Category Archives: Mechanisms of control

The problem with equality.

“Equality” is the watchword of liberals and other milder right-wing groups. I have written about equality of outcomes before. It is an extremely unpopular concept, and not what most people mean by “equality.” Therefore it is probably not a good idea to use equality for that sort of thing.

It is therefore important to distinguish carefully between equality, equity (or fairness), and liberation. There is a somewhat famous image showing three children, of different heights, trying to look at a baseball game, but are blocked by a fence. Equality is portrayed as giving them all equal sized boxes, meaning that only the taller children can see the game. Equity is portrayed as giving everyone enough boxes so they can see. And liberation means taking down the fence.

The analogy with ethical issues and political issues, I think, is obvious. For instance, gender equality means giving men and women the same opportunities to safety, employment, and so on, without taking into account the different ways in which men and women are treated by society and our institutions (in short, liberal feminism). Gender equity means giving men and women the means to have equal outcomes regardless of their gender (e.g. equal wages for equal work, wages for housework, socializing men to be less aggressive). And gender liberation means abolishing gender (radical feminism).

Equality, therefore, is a trap in the same way that liberal feminism is a trap regarding gender issues: its ultimate aim is to justify hierarchies while pretending to alleviate their negative effects. Economic equality measures, from higher minimum wage to universal income, are better than no measures, but they ultimately serve the role, as they always have, of propping up the capitalist order. All welfare systems have served this role. They have always been a result of the tension between the lower classes (working class, students, the poor) and the interests of the elite, for as long as there’s been class warfare.

The main goal of any (social) hierarchy is to perpetuate its own existence, because of the people whose livelihood and/or social status depend on the hierarchy and the beliefs which the hierarchy has propagated to support itself. Equality rhetoric is perfect for this, because it preserves the hierarchy while using equality as a perceived reward. Equality measures within a hierarchy does not really affect the inequalities of power between the superiors and inferiors in a hierarchy. The only way to end inequalities within a hierarchy is to eliminate that hierarchy, liberation, because superiors and inferiors are an inherent part of any hierarchy.

There are two major kinds of hierarchies, institutions and systemic prejudice, and so there are two different ways in which this can be expressed. Equality within institutions usually means that the rules apply equally to everyone (leading to the famous maxim that both poor and rich people are prevented by the law from sleeping under bridges). In theory, everyone has a chance of gaining status and power, but this does not refute the existence of that power. For instance, having more women be CEOs or scientists does not refute the existence of the corporate or scientific hierarchies. On the contrary, it props them up as valid, in much the same way that most religions seek validation by making their own charities.

Hierarchies are the core problem, not lack of mobility within them. Hierarchies are bad because their very structure assumes that some people’s values or desires are more important than other people’s (omitting values which seek to harm other people, which should already be dealt with by society at large). Once you have a structure with superior and inferior strata, the values of that superior stratum inevitably diverge from that of the rest.

People are aware that our ethical viewpoints dictate our views about power. However, the distribution of power also influences our ethical viewpoints. Of course, people who have power can, to some extent, influence or dictate what we’re supposed to accept as right or wrong. A structure which gives some people the right to order around other people will necessarily lead to some level of undermining of our moral sense. Militaries and cults are more extreme examples of this, but it takes place in all hierarchies. Inherent to the existence of hierarchies is the denial of moral autonomy and the manipulation of people’s values for a “higher good” (usually the good of the leaders of the hierarchy, or the hierarchy itself).

But another point is that the distribution of power dictates the possibilities of ethical behavior we can perform. The more money we have, the more influence we have, the more authority we have, the more we’re able to bring about better or worse outcomes for others. A multi-millionaire can contribute effectively to benevolent charities, or start their own, while a poor person cannot do the same. Influential figures can leverage their influence by getting people to help a certain person or a certain situation, while others cannot.

This is another way in which hierarchical status can influence the importance given to one person’s values. When we hear about rich or influential people and their impact on the world through charities or advocacy, we applaud their values and see them as being important moral agents. But that is really the result of hierarchies, a construct, which does not reflect real moral worth.

