You are on page 1of 13

The Responsibility of the Oppressed to Resist Their

Own Oppression

Bernard R. Boxill

Who has the responsibility to resist oppression? Or putting it another way,

who is liable to blame and censure for failing to resist oppression? Notice that the
question does not ask who is liable to blame and censure for failing to stop
oppression. If it did, its answer would be easy: the individuals liable to blame and
censure for failing to stop oppression, or at least the individuals most liable to
blame and censure for failing to stop oppression, are the oppressors and their
helpers, those who engage in it, maintain it, and actively protect it from interfer-
ence. I bring this up because the recent enthusiasm for making us good samari-
tans and for blaming bystanders for failing to interfere in wrongdoing bids fair
to make us lose sight of who are after all the principals in wrongdoing, the
wrongdoers and their victims.1 The point may seem obvious, but it is important to
keep it in mind for several reasons, only one of which is to remind us that justice
is not only forward-looking, but backward-looking as well. Oppressors are most to
blame for failing to stop the oppression they are engaged in not only because they
can choose to put an end to it, for possibly some of the bystanders may be able
to choose to do so as well, but also and more decisively because they have
committed the crime.
Indeed it is perhaps worth pointing out that although oppressors can always
stop the oppression they are engaged in, they often find it very difficult to choose
to do so, and others, including again the bystanders, often find that choice easier
to make. The history of slavery in America illustrates both of the above points. For
example, American slaveholders traveling abroad in Great Britain sometimes tried
to lessen the ill repute in which they were held by telling their hosts that the laws
of their country forbade them from releasing their slaves.2 They were obviously
hoping that the English would infer that they were not the oppressors they seemed
to be because they could not legally release their slaves. Their argument was
unsound, but only because they lied about the laws forbidding them from releasing
their slaves. The intuition that led them to tell that lie, and the other main premise
of their argument, namely, that oppressors can always stop oppressing, is true.
Nevertheless, although oppressors can always stop oppressing they often find
it very difficult to choose to do soand not always for the selfish and disreputable
reason that oppression is often profitable. This is the second point illustrated by
the history of slavery in America, in particular, Jefferson immobilized by one of
his many dilemmas. Jefferson often declared the injustice of slavery and his own

JOURNAL of SOCIAL PHILOSOPHY, Vol. 41 No. 1, Spring 2010, 112.

2010 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

josp_1474 1..12
2 Bernard R. Boxill

strong opposition to it. Still he found it very difficult to choose to recommend a

general emancipation, and in fact never succeeded in making such a recommen-
dation. The problem in his mind was that unless the slaves emancipation was
followed by their expatriation, a war between the races would develop leading
eventually to the extermination of one or both of the races.3 His reasoning was
prudential, but ostensibly at least not purely self-interested. It could even appear
to pose a genuine moral dilemma. But my point here is not to justify or even to
examine Jeffersons reasoning closely. It is simply to illustrate the difficulties
oppressors face (for Jefferson was an oppressor) in choosing to stop oppressing.
Bystanders unable to empathize with his claim to have a wolf by the ears would
not be confounded by those difficulties.4 Still, even if they could have stopped
Jeffersons slaveholding as easily as he could, I have no hesitation in holding him
more responsible than them for failing to stop his slaveholding.
There is another and more interesting reason why oppressors often find it
difficult to choose to stop oppressing. Indeed the argument that shows this may
also seem to show that the oppressor sometimes literally cannot choose to stop
oppressing. Consider the case of J. S. Mill and Helen Taylor for example. It may
seem that Mill literally cannot stop oppressing Taylor. Suppose for example that
he tried to do so by solemnly promising her that he would never exercise the sexist
rights of his marriage, and indeed suppose that he went even further and publicly
renounced these rights. This would not do, because the rights would remain his
legally and he could choose to exercise them whenever he wanted. The very
possibility that he would do so would make him her oppressor because it would
threaten her well-being, even if he kept his promise.5 So the argument goes.
Analyzing this interesting example will help display many of the complexities
of oppression, though in the end it fails to support its desired conclusion. First, I
set aside an ineffective objection. It is that if Mill kept his promise he would not
harm Helen Taylor and consequently would not oppress her. This objection relies
on an unjustifiably narrow conception of harm. Specifically it assumes that a threat
is not harmful. A moments reflection should tell us that this assumption is false.
At least serious threats of harm are themselves harmful. To take an obvious
example, the threat of nuclear warfare is harmful even if there is never a nuclear
war. The expense it causes, the anxiety, the time spent watching the adversary,
which could be spent in other better ways, are all harms. Of course it does not
follow straightaway that Mills possession of his sexist rights of marriage
oppresses Taylor. Even if his possession of these rights threatens Taylor, and
consequently harms her, that harm may not be the kind of harm that constitutes
oppression. The oppressed are always harmed, but the harmed are not always
oppressed. However, in order to press on with the main point I will assume that it
does. There is a more serious problem with the argument. Notice that it does not
only assume that a threat is harmful, it also assumes that an opportunity to inflict
harm is necessarily a threat. That assumption I will challenge. In other words,
while I allow that Mill would harm and possibly oppress Taylor if he threatened
her, I do not allow that Mill necessarily threatens Taylor just because he possesses
Oppression and Resistance 3

