Category Archives: Mechanisms of control

Compartmentalization: how we entrap our own minds.

Atheists talk a great deal about compartmentalization from the standpoint of looking at religion and its absurdities. We look at a religious person and how they can, in one breath, profess belief in the most horrible, irrational moral precepts on the basis of the Bible, and in the next, proclaim their respect for other people. We observe that they seem to insulate their religious beliefs from disproof by putting them in a box and, by doing so, keeping them scrupulously separate from their other, more rational beliefs. So we call that “compartmentalization.”

Stephen Jay Gould’s framing of the relationship between science and religion as “non-overlapping magisteria” represents an attempt at intellectually justifying compartmentalization. Such attempts must necessarily fail in practice, because science and religion are necessarily overlapping: if science does not address origins and the nature of things, then it cannot operate on measurable material facts, and if religion does not address measurable material facts, then it is myth, not religion.

But there’s a lot more to compartmentalization than just putting some irrational beliefs in a box. Not only does it do that, but it also becomes an impervious springboard by which one’s non-material or non-rational beliefs can be applied to material, rational reality without fear of refutation.

It is not just that the Christian fundamentalist believes that women, homosexuals and black people are inherently inferior, and that ey puts these beliefs in a box. It is also that ey uses these beliefs to talk about the real world and to attack real people in real ways. Christianity is a political issue, a social issue, an intellectual issue, an ethical issue, because Christian fundamentalists use their bigotry as an argument and as a motivation in the world, against the world (“the world” is evil, God’s laws are good).

The same thing applies to beliefs about matters of fact. Creationists have one set of epistemic standards that apply to the question of the development of life on this planet, and another set of epistemic standards that apply to everything else, and never the twain shall meet. But they then take those Creationist standards and use them to attack education, evolutionary science, materialist answers about human nature, and so on.

The fact that these beliefs are in the box means that they are elevated to a special status amongst that person’s beliefs: beliefs which inform our actions but which are considered to be immune from refutation. So they necessarily become of prime importance.

Obviously, compartmentalization does not only apply to religion, but I have never heard of this sort of analysis done on anything other than religion. In Compartmentalizing women means you’re a sociopath, blogger Elkballet delves into the issue of compartmentalization and how it applies to porn use.

Her analysis can be applied to any area where irrational beliefs are protected from refutation. In all cases, our million dollar question is: given that our starting position is one of not wanting to harm others and of respecting fairness, how does a person grow up to become a soldier, a rapist, a fundamentalist Christian, or in this case a regular porn user?

Because if the user didn’t compartmentalize it away from rational thought, hide it in a special place in his brain where critical thinking couldn’t touch it, there’s no way he could justify his enjoyment of something clearly painful, degrading, and humiliating. He couldn’t justify enjoying something where this is a high likelihood that at least sometimes the woman is really being raped, is a trafficked woman. So because it feels good, it gets put away someplace where those thoughts can’t apply to it. It would not be possible to enjoy porn as it exists today were it not for the “ability” to place it behind special logic-proof walls.

Elkballet deduces from her examination of the psychology of compartmentalization that this process is the natural result of our enjoyment clashing with one’s natural morals.

But how does this apply to religion or statism? In those cases, we’re not talking about enjoyment but conditioning; the case of pornography merely adds a step before the conditioning. People are hooked on pornography and then receive its messages, while people generally start by receiving religious dogma (whether they come to enjoy it later is another issue). No one is forced to watch pornography by their parents or by society (although the sexist message itself is present everywhere and can hardly be avoided).

So in those cases it is the dogma that clashes with our natural morals. Every case has a different form of rationalization, different default responses, different thought-stoppers, but they all have them.

* In the case of Christian believers, we have “God is good itself and the source of all good,” “God knows better than we do,” “God works in mysterious ways,” “Christian morality is absolute and necessary anyway.”

* In the case of statists, we have “they’re just bad apples,” “the law maintains order in society,” “if you’re not evil you have nothing to fear,” and as a corollary, “if you have something to fear, you must be evil.”

* In the case of natalism, we have “well, life is not fair,” “new people can experience all that’s wonderful in this world,” and “I have the right to have children.”

* In the case of feminism, we have individualism and liberalism acting as general rationalizations (“it’s her fault for putting herself at risk,” “we’re all equal now so everything that happens to you is your own fault”), and evopsych and other forms of gender essentialism act as thought-stoppers (“men can’t help what they do, so there’s no point in arguing about it,” “that’s the way women should be”).

Elkballet also discusses how compartmentalization piggybacks on existing hierarchies in order to dissociate between “good” and “bad” people or situations.

Compartmentalization.. causes the user to feel entitled to label women as human or not, real people or things to fuck, etc… Only a person in a position of entitlement could experience this type of god complex, deciding who is and isn’t human, who does and doesn’t deserve abuse based on whether she turns him on… This means some people actually begin to feel some woman (all of whom are thinking, breathing, feeling, human beings) deserve to be raped, deserve to be beaten, tortured, murdered, etc… Because this user has learned to compartmentalize. When something revolting happens to a woman, she can be compartmentalized away as a “disgusting pig” or a deserving “slut” because porn has taught him that some women deserve this treatment. Some women are born for this, to be fucked brutally, to be raped.

In parallel with this, the porn user also feels that he is one of the “good” guys, that he is sublimating his (inescapable and biological, according to the rhetoric) desire to hurt women through something “unreal” (because otherwise he would be painting himself as someone who derives enjoyment from someone else’s suffering), and that it’s okay because everyone’s doing it or everyone should be doing it.

All compartmentalization partakes of these same processes. Again let me review:

* Christian believers divide people in saved and unsaved; the unsaved (unlike actual humans) deserve eternal torment, and they deserve to be persecuted in life. The unsaved are not worthy of being treated like human beings because they can’t be moral anyway.

* Statists divide people in criminals and non-criminals, citizens and foreigners, “legal” humans and “illegal” humans, productive and unproductive people (in a capitalist context), and so on. Criminals deserve punishment by virtue of not obeying the law, foreigners deserve to die because they aren’t protected by the law, “illegal” humans deserve to be separated from their families, unproductive people deserve to be poor. Generally the rationalization here is that people who don’t obey the law are innately evil (and usually that most or all people are evil and deserve to be punished) and that morality can only be maintained by government fiat.

* Most natalists hold to categories of “lives that are worth starting” and “lives that are not worth starting” (although some extremists do believe that all lives, no matter how diseased or handicapped, are worth starting), and use this to “prove” that most acts of procreation are justified. This is not hierarchical in nature, but the hierarchy between parents and children is used to justify the “right to reproduce” and props up other natalist arguments (“I don’t care what the consequences are to my child because I decide what’s good for them”).

* Anti-feminists obviously support the gender hierarchy, and they support their belief in the gender hierarchy through various forms of essentialism, that women deserve to be inferior because of some biological or psychological defect. The flipside of that is the fact that women deserve to be raped, mutilated and killed because men’s equally unwavering attributes (“men can’t control themselves,” “men are biologically made to rape”).

She also talks about this concept of “good porn.” Porn users regularly trot out the bizarre concept of “feminist porn” (which has been sighted about as often as Bigfoot, another mythical creature) as some kind of proof that pornography is not woman-hating. They argue that if only all porn was replaced by “feminist porn,” pornography would be all right.

