The Finger-Taker's Son

Rules of engagement, and what it means to find "common ground" with supremacists.

The Finger-Taker's Son
Pictured: Florida crocodile, tears. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Whenever the king became displeased with one of his subjects, he would send out his soldiers, and before long the offender would find themselves in the basement of the king’s finger-taker.

The finger-taker would descend to the basement each night with his tools. A precise man he was, quite neat, who took his work very seriously. Still he was a reasonable man, the finger-taker, and so each night he would offer his guests the opportunity to leave his basement still in possession of all their fingers. All they needed to do was persuade him to not take their fingers, the finger-taker assured them, and if they did so, he swore he would not take even one of them.

Unfortunately, the offenders were never adequately persuasive. Any impartial observer would have to agree on this point, based on the simple yet incontrovertible evidence that the finger-taker was never persuaded by them. Nevertheless, any impartial observer would also have to admit that the finger-taker was a fair man, for he had impressively detailed rationales at the ready in defense of the practice of finger-taking, and could furnish an answer in rebuttal of any point to the contrary that could ever be thought of, yet he never failed to give the offenders the opportunity to persuade him to their point of view. In fact, he would give them each ten opportunities: one for each night of their stay in his basement.

After ten nights, he always let them go. As has been mentioned, he was a fair man.

Another thing that must be admitted: few offenders were as fair and open-minded in debate as the finger-taker. Some would try to persuade him, it’s true (though it must be said that they were usually far less logical and dispassionate than the finger-taker, and their show of emotion was inadvisable and likely not to their benefit, as it made their arguments far less convincing to impartial parties). However, many would rain invective upon the finger-taker, claiming without evidence that the offer to persuade him was simply a perverse reinforcing demonstration of his power; was, in fact, a grotesque part of the torture itself.

This last accusation was always a terrible blunder on the part of the offender, because the finger-taker had no intention of doing anything like torture. In fact, he was opposed to torture, which was a barbarous practice, and unlawful, and the finger-taker’s job was codified by the king’s law. He didn’t have a torturing bone in his body, he insisted. Playing the “torture” card was a tactic designed to shut down debate, which meant, of course, that it was finger-taking time.

Some offenders were even more stubborn, and defiantly refused to say a word, especially as their number of opportunities dwindled. The finger-taker’s wife would remonstrate with these, whenever she would come down to clean her husband’s workplace or to bring him his evening repast, warning them that they were squandering opportunities to change minds.

One day the finger-taker’s young son, who had recently crept unseen into his father’s basement and who, hidden, had witnessed what took place there, ran away from home, taking only some food for the road. He left a letter telling his parents that he would seek his fortunes under a different name, rather than live as a finger-taker’s son in a kingdom of fingerless subjects.

The finger-taker was a principled man with a deep belief that what he was doing was right, and was not a man given to emotion. He said nothing, and quietly waited for the day he might meet his son under a different name.

But the finger-taker’s wife mourned, because, like her son, she did not agree with her husband’s practice of finger taking, and she felt that her son was foolishly squandering an opportunity to find common ground around this fact, and persuade her to do something about it someday.

Worse, thought the finger-taker’s wife, he was squandering his opportunity to make real change.

For he had squandered his opportunity to persuade the finger-taker.

There was another bigoted murder this week, which bore many similarities to the bigoted murder last week, in that the person who did it—Ryan Palmeter, 21—left behind a paper trail of hate, a screed that doesn’t differ much in either its targets or its points from the screeds that have been mainstreamed in American culture in recent years by conservative politicians and media figures, against what they call “wokeness.”

“Wokeness” is a term that Black people used to mean “growing awareness of structural racism” and which conservatives and centrists stole and now use to mean “awareness of the perspectives of people whose existence offends us and make us uncomfortable.” It is most often used as a slur, which is something you know if you are somebody who notices how language is used. Conservatives find “wokeness” an offense, because it offends them, and they are using the cultural offense of “wokeness” to sabotage every level of education, cancelling curriculums dedicated to examining the structural nature of bigotry and replacing them with narratives that are laughable lies, but which make conservatives far more comfortable.

Anyway, as I said, three Black people were murdered in Jacksonville, which is in the state of Florida. And Florida is the state led by the first bag of sand to ever be elected governor in the United States, Ron DeSantis. And Ron DeSantis is the man who campaigned for president by saying that his state is where “woke goes to die,” which is a message that comforts millions of people to hear, and one of those people appears to have been Ryan Palmeter, 21.