his sexist rights of marriage. His possession of these rights certainly gives him an
opportunity to harm Taylor, but it does not follow that he threatens her.
Is having an opportunity to inflict harm necessarily a threat? It is not. Is a
mother a threat to her baby just because she has ample opportunity to harm it? To
answer in the affirmative would make nonsense of the word threat. It would
mean that our best friends and lovers are our greatest threats just because they
usually have the amplest opportunities to harm us. Could we live with each other
if we took this seriously? We could only if we changed the meaning of the word
threat. Of course some mothers are threats to their babies; but not simply
because they have opportunities to harm them. They are threats to their babies
because they are physically able to harm them and are also insane or terribly
twisted morally and psychologically. Sane and loving mothersand fathersare
not threats to their babies even if they are physically able to harm them and have
ample opportunities to do so. They lack the beliefs, dispositions, attitudes, and
twisted psychologies that would incline them to harm their babies.
Now let us return to the example, freely conceding that as long as Mill retains
his sexist rights of marriage that he has opportunities to harm Helen Taylor. Since
I have shown that an opportunity to harm is not necessarily a threat, we cannot
conclude that Mill is therefore a threat to Helen Taylor. Mill would be a threat to
Helen Taylor if, in addition to having his sexist marriage rights and consequently
having opportunities to harm her, he was also able to harm her and had the
qualities that would incline and dispose him to seize the opportunities to harm her.
Consequently the argument is invalid. The bare fact that Mill retains his sexist
marriage does not imply that he threatens and therefore harms and oppresses
It does not follow however that Mill could stop oppressing Taylor simply by
promising not to exercise his sexist rights of marriage. There is a trick in the
example similar to the trick in the question: When are you going to stop beating
your wife? In other words, to ask whether Mill can stop oppressing Taylor is to
slyly insert an unstated premise into the argument, namely, that Mill has been
oppressing Taylor. And to defend that premise on the ground that Mill has
obviously been oppressing Taylor just because he had his sexist rights of marriage
would be to assume precisely what is at issue. Strictly speaking then the argument
begs the question. But perhaps it can be argued that there is reason to suppose that
Mill has been oppressing Taylor in addition to the fact that he had his sexist
marriage rights and consequently the opportunity to oppress her. If my earlier
discussion is sound, that reason can only be that Mill has the qualities that would
incline him to harm Taylor in a way that constitutes oppression. If we consider
Mills writings we can be sure that he would not want to have those qualities. But
he grew up in a sexist society and he might have had them even if he did not want
to. The question whether he had or did not have the qualities in question is moot.
But if he had them then I agree that he could not stop being a threat to Taylor
simply by promising not to seize the opportunities to harm her that his sexist
marriage rights gave him. Promises are terribly easy to break, especially if one has
4 Bernard R. Boxill

