I have been struggling about what to post about our last meeting (August 14). As sometimes happens – though less so on the Bakewell/Montaigne/Boétie (On Voluntary Servitude) readings – the conversation veered off sharply in ways even Hume would hard pressed to trace back or explain. Before we got started on the week’s assigned material — the remainder of the slim Boétie volume — somehow we took up the topic of the legality and wisdom of providing victim and victim family testimony (about harm) in the sentencing phase of trials. Feeling ran high (mirroring the topic) and there was sharp disagreement about this practice. One person in particular went on at length about the ways families and communities (and not just individual victims) can be harmed indirectly by crimes. I made a fair logical move though in asking him about how the truth of his claim connected to the legal matter culpability (and punishment), and whether or not we are dangerously close to ad misercordium territory when such witnesses (well, or speakers) are lined up. At this point one of the men passionately rejected the practice on the grounds of the unexpected harm such confrontation and testimony could do to the victims. At first he was arguing against requiring such testimony, and when others pointed out that the controversy was over whether judges should allow (or encourage) victims to talk to the court about their pain, he maintained that it might bring more harm to them, even if they think otherwise. “Has anyone here been raped?” he yelled out. “Well I was, when I was a young teenager, violently: I had to have 40 stitches. A therapist later made me confront my rapist, and it did the opposite of help me. It terrified me, and the man got off with almost no punishment.” When we recovered enough equanimity to speak we agreed that he’d made a good point about possible backfire even from its intended aim of helping the process of recovery.
We then moved on soberly to the assigned material for the meeting, with a particular interest in subjecting Boétie’s concept of withholding consent to a variety of historical examples, hoping to get a better sense of what he meant by withholding consent, whether he was right about its likely power, and what kinds of historical conditions had to be in place for it to work. How applicable is it, for example, in a 21st century democracy (Boétie explicitly lists democratically elected men who turn out to be tyrants with other authoritarian leaders)? It was a logically interesting experience of trying to import a concept from another century and country to the present day. Of course we proceed by analogy, and while no analogy is perfect, it helps to bring out what’s applicable to the surface. Strikes, boycotts, Lysistrata-inspired withholding, refusal to pay taxes, Gandhian resistance to buying or producing essential colonial products be damned: one particularly politically and historically savvy Libertarian often brings us back to the role the Wobblies played in a number of successful US labor disputes, voting for a helpful boost from the threat of violence for effective resistance to tyranny. Strong men (sic) to strong man.