The killer used an AR-15 rifle, which is a massacre tool; in fact it is the favored tool of people who decide it’s time for a massacre. It’s also the favored tool of Republican politicians when it is time to hand one to every member of their family during Christmas photos, and they distribute these horrific photographs as a way of signifying to their constituency that, should any of them ever want to enact a massacre, the ability to own unlimited massacre tools is, in their view, a foundational pillar of freedom and a right that, as politicians, they will fight (and, implicitly, kill) for.

And like I said, three Black people are dead now, murdered by an AR-15 in the state where woke goes to die.

Ron DeSantis and all his supporters would like you to know that they find what Ryan Palmeter, 21 did, absolutely unacceptable and revolting, and so his heinous crimes have nothing to do with them.

I told them I’d pass along the message.

And our newspapers, in the interest of finding common ground with conservatives, seem to be having a bit of trouble saying that the crime was racist. For many of them, it was “racial,” which means it was racist, but that polite people can disagree politely about it.

Earlier this year I was pondering how we can detect that supremacy is our national current simply by observing all the ways in which supremacy is exactly what our systems naturally enact whenever people just go with the flow, and it occurs to me that this has naturally flowed (ha ha) into pondering this topic of persuasion. Persuasion, at its best, seems to be a question of how to reverse supremacy’s national current; how to make it a humanist current instead, one that results in inclusion and equality and equity, that treats human beings as the source of value rather than a cost or an opportunity to profit—a worthy goal, I’d say.

So, it’s probably worth pondering persuasion.

I wrote a thing last week about how we’re often scolded by centrists for refusing to make friends with people over silly little things like political views. I wrote about the problems with that framing: how it actually obscures the fact that political views affect what people believe is and isn’t possible, and inform political policy; how when political views are abusive and supremacist, they empower abusive supremacist policy; and how an abusive supremacist policy will abuse and harm or even kill human beings that it does not deem supreme; and how the people whose political views we’re meant to overlook in order to make friends sure aren’t willing to give a bit on their political views, the ones that abuse and harm and kill people. I concluded that holding such political views isn’t very friendly to millions of other people who are already our friends and who might even be us.

Whenever I write on this topic, there is a bit of blowback about how I’m casting myself as a superior moral authority; or how by framing my opponents as supremacists I’m demonizing them, which makes me just as bad as them; or that I’m not getting to really know them and understand their points, which means that I am in an echo chamber; or that I’m casting them as irredeemable, leaving them no exit ramps from radicalization; or that I’m maybe even driving them toward resentful radicalization by not appealing to their better angels; or that by refusing to debate with supremacists I’m merely preaching to the choir; or that by refusing to engage them on their terms and find common ground I’m passing up a real opportunity to persuade them, which is what’s necessary to drive real change.

These are a lot of different points, and all of these critiques contain some valid ideas wrapped around their bad assumptions, and any of them might make their own essay someday. In fact, I think that probably they all someday will make their own entry. I guess what I’m saying is, I may have somehow stumbled my way into a series on the topic of persuasion. We’ll see.

The point I want to focus on today is the idea that by speaking observable truths about supremacy, I am apparently refusing to find common ground with conservatives, which means that I am passing up an opportunity to persuade them.

How about that? I am squandering an opportunity! An opportunity to persuade conservatives! By finding common ground!

I hear that one a lot, most often from conservatives. This suggests something I’d have never guessed: apparently conservatives want to be persuaded! By the rest of us!

How interesting! Who’d have guessed it?

I wonder what it is they want to be persuaded of. They never say, exactly. And I also wonder, if they want so badly to be persuaded of … something, why they haven’t been persuaded yet. And I wonder why they need us to persuade them. Personally, when I think I’m wrong, I usually change my own mind. I don’t ask other people to do the job for me.

It almost—almost—feels as if they know that we live in a kingdom of fingerless subjects, and they know who is taking the fingers, and they’d rather not make it stop, but they’d like it if it were understood to be somebody else’s fault—a fault of ineffective persuasion, rather than of deliberate and targeted abuse.

So I guess the racist murders will keep coming, unless we persuade the people who make racist murders inevitable that they should stop doing the things that make racist murders inevitable. We must be persuasive about observable truths, with people who have already declared and demonstrated their unwillingness to observe them. We must bring awareness to a people who have seen woke and determined to kill it. And if we fail, it will be our fault.