qualities that incline one to do what one promised not to do, if one is able to do it,
and if one has the opportunity to do it. But what if Mill not only promised not to
exercise his sexist marriage rights, but also submitted himself to some sort of
therapy designed to rid himself of his offensive qualities? Would he even then
remain a threat to Taylor? This question too is moot unless there are reliable ways
to test the success of the therapy. I feel more comfortable making the following
claim: an oppressor who has not only harmed his victims by threatening them with
harm but has also carried out his threats should rarely if ever be trusted to keep his
promises not to use his opportunities to harm.6 Wife beaters may promise sin-
cerely not to repeat their crime, but their wives had better not trust them. They
remain serious threats whatever they promise and even if they keep their promises
to the day they die.
It does not follow, of course, that oppressors can never stop oppressing. Wife
beaters cannot stop oppressing their wives by simply promising not to beat them
because they have the qualities that dispose them to wife beating and their
promises do not diminish their opportunities to beat their wives. But if they are
denied these opportunities they cannot threaten and consequently cannot harm and
cannot oppress. Wife beaters do not threaten their wives if they are locked up. But
our question is not whether oppressors can stop oppressing, but whether they can
always stop themselves from oppressing. Clearly oppressors can stop themselves
from oppressing if they can themselves close up their opportunities to oppress. A
standard way they can do this is by making their particular kind of oppression
illegal. The problem is that they may not always be able to do so. Knowing his
criminal tendencies a wife beater may campaign for tough laws against wife
beating, but fail to get such laws passed. Since his promises not to beat his wife
still leave him with the opportunity to do so, he remains an oppressor, even if he
keeps his promise. Consequently it may seem that an oppressor may not always be
able to stop oppressing.
The case of American slaveholders I cited earlier will help to illustrate the
complexities and ultimately the flaw in this seductive conclusion. These slavehold-
ers tried to persuade the British that they were not the oppressors they seemed to be
because the laws of their country forbade them from freeing their slaves. If the
discussion in the immediately preceding paragraphs is sound, their efforts were
necessarily unsuccessful because they remained slaveholders. The fact (if it was a
fact) that the laws forbade them from freeing their slaves, and that (I assume) they
could not change these laws, made not a whit of difference. Neither would it have
made any difference if they illegally released their slaves; they would still retain
their legal rights to hold their slaves and consequently, assuming that they had the
typical qualities of the slaveholder, would remain oppressors. What then were they
trying to persuade the British to believe? Did they not see that they could at best
persuade the British that they were reluctant slaveholders? And what good would
that do? A slaveholder is still an oppressor. I doubt that they could have failed to see
these obvious points. In trying to persuade the British that they were not the
oppressors they seemed to be, their object was not to persuade the British that they
Oppression and Resistance 5