But feminists know that this is nonsense. Pornography is inherently objectifying and violent whether it’s “feminist” or not. An evil system is not improved by giving it even more credibility while addressing no issue whatsoever. Putting women in charge of pornography and changing the actresses so that some of them are fat or black doesn’t address anything that’s wrong about pornography, but calling it “feminist” does give it credibility it does not deserve.

Likewise, radicals in all other areas are very well aware that gradualism or moderation is ultimately futile. Trying to encourage a government to moderate its military spending has never actually lowered military spending. Telling Christians to moderate their beliefs does not get them to do so. Telling people to make less children rarely has a positive effect.

What does work is changing the incentives of society itself. Religion becomes more moderate because it is dragged along by social consensus. Governments only channel more resources towards welfare programs, and stop attacking the rights of the poor, when people stand up for their rights and take to the streets. As for not having children, people having a livelihood that doesn’t depend on using children as virtual slave workers thanks to industrialization seems to be helping quite a bit, and so does working against domestic violence.

Another example of moderation, as regards to neo-liberalism this time, is the belief in “responsible consumption”; the theory being that by moderating our consumption, by consuming the right things, and by recycling our consumed products, we can help the environment and stop exploiting people in the third world. But we know that would change absolutely nothing. Most of the pollution is generated by industries, not by landfills. Moderating consumption will not slow down the economic growth in China and India, which will dwarf any slowing down of consumption in the Western world.

The gender hierarchy provides porn users with the tools to objectify and categorize women, because the belief in the inferiority of women comes with its own rationalizations and categories (such as “sluts,” “bitches,” “dykes,” etc). These categories are filled with beliefs which further the aim of the porn user (“sluts can’t be raped,” “unlike most women they really love doing this,” “sluts deserve to be roughed up”). Compartmentalization leads to objectification leads to a culture of violence and depravity.

The Authoritarian Paradox.

I have previously written about the humbug of “maternal love.” However, I did not examine the larger problem of the belief that love can co-exist with authority.

My basic premise is that love and control are opposites, that in order to control someone one cannot love them or vice-versa. So the issue then becomes, how can one claim to love a person which is under their total control?

Obviously we can lie to ourselves. We can pretend to love that person, or we can be indoctrinated so much that we think we love that person. There’s also plenty of reasons why people would simply lie. It is in the interest of any politician to claim that they care about their constituents, for example.

But the most fundamental form of this disconnect lies in the relation between parent and child. When we are children, we are told again and again that our parents love us the most in the entire world, that we should love our parents and that there is no more glorious form of love than that between a parent and a child. On the other hand, our parents constantly tell us what to do and order our lives around their needs and wishes.

I think this is a fundamental problem. We were all raised to believe that our parents are the epitome of love, and therefore we associate pure love with obedience and control. The effect is magnified when one has abusive parents, but even when parents are not abusive, they are still “in control.”

The child is learning that these methods of control, domination and manipulation are expressions of love. Just as the child cannot doubt his parents’ “good intentions,” it is intolerable to think that his parents might not love him since he depends on them for survival. That is, and despite most parents’ inability to appreciate the cruelty involved, the child is learning that cruelty is love. In those cases where parents inflict physical violence on a child (spanking, slapping and all other forms of physical abuse are never “okay”), and such violence remains distressingly common, the child is learning that violence is love. (Please note: one adult version of these beliefs is that bombing will bring the victims “freedom.”)

I’ve culled the quotes in this entry from an entry on Arthur Silber’s blog (Once Upon a Time). If you don’t already read his blog, I highly recommend it. There is probably not a better writer on the blogosphere today, and yet he is almost completely unknown. It’s absolutely unbelievable.

Anyway, I have been talking a lot about the deleterious effect of the parenting hierarchy on children growing up, but this has to be by far the worse mechanism operating here. It is profoundly insidious because none can live without love and one’s parents are its necessary source, at least during early childhood. Therefore the child has no choice but to accept the equation of love with control. This is an extremely strong mold which stays with us for the rest of our lives.

Given this, there’s no reason to wonder why hierarchies have such a strong hold on people’s lives, especially in restimulation, and why people will cling so easily to authoritarian figures, including God. We’re all programmed to equate love with control, and in many cases verbal or physical abuse.

I mentioned God for a reason. Fundamentalist Christians hold on to clearly immoral doctrines despite their blatant immorality. For example, it’s very hard to convince them that slavery is wrong, because God supports slavery in the Bible. And yet they can turn around and profess that God is the source of all love (as stated in 1 John 4:7-8).

Of course, the theory that God is a substitute father is a very old one, and I don’t claim any novelty there. The concept of the substitute father figure and mother figure has become part of our popular culture. But people have been very reluctant, and for good reason, to discuss the reason why such things exist, or if they do they dismiss it with rationalizations like “well, if you have an absent father, you need a father-figure in your life.”

But the people who cling the most to authority typically have abusive parents, not absent parents. I don’t claim to have a scientific study to back this up, but from what I’ve read about the most extreme examples, such as top Nazi officials, cult followers, the most extreme fundamentalist Christians, and so on, leads me to think in that direction. Part of that is an unconscious desire to reenact the unresolved abuse onto convenient “enemies.”

God, the dictator or the cult leader are obvious father substitutes, but any form of authority can serve as a father substitute. The State can be a father substitute, with the law code as its moral authority. So can a corporation, an ideology, or any other group which has official or unofficial authorities and some system of moral authority (i.e. some way by which good and evil are established for the group).

Even though we are indoctrinated to believe both of its components, the paradox is too obvious to be simply ignored, especially in cases where it is clear that the authority concerned does not love you or care for you in any way.

Extremely abusive parents are the most obvious example. We observe that in those cases, children are told that they must still love their parents by virtue of them being your parents, and that the parents cannot be blamed. In fact we have an entire industry (Freudian psychotherapy) devoted to whitewashing parents’ crimes and blaming children for their own sexual abuse, physical and verbal abuse, and so on. In general, people who don’t love their parents are seen as abnormal and hating one’s parents is considered intrinsically wrong.

So there is this concept that love is incompatible with harm, but never obedience. Obedience cannot in any way be wrong, unless of course it is obedience to “bad people,” but that’s not a result of obedience itself being wrong.

Now take a completely different example, statism. Most people are very well aware that the government does not have their best interests in mind, in fact that governments do not function on the basis of general interest, and that politicians are corrupt. And yet most people also support the government in its concrete actions and shout down anyone who speaks consistently with the premises I’ve just listed.

Again, we see similar responses to the ones uses against children: we are told that it’s really the victim’s fault and that anyone who was insulted, abused, violated or killed by the government in the exercise of its functions must have deserved it. We are told that one must obey the laws even if those laws are wrong, simply because they are the law (as we must love and obey our parents simply because they are our parents). I have already discussed the response specifically as regards to war.

If cornered, the statist may start using might makes right rhetoric, which is merely another way of admitting defeat (since “might” has nothing to do with ethics). But it “proves” that control is ultimately “good” (right). This of course is always the desired conclusion.

Those people who are committed to the right wing of the political spectrum, which includes both liberals and conservatives, are on board with the belief that control over others is caring for others. They just fight over what kind of control is best, just like parents may disagree on whether beating a child with a rod, spanking, or constant guilt is the best way to raise a child (hint: none of these are things adult human beings should do to children human beings).

