This is the second part of the Free University, Dundee seminar presented at Dundee Together on 1st September 2012.
Tyranny at the level of human relationships
The impulse to control others
- Where do we see it (at individual and group levels)?
- What motivates it?
We see it in ourselves and others when we cannot bear to listen to others words and opinions, or stand their dress sense or accent, or tolerate their (harmless) behaviour. Our own discomfort and our own intolerance of discomfort drives the need to silence or abolish its source. An urge to strike and eliminate it rises in us, to restore peace and comfort. Mostly this is tempered by our civilised rule bound conscious thought which settles to attenuate it by ignoring, dismissing or game playing. We could call this the selfish destructive impulse.
This can be differentiated from a feeling of being unable to bear others’ suffering or tolerate harmful behaviour towards anyone. The impulse to eliminate the distress of others is the definition of compassion in Buddhism, and tolerating harm is damaging to individuals and society at large. We could call this the social or beneficial destructive impulse perhaps.
In one impulse to destroy harm is intended, in the other impulse to destroy the intention is to stop harm. Clearly there are historical value judgements about the two impulses. In one extreme you are a mad or bad, and the other extreme a hero. However society condones the selfish expression of the destructive impulse in the repression of many voices and by tolerating many harms with little question, such as wide spread abuse of women, children and disabled people by both individuals and by the state. The two destructive impulses (selfish or social) are not so easy to discriminate in practice. E.g. a political group wants to smash the state, this could be seen as beneficent in terms of liberating all society, or maleficent in terms of eliminating their personal irritant at the expense of others. So the subjective point of view defines the act, and no one but the actor can really know the motivation behind an action.
Often the two impulses are mixed within us. We can examine our own motivation by applying the litmus test of whether we are alienating, scapegoating and de-individualising a group of unique individuals or one individual, applying a label and wishing to eradicate their presence from our life; or if we are including each and every person in our hopes for a better world.
Labelling people comes from a wish for order and control and works as a heuristic to categorise the world. It is a method to limit uncertainty and impose a sense of safety in the unpredictable social world. We like to pigeon hole- we introduce ourselves as belonging to some group or affiliation so that people can place us and make predictions about how we should interact. We take cues about social class and address people according to the expectation of the social order, deferring to those we perceive as having greater power and influence. The affect is that of dehumanising society. We cannot sit as equals, simply as human beings in a professional context. We lose our capacity for self-determination and defer our accountability. The professionals we tend to appreciate are those who are confident enough to step out from behind the mask and be real with us.
We can subvert these dehumanising tendencies by refusing to outcast any person, despite how ridiculous, wrong, misguided or harmful their opinions or actions seem. We can keep together with them, not by agreeing, but by including them in our hope for a better world. Without allowing harmful behaviour, which harms the individual anyway, we can still accept and wish the best for the person. When we consider and hold in regard others opinions and choices, holding others self-determination aloft over our own need to be ’right’, ‘clever’, ‘successful’ ‘dominant’, then we are living in freedom from fascism.
This applies in parenting as well as we have to control harmful behaviour, but allow as far as possible the expression of the individual’s will, emotion and view. We stifle each other’s expression daily, with a withering glance, criticism, an absence of support and encouragement and with the imposition of social control through the policing of social norms. We become our own gaoler according to the degree we hold concerns about others acceptance of us. We police our appearance, our home, our food, our relationships, our friendships, our hobbies, our exercise, our health, applying the norms we learn from family, magazines and friends. These norms can make it very difficult to exist in the social world without a sense of failure in some respect. We have a need to belong to a group and we sacrifice others to fulfil this need e.g. bullying. We conform to a startling degree (e.g. Zimbardo prison experiment, elec shock expt, Asch conformity tests e.g. position of spot of light). Fascism draws deeply on this tribal sense of belonging, often using mythology and symbol to awaken ancient sense of connectedness to a unified group. The feeling of power multiplies among a solid group, where unquestioning support is awarded to each member.
The norms are the operationalized form of dominant ideologies in a culture. They are the signs and symptoms of shared values woven into a story of how the world was, is, and should be. These stories, like our labels and categories, serve to reduce uncertainty and bring a sense of control to the unpredictable social world and a mechanism through which to order our knowledge and understanding. The human brain is predisposed to assimilate information in a narrative form with a beginning, middle and end, in linear sequence. We naturally use this means to learn, remember and transmit knowledge to each other, whether that is the story of our day, or the story of creation, or cautionary tales.
The dominant story in Western culture today is the rational scientific view. In this view the best way to work on any problem is to break it down, set an outcome or result, and measure the effect of our actions. This presumes a linear cause – effect sequence where there is only one variable. This is the scientific paradigm: that you can isolate one variable and observe its effect on another variable. This view is goal oriented and target driven. It presumes that control is desirable and possible. It is reductionist- breaking situations down into discrete factors.
The inevitable consequence is that other possibilities outside the story are marginalised and silenced. So, what if actions are not a one way street but are reciprocal? What if webs are a better description that agent and subject? What if the subject has consciousness and the process of making meaning and interpretation are involved? Hence qualitative methodology arose as a counter force to the rational-scientific paradigm.
In practice this mean heavy bureaucracy in designing and measuring targets, monitoring and controlling each input and output from a system. It means design of production and daily lives to the order of efficiency, the mostly highly prized value of the rational scientific doctrine. As Weber described, this process of rationalisation leads to the iron cage of bureaucracy and Ritzer described the McDonaldization of society, where standardisation and mass production economise and increase profit. The cost is to individuality, self-expression, creativity, and quality.
The dominant story is also culturally considered a male ideology. The qualities of rationality over emotion, of leading with the head rather than the heart, of focussing on outcome over process, on observable action rather than intention and motivation behind actions, on controlling nature rather than embracing it, of dominance and hierarchy over interdependent webs of relations. Rather insulting to the male of the species to be associated with all that, but that is what the (white) males in power have proclaimed as their values with which to shape the world and dole out funding.
When we listen to our feelings, live in our whole bodies not just our heads, notice our dreams and listen the subtle inner tugging’s of our soul, then we are living in freedom from fascism; When we follow the pattern of the daylight and seasons rather than 9-5, when we make our own products or trade with familiar local producers, when we enjoy the process as much as the result, then we are working in freedom from fascism.
All our needs to order, label, control and eliminate ‘problems’ serve to quell an unceasing source of unease. The sense of vulnerability and powerlessness of being a fragile tiny human in an unfathomably large world of complex, unpredictable and ever changing world; the inevitable dangers of disease, death and ageing that await us all, and at the root of it all, the sense of impending destruction of our identity as the sweeping hand of time destroys all or the disturbing glimpse of the truth that neither us, nor any of our mentally constructed world, is ‘real’ or trustworthy in some steady unchanging state. This existential angst prompts us to grab for a solid ‘truth’, a sense of what is right, a story that makes sense. It causes us to cut reality down to a manageable size and cut out the anomalies, reducing both uncertainty and diversity in our communities. Anxiety motivates people to try to control their social world by imposing rules and regulation, and by struggling for higher positions in the power hierarchy from which they can wield greater control. Angst motivates competition and oppression. If we want to free ourselves from our ‘inner fascist’ need to learn to tolerate and accept the deep abyss of existential uncertainty.
Footnote, this piece is intended as a critical reflection for a politically informed group and I would like to add that there are of course much more explicit examples of facism at a personal level in all abuses of power, which af course are most abundant behind doors (e.g. domestic abuse, child abuse, rape within marriage etc.)