were not slaveholders and oppressors, (that was obviously a non-starter); their
object was rather to show the British that they were not the blamable oppressors
they seemed to be. The idea of oppressors who are not blamable for being
oppressors makes perfect sense if the preceding discussion is sound. If Mill could
not stop himself from being an oppressor, how could he be blamed for being an
oppressor? But Douglass does not buy the idea of the blameless oppressor. Despite
the slaveholders protestations he insists on blaming them. Since I have always
found it wise to take his views seriously I propose to look closely into his reasons
for denying that the slaveholders succeed in showing themselves not blamable.
Douglass begins by pointing out that the laws the slaveholders are appealing
to in order to excuse themselves from blame for holding slaves do not literally
forbid them from freeing their slaves; these laws only oblige them to give a bond
that the slaves they release do not become chargeable to the state as paupers.
Consequently the slaveholders were lying when they said the laws forbade them
from freeing their slaves. The laws did no such thing. They allowed slaveholders
to free their slaves, though they attached a cost to doing so. They could then free
their slaves if they were willing to accept that cost. This point should be well
noted. Even if stopping oneself from being an oppressor means that one must
incur a cost, it does not follow that one cannot stop oneself from being an
oppressor. The Mill-Taylor example is therefore inconclusive. It presented us with
Mill trying unsuccessfully to use a costless way of stopping himself from being an
oppressor and then concluded that Mill could not stop himself from being an
oppressor. Clearly the inference is mistaken. There could conceivably be a way for
Mill to stop himself from being an oppressor though he would incur a cost to use
it. The argument seems to assume that Mills sexist marriage rights are legally
inalienable. Since I see no reason why this simply has to be so, perhaps Mill could
pay his lawyers to find some way for him to legally alienate those rights perma-
nently. If he could then he could stop himself from being an oppressor, even if it
cost him something to do so.
It may be objected that since freemen are at the mercy of the public and do not
have even the minimal protection secured by citizenship, their former masters
remain their oppressors, though perhaps not by being their masters. The slaves
would not improve their situation much by fleeing to the North. As Douglass put
it, the whole of America is cursed with slavery.7 But he added that salvation was
possible for slaves because they were welcomed in Canada where the British lion
would protect them from the American eagle. As Douglass described it, the
slaveholder would not in such cases be stopping himself from being an oppressor
because all he did was release the slaves, which of course still left him among their
oppressors; the slaveholder ceased being among the slaves oppressors when they
fled to Canada, but that was not something he did. However the slaveholder could
free his slaves and pay for their transportation and relocation in Canada. If he did
he would have succeeded in stopping himself from being their oppressor. This
would probably cost him a lot, but the high cost of stopping oneself from being an
oppressor does not imply that one cannot stop oneself from being an oppressor. It
6 Bernard R. Boxill

is a mistake to generalize from a few well-chosen examples like the Mill example
in which costless efforts to stop oneself from being an oppressor do not succeed.
Costly efforts may remain. Oppressors can take up the spirit and perhaps the letter
of the Scriptural recommendation: If thy right hand offend thee, then cut it off.
If all else fails there is always suicide. It may be the only rightful thing an
oppressor can do if his oppression is serious enough.
But let us proceed with the question Who is responsible for resisting oppres-
sion? I suppose that one could insist that the oppressors are most responsible for
resisting oppression in the sense that they are solely responsible for failing to resist
its immediate causes, namely, the passions that incline them to oppress others.
But though we should keep this possibility in mind the point of the question is
obviously to ask us to determine who among the bystanders to oppression, those
not engaged in it or in helping to sustain it, are responsible or most responsible for
resisting it. Understood in this way the answer to the question depends on many
things, especially on how these bystanders are related to the oppression. Here are
some ways they can be related to oppression that can increase their responsibility
to resist it: They are in a position to stop or lessen the oppression without causing
themselves a lot of trouble; they helped to create or maintain the oppression at one
time; they at one time argued for or spoke publicly in favor of the oppression; they
at one time profited in some way from the oppression or are profiting from it now;
they are identified with or identify themselves with the oppressors; they are
identified with or identify themselves with the oppressed; they are related by
history or culture to the oppressed; the oppressed appeal to them for help. Many
of these relations work in tandem and strengthen the responsibility to resist
oppression when they occur together. For example, if you have some responsibil-
ity to resist oppression because you can significantly lessen it, your responsibility
is much greater if you can also denounce it, if you helped to maintain it, profited
from it, if you once defended it, and if you identify with the oppressors.
Among these people, the bystanders, who has the greatest responsibility to
resist oppression? Consequentialists are likely to answer, those in the best posi-
tion to stop or lessen the oppression; their opponents, emphasizing backward-
looking considerations may answer, those who were once oppressors, or who
profit or have profited from the oppression, or spoke in favor of it. I will return to
this issue but for the moment I think we should remind ourselves that as I put
it earlier there are two principals in any case of wrongdoing, the wrongdoer and
his victim, and correspondingly that there are two principals in oppression, the
oppressors and the oppressed. The latter are as essential to oppression as the
oppressors and more essential than bystanders, for while there can be oppression
without bystanders there cannot be oppression without oppressed people. Conse-
quently before we start generating arguments to show that various bystanders are
responsible for resisting oppression, I think we should pause to consider the
responsibility of the oppressed for resisting their own oppression.8
There is a widespread and persistent tendency to assume that they are in no
position to resist. Professor Marilyn Frye once noted in a famous simile that to be
Oppression and Resistance 7