Another way to stop people from thinking further about the paradox is to distract them with a game. Democracy is a particularly elegant example of this strategy: fool people into thinking they may have some chance of choosing the kind of control which will be used in the future, and you’ve basically destroyed any kind of resistance. Resistance will from that point forward only arise if the system fails to fool people or if enough people are dispossessed by the system, which in a well-functioning democracy should not happen.

A successful democracy suppresses dissent while giving people no more power than they had previously. This has always been the purpose of democracy and it has for the most part been very successful. The same general sort of strategy is used in corporate capitalism and even parenting (the rationale that “once you have children, then you can raise them however you want,” that is to say, you can abuse them as we’ve abused you, which is not power but rather psychological compulsion).

One category of people who are used to rationalizing and twisting the union of control and love are BDSM practitioners. The main rationalization they give to the paradox is that the sub is the one who’s “really in control.” Again this is the same “you’re really in control” rhetoric, so no surprises there. In essence, the BDSM “contract” and other “safety” measures are time-wasting distractions from the naked fact of control (dominance and submission).

There is no more reason to believe BDSM practitioners on this subject than we should believe politicians who tell us democracy means “the people” have all the power. But not only is the argument factually false, but it is also a red herring; even if power was actually in the hands of some other people, that would not make their form of domination any better than the one we have now. Because in the case of politics, a true monopoloid “rule of the people” would merely be a more direct war of all against all (instead of the class war we have today).

Unlike adults, children have the disadvantage of being utterly depending on their parents, therefore children have to learn to anticipate their parents’ feelings and to put them ahead of their own. The child learns to internalize parental manipulation, a blueprint for school and the workplace, where rules and mores must be internalized so the person can conform and be “successful.” The child’s, and the adult’s, feelings are “childish” and “individualistic.”

[The mother] tells the young boy that he did a “bad thing,” and that he did so knowing that it was a “bad thing.” The mother also tells the boy that she “was very disappointed,” and that she “really didn’t like what he did.” In this way, the mother demands that the child behave in a certain way because of the parent’s own needs and feelings. Those needs and feelings have nothing to do with the reality of the child’s experience, just as they have nothing to do with the facts concerning the dangers of a very wet bathroom. In effect, the mother is demanding that the young child behave “properly” so that the mother herself will not be made unhappy. And the source of the unhappiness will be the child himself.

Because most adults have internalized these methods of control and manipulation — and, which is far worse, because they view such methods as right — the reality of the effects of such parental domination are largely inaccessible to them. For the child, the threat of the withdrawal of the parent’s love is profoundly threatening. Although he may not be able to explain it explicitly (in the case of a very young child), the child is fully aware that he depends on the parent for survival and for life itself. If he makes his mother too unhappy, and if his mother therefore no longer loves him, what will happen to him? Like most children, he will do anything to make his mother happy. He will obey. Because the child senses that his life depends on his parents, he must believe something more. It would be intolerable to the child to believe that his parents intend to harm him and, in fact, most parents have rendered themselves unable to appreciate the harm they are inflicting. So the child must believe in his parents’ goodness, and in their “good intentions.”

A lot more can be said about the insanity of parenting. But I also wanted to broach another paradox. It is said that one should be proud of one’s culture, one’s country or one’s religion. But this is a bizarre statement because it implies that one must both be proud and be obedient. How can one be proud and at the same time be subservient to someone else?

Perhaps I am odd in thinking this, but it seems to me that pride is something you get from doing something yourself. I suppose one could be proud of something one gets others to do, as well (although I would argue that such pride is misguided). But how can one be proud of something one did for someone else? No one’s proud of the fact that they work for someone else’s benefit.

On gender specifically, how can masculinity be reconciled with obedience? I ask this because masculinity is often associated with independence and individuality. I personally do not think these qualities should be associated with any gender. But our current concept of masculinity is associated both with independence and with obedience, and I can’t see how these two can be logically reconciled.

To obey and surrender one’s moral compass to an authority is a fundamental betrayal of the self. It should not just be incompatible with being a man, it should be incompatible with being human. Know that when you play the Conspiracy games and become a cheerleader for an army, a country, a religion, or any other in-group, you are making yourself less human.

The banality of tone policing.

Whyyyy are these people so aaaangry??? Whyyyy don’t they just stay home and write letters or something?? I’m sure glad the police is there to tone police them.

Tone policing is a term used on the Internet to designate attempts to curb speech based on its aggressiveness or rudeness. When an aggressive tone is used as a reason to reject an argument, tone policing is simply invalid:

The tone argument is a form of derailment, or a red herring, because the tone of a statement is independent of the content of the statement in question, and calling attention to it distracts from the issue at hand. Drawing attention to the tone rather than content of a statement can allow other parties to avoid engaging with sound arguments presented in that statement, thus undermining the original party’s attempt to communicate and effectively shutting them down.

I’m sure its proponents would reply that the point of tone policing is not to invalidate arguments but simply to make people be more considerate of others, and that ideas must be sold in a way that appeases people (for a similar concept, see “gatekeeper”). The underlying premises are those of groupthink and pragmatism; the proponents want you to identify with the group and its flourishing, and they want you to believe that the end justifies the means. The former is a matter of allegiance, but the latter is false in any case: it is not true that the success of an abstract idea overrides all other ethical concerns.

In what kind of situations should one express an idea aggressively? One type of such situation is when a person is detaching emself from a destructive, repressive worldview. In such a case, the healthiest thing to do is to realize and express the destructive, repressive nature of that worldview in order to heal at a personal level. This is dismissed by gatekeepers as “ranting” or “angry” (as if anger can’t be healthy!).

Another type of situation would be when one is confronted with a clear, incontrovertible evil which one or many people are trying to normalize. In that case being “nice” only makes the situation worse, because it appears as if you’re agreeing that the evil in question is not clear and incontrovertible, but rather worthy of reasonable discussion. One must be aggressive both in confronting and denouncing evil.

Appeasement never works. Nothing morally wrong has been solved by people curbing their rudeness. Minorities and other oppressed groups are always told to curb their rudeness so they’ll shut up, basically. It’s a tactic used to reframe justified anger as rudeness, radicalism as extremism. Anger becomes integrated with the stereotypes we associate with minorities, including black people, feminists, and more recently atheists, and the pressure on these groups to stop being angry becomes not only permanent but internalized as well. It then becomes part of the role of gatekeepers to attack anyone who portrays their group in a “bad light.”

So it shouldn’t be surprising that the whole tone policing process is a huge double standard. Women’s speech is devalued, called shrill or angry when it’s aggressive, and simply rejected when it’s not aggressive enough; men’s aggressive speech, on the other hand, is considered manly and competent.

This has a host of consequences. It means that men bullies get a free pass by virtue of being men. It means that women will be less likely to be forceful and therefore less likely to be acknowledged as competent leaders. It means that women in positions of power are treated as being inferior because they are deviating from their true nature.

And, I argue, you won’t recognize a woman as a potential leader. Not because women can’t or don’t want to be rude — rather, because women are likely to already have been conditioned to be nice, and even if they haven’t, a hypothetical woman who led a major open-source project would never get away with being rude to people the way Linus is…

If you still need evidence that there’s a double standard, there it is. I think what’s happening here is that whatever men do gets defined as being effective, by definition, because they are men. It’s a little bit like how women frequently get describe as “emotional”, but this (often pejorative) label is rarely applied to men who are raging out, because apparently anger isn’t an emotion. (Thanks to Brenda Fine for originally pointing this out to me.) When a guy yells at his team members, he’s “being a leader”, “getting stuff done”, not wasting time with trivialities like being nice. But when a woman suggests that the whole team would be better off without the yelling, she’s “being oversensitive”, “reading too much into it”, wanting to stop everyone from ever saying “fuck” again. She can’t possibly be saying it because she has the best interests of the project in mind — because by definition, women are off-topic.

