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How to reclaim this lost power in our lives

The renowned American social reformer Frederick Douglass was once travelling on a train, and was asked to move to the baggage car because of his race. A white supporter was mortified by this. He said: “I am sorry, Mr Douglass, that you have been degraded in this manner.”

The response by the great abolitionist is one of the most powerful pieces of wisdom you will encounter in your life. “They cannot degrade Frederick Douglass. The soul that is within me no man can degrade. I am not the one being degraded on account of this treatment, but those who are inflicting it on me.”

(I am grateful to Ryan Holiday for sharing this anecdote in his book, Ego is the Enemy.)

What an incredibly powerful statement that is. It turns the attention away from the apparent victim—the one receiving the bad treatment—and towards the one who should really feel ashamed—the oppressor.

I recall a similar incident in the UK many years ago, when my father and I were walking on the streets in the company of a relative. A drunk man came out of a pub, and perhaps seeing our unusual headgear, hurled some racist epithets in our direction before staggering off. After he had gone, our kinsman was very agitated. “This is why I always say it is better to fit in and not look different from these people,” he told us. “Look how that man humiliated us!”

“Humiliated?” Responded my dad. “Who is humiliated? I am not humiliated. That fool is the one who humiliated himself.”

There you have it. It is a strange world that asks those being treated badly to feel bad, while absolving those who are actually degrading themselves by being small and stupid. Take that power back! If people behave badly, they are the ones willing to descend into a lower form of behaviour and being. They are the problem, not those who encounter them.

Frederick Douglass was exactly right. He was not degraded by that piece of racism. What was degraded was the system, the culture, the society that was inflicting idiotic tyranny on its people on account of minor differences in skin colour.

We must all, whenever we encounter bad behaviour and asinine actions, take the power back. We are not to blame, we are not the problem. Those who should actually feel shame are those engaging in the demeaning behaviour.

Are Ukrainians being degraded by Russia’s invasion of their country? They are being hammered and battered and killed, yes. But who is degraded? The Russians, for their act of unprovoked assault, and for allowing psychopathy to grow unchecked in their leadership.

In the tumult of people escaping from the war, many reports appeared of people of African origin being held back at Ukrainian borders, as though their lives and their danger were less important. Who was degraded by this, the Africans? Not at all. It is the Europeans of various nations who should hang their heads in shame, for allowing such discrimination to fester in their society.

Your boss gives you a vicious tongue-lashing in front of your colleagues, for something that was not your fault. Are you degraded? Not at all. Your leader is the one abased, for not understanding a situation properly, and for letting temper run without restraint. Who needs guidance and counselling? The bad boss.

Thugs jump off a boda-boda and assault you, robbing you of your precious phone and what little money you have and leaving you lying in the dust. You have suffered a great economic blow and momentary loss of dignity, yes. Are you degraded? Not at all. What is degraded is your government, if such insecurity happens regularly with impunity, for doing little to protect its ordinary folk. It is the government that should suffer great consequences from its electorate for this crime.

You are being unfairly trolled on social media. Some jerk is issuing jibes and diatribes against you, without substance or evidence, and more jerks are joining in to mock you. This is of course an injustice, but are you debased by the abuse? No, you are not. Those being debased are the trolls, who are putting their rancid manners and vile motives on full public display.

We must all reclaim this lost power—the power of holding our heads high when we have done nothing wrong, and when others are demeaning us unfairly. We must also help one another reclaim it. When someone is being treated badly, don’t feel bad for them—help them back on their feet and fight their corner for them. Don’t just tolerate the intolerant imbeciles in our midst—tell them what they are doing is just plain wrong.

And even if no one stands up for you, stand up for yourself, as Frederick Douglass did. Other people don’t degrade us; we degrade ourselves, if we choose to.

(Sunday Nation, 29 May 2022)

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