oppressed is like being in a cage.9 Some of the bars on the cage taken by
themselves may be only minor irritants, but put together with all the others they
frustrate all reasonable choice and their combination is a prison. By contrast
people who are not oppressed are relatively free. They can be wronged and injured
of course, but they have room to maneuver; for example, the victim of a mugging
is wronged and injured, but he or she can often do something about it. By contrast
the oppressed can do nothing about the wrongs and injuries they suffer. They are
like birds in a cage with all its bars strong and intact.
All similes and metaphors have their limitations and this one is no exception.
Birds in a cage flutter futilely against its bars until they drop in exhaustion. The
simile invites us to think of the oppressed like those birds, fluttering piteously
against their bars until they too drop in exhaustion. Like those birds they can do
nothing to resist their oppression and consequently there is no point in posing the
question whether they have a responsibility to resist it. But oppressed people are
not really like birds in a cage. Perhaps caged birds are condemned to dash
themselves against the bars of their cage until they give up, but humans are not.
Indeed many caged non-human animals stop dashing themselves against the bars
of their cage before exhaustion forces them to stop. Sooner or later, and usually
sooner, they stop wasting their time and start to think of ways to escape. Human
beings are, of course, most prone to respond in this way to captivity, and history,
legend, and literature are full of stories of escapes from slavery and from suppos-
edly escape-proof jails and prisons. Of course their efforts to escape are often
frustrated. Their jailors are, after all, human beings who are often as resourceful
as they are. These jailors know that they share a common humanity with their
prisoners and consequently also know that they can often anticipate how the
prisoners might try to escape by imagining how they would try to escape if they
were prisoners. Indeed the best of them go a step further and learn to think the way
that the prisoners think. The case of Southern slaveholders is typical. They imag-
ined how they would think if they were slaves and in this way were able to
anticipate and frustrate many of their slaves attempts to escape. Nevertheless, the
point remains that the slaves resisted their oppression by attempting to escape,
even if they did not always succeed in escaping. The word resist does not imply
success in stopping what is resisted. One may resist and fail to stop what one
resisted. The idea of successful resistance is not redundant, and the idea of
unsuccessful resistance is not self-contradictory. And there is a profound differ-
ence between unsuccessful resistance and no resistance at all. If oppressors can
always succeed in stopping the oppression they are engaged in, the oppressed
can always succeed in resisting their oppression even if their resistance need not
always succeed in stopping their oppression.
Human beings can resist their oppression in another way. Consider again the
case of the caged birds. Caged birds are not required to do anything. Most
oppressed people are required to do something. They are not put into cages so that
they can be observed like birds because they are beautiful to look at. Slaves, for
example, are required to work, and to produce profit for their masters. So even if
8 Bernard R. Boxill