When women display the necessary confidence in their skills and comfort with power, they run the risk of being regarded as ‘competent but cold’; the bitch, the ice queen, the iron maiden, the ballbuster, the battle axe, the dragon lady… the sheer number of synonyms is telling.
Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender

I’ve been talking about how we sometimes need to express ourselves forcefully, especially when confronting evil. Oppressed groups have to not only confront the evils done to them, but have to argue with the privileged people who benefit from those very same evils. This means that there is plenty of opportunity for the privileged to use tone policing against their opponents.

Often, people who have the privilege of being listened to and taken seriously level accusations of “incivility” as a silencing tactic, and label as “incivil” any speech or behavior that questions their privilege. For example, some men label any feminist thought or speech as hostile or impolite; there is no way for anybody to question male power or privilege without being called rude or aggressive. Likewise, some white people label any critical discussion of race, particularly when initiated by people of color, as incivil.

And here’s my real problem with tone policing. No matter how rude someone can be in response to an issue, the rudeness can never be as bad as the issue itself. Swearing at rape apologists can never be as bad as rape. Insulting racists can never be as bad as racism. Tone policing is always a diversion because the real hate is not people being rude on a forum post or blog entry, it’s people excluding and physically abusing others in the real world.

We find this is a universal phenomenon. For example, trans activists throw their rage at radical feminists for being anti-genderists. But it is not radical feminists that are going on the street attacking and killing transgender people, or suing transgender people for using the wrong bathrooms. Genderism is their real enemy, but it is genderism that they defend by attacking radfems. In this they share the problem of being unable to identify the enemy with other subservient groups.

But my point here is that no matter how offensive anti-genderism may be to any transgender individual, it’s still not as bad as the actual harm being done to everyone by genderism in practice. Aggressive speech in the name of virtue may be inappropriate but it can never be evil.

A white student may feel discomfort when it’s pointed out to him how he has benefited from structural racism, but to compare that discomfort to discrimination is a false equivalency. Hurt feelings hurt, but it is not oppression.
Shannon Gibney

I was late because of the roadblock.

NOTE: This is a repost, but I’ve added a number of new items to the list.


A: “How could you arrive late? I gave you very specific directions on how to get here.”
B: “There was a roadblock on the I-20 exit you told me to take, so I had to do a detour, which cost me some time.”
A: “That’s impossible! I’ve given these directions to thousands of people, and I was never told that any of them ever arrived late. You must be lying.”

B: “There was a roadblock on the I-20 exit you told me to take, so I had to do a detour, which cost me some time.”
A: “Look, the map is never wrong. Do you see a roadblock on it? No. So you can’t possibly have seen one. It was a hallucination. You must be on drugs or something. What a terrible person you are!”

B: “There was a roadblock on the I-20 exit you told me to take, so I had to do a detour, which cost me some time.”
A: “People like you are so bad at driving, aren’t they… Pity.”

B: “There was a roadblock on the I-20 exit you told me to take, so I had to do a detour, which cost me some time.”
A: “You are suffering from a mental condition that makes it harder for people like you to navigate roads. It’s okay, we have medical treatment for people like you…”

B: “There was a roadblock on the I-20 exit you told me to take, so I had to do a detour, which cost me some time.”
A: “Only dishonest people would take a detour. You must have made it up and used that extra time to commit a crime. I’m gonna call the police!”

B: “There was a roadblock on the I-20 exit you told me to take, so I had to do a detour, which cost me some time.”
A: “I ordered you to take this route AND to arrive here on time. You failed to obey my orders. What a disappointment you turned out to be. Why can’t you be here on time like everyone else?”

B: “There was a roadblock on the I-20 exit you told me to take, so I had to do a detour, which cost me some time.”
A: “Suck it up and be more professional. No one wants to hear some bullshit roadblock story.”

B: “There was a roadblock on the I-20 exit you told me to take, so I had to do a detour, which cost me some time.”
A: “Come on. You know in your heart that’s just not true. Stop lying to yourself.”

B: “There was a roadblock on the I-20 exit you told me to take, so I had to do a detour, which cost me some time.”
A: “Excuses, excuses… take some fucking responsibility for your actions. It’s your fault if you’re late, no one else’s. Don’t go blaming the roadblock for your own personal failings.”

B: “There was a roadblock on the I-20 exit you told me to take, so I had to do a detour, which cost me some time.”
A: “How dare you talk back to me? No one cares if there was a roadblock. It was probably your fault anyway! You can’t do anything right! Just shut up!”

B: “There was a roadblock on the I-20 exit you told me to take, so I had to do a detour, which cost me some time.”
A: “You always have some excuse for your lackadaisical behaviour. If you don’t stop being so rebellious, we’re not going to serve you any dessert this evening. It’s as simple as that!”

B: “There was a roadblock on the I-20 exit you told me to take, so I had to do a detour, which cost me some time.”
A: “That’s so self-serving of you! If you hadn’t been late, you wouldn’t have come up with some cockamamie excuse. Good people arrive on time, and when they don’t, they take responsibility for their actions and don’t have to invoke irrelevant roadblocks.”

B: “There was a roadblock on the I-20 exit you told me to take, so I had to do a detour, which cost me some time.”
A: “Sure, that’s easy for you to say, but think of the time road workers had to take to set up the roadblock… they have it much harder than you! Stop your whining already!”

B: “There was a roadblock on the I-20 exit you told me to take, so I had to do a detour, which cost me some time.”
A: “All right, but think of all the times when you came here and had a great drive. So stop talking about roadblocks, it’s like you have an obsession or something…”

B: “There was a roadblock on the I-20 exit you told me to take, so I had to do a detour, which cost me some time.”
A: “You need to stay out here and cool off until you change your tune. I don’t want to see someone as agitated as you around the dinner table.”

B: “There was a roadblock on the I-20 exit you told me to take, so I had to do a detour, which cost me some time.”
A: “Are you trying to make me feel guilty for this? Implying that my directions were bad? This is your fault, not mine! You were the one driving!”

B: “There was a roadblock on the I-20 exit you told me to take, so I had to do a detour, which cost me some time.”
A: “Oh fine, just make us wait for you… as if we don’t have anything else to do… It’s not like you care about us anyway…”

B: “There was a roadblock on the I-20 exit you told me to take, so I had to do a detour, which cost me some time.”
A: “What would your parents think if they heard you were late? Stop trying to give them a heart attack and start acting more respectably!”

B: “There was a roadblock on the I-20 exit you told me to take, so I had to do a detour, which cost me some time.”
A: “As if you didn’t mean for this delay to happen… come on, we know you like to make us wait on you. You are so arrogant…”

B: “There was a roadblock on the I-20 exit you told me to take, so I had to do a detour, which cost me some time.”
A: “No one I’ve ever talked to has experienced a roadblock, so by induction your statement is false. There, it’s logically demonstrated. Now stop holding on to this delusion of yours.”

