Magnificent piece by Charles Eisenstein. Charles transmutes a painful personal experience into a beautiful exposition of the cultural and psychological issues it raises:-
- ‘the presumption that legally constituted authority should decide what is an acceptable level of safety for oneself and one’s family’;
- ‘what disturbed them was the violation of normality that our little adventure represented…. flaunting social norms…..doing something that, while not expressly forbidden by any law, wasn’t condoned either….deviated from the established social order’;
- ‘the routine, automatic attempt to shame and humiliate me….The shaming felt more professional than personal…written into their job description…worldview – which has deep religious and philosophical roots – in which punishment and reward are the main motivators of human behavior. If you want someone to stop doing something, you apply a legal or psychological penalty…’
He draws some personal conclusions that the writer too has drawn (in a more prolonged personal experience with some interesting parallels):-
- ‘I knew what I was supposed to do…If I had preemptively acted penitent, they probably wouldn’t have issued me a citation. Unfortunately, I couldn’t bring myself to pretend like that……it just seemed so ridiculous….[and] I didn’t want to show my children a model of capitulating before authority.
- ‘..despite my conviction that I had done nothing wrong, it was hard to resist the feelings of shame that welled up as twenty men and women, decked out in the regalia of authority, surrounded me unified in their belief that I was foolish and irresponsible. We are social animals, our identity a product of our relationships…’
- ‘The experience underscored for me the importance of being firmly grounded in a community or counterculture that validates one’s work as a protester, resistor, or change agent.’
We think that the social conclusions he draws are accurate, too:-
- ‘…the power of shame, judgment, and social approval to induce conformity is great, and may seem to bear a strong pro-social effect when, for example, it becomes unacceptable to voice racist or homophobic opinions…’;
- ‘..these tools have important limitations….they induce conformity, they don’t address the root of hateful opinions or antisocial behavior. The racist or homophobe is likely to carry the hate and express it in some other, more subtle way…’
- ‘the threat of shame can drive people to defensive, self-justifying positions….one effect of the shaming was that I became inwardly defensive and absolutely closed to the possibility that maybe I had been reckless or irresponsible. Because to admit that possibility would be to accede as well to the shame…’;
- ‘if we believe in the fundamental dignity of all people – then the problem is not only that we use the tools of shame, humiliation, and punishment for the wrong ends; the means itself is wrong, and it is inseparable from the end of domination and control.’
- ‘…for disciplinarians everywhere….every crime is a variant of the real crime: insubordination….This isn’t only a legal phenomenon; we see it as well when a child disobeys a parent and is punished. While the parent may say that the punishment is for breaking a particular rule, in reality the punishment is for breaking the rules. For the disciplinarian, the more rules there are, the better, even if the rules are trivial or absurd – all the more opportunity to establish the principle of obedience’;
- ‘The goal of authority is to maintain authority. Therefore, to receive leniency, the transgressor against authority need only display contrition or enact some other ritual of submission. Having repudiated the true crime of insubordination, he can receive a reduced or suspended punishment. But woe to he or she who mouths off, protests, or otherwise fails to display sufficient submissiveness’.
The writer can testify from her own experience the accuracy of that last one. There is another reason for defiance besides the ones Charles identifies of (1) honouring our own internal locus of evaluation; and (2) taking responsibility for what we model to others. Once authority HAS sufficient power and control, leniency may diminish or cease. The Salem witches were burned in the context of a society where it was safe for the perpetrators to do this – because they had amassed sufficient ‘domination and control’ to make it safe. That is a highly dangerous cultural phenomenon, in terms of human rights. Watching developments in Baltimore and elsewhere sharpens our own perception of how important Charles’ challenge is – and that we all make these challenges.
His final conclusion is pure person-centered:-
‘A justice system that were healing rather than punitive in nature would focus not on the principle of obeying the rules, but on providing the opportunity for contrition for the actual crime itself. This is contrary to the mentality of punishment, which is, “I will make you be sorry”: instead it holds that given the opportunity, remorse will arise naturally. That implies a trust in other human beings that is the essence of valuing their dignity, and it would turn the established order upside-down.’
Palace Gate Counselling Service, Exeter
Counselling Exeter since 1994