children in the biased and naive way that only people with no interest in being liked by their children can (rather, an interest in protecting the children, even if they hate us for it) – if we are to do this, then it is necessary for us to understand that we are tyrants.

And, like all great and terrible tyrants, we will eventually become figures of hatred for our children, and this is how they develop and grow. If you want your child to like you, and value nothing more highly, then you have completely failed them. Completely. It all comes back to the Master-Slave dialectic, which I assure you is everywhere, and built into human nature. There’s a Master, and a Slave.

And the Slave waits for the Master to die, or kills him. And this is the process of developing, of becoming-yourself, or developing what is called self-mastery – of becoming the master for yourself. But if you refuse to be the Master, if you are so intent and fixated on your child that you want too to become a Slave, so that it will empathise with you – if you are a slave to your child (hitting it, getting angry with it, is a kind of slavery) – then someone else will step in to be the Master, be it big business or Jay-Z or porn***. And I assure you, this new Master, he will not be a pleasant one.

* Question Time is a pitiful limey TV show in which we gather together some politicians and some downtrodden public figures to sit in front of an audience of people aged either from 17 to 21 or 58 to 109 and pretend that they’re doing things.
**Dogging is a pitiful limey pursuit in which ugly, fat people meet in car parks to have sex and speak in a range of awkward-sounding, sexless Northern accents.
***English porn is fantastic, you’d love it. We sound exactly like you imagine we sound. For those of you who haven’t imagined, think about what it would sound like if two people who spend most of their time staring glumly out of a window into the pouring rain suddenly found themselves having sex. 

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About Robert

English, and a baffling cliche.

46 Responses to Germaine Greer, the Moseleys and the Master-Slave Dialectic

  1. Very interesting, especially the inversion of the master-slave dynamic.

    But take Zizek’s quote as a starting point. Is one better than the other? You don’t make it explicit, but you do suggest that in the latter the parent is both forcing you to do it and like it, which is a more extreme form of control. So I’ll say that it’s bad.

    The trouble is that the less bad, less passive-aggressive method– “just do it because you have to–” is the one that has been employed for the past X generations, with terrible results. It’s the same argument I wonder about with spanking, or “kids need to be tougher”– that style of parenting produced most of our parents. Did it work?

    • Robert says:

      I would say that the problem was that the parents weren’t able to accept that what they were doing was wrong. Not that they shouldn’t do it – simply that they were bastards. I’m just kind of exploring the idea that perhaps one of the duties of a parent or leader is not only to be a tyrant, but to knowingly be a tyrant in some respect, if they think that that is the right thing to do.

      All this starts with my belief that if you think something is right, you should do it. But after you have done it, you should be prepared to be pilloried and/or killed for it. And I think it’s the same with parents – I’m not saying that we should discipline children in the awful way we’ve managed to get rid of – hitting them (I say that’s slavery as well, slavery to something else, to power) – I suggest we need to be as cold and calm as possible with kids, and to accept our power over them instead of handing it to others.

      • Robert says:

        Oh, and thanks for putting my thing up. It’s an honour to be part of the website.

      • DataShade says:

        All this starts with my belief that if you think something is right, you should do it. But after you have done it, you should be prepared to be pilloried and/or killed for it.

        Robert Jordan, through one of his characters in the Wheel of Time, said it as: “Take what you want, then pay for it.”

        You end your comment with “I suggest we need to be as cold and calm as possible with kids, and to accept our power over them instead of handing it to others,” and that’s an assertion I can get behind – but it really doesn’t have anything to do with becoming a pure authoritarian.

        When you say “accept our power over them,” I feel like you’re asking society’s permission to be that tyrant, when all you really need to do is say “I take responsibility for my children,” – and preferably you’d be saying such a thing quietly, to yourself, just before you decide you don’t actually need to go be in the studio audience of Question Time. =)

    • cb3k1 says:

      I had a similar thought about the Zizek quote, which left me wondering what is the right way to say that to children. I wonder if both ways in the quote are wrong because both ways address the child as an object instead of a person. Which brings up my next question, is the content of the message not nearly as important as the way in which it’s conveyed to children. That is to say, are the non-verbal components more important than the verbal ones?