B: “There was a roadblock on the I-20 exit you told me to take, so I had to do a detour, which cost me some time.”
A: “Your statement that you experienced a roadblock is ultimately just a subjective opinion. Why should I care about your subjective opinion? In order to be valid, your statement must be true for all people and all times.”

B: “There was a roadblock on the I-20 exit you told me to take, so I had to do a detour, which cost me some time.”
A: “You can’t prove that roadblocks exist, can you? You could have had a hallucination, seen a mirage, or a hologram, or perhaps you were kidnapped by aliens who put your brain in a vat. Until you can disprove these possibilities, I can’t believe what you’re saying.”

B: “There was a roadblock on the I-20 exit you told me to take, so I had to do a detour, which cost me some time.”
A: “It’s fine that you were late because of a roadblock, but why aren’t you even mentioning all the people who are late every day because of traffic? You’re just a bigot!”

B: “There was a roadblock on the I-20 exit you told me to take, so I had to do a detour, which cost me some time.”
A: “You are a bitch, and bitches always lie, therefore you are lying. Why are you such a bitch? Is it because of feminism? Feminism is terrible because it turns all women into bitches; I know this because I dated a woman and she was a real bitch, while women in the past were sweet and holy. Anyway, get out of my house, you bitch!”

B: “There was a roadblock on the I-20 exit you told me to take, so I had to do a detour, which cost me some time.”
A: “Well, are you sure that you actually had to take a detour? Like, couldn’t you have gone through the roadblock really carefully? Couldn’t you have talked to the workers so they’d let you pass? It just seems to me like you just gave up, you fucking spineless coward. I won’t believe you had to take a detour unless you bring me a note from a policeman.”

B: “There was a roadblock on the I-20 exit you told me to take, so I had to do a detour, which cost me some time.”
A: “I told you to stop driving around in a car of the wrong color. It gives off the wrong vibrations for your astrological sign. You need to get a different car as soon as possible.”

B: “There was a roadblock on the I-20 exit you told me to take, so I had to do a detour, which cost me some time.”
A: “Everything happens for a reason. The roadblock was placed there by the universe so you could take a more scenic route. Isn’t life wonderful?”

B: “There was a roadblock on the I-20 exit you told me to take, so I had to do a detour, which cost me some time.”
A: “That roadblock only exists in your mind. Stop thinking so negatively and you’ll always be here on time. Otherwise, you’ll keep pulling these things into your life.”

B: “There was a roadblock on the I-20 exit you told me to take, so I had to do a detour, which cost me some time.”
A: “This imaginary roadblock is a reflection of your own feelings of inadequacy about yourself. If you only got help and cured those feelings, you wouldn’t be having these problems.”

B: “There was a roadblock on the I-20 exit you told me to take, so I had to do a detour, which cost me some time.”
A: “This imaginary roadblock is created by spiritual entities which latch on to your mind and feed you negativity. Give me money so I can help you get these entities out of your mind, and you’ll have total control over your driving.”

B: “There was a roadblock on the I-20 exit you told me to take, so I had to do a detour, which cost me some time.”
A: “Your problem is that you don’t have enough faith. Let go and let God. With faith, you can do anything. The fact that this happened to you only proves that you don’t have enough faith.”

B: “There was a roadblock on the I-20 exit you told me to take, so I had to do a detour, which cost me some time.”
A: “I don’t care what your excuse is! Being late is morally wrong. You are sick in the head! We need to take away your car so you can’t go anywhere ever again. You are forbidden to ever come here!”

B: “There was a roadblock on the I-20 exit you told me to take, so I had to do a detour, which cost me some time.”
A: “Die Roadblocked Scum!”

B: “There was a roadblock on the I-20 exit you told me to take, so I had to do a detour, which cost me some time.”
A jumps on B and starts beating him up, screaming obscenities.

B: “There was a roadblock on the I-20 exit you told me to take, so I had to do a detour, which cost me some time.”
A draws a gun and shoots B.


Do these answers seem normal to you?

And yet, we use these exact same answers to invalidate people’s feelings constantly, without realizing how absolutely bizarre and insane they are… Is it any wonder that we are all warped in the head, when we are fed this insanity regularly?

Fearing the non-conventional.

Above: Matt Bors illustrates atheismophobia. Click to enlarge.

Fear seems to be wasted a great deal on things which are not at all powerful or horrible. People fear things as abstract as the redefinition of marriage or the disintegration of Western society. There is a lot of legitimate fear about losing one’s job or dying of a disease, obviously; I am more concerned with the illegitimate fears, because there seems to be a lot more of it going around. The personal fears are kept locked up in people’s brains, but the illegitimate fears are bandied about and spread like venereal disease.

A good example I’ve written about lately is the fear that determinism will be widely accepted. I think most people would agree with me that this is a pretty abstract fear, as are the claims that human life will be devalued or that Western society is under threat. What would be the concrete results of determinism being widely accepted? I don’t think those fundamentalists have even tried to imagine what a deterministic society might be like, or is likely to look like.

Another one is the fear of Hell. Many otherwise convinced atheists live with that fear for a long time. This is because Hell and its dramatic images live in their imaginary, not in their rational faculties.

Or take a more mundane example, like “Stranger Danger.” Now, we all know that’s a damn lie, and a dangerous lie. But it appeals to the widespread narrative of strangers lurking in the dark waiting to kidnap and rape children. Again, it appeals to the images that have been engraved in our imaginary, it is pre-rational, it is insidious and a form of indoctrination.

The main feeling that parents experience, I think, is not contentment or happiness, but fear. Everything they do to their children seems to have a component of fear to it, fear that the child will grow up “wrong.” What “wrong” actually means in this case is “maladapted to this society,” which in practice means that the child must be mentally broken in order to fit in our bizarro society.

In addition to a human being which is, in emself, complete, a child is also a potentiality. There is no obvious way to predict how a child will grow and mature. But a parent, through their ownership claim, seeks to control the child, so there is a fundamental tension there; they seek to control a child’s future but they really cannot. So there is a constant fear of a terrible hypothetical future for the child if ey “fails to adapt” to our dysfunctional society.

In all cases, we are talking about fear emerging from the imagination, the fear of a disastrous hypothetical futures, because we can always imagine greater threats in the future than the ones that actually exist in the present. A maxim is “better the devil you know.” Uncertainty triggers insecurity, insecurity triggers anxiety, and anxiety demands a remedy. This is true in all spheres.

Radicalism is a good way to stimulate people’s fear reflex, because it is innately counter-culture, and therefore summons up an uncertain future. Atheism triggers fears of the chaos of a world without the dogmatic, relativist morality of religion. Anarchism triggers fear of the chaos of an egalitarian world, devoid of obedience and submission. Antinatalism triggers fear of the chaos of a world without human life. Radical feminism triggers fear of the chaos of a society without gender roles. In all cases, fear is motivated not by arguments (although arguments may be used as rationalizations) but by the realization of radical difference.

But there is a deeper correlation between fear and chaos, between fear and counter-culture. We already know from observing society that fear makes people flock to hierarchies (“order”). The kind of hierarchy depends on the kind of fear: for instance, fear of death pushes people towards religion.

The explanation given is that people who feel threatened fall back on the culture and values of the groups towards which they feel allegiance. The contrast to the “chaos” of radicalism, obviously, is the “order” of hierarchies, where everyone knows their place and everyone has a role to play. Hierarchies represent a security blanket because they give you easy answers about how to organize society: there are inferiors and superiors, the superiors deserve their status (for whatever ridiculous reason), and the inferiors should obey the superiors in exchange for their lives or livelihood.

