Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Cultural abuse - or just a bad apple?

Image from Philip Zimbardo's talk on Good and Evil
Whew!  I didn't sleep last night at all.  Eventually I went to sleep at 4:30 this afternoon for 5 hours.  I feel a little better.  I still don't know what I use this blog for.  Sometimes I think it is a diary of what it is like being me and so it should include everything from what I eat and how I feel to the analysis of the socio-political landscape and the semiotics of cinema.  But then sometimes I wonder who is reading it and should I focus on the 'reader' rather than the 'writer'.  Having said that I might try to split what I write into two categories.  But that is for another day.

I encountered an article on the Independent web site entitled "Job agent boasted on Twitter about halting 'suckers' benefits".  Essentially there is an objection to a recruitment agent boasting about their pleasure and power in getting people's benefits stopped.  On the surface it seems a horrible thing.  So I feel there would generally be a consensus that this is a little unacceptable.  Of course one can imagine some people gloating along with her but broadly speaking it is not nice.  She is condemned for this cruel attitude and her actions.

So I thought about it as is my want.  I'll start by clarifying that I think it is dreadful.  But there is an interesting contradiction for me.  In my experience of being abused by the Children Services one of my angry responses (in my brain) was that 'these people' (the abusive social services personnel) had their comfortable little lives with their homes and their pensions and their little cars and their jobs and their incomes.  They had 'normal' lives and had little candles on birthday cakes for their children.  But they could be so ruthlessly cruel and abusive to us.  I was so angry I wanted them to lose all that.  They had no right to all that comfort if all they were going to do do was abuse people without.

I still feel that angry with these people and I think there is a lot to be sorted out.  But if, just if, I had the power would I actually take all that away from them?  Well if I did (and I might) my motive would be to let them know what they are doing to other people.  What they are doing to me and my daughter.  I am so angry with them I would take their house away and their job and their money and possessions.  Then see how they would cope.

Ok - luckily (for them) I don't have that power.  But what is the difference between that and what this girl at the recruitment agency was doing?  It makes me wonder if she is so angry at other people that finding a way to 'pay them back' makes her feel good.  Without going into a long explanation I do happen to believe this is partly what it is about.  I do feel that children who experience injustice with no recourse to putting it right grow up resentful and 'pay people back'.  It is what I see all the time.

Supposing I am right it would emphasize two things:  One being that abusing children (and I mean all abuse from the rare and severe to the more 'normal' everyday abuse that we see in schools and even in the supermarkets) has serious negative consequences; and the other being that if we are living in an abusive culture it is very hard to see what abuse is since the cultural paradigms are abusive.

This girl is only doing what I want to do.  Obviously I can see some differences like she IS doing it and I DON'T do it.  She is doing it to WEAKER people and I want to do it to STRONGER people.  I want to hit out UP the hierarchy and she is lashing out DOWN the hierarchy.  But for all the differences the thing that interests me most is that I can relate on some level to her 'feelings'.  I think this is something our culture has got to address.  If people feel cheated, deprived and manipulated then they will have (almost by definition) a desire to restore the balance.

There are two ways the response (to restore the balance) can manifest itself.  Firstly the child may get angry or upset and complain bitterly or try to 'take back' what they feel is theirs.  These responses are generally criticised and so the abusive control continues.  I.e. they are prevented from expressing their feelings and views by a threat of condemnation, ostracism or some other negative control mechanism.  The net result is probably more resentment leading to what is mistakenly interpreted as teenage angst.

The other way is to 'compete' with the abuse to redress the balance.  One can almost picture the sweet little Pollyanna character springing horns and a tail as her mind starts working out how to get revenge whilst maintaining her sweet persona.  This, it strikes me, is the beginnings of how abuse becomes a 'cultural' thing.  Pollyanna (mine, not the original) decides to be sweet and delightful to ingratiate herself with Granny thereby getting the opportunity to get Granny to give her favour.  Pollyanna learns 'how it is done'.

My perception of what I call authoritarian control freaks entirely fits that model.  They are getting what they want (redressing the balance) whilst keeping their 'motives' subconscious.  If their motives became conscious they would be perceived as 'taking' and would be rejected for it.  So they would be left having to deal with their feelings.  Hence the teenage angst, the tortured artist in a garret or even the bitter and twisted old man in an attic.  But whilst they maintain the illusion that they are kind and considerate they will continue to get success for their (misplaced) desires.

It also reminds me of the issue of it being the 'getting caught' that is wrong not the crime.  Apparently the ancient Romans were very clear about this.  Young boys were taught that doing bad stuff is perfectly fine if you get away with it but if you are 'caught' that IS the crime.  I often encounter this philosophical issue in younger people as if they have 'just discovered' it.  I have been there too.

The connection to this incident in the paper is that by virtue of us all sitting around being judgemental about this girl's behaviour it becomes easy to point out how dreadful it is that someone in a position of influence over other people's welfare should use that position to do what we can collectively agree is unkind.  By comparison we assume it is the exception and thereby continue to massage our illusion that the authority is benign.  Her 'crime' was to make the abuse 'evident' and the culture requires it to be hidden, or subconscious, for it to work.  That way we can carry on subconsciously supporting a system that benefits 'us'.

It is frightening when you realise how much the 'facts' fit this theory.  The people who complain most vociferously about the cruelty of the benefit system are the people claiming benefits.  The danger is that we are using this girl as a scapegoat.  It is convenient to 'blame' the person who is 'caught'.  As Philip Zimbardo astutely observes (in the TED talk below) it is not a bad apple in the barrel but rather a bad barrel.

Thank you and goodnight!

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