they are like birds in a cage in a sense that they cannot escape their oppressors, and
even if they realize that they cannot escape and so reasonably cease to try to
escape, there is still something they can do to resist their oppression. Many
African slaves in the Americas may not have been able to escape, and many may
have given up trying to escape, but it does not follow that they failed to resist their
oppression. They broke their tools, pretended to be sick, stole from the master,
acted stupid, were always late, and in general did what they could to frustrate the
point of their oppression. Of course birds in cages are often required to do
something, besides being beautiful, for example, they are often required or
expected to sing. If birds could choose to frustrate the object of their oppression,
if in particular they could choose not to sing in order to deny their master the
pleasure he sought by caging them, they would be able like human beings to resist
their oppression. I suppose, however, that birds do not choose not to sing for that
reason or for any reason at all, although of course many things can cause them to
stop singing. The slaves, however, broke their tools, worked as slowly as they
could, and practiced their other tricks deliberately in order to slow down whatever
it was their master wanted them to do. Despite being oppressed they were able to
resist their oppression.
Admittedly they did not succeed in altogether frustrating the object of their
oppression. Despite their best efforts their enslavement was immensely profitable
to their masters. But again we must remember that they were engaged in a deadly
game against resourceful and implacable adversaries who could often read their
minds with considerable accuracy by imagining what they themselves would feel
and think if they were slaves. As I have suggested, some of these adversaries, their
masters, learned to read their minds even more accurately by learning to think in
the same way that they, their slaves, thought. The irony was that, although these
masters were able to oppress and exploit their slaves by supposing their slaves to
be human like themselves, they often denied that they were human like them-
selves. In any case the battle of wits proceeded without let up; on the one hand, the
masters using every scrap of their understanding of human nature to extract labor
from their slaves, on the other hand, the slaves using their understanding of human
nature to give up only what they could not withhold from the masters.
I conclude that one possible explanation of the apparently widespread ten-
dency to ignore the responsibility of the oppressed to resist their oppression is the
equally widespread tendency to profoundly underestimate the human resource-
fulness of the oppressed. But it is also possible that people ignore the responsi-
bility of the oppressed to resist their oppression because they take such resistance
for granted. They assume that people naturally resist being oppressed in the same
way that caged birds naturally batter themselves against the bars of their cages. I
think this assumption is mistaken. As I have suggested, resisting oppression
involves attempting to frustrate its object. The oppressed individual knows that his
oppressors are trying to confine and to control him in order to achieve some
purpose, and he resists if he deliberately chooses to pit his will against their will
in order to frustrate their purpose. I doubt that anything like this is behind the
Oppression and Resistance 9

caged birds frantic behavior though it was very much behind the slaves malin-
gering and other tricks. But I also doubt that every slave and every oppressed
individual always resisted his or her oppression.
Frederick Douglasss claim that all human beings, slaves included, had an
almost ineradicable love of liberty may seem to have committed him to the view
that all slaves resisted their oppression; if they loved their liberty then they
would resist whatever took away their liberty; but oppression took away their
liberty; hence they would resist oppression. In fact this plausible argument is
invalid. If the slaves loved their liberty then they would naturally be inclined to
resist whatever took it away, supposing that all else were equal. The trouble was
that all else was not always equal. As Douglass was careful to point out, the
master was often able to bypass his slaves natural tendency to resist oppression
by employing a number of strategies designed to distract their attention away
from the liberty that they loved. As he put it speaking of his own experience,
When I was thinking about the blow about to be inflicted on my head, I was
not thinking about my liberty; it was my life.10 As the example suggests the
fear of pain and death were the most frequently used distractions, but it should
not be supposed that pain was used in this instance as punishment. Punishment
is imposed after an offense. Its point is to deter further offenses by warning that
offense will be followed by pain. The pain involved here was imposed in
advance of any offense, and unexpectedly, and was inflicted in this way to
achieve its desired result. Its point was not to warn or to deter, but to distract.
Although Douglass certainly allowed that the masters deep understanding of
human nature often enabled them to ratchet up the slaves fear of pain to the
point that he literally was unable to even think of his liberty, he also clearly
allowed that the slave was sometimes seduced into betraying his love of his
liberty and to become tame and tractable for a pittance. In his view this was a
moral failing, excusable perhaps, but a failing nonetheless.
It may be objected that the slave may have perceived correctly and as a result
of painful experience that escape is impossible. Given that ought implies can it
may seem that he cannot be required or obligated to resist and consequently that
his passivity cannot be a failing. This objection conflates resistance and successful
resistance. The failure Douglass believed to be a moral failure was the failure to
resist oppression. He did not believe that the failure to successfully resist oppres-
sion was a moral failure. He was not making the unreasonable demand that the
slaves must succeed in throwing off their oppression. He knew that sometimes
they could not. He was demanding that they intentionally do what they could to
retard, slow down, and frustrate, the achievement of the ends for which they were
oppressed. Slaves could do that not only by escaping or by trying to escape. They
could, while remaining in slavery and after giving up futile attempts to escape,
continue to resist their enslavement by breaking tools, malingering, and playing
dumb. Indeed they could resist by continuing to make attempts to escape that they
knew were going to fail, if only they believed that these attempts would frustrate,
hamper, or embarrass their masters.
10 Bernard R. Boxill