The fact that these answers fail time and time again, or the fact that hierarchies are not really a form of order and egalitarianism is not chaos, does not prevent the believer’s fear, because this emotion in based in the imaginary, not in rationality.

It is not, I think, a lack of imagination as much as a fertile imagination unbounded by rationality. The fact that people imagine all kinds of disaster scenarios in this fashion kinda proves that point. This indicates to me that the best way to combat it is by presenting an alternate and more credible narrative (such as my reframing of anarchism) and by presenting an alternate future.

Egalitarianism, and the misuse thereof…

Above: equality of opportunities in one lesson.

What mainly distinguishes Anarchists from other political factions is a fierce commitment to egalitarianism. I state that this is my primary political commitment, but I haven’t really defined what that means and implies, so it behooves me to be more specific.

To me, egalitarianism is the commitment to operating under the principle that all human beings have equal rights, are equally important, are equally entitled to their own values, receive an equal part of society’s production. Egalitarianism is radically anti-hierarchical and aims for a world where human creativity and human values, not money or power (which entail the suppression of creativity and native values), is the driving force, where cooperation, not competition, is the normal way for people to interact.

One popular conception of equality is equality of opportunities, which I’ve already argued is a liberal conceit. So one must be careful not to confuse the two. Equal opportunities is no more egalitarian than an equal “right” to punch people in the face (for one thing, some people are stronger than others); the role of such “equality” is merely to reproduce and justify pre-existing power inequalities.

The same is true of “equality under the law.” It would be a nice thing to have (and if we did indeed have it, it would eliminate much of the crimes of government), but to ask everyone to submit to laws written for the benefit of the rich is not egalitarian by a long shot.

The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.
Anatole France

A similar form of equality is that preached by liberal feminists, who believe that women’s issues can be solved by giving men and women the same wages and giving them the same rights. But, while this would make women in general better off, it would not solve the issue of pre-existing power inequalities between men and women. It would rather create a more beneficent Patriarchy.

Another is that of “equal representation for all religions.” First of all, it omits who gets to decide what is an allowable religion and what is not. Secondly, in practice, it’s impossible to give time or space representation to all religions, so a selective process will be made. Finally, it excludes those who are opposed to religion for ethical reasons.

A prerequisite of any egalitarian society or process is that of equal power between individuals. This is why Anarchist organizations that are serious about not reproducing hierarchies make it their number one priority to give everyone an equal part in the decision-making process.

I think part of the problem is that people have an incomplete or skewed perspective on “power.” We see this, for example, in the use of the term “empowering,” which usually refers to things which really have nothing to do with power. On the trivial extreme, we are all aware of the silly things about fashion or consumption that are supposed to “empower” women. But even beyond that extreme, we find a lot of beliefs that anything that makes you feel “more in control of your own life” is “empowering.”

Power, most simply defined, is the ability to change other people’s minds. The objective, of course, is to get them to further your own values. J.K. Galbraith, in The Anatomy of Power, lists three kinds of power: condign (use of force), compensatory (use of material rewards) and conditioned (use of indoctrination and, obviously, conditioning). Of course there are forces that oppose this power, which we collectively call counterpower.

The individual’s power depends on the ability to change one’s surroundings (physical, social, relational, etc) in accordance with some values one holds. This can be done based on one’s own values or on the basis of some institution’s values (the latter being a result of any of the forms of power I listed).

The individual’s power is intimately linked to power and counterpower in society. The more power any institution has, the less personal power the individual can claim for emself unless one follows the values of that institution, and the reverse is also true. Again, this is also true of counterpower: if your values are concordant with any given counter-culture, then you will have more power to that extent.

So being actually empowered inevitably has a social component, and so does being powerless. The woman who wears high heels and makeup to appear more desirable is made more powerless because she acts to conform to the male gaze, which is a social phenomenon, not to her own desires (you can’t actually be “empowered by your sexuality” if it’s the sexuality everyone wants you to have, even if it makes you feel good). People who refuse to have children and join us with antinatalists or other childless people for support are made more powerful because they are able to fight off institutional values in favor of their own.

The upshot of all this is that whether people believe they are in a society of equal power or not will dictate whether they have a correct view of egalitarianism. The trouble with the liberal view is that it is self-contradictory. If we did live in a society of equal power, then there would be no need to discuss “equality of opportunities” (because people could give themselves whatever opportunities they want), “equality under the law” (because people would decide for themselves what rules they want to enforce), “gender equality” (because there would be no gender, as gender is a hierarchy) or “religious representation” (because religion would be personal and there’d be little desire for “representation”).

Which brings us to the greatest equality boondoggle of all, the one that has most people totally conditioned, democracy. We are indoctrinated to believe that the fact that we all have a vote means that we are politically equal and that we have control (power) over government. This is, of course, a Big Lie.

What we know is that the major political parties are in control of the rules of the democratic game, suppress their competition and decide what “choices” we can make. Furthermore, the political system is founded on the incentive of getting votes (which entails a great number of things, such as neo-liberalist pressure on third-world governments causing socialist politicians to cave in and implement free market measures), which takes hold regardless of one’s ideology. So democratic systems inevitably end up covering only a tiny portion of the spectrum of political beliefs, those that reap the most votes.

Is the end result of democracy sometimes less authoritarian? Democratic systems are more adept at using conditioned power and compensatory power than at using condign power, meaning that they’ll generally indoctrinate you and pay you rather than beat you up. This entails the occasional concession, because it is generally easier for an open democracy to bribe its victims through co-option than to kill them. Because getting the most votes is a simple optimization process which generally entails convergence (depending on the distribution of beliefs in the population), democracies inevitably converge towards party monopolies or oligarchies.

This is a great demonstration of the difference between equality and egalitarianism. Democratic equality entails hierarchies of those who control the political process and those who don’t, those who can pass laws and those who don’t, those who have the guns and those who don’t. It is a form of equality, but it is not egalitarian and therefore not something that anyone who wants an egalitarian, fair society should support.

“Conspiracies don’t exist!”

There is a bizarre belief amongst skeptics and other supposed rationalists that there is no such thing as conspiracies and that anyone who believes in conspiracies must be a crackpot. Certainly there are a lot of crackpots who adopt conspiracy theories. There are also a lot of crackpots who talk about physics, but this does not mean physics is all bunk. To make that equation is a use of the genetic fallacy (not that the examples on that page are very good). The merits of conspiracy theories are not to be evaluated by their most crackpot proponents.

Actually there are a number of social, corporate and political conspiracies recognized as real, all of which are matter of public record. Corporations and political entities, and private individuals involved in both, come to agree to perpetrate atrocities under a veil of secrecy all the time. Indeed, they would be rather limited in scope if they didn’t commit atrocities, as they deal largely in establishing and maintaining power imbalances. Neo-liberalism is a vast conspiracy to destroy second and third world economies for Western power elites and their cash flow.

So the question arises, why are people indoctrinated to not think about conspiracies, if conspiracies are such an important part of our political and economic life?

The smartass answer would be that it’s a conspiracy (hah), but I don’t think that’s really the case. I think it’s a natural result of the suppression of conspiracy theorizing by governments and corporations. Skeptics mainly come in after the fact, confirming the “absurdity” of this or that conspiracy theory without really doing any work. In contrast to that lazy attitude, we have activists and researchers, whose job it becomes to uncover and grasp the scope of the conspiracy (Naomi Klein, with her exposé of neo-liberalism in The Shock Doctrine, is a good example).