I’d say that’s the most convenient framing imaginable for somebody who doesn’t want to change.

What I observe is that when a system is abusive, people in that system know, whether they want to admit it or not, because the evidence is all around. I’d say that’s why you see so many laws passed against awareness in Republican-held territory: laws designed to protect ignorance, to keep people safe from awareness of queer people, or awareness of our historical genocides, and so on.

I think for people who have decided to not know, it’s not so much about finding common ground as finding comfortable ground, and then finding people to reassure them that the ground they find comfortable is shared; not to determine what to do about the problem that exists, but to agree that the problem doesn’t exist, or that the abuse we’re using to manage the problem is an adequate solution.

It really all seems designed to avoid change. Comfort is desirable in many cases, but it’s not transformative. Personally, whenever I’ve been persuaded, it hasn’t been by people who told me comfortable lies that reinforced what I already believed, but people who told me uncomfortable truths and left my reaction up to me.

I suspect that for people dedicated to unawareness, they want us to try to persuade them, not because they want to be persuaded but because they don’t. I suspect that the reason they want to establish this comfortable common ground is not because they don’t know the truth, but because they do.

Let’s go back to the parable of the finger-taker’s son.

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Any parable comes with an invitation to find yourself in it. If a parable is told skillfully, it has many facets, allowing different people to find themselves in it, often in many different parts of it. Unfortunately you’re stuck with me, but I’ll try to walk you through it anyway.

Maybe sometimes you’ve been the finger-taker, a deliberate participant in cruelty, with meticulous rationales for doing so, who takes some form of pleasure in proving your rightness by demonstrating the impossibility of convincing you that you are wrong, before using your power to show that you can do as you please.

Or maybe you see yourself in his victims, and have found yourself deemed an offender by an abusive system, blamed not only for the offense but—because of your inability to properly convince an abusive system not to abuse you—blamed for your own abuse.

Or maybe you’ve been the finger-taker’s wife, and you disagree with finger-taking as a practice, but you’ve never found anybody persuasive enough to convince you to stop bringing sandwiches to the finger-taker while he does his unsightly work, or even to question the assumption that this abuse—with which you disagree—should only ever be stopped by persuasive argument.

Or maybe you’re the finger-taker’s son, who has decided that finger-taking is unacceptable, and you’ve decided to take action to separate yourself.

And maybe you’ve been all of them at some point. Or maybe you haven’t fallen prey to the finger-taker yet, and you think you won’t. Maybe you’re even right about that, though I notice more and more people do seem to be feeling the pinch these days. Mainstreamed bigoted violence aside, it’s getting harder to find a street corner that isn’t unoccupied by an unhoused person, and rents are getting higher and higher as banks buy up more and more of the inventory. And more and more people are struggling under smothering predatory debt they incurred to survive illness or misfortune or simply to educate themselves enough to survive in a society where life must be earned. And good luck over the next couple years managing to live in one of the few places still untouched by what used to be a once-in-a-century natural disaster. I guess what I’m saying here is, an abusive system abuses people, and any system build on a lie will eventually collapse. Don’t be so sure you’re not next one in the basement.

Most parables also leave the story unfinished, in order to draw the listener in. The place where it’s left unfinished is often a clue as to who the listener is most meant to think about, or relate to. For example, let me ask this: what is the finger-taker’s son going to do next?

It’s the question I put to myself, in a land of fingerless subjects.

He could try to free his father’s prisoners, I suppose. Or he could try to rally the people and depose the king. Or he could leave forever without a look back, head off to a far land where nobody knows him, and live in such a secret way that, when people speak of the famously ghastly land of fingerless subjects, he can easily say that has nothing to do with me.

That would be more comfortable, perhaps. But would it be true?

Does it have nothing to do with him?

He was still raised in the finger-taker’s house. And fingers are still being taken every day. And he still knows about it.

The popular thing when it comes to engaging with supremacy is to accommodate it with reassurances. This is why I spend so much time arguing against engaging with supremacy.

But I’d like to shift  now. I’d like to think about some rules of engagement for appropriate engagement with, and true persuasion of, supremacists—that is, those who are aligned with the popular and dominant human spirit that says some people matter more than others.

