What's in a Word: “Master” and “Slave”

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What’s in a Word

Complaints about “Master” and “Slave”

By Al Turtle


I have been using the terms “Master” and “Slave” for quite some time and have not ever found any terms that are more useful in dealing with the problems of Autonomy.  However, over the years my usage of these terms has stirred up some controversy and even distress in people.  At this point I have no plans to change my terms I use.  At the same time I thought I would share a bit about the wonderful controversies that have been shared with me. People do not want to be labeled.  “He is a Master.”  “She is a Slave.”  For me these are relatively obvious miss-uses of the terms.  I do not believe anyone “is” a Master.  I do believe that people consciously or unconsciously adopt Master behavior.  The same is true of the term Slave.  People “are” not Slaves, I believe.  But at times they do act like them.  Some people seem to often or even habitually act like Masters or Slaves.  I have certainly heard many thousand times, “My dad (mom) was always a Master.”  Still, I just see that sentence as MasterTalk and in mirroring it, I convert it to it’s Dialogical equivalent.  “So your experience of you dad (mom) is that they seemed to come from that Master position.  Did I get that?”  When people are avoiding labels, I tend to think that at a deeper level they are avoiding MasterTalk.People are negatively sensitive to the terms.  I found this happening when I was speaking in the southern United States, where the traditions of slavery seem still a currently sensitive topic.  I found this also when I was in Istanbul, where I found both traditions of slavery and the current disparity between have and have-not countries and cultures to be sensitive topics.  “Don’t ever use the term Master when talking about Israelis, and for heaven’s sake don’t use the term Slave when speaking about Palestinians,” I was told.  Of course, I can see that sense, and again I am not interested in either MasterTalk or political posturing.People are uncomfortable with what they see as my “negative” use of terms they use “positively.”  I was only slightly surprised by this, and am glad to have an opportunity to speak about it.  If you put the terms Master or Slave or Master/Slave into Internet search engines, you will turn up several whole communities of people that use these terms in a very positive sense.  These relatively small, but widespread, communities participate in Dominant/Submissive relationships.  They are sometimes called D/s, or M/s communities.  As a counselor several times I have run into members of this community, and found them to be usually more informed about healthy relationship skills than the general public.  What I found is that these people seek to participate in relationships of 'mutual informed consent', where both parties have agreed, sometimes in contract, to a division of responsibility between an enactor or decision maker and a follower/an obedient one/an aider.  They may thus participate in sexual and other activities that are mutually satisfying and safe, while at the same time are outside the norms of “polite” society.  The phrase “mutually informed consent” shifts these relationships, now using my terms, to be a Friend/Friend relationship with a Leader/Follower dynamic (See my paper on Power of Passivity to understand the risks.).  The 'D/s' or ‘M/s’ communities use of Master/slave (notice the use of upper and lower case) refers to this Friend/Friend dynamic, and has no relationship to the 'Master/Slave' relationship that I describe and that I believe is ‘epidemic’ in normal long-term relationships.  In fact, I gather that if the dynamic that I am describing begins to occur, the D/s or M/s relationship will likely collapse. Is there more?

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