      Would either of those approaches from the quote work if the parent was emotionally attuned and available to the child? Or is it moot because the parent who is emotionally available would choose not to convey the message to the child using those words in the first place?

      • Robert says:

        Therein lies another kind of paradox: any parent who isn’t constantly worried that they might be doing something terrible, fucking up, ruining their kids, is probably an awful parent. But a parent who ONLY thinks about that is an awful parent also. I think the fact is the focus on the children. One of my favourite things about the clip I saw there is that I never saw any children being asked the questions. Because they’re being sexualised, but we won’t let them talk about it.

        And there’s the problem, because once again it’s about us and our ideologies, and not them. But the moment they accuse us of this, we try to get on their side, and we create a big void on our side, on the side of the argument we should be arguing – the argument towards authority.

        The moment it ceases to be about a dialogue, a dialectic, and becomes “doing the right thing, and we’ll all be correct, and look at me, I’m saving the children”, it’s fucked.

    • DataShade says:

      Did it work?

      How low do you want to set the bar on your definition of “work?”

      From their stories of their respective childhoods, my father was raised much more strictly than my stepfather, and my father is a much better parent than my stepfather (at least, my father’s never accused one of his children of having a miscarriage ‘on purpose’ to get back at him, but maybe that’s not a universal disqualifier for being a good parent), but the “much more strictly” wasn’t violent, just strict: the rules were made clear, punishments were made clear, and the two were fair but consistent, and consistency was probably more important than fairness.

      However, I’d say my grandfather’s rules weren’t authoritarian – maybe I’m just kidding myself, but I feel as though rules that teach respect – for your culture, your history, your nation, your religion, your community, what have you – rather than obedience are probably not authoritarian.

      On the flip side, I don’t think there was any kind of consistency in my stepfather’s upbringing, with his father and mother overreacting (in his favor or against) to one thing, undermining each other on another. (To be fair, I don’t know if they were bad parents or if he’s a pathological liar, as several of the stories he told about his childhood contradict each other, and any time I’ve confronted him on the contradictions he’s accused me of lying.)

      So is the key to being a bad parent violence? Being too strict? Not being strict enough? Being inconsistent? Being contradictory? Hypocritical?

      I’d say, honestly, that the thing that matters most is accepting responsibility when you screw up; I’m not sure how that fits into the Master/Slave Dialectic; maybe it’s the gentlest way a parent/master can die.

      • Robert says:

        “I’d say, honestly, that the thing that matters most is accepting responsibility when you screw up; I’m not sure how that fits into the Master/Slave Dialectic; maybe it’s the gentlest way a parent/master can die.”

        Absolutely, yes. The idea for me here is not that the parent dies, but that the parent is removed from the position of Master. Master is just a place in a dialectic, a chair. It’s like with Norman Bates – his mother was the Master, she decided he who “really was,” and he accepted that. His only option, so long as he accepted it, was to try to become her himself in order to change the “true reality” of who he was. That’s the psychotic position, for Lacan (as best as I know, anyway) – either the Master dies, or the child has to either accept total subservience or try to become the Master along with the parent, and risk inheriting the parent’s madness and evil along with the power.

  2. JohnJ says:

    I’ve always preferred the honest approach myself.

  3. ButterflyMcDoom says:

    See, this is why I love P.O./TLP.

    Robert, thanks for submitting this post. Hits awfully close to home.

  4. Comus says:

    I’ve always thought of the master-slave dialectic to be interchangeable from the questions of superego. You say that the slave must kill the master to reach self-mastery. Isn’t this exactly the freudian murdering of the father? So to put it in another way, as I think you implicitly suggest to, to kill the master is similar to internalizing a superego. The fathers job is to be killed, to drag about in the proximal zone of development for long enough, until the childs superego is ready emerge.

    So the problem with parents who are indecisive, who load the responsibility to the child, who are violent and can’t control their impulses, is that the child will have to become the superego to the parents. This process is not allowed to generate naturally but is being forced, leaving the child in an unsustainable situation. In other words, unlike the optimal development, where the master is replaced, and the parent slowly diluted, here the parent is the slave. The child is not a superego to him-/herself but to the parents. Stage is all set for the neurotic or depressive positions.

    If on the other hand parents are too authoritative and force a parental superego without the possibility for proximal development, the child will remain a slave, in subordination to an externalized superego. Enter the hysteric position (ie. eating disorders).