I imagine skeptics will reply that the things I am talking about are not really conspiracies, that a conspiracy must necessarily be a world-spanning, evidence-all-suppressing shadowy organization of evildoers which organizes smaller groups of evildoers. This is what is called a “superconspiracy theory,” the kind of worldview advocated by people like David Icke (the reptilians are controlling everything!) or antisemites (the Jews are controlling everything!). But most conspiracy theories, including ones that are about actual conspiracies, are much more mundane:

A conspiracy theory explains an event as being the result of an alleged plot by a covert group or organization or, more broadly, the idea that important political, social or economic events are the products of secret plots that are largely unknown to the general public.

If we accept that there is a power elite and that this power elite has divergent interests from the rest of us, then conspiracy theories are not extraordinary claims at all. There’s nothing extraordinary about the proposition that people who have power over others and who have divergent interests from them will secretly try to fuck those other people over. For atheists, the concept that religion has motivated people or groups to plot against unbelievers or believers of the “wrong” religion is pretty mundane (just to name two recent examples, the Wedge Document exposed an Intelligent Design conspiracy to take over the education system, and Scientology has been illegally imprisoning some of its top officials in secret prisons).

Skeptics may argue that a conspiracy cannot last, because someone will tattle. But a conspiracy doesn’t have to last forever, it just has to last long enough for its goal to be accomplished. It may even be preferable for a conspiracy to be revealed once it has run its course, as in the case of a coup, to intimidate possible dissenters.

Skeptics may argue that conspiracies are irrational because evidence against a conspiracy can always be reinterpreted as evidence for it (“that’s what THEY want you to think!”). But it’s obvious that there are possible disproofs of a conspiracy. For example, a conspiracy involving Chevron or Scientology is plausible, but a conspiracy involving Reptilians is implausible, since Reptilians do not actually exist, or otherwise their influence is not distinguishable from that of human beings. Conspiracies are still made of people, and they can only do what people can do. People can’t create mythical beings.

As for the crackpot argument, I’ve already refuted it. The fact that crackpots often talk about conspiracy theories is no disproof of conspiracies any more than the fact that crackpots often talk about physics disproves physics.

People complain about 9/11 truthers or global warming deniers, but we need people who keep challenging what we think we know. It is through opposition that we define ourselves; even Christian fundamentalists fulfill that role. Without opposition, we become entrenched in our beliefs and there can be no intellectual progress.

People who reject conspiracy thinking, on the other hand, don’t want their ideas to be challenged. Skeptics, for instance, are pretty mainstream politically, mostly liberals, so they have no interest in challenging the status quo. Not only that, but there are people who use the common antipathy towards conspiracy theories to argue against radicals, even though these radicals are not actually using conspiracy theories. I wrote about this in the case of Anarchism, but it is used in other contexts also. Atheists, for instance, are sometimes accused of believing that religious people are out to get them or to do evil.

Instead of being a skeptic, we need to maintain what radfem Mary Daly calls “positive paranoia”: to be aware of patterns in people’s “seemingly disparate” behavior and try to understand how these patterns arise.

One cannot talk about conspiracies without talking about The Conspiracy. The Conspiracy as understood by the Subgenius is not really a conspiracy as such, as much as the appearance of a conspiracy. Subgeniuses don’t actually believe that every Pink in the world is consciously conspiring to deprive them of slack. But the term “the Conspiracy” to describe the confluence and collusion of all the hierarchies that impose on an individual is just too convenient and descriptive to pass up.

What is an institution?

The idea for this entry actually comes from an entry from a philosophy teacher (I will not link to it so he can be spared the embarassment). I found an error in this argument:

An example that usually trips my logic students up on tests is the following:

1) Each member of the Supreme Court is conservative.
2) Therefore, the Supreme Court itself is conservative

This argument is not fallacious…

I can well understand that the argument “trips” his students “up,” because his answer is incorrect. The argument is most definitely fallacious (his subsequent whining that logic textbooks agree with him notwithstanding). I hope the reason is obvious: the “Supreme Court” is not simply a group of nine individuals. It is part of a hierarchical institution (the justice system, which is itself part of the larger concept of enforcing the law), with all that this implies.

I suppose I should be a little more specific on what “this implies.” Here is a brief overview of what an institution is composed of:

1. Individuals having varying degrees of self-determination within the hierarchy.

2. Intellectual resources, either from those individuals or in codified form (know-how, expertise, creativity, technology, relevant scientific knowledge, etc).

3. Physical resources (buildings or use of buildings, and whatever physical objects are needed to continue the operations of the institution at a concrete level, means to communicate between members and to the public, etc).

Most importantly, an institution is a hierarchy and a structure, therefore it also has the following properties:

* It has a decision-making structure.
* It has sets of official rules and regulations, which are written down and (more or less) enforced.
* It has incentive systems, from the simplest reward/punishment system to sophisticated and subtle mores.
* It has a theoretical purpose, which is used for propaganda purposes and to ground the internal logic.
* It has an internal logic, grounded in the theoretical purpose, by which actions and beliefs are justified.
* It has an actual purpose, which generally concerns only the people at the top of the hierarchy.

There are so many institutions one can use as examples, such as capitalism, organized religion, schooling, the Patriarchy, parenting, the city, law enforcement, the scientific and medical establishments, the mass media and so on. I will go through the points using these as examples.

Decision-making structure. All major institutions in our societies function through semi-independent units of action (corporations, churches, schools, individual men, families, police forces) which are coordinated through the impetus of class warfare or a straightforward hierarchy (the power elite, religious activist organizations, departments of education, the mass media, growth coalitions, departments of justice). There is a balance of decision-making which depends on the relative power of the units and the coordinators (e.g. in capitalism, the power elite is mostly emergent from relations between property owners, while government departments can have quite a bit of power relative to a school or a police force- think of it as the difference in independence between provinces and the Canadian government versus states and the American government).

Rules and regulations. I think this one is pretty obvious. Institutions function in accordance with their own internal rules and regulations, and also impose rules and regulations on other people. Both sets of rules and regulations may be consistent, but they usually are not.

Incentive systems. In general, it is in the interest of an agent within the institution to follow the rules and regulations of that institution. This is pretty straightforward reward/punishment. But an institution also has traditions, habits, mores, a group culture and a group logic which are just as powerful as explicit, written rules (think of the police omertà or the Christian churches’ hiding of rampant child abuse and rape, for example).

Incentives are what moves people. In a sense, the identity of the people involved are interchangeable: whether angels or demons, they will still, on the whole, follow the incentives of the institutions they work under (or have to contend with as citizens). Part of these incentives are the goals of the units themselves, which the rules are usually meant to facilitate (the profit motive or political funding, political or social influence, personal pleasure, control over one’s children).

Theoretical purpose. What the institution tells the public, and people lower in its hierarchy, about its purpose and aims. Here are the theoretical purposes of the institutions I’ve listed:

Capitalism- to ensure an efficient allocation of resources, efficient production, and preserve individual economic freedom.
Organized religion- to provide salvation and enforce morality.
Schooling- to educate children and prepare them for the “real world.”
The patriarchy- to glorify women and enable them to fulfill their “true purpose.”
Parenting- to raise children so they are successful/adapted to society.
The city- to provide employment and good living conditions.
Law enforcement- to prevent crime and keep order.