Here are a few rules of engagement:

Choose your spots wisely. The better people know you, the more likely they might be influenced by you. If you and your friends were telling sexist joke and your older brother told you “that’s fucked up, don’t disrespect women,” it would be far more likely to change your actions than if it came from some rando on Twitter. It’s the people you already know that you can most affect simply by disagreeing, and it’s private conversations that are usually going to be most effective both at doing that and denying a public platform to supremacist views.

Remember that you are not responsible for changing another’s mind. Everyone is responsible for their own mind. When somebody is hurting others, it is not the responsibility of others to change their mind; it is their own. Our responsibility is only to let them know that we can clearly see that they are living an abusive lie, and that this betrays everything we know about all their many fine qualities (here is why knowing the person is much more effective; it allows us to speak with greater authority both to the goodness and the betrayal).

This is actually hugely freeing, I think. There’s nothing to win or lose here. They can’t beat you, because you’re not playing a competitive game. The more reasons they have to present in their own defense, the more you’ll learn about their supremacist rationale, and the more you’ll know about them, so the more you’ll have to tell them about how you can see that they are not trying to be persuaded at all, but rather trying to persuade you to ignore the truth that you both can easily see.

Never have an argument over whether abuse is happening, or whether it is a problem. You’re not debating about this. You are simply witnessing to the truth you see. It’s not an argument. They can argue if they want; you don’t have to. Let them spin out all their rationales. At the end of the day, if they are unpersuaded by your witness, you have to give them the thing they say they most desire: freedom—the freedom to align with what they want to align, in full knowledge that you know what they are doing, in full knowledge of how it will affect your opinion of them, in full knowledge of the ways that it has already corroded your relationship and will continue doing so.

Again, this is freeing in many ways. However—especially if these are people you know well—it will be very uncomfortable. And that brings me to the most important rule.

Make it uncomfortable—for yourself most of all. Speaking for myself, I think it’s easy to just not have these conversations. In fact, it’s comfortable1. I’m not under direct threat from supremacy, after all—when conservatives talk about killing woke, they don’t mean me. So I can just run away if I want to—which would mean that the only difference between me and any other supremacist is that I disapprove and I am no longer actively assisting supremacy. That’s not a bad thing, and I think the difference matters, but still, I’m not helping; and our supremacist system still enforces my supremacy for me, as I drift disapprovingly but passively downstream, carried by our national current.

That truth—that I am inextricably helped by a supremacist system—is as much an uncomfortable truth for me as it is for the most entrenched supremacist.

Do you know what that makes it? It makes it common ground. It’s the thing both we and the enthusiastic supremacists in our lives actually have in common.

They can join us in the awareness of this common ground, if they want to. It’s an uncomfortable common ground, but it’s a common ground that doesn’t ignore the truth, a common ground that appropriately centers the perspectives of victims of supremacy rather than shunting them to the side and ignoring them, a common ground that doesn’t ask us to return to a point of ignorance somewhere in the middle between us and supremacy but rather to continue our pursuit of truth further out, a common ground that invites anyone still in supremacy to join us, and leaves a trail to follow.

If they want to join you in this common ground, make sure they are welcome.

If they take some steps toward you, celebrate them and encourage them to take more.

If they refuse, keep moving into the truth you see. Give them the freedom to be what they have chosen to be, and give yourself the freedom to not have to endlessly persuade them of observable things before you can take your own journey.

You’ll be moving away from them, and that may be uncomfortable.

But it will be persuasive.

And at least you’ll know that what they were seeking was never common ground.

Years later, the kingdom was beset by a mighty army. The general laid siege, and through messengers, he announced his intention to depose the king, lay waste to his castle, free all those held in his dungeons, raid the treasury, and distribute it to every fingerless citizen.

The king sent out his guards to rally an army, but when he saw them mustered, he was dismayed by the meagerness of the assembled troops.

Why are there so few? the king demanded.

There remain few in your kingdom who can still hold a sword, the captain of the guards nervously replied.

In panic, the king sent a messenger to the besieging army, begging its general for mercy.

The general, who had risen to power from humble means—and who was rumored among his people to have come from a different land, under a different name—sent back a two-word reply.

Persuade me.

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A.R. Moxon is the author of The Revisionaries, which is available in most of the usual places, and some of the unusual places, and is co-writer of Sugar Maple, a musical fiction podcast from Osiris Media which goes in your ears. You spoke Zarathustra? He also sprach Zarathustra!

  1. It’s important to note that you should take care to safeguard your mental and physical health as a first priority. See “choose your spots wisely.”