    Both of these parenting styles often lead to an insecure attachment. Both are underlined by the fact that the focus is on the parent. “Help me cope” vs “Do as I say”. Borderline vs. Narcissist. Keep the child in the focus. (okay, maybe borderline, especially if psychotic, would lead more to a disorganised attachment)

    I think Zizek would much rather side with the authoritarian parent, given his totalitarian leanings.

    • Robert says:

      I’ve read one of your articles, and I loved it – and I would say I agree with all of this, and that you should write more articles.

      • Comus says:

        Thank you, and, if I may, I’d like to return the compliment in its entirety.

        Also, reading the article before being able to watch the clip, I looked at the still and kept thinking “bloody hell, Peter Hitchens has let himself go”. He is good, yet I prefer the bohemity (and mostly the views) of Christopher.

    • ButterflyMcDoom says:

      Okay. What are your thoughts about the progeny of the over-protective parent(s)? What unpleasant diagnosis awaits them when they first set foot in a therapist’s office?

      • sunshinefiasco says:

        This entire conversation is above my pay grade, but I’d guess that would be closer to the authoritarian parent, or perhaps it’s the perfect blend of the two? (There are all these important things that you MUST do to stay safe, bending to my will isn’t enough, you must internalize the things I’m terrified of and expand the index of dangerous, terrible things). I’m not sure what you’d get for a diagnosis, but some serious anxiety/possible paranoia seems like a good bet out of the gate.

        • DataShade says:

          The obvious, snarky answer is: the diagnosis would be whatever diagnosis the over-protective parent prefers, since they’re undoubtedly the one who searched for, and is paying for, the therapist in this hypothetical.

        • Comus says:

          Somewhere along the lines. Hypothetically, of course. Anyone can pick up a textbook and go mess about in the internet. Here’s me doing just that. (sans-book)
          The problem (not saying it’s pathological per se) is that a child should gain enough trust via the attachment relationship from the parents, the notion (or illusion) of the world as a safe and predictable place where the child can go out into. If the parent is overly-protective this feeling of unpredictability can easily transfer to the child. Submissiveness, OCD, paranoia, control-freakism, maybe?

          What I dislike are parents who protect the children from every misfortune, every failure, until he/she is old enough to actually take responsibility and, as human are to do, fail. There’s no schema on how to act, so it’s all systems go (think of a teenager ripping down posters of a rockstar who used to be a godlike idol, but now, because some stupidity (like getting married) is, say, a bit of a bastard.) All-or-nothing, Success or failure. Success or Death, in a sense. Failure in this scenario is like a Boeing 747 to an aboriginal tribe. An unthinkable monster.

          Hope you catch the irony of the over-protecting being non-protective. In trying not to fail as a parent you have by definition failed as a parent. Except you’re not. It’s all hypothetical, see.

  5. xylokopos says:

    Solid article, mate, and your footnotes are hilarious.

    Maybe I am misunderstanding the Zizek quote or his intentions, but it seems to me that ” your grandma loves you and will be happy to see you” is more a description of reality than it is a manipulative technique. And obviously kids benefit from understanding that their actions affect others. Then again, as other comments pointed out, it’s about how it is said. I must have heard some variation of this phrase a hundred times growing up and it never made a difference to me, so at the end it was always “just get in the car” that worked. I suspect this to be the case for most parents too, seeing how raising a kid is less about enforcing a philosophical attitude and more about relentless problem-solving on a daily basis ( I understood this when I became a father).

    On a slightly related note, one can correlate the decline and demise of the british empire with the decline and demise of “authority” as a positive word and “duty” as always self evident and relevant.

    • Robert says:

      Thanks a bunch. And I think you’re right – it’s how it is said. There’s always an inference that there’s some level of “true” conversation, beyond what is actually happening. It’s basically expecting children to mind-read. I’m going to shoot a few loads all over the tits of the idea of the “true” conversation and the “true” self in an article that’ll be done in a few days. Looking forward to you guys’ responses to it.

      • Comus says:

        This is outlined in Zizeks Fargo-example, where the words “how about we handle this here in Fargo” is accompanied with a hidden bribe. This leaves the actual transaction opaque, and works on the double meanings of the sentence. World is semiotic.

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