Failure of the oppressed to resist their oppression is a moral failure only if

they retain a moral capacity to resist. Continued long-term oppression is well
known to have the power to deprive its victims of that capacity. When that occurs
then of course their failure to resist is not a moral failure. Martin Delany, Dou-
glasss great contemporary, used his own version of the caged bird metaphor to
make this point. Even the shrubbery-loving Canary, and the lofty-soaring Eagle,
may be tamed to the cage, and learn to love it from habit of confinement.11
Perhaps in such cases liberty comes to be seen as profoundly threatening and the
love of liberty is replaced by a love of the illusory security of confinement.
Byrons prisoner of Chillon was not the first or last caged man to regain his
freedom with a sigh. Probably such cases occur more often among the oppressed
who are confined in cages with nothing to do, than among slaves who are required
to work and who therefore might continue to have some sense of their own agency.
In any case insofar as they involve a kind of psychological sickness and an
inability to choose, they should not be confused with the hopelessness, despair,
and resignation that often attend oppression. Seeing no way out of their cage the
oppressed may, and often do, end up accommodating themselves to it. After all,
this lessens the frustration and pain. But despair and resignation are consistent
with a capacity to resist. Despair, after all, is the opposite of the virtue of hope, and
consequently not an incapacity or a sickness, but a vice. Insofar as despair is a vice
it presupposes a capacity to choose and consequently we have a responsibility not
to give in to despair. We should therefore be reluctant to easily excuse the failure
of the oppressed to resist on the ground that they have ample reason to despair. If
we excuse them we should excuse the bystanders, for they too always have
something to lose by interfering.
It may be objected that I overlook the costs of resistance to the oppressed,
given that they are liable to be punished for resisting. But I am not committed to
the view that the responsibility of the oppressed to resist oppression is absolute
and outweighs all other considerations. Still I would insist that the threat of minor
punishments should not excuse the failure of the oppressed to resist their oppres-
sion. I believe that this insistence is defensible especially because resistance can
be concealed or disguised so as to appear not to be resistance but rather the
foolishness of the oppressed. It is necessary only that the oppressed know what
they are doing and why they are doing it. We cannot have it both ways. If we
excuse the oppressed for acquiescing in their oppression just to avoid paying small
costs, we must excuse bystanders for a similar acquiescence when resisting will
cost them something.
What is the ground of the responsibility of the oppressed to resist their
oppression? The main ground of their responsibility to resist is their responsi-
bility to repudiate the insult and falsehood of oppression. Oppressors say by
their actions if not always in their heart of hearts that the oppressed are their
tools and dependants. Since they tell these lies about the oppressed, the
oppressed have the greatest responsibility to repudiate them.12 If they cannot do
so by stopping their oppression altogether, or by denouncing it, they must repu-
Oppression and Resistance 11