These theoretical purposes are the foundation on which propaganda grows. We are told that capitalism is an efficient method to allocate resources and to produce (backed by fake versions of “personal responsibility” and the worship of competition). More importantly, people come to believe that capitalism is the only way we have to fulfill that purpose. Based on this, corporations can demand mind-boggling amounts of public money because they are assumed to be necessary, we put up with corporations putting out tremendous amounts of pollution, negligent homicides, conspiracies to deceive, and even hiring private juntas and killing people because we believe they are necessary.

So the theoretical purpose provides the beliefs that propaganda can use as a hook to generate agreement. Many ads are in some fashion based on this: when corporations want you to believe they care about the environment, or care about their workers, or care about their country, and so on, they hope that you already believe corporations are necessary and that you don’t believe in alternatives that actually do respect the environment or are respectful of workers.

This becomes an anti-radical statement. Even people who do believe in alternatives will eventually adopt the “reasonable” position that “maybe some alternative would be better but that’s never going to happen so help to reform what we do have.”

The theoretical purpose also grounds the reframing of issues that institutions perform in order to counter opposition. The patriarchy constantly redefines woman-hatred as “feminism” or “freeing women.” Organized religion has redefined atheism and homosexuality as failures of morality. By its very nature, the mass media is most effective at silencing or strawmaning opponents of the status quo.

Internal logic. The theoretical purpose also grounds the internal logic used within those institutions. Constraints put on employees, violence used by corporations, negligent homicides, are all explained by corporations as necessary for efficient production. Everything that managers do in a corporation is ultimately justified by the demands of production. Every way in which corporations cheat people is ultimately justified by a “just” allocation of resources.

The internal logic is also based on the decision-making structure of the hierarchy. For the powerful, power is its own justification: one must obey those with power because they have power.

Actual purpose. This is the actual purpose of the institution vis-à-vis other institutions and society in general. We can tell what it is by looking at what the institution actually does, not what it claims or what other people in society claim. Here are the same examples as before:

Capitalism- to keep control over the resources of society in the hands of a small power elite.
Organized religion- to impose social order (by instilling contentment with authority).
Schooling- to indoctrinate children to become compliant citizens ready to take jobs.
The patriarchy- to maintain men as a superior class to women.
Parenting- to transmit religious, patriarchal, class-based and competitive indoctrination (and to keep children in school).
The city- to exploit land in a way that is most conducive to capitalist profits.
Law enforcement- to enforce the laws made by the power elite.

How do we know these are the real purposes of these institutions, and not what the propaganda tells us? Well, one way to do that is to look at how they function, take these various features and look at whether they are conducive to the theoretical purpose or to what I claim is the actual purpose.

Look at schooling, for example. We observe a number of defining features which are completely contrary to its theoretical purpose of educating children:

1. The constant use of testing.
2. Competitive or independent learning.
3. Authoritarian class structure.
4. Strong disrespect of students’ rights.
5. [Generally] fixed curriculum.
6. Choice of textbooks made by bureaucrats.

All these features point to the actual purpose, not the theoretical purpose.

Another, more intuitive method is to think about what it might look like if it was meant to actually fulfill its stated purpose, instead of having these features I’ve listed above. How could a school be made to actually educate children? It would be drastically different. Such a school would promote cooperative learning, which has been proven to yield the best result. It would let children choose what they want to study and let them do so at their own pace (so gifted children would not be held back, and slower children would not be forced to follow). Children’s rights and natural values would be at the core of learning.

What would such a school look like? It would probably be a lot more open, put less emphasis on chalkboard and more on talking, be a lot louder, and children would be a lot more responsible towards their personal education. Of course there would still be standards (all children should learn to read, write and count, as well as receive general knowledge about the world), but how those standards would be achieved would be mostly up to the student.

We can also look at the origins of these institutions. Modern schooling in the US was built on the same structure as factory work, and was created by industrialists at the turn of the 20th century to create a docile workforce (see The Underground History of American Education, by John Taylor Gatto). The connection between industrial expansion and public education is true all over the Western world.

Institutions are mutually supportive, because they co-evolve and adapt to each other. We can metaphorically speak of cooperation between institutions: schooling feeds the job demand and sometimes discriminates by gender, organized religion supports other institutions as part of the social order, capitalism helps maintain the patriarchy by discriminating between men and women and helps enforce laws through its own regulations, parenting leads to the indoctrination in a local religion, a fixed idea of gender, and schooling, and so on. Very little of this is made of conscious actions, except for the people at the top, but was developed over generations.

An institution is defined as a well-established, structured pattern of behavior and/or relationships that is fundamental to culture (this also includes abstract institutions such as private ownership, which I did not add here). As such, an institution is necessarily a creator of social roles, since a social role aims to impose stable, structured patterns of behavior and relationships. To continue the example, schooling creates social roles of “student” and “teacher” (as well as more minor ones which involves one in the school such as “parent of student”) which are a binary where each is defined in opposition to the other. In its intersection with capitalism, it also helps determine economic roles and classes. Its its intersection with the mass media, it creates expert roles. It also has a gatekeeper role for the scientific and medical establishments.

Because they create social roles, institutions are also generators of artificial meaning. They all have something to say about the individual’s place in society (especially religion, obviously).

Now, to come back to the main issue, I think I can conclusively answer that no, an institution is not strictly or even mainly shaped by individual actions at any specific time. In fact, everyone who works within these institutions is subject to narrow limiting factors, so that even if, for whatever reason, a substantial number of people wanted to deviate from the norm (and no, being a conservative judge doesn’t count), they could only go so far. Usually, egalitarian institutions can only exist within egalitarian societies: the only exceptions either exist under the radar (such as Anarchist free schools) or are the result of troubled times and a divided body politic (such as the recuperated factories in Argentina).

The example of the Supreme Court is perhaps more ambiguous because any given Supreme Court justice probably has more influence over the justice system as a whole, relatively speaking, than anyone else has over any institution. But there is a far cry from that to “every Supreme Court justice is X, therefore the Supreme Court is X.” As I’ve described here, there is much more to any organization or institution than its individuals’ actions at any given time.

At this point, I suppose a methodological individualist might read all this and say that, while it’s all well and true that there’s a lot more in an institution than individuals and their actions, and that there’s no necessary link between the two, it is still the case that institutions change and that this change proceeds from individual action.

I am not going to debate methodological individualism because that’s a whole other issue (see my entry “Taking socio-political critique as a personal attack” for an indirect take on that). Suffice it to say that I find the proposition that individual actions are primary and systems are secondary to be extremely dubious. Being opposed to methodological individualism does not mean to omit the existence of individual actions (any more than methodological individualism itself omits the existence of society), but rather means that the impact of systems on actions (or in sociological terms, the impact of structure on agency) is far greater than the reverse, and that therefore we need to start with systems, not actions, as primary.

Anyway, once we admit that there’s more than individual actions, the fallacy of institutions=individuals disappears, and as I said this is not the place to debate the rest. Besides, the idea that institutions are made of individual actions is used more often than not to promote those institutions: when individuals act in evil ways, we argue that they’re just “bad apples” and that their behavior does not impact the institution itself. If we’re talking about facts and not about prejudice, then we can’t label all positive actions as creative and label all negative actions as irrelevant.


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