Are our societies cult-like?

Given my interest in analyzing cults and how they brainwash people, I suppose it would be natural that I would want to apply that same understanding to society as a whole. After all, our societies are totalizing groups, like cults. Everything we do and think is either a consequence or a reaction to all the socialization and indoctrination we have received. Pledging allegiance to a cult means foregoing allegiance to the society. Does that mean, therefore, that society is just a bigger cult?

We designate certain groups as cults, and other groups as quasi-cults, cultish, or not cults at all, based on their separation from the larger society they inhabit: separation of language, segregation of information, separating friends and families, shifting value systems and allegiances. Therefore, judging any society’s level of cultism is, strictly speaking, impossible, because we have no greater society to compare it to.

However, in another sense, we already do judge societies on the basis of our own. For example, we can say North Korea is a cult because of its political system. We can do this by talking about a section of it, the political system, and comparing it with other political systems. Of course there is a degree of self-indulgence in this. What we’re saying is, “look how much more cult-like North Korea is compared to us.” This does not prove that our societies are not cult-like, merely that one is more cult-like than the other. This evaluation is therefore inherently relative.

While we cannot evaluate societies literally on the same criteria as cults, we can still reason by analogy. Let me list the main criteria for identifying cults:

1. Milieu Control. This involves the control of information and communication both within the environment and, ultimately, within the individual, resulting in a significant degree of isolation from society at large.

2. Mystical Manipulation. There is manipulation of experiences that appear spontaneous but in fact were planned and orchestrated by the group or its leaders in order to demonstrate divine authority or spiritual advancement or some special gift or talent that will then allow the leader to reinterpret events, scripture, and experiences as he or she wishes.

3. Demand for Purity. The world is viewed as black and white and the members are constantly exhorted to conform to the ideology of the group and strive for perfection. The induction of guilt and/or shame is a powerful control device used here.

4. Confession. Sins, as defined by the group, are to be confessed either to a personal monitor or publicly to the group. There is no confidentiality; members’ “sins,” “attitudes,” and “faults” are discussed and exploited by the leaders.

5. Sacred Science. The group’s doctrine or ideology is considered to be the ultimate Truth, beyond all questioning or dispute. Truth is not to be found outside the group. The leader, as the spokesperson for God or for all humanity, is likewise above criticism.

6. Loading the Language. The group interprets or uses words and phrases in new ways so that often the outside world does not understand. This jargon consists of thought-terminating cliches, which serve to alter members’ thought processes to conform to the group’s way of thinking.

7. Doctrine over person. Member’s personal experiences are subordinated to the sacred science and any contrary experiences must be denied or reinterpreted to fit the ideology of the group.

8. Dispensing of existence. The group has the prerogative to decide who has the right to exist and who does not. This is usually not literal but means that those in the outside world are not saved, unenlightened, unconscious and they must be converted to the group’s ideology. If they do not join the group or are critical of the group, then they must be rejected by the members. Thus, the outside world loses all credibility. In conjunction, should any member leave the group, he or she must be rejected also. (Lifton, 1989)

Again, I am saying we need to reason by analogy, not literally. Society is not a group with a clear and definite structure, a charismatic leader, and a set of doctrines that are clearly laid out to the initiate. Society encompasses vast and numerous groups which interact in complex and often vague ways, many leaders with various qualities, and doctrines which are either “common sense,” technical knowledge, historical or social myths, religious doctrines which vary wildly from group to group, scientific principles, beliefs disguised as science, positions that are part of political worldviews, and so on. This list narrows down quite a bit if we give a more precise definition of the word “doctrine.”

What is a society formally delimited by? It is delimited by its border (a society exists within a country or territory), by its government (monopoly of control over a country or territory), by its economy and currency (who you can trade with, who you can work with), and more vaguely by its culture (the way things are done). There are, of course, other structures that are extremely important within a society (such as the family structure or the gender hierarchy), but these are the particular structures that separate societies from each other.

What are