diate their oppressors by resisting. But there is a further less widely appreciated
ground for that responsibility.
Frederick Douglass once made this statement A man, without force, is
without the essential dignity of humanity. Human nature is so constituted, that it
cannot honor a helpless man, although it can pity him; and even this it cannot do
long, if the signs of power do not arise.13 As the context makes clear, by force
or power Douglass meant resistance or defiance to oppression, including resis-
tance or defiance that does not succeed in ending oppression.14 In that case his
statement means that human beings cannot bring themselves to respect a person
who endures oppression without resisting it, and though they may be able to pity
him, even this they cannot do long if he gives no signs of resisting his oppression.
What did Douglass suppose followed pity when it ended because no signs of
resistance appeared? Douglass does not say, but a good guess is that when pity
ends because no sign of power appear it tends to be replaced by contempt and
perhaps disgust. Many writers associate pity and contempt, suggesting that con-
tempt tends to follow pity. Jeffersons pity for the poor of Paris quickly turned to
contempt and even disgust. He compared them to the sores on a human body.15
And DuBois noted that the white world looks down on the confused strivings of
blacks with amused contempt and pity.16 The association of pity and contempt
may perhaps be explained as follows: If I pity John, I identify with him while
remaining fully aware that I am not the same person he is. That awareness leads
me to enjoy pitying him since it is an awareness of being exempt from his ills, and
accounts for the sweetness of feeling pity that Rousseau draws attention to.17
There is therefore a built-in tension in pity, the pitier being both drawn into the
sufferer which he finds painful even though he only imagines her suffering, while
also being drawn away from her which he finds pleasurable. Small wonder he
finds the tension hard to maintain and tends to disengage himself from the sufferer
and to simply enjoy not being her. Significantly Rousseau cites the failure to
identify with sufferers as preventing compassion for them and also as causing
contempt for them.18 Of course the collapse of pity into contempt is only a
tendency, even if a strong one. Normal human beings can and should oppose it.
They ought not to contemn the oppressed who fail to resist and show no signs of
power. Still I think it is the bounden duty of the oppressed not to encourage the
contempt of bystanders. Contempt tends to destroy the self-respect of the con-
temned especially if they have nothing to say in their own defense, no small act of
resistance or defiance to point to help prop up their self-respect. Consequently it
is their responsibility to resist, to show signs of power, and if they dare not show
signs of power to their oppressors, to show signs of power to bystanders, or if even
that is too hazardous, to at least resist in secret, in order to stave off the contempt
of bystanders and their own self-contempt. Naturally and correspondingly
bystanders must second their efforts, and encourage their resistance, both in order
to help them to save their self-respect, and to ensure that they themselves do not
have to witness the helplessness of the oppressed and begin to grow contemptuous
of them.
12 Bernard R. Boxill

For an insightful exploration of the bystander problem that does not succumb to the temptation
mentioned in the text read Howard McGary, Psychological Violence and Institutional Racism:
The Moral Responsibility of Bystanders, in Contemporary Debates in Social Philosophy, ed.
Laurence Thomas (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2008), 299311.
Frederick Douglass, Farewell Speech to the British People, in Frederick Douglass: Selected
Speeches and Writings (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 1999), 65.
Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, Query XIV, in The Essential Jefferson, ed. Jean M. Yarbrough
(Indianapolis: Hackett, 2006), 114.
Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Holmes April 22, 1820, in Essential Jefferson, 254.
This very interesting objection and example were raised by an anonymous referee. I am thankful for
the stimulus to consider the question more closely.
This case differs from the Mill case preceding it because as far as I know Mill never carried out any
of the threats that he possibly presented to Taylor.
Douglass, Farewell Speech to the British, 67.
On the same topic see Ann E. Cudd, Strikes, Housework, and the Moral Obligation to Resist,
Journal of Social Philosophy 29 (Spring 1998): 2036.
Marilyn Frye, Oppression, in The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory (Freedom, CA: The
Crossing Press, 1982), 4.
Frederick Douglass, An Appeal to the British People, in Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches,
Martin Delany, The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the
United States, in African-American Social and Political Thought 18501920, ed. Howard Brotz
(New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1999), 96.
I am relying here on Kantian ideas of duties to oneself and a duty to respect the moral law. For
application of these ideas to the present issue see my article Self-Respect and Protest, Philoso-
phy and Public Affairs 6 (Fall 1976): 5869; and Thomas E. Hill Jr., Servility and Self-Respect,
in Autonomy and Self-Respect (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 418.
Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987), 151.
See My Bondage and My Freedom page 61 where Douglass gives the example of the slave woman
Nelly who fought the slave driver Sevier although in the end he overpowered and whipped her.
Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, Query XIX in Essential Jefferson, 133.
W. E. B. DuBois, Of Our Spiritual Strivings, in The Souls of Black Folk, ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr.
and Terri Hume Oliver (New York: Norton, 1999), 11.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile or On Education (New York: Basic Books, 1979), 229.
Ibid., 224.
Copyright of Journal of Social Philosophy is the property of Blackwell Publishing Limited and its content may
not be copied or emailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder's express written
permission. However, users may print, download, or email articles for individual use.