Condescension, or Kindness from Above

Portrait of King Henry VII
Image: King Henry VII, 1505. National Portrait Gallery via Wikimedia Commons.

I remember the day my first dom taught me to beg.

My initial attempts were ludicrous. “Please, sir …” Frantic mental efforts, not aided by his casually travelling hands. “You’re … very strong …”

I remember the moment when his gigantic brain figured out that I didn’t even know how to do it. He stopped, and then the focus was ever so slightly warmed by amusement.

And my world shifted as he said, so very very gently, “You don’t need to flatter me. Just react. Make noises when I touch you.”

Oh God, the shame. I had got it so very wrong. And oh God, the gratitude. He didn’t just not laugh at my incompetence, he was going to pretend he wasn’t even surprised by it.

(And yes, I know his interpretation of “beg” was unconventional, but I wasn’t going to argue.)

I’ve had a few more of those moments lately. The split second after I forced myself to answer someone’s question about exactly what I do in the shower. Or when he helped me figure out which of two equally humiliating positions was more comfortable for my wretched joints. Or when he put on his coat, gave me a long look, and then said quietly, “You may kiss my boots.”

So much kindness. And it’s the power dynamic that makes it so. When someone stands there opening and shutting her mouth like a goldfish, an equal doesn’t incline his head and say, very gently, “You can say it.” Or when she exclaims, “I am so sorry I got the time wrong by ONE WHOLE MINUTE!” an equal doesn’t smile and reassure her that it’s quite all right.

I didn’t tell him that it was a joke. I was too overwhelmed by his real message: I know I could hurt you, really hurt you, and I’m going to protect you instead.

This is why people used to say, gratefully, “The Queen was so condescending – she spoke to me for five minutes!” Because condescension used to mean simply kindness from a superior. And when inequality is taken for granted, kindness from above is a good thing.

But the world has changed. My tenth-grade classmates and I were horrified when our Moral Education textbooks announced that a good Confucian husband should be kind to his wife and bring her presents. We didn’t know how to articulate our outrage at the time, but we knew that kindness was for dogs and cats.

So I wonder if vanilla kindness will die the same tarry death as condescension. In fact, I think it’s already started. There was a time when any cat could be called “poor kitty”, in exactly the same friendly, neutral way you might address a subordinate as “honest Iago”. But nowadays it’s “good doggy” or “clever boy”. That’s how squeamish we have become about kindness to unequals, even animals and children.

This is my problem with equality: we don’t have it. We live in a world brimful of inequality. And I think our uneasiness makes it worse. Denying one’s privilege doesn’t make it go away. Forgetting your power just means you’ll hurt someone by accident. If you are serious about addressing inequality in whatever form, there is no alternative to noblesse oblige.

And this is what I love about BDSM. This is why I am so moved by the question, “If I give you a safeword, will you be able to use it?” That’s someone who knows I’m in his power, who knows he could traumatise me without even realising it. Never mind whether he should have that kind of power over me; I want him to know he does.

Because I can’t live without that inequality. I love the subjugation, the brusque orders and sadistic humiliation. If I don’t have it, I’ll go looking for it.

But it’s best when the cruelty and kindness come together. Pain and fear remind me who’s up there and who’s down here, yes. But it’s the patience and encouragement that I remember for weeks, months, years afterwards. So much trust, so much safety, so much certainty.

Yes, I like the big stick – everything about it – but the part about walking softly has a very special place in my heart.

12 thoughts on “Condescension, or Kindness from Above”

  1. This is perfect. Your understanding of the relationship between kindness and power is so in-line with my own approach to D/s from the dominant’s side that I’ll be honest. I felt relief as I read this. Something often gets missed, especially in romanticized or fictionalized BDSM, and that’s the subtlety of power. It is far more powerful, more *affecting* to grant kindness, (even if in a form that might be considered cruel to a vanilla onlooker), than it is to assert what I feel is coming to be seen as a caricature of broad-stroke dominance. Someone once asked me what I want from a submissive. Archaic as it is, my answer was fealty and it always has been. Fealty encompasses not only the devotion and service that I value in a sub, but my own responsibility as his superior. Fealty allows for exactly that condescension that you spoke of, and that kindness is of incredible value to me as a dominant. I don’t think I could meaningfully engage in a D/s dynamic without it.

    (I feel I should give you fair warning – you may have just inspired a post :) ).

    1. Yes! That’s why I always ask for permission to use an honorific. For me it represents a willingness to give, and any ethical dom will realise that means they have to be responsible about how much to take.

      And thank you for getting at this thing that makes kindness so special! Hurting me is power; choosing whether to hurt me is one more level up. I had the word ‘real’ in an earlier draft. I shouldn’t have censored myself. Kindness is when I know it’s not just role-play, even if it’s for a limited space and time.

      You know, I have a whole page of notes on the blog post I promised to write for you, on what subs value in a dom. But it boils down to a one-word answer: superiority. You’re probably aghast to hear that, but I think that really is how it works. I got the idea from david stein, who said at the same time that different subs value different dimensions of superiority. For me the attraction comes from intellectual brilliance, but the trust comes from moral strength. I think that’s why kindness is so very meaningful to me. And from what you say about responsibility and fealty, I wonder if you think the same way, even if the word ‘superiority’ might stick in the craw?

      Argh, I need to just write that blog post. After this blasted Dec 1 deadline!

      1. “Kindness is when I know it’s not just role-play, even if it’s for a limited space and time.”

        Yes – exactly! Kindness is the difference between people who play at dominance and submission, and people who have seriously considered what it is to be dominant or submissive. A dominant who can be kind, as well as perfectly cruel, (often at the same time), can be trusted. One who doesn’t wield power with control, grace and individuated subtly, well.. I have a hard time seeing them as worthy of a submissive’s devotion or trust.

        As for superiority, I’m not aghast at all! In fact, I think that makes perfect sense! Superiority needs to be earned. I see so many Doms, (some babies, but many experienced enough to know better), behave as if the fact that they’re holding a crop entitles them to respect. It doesn’t. If you wish to be treated as a superior, you need to actually *be* superior, and you can only do that by respecting the demands that being a superior entails. I want fealty because fealty, at it’s most basic level, recognizes my superiority in that power dynamic, and that superiority is something I take great pains to actively cultivate. A sub who requests permission to use an honorific displays a keen awareness and respect for that dynamic, and thus the Dom’s (ideally) cultivated superiority. That is gold. *That* brings out the instinct both to hurt and to protect – not everyone does.

        No rush on the post, btw! I’ll love reading it whenever you write it. In the meantime, you’ve opened up a can of worms for me with this article! It’s wonderful. It’s fascinating and it resonates. I’m so very much of the same mind from the other, dominant side of the coin.

        1. Yes to kindness and self-control and trust! I guess I would only add what you said in your initial comment, that the kindness might not be apparent to onlookers. I think I respond to a very overt level of kindness, and it’s possible that others might not like it that way. Laura Antoniou has written that she likes to have the whip thrown at her after a tough scene and told to pull herself together – it shows respect and trust in her as a bottom. But I think nobody wants a top/dom who does this unthinkingly. A one-note bell, so to speak.

          Oh wow, you have just helped me put my finger on what I hated about someone I was paired up with in a hands-on class. I love our conversations!

      2. “That’s why I always ask for permission to use an honorific. For me it represents a willingness to give,”

        I got this far, thinking that you meant “willingness to give” on the part of the Dominant, and thinking it was so true, in the context of the OP especially. I’ve been struggling to put into words a response to the post, but that one snippet sort of made it all make sense in such a small space! Made sense of why I feel put-upon when a sub uses an honorific I haven’t agreed to.

        “… and any ethical dom will realise that means they have to be responsible about how much to take.”

        Is also true. So much wisdom in the thread :-)

        1. It’s heartwarming that you think of domming primarily as giving!

          And I’m glad that we think the same way about permission to use honorifics. I haven’t actually discussed my rationale with any of my doms and I always get the impression they think I’m just asking for kicks. It’s lucky that they are the people who have permission to treat me like I’m shallow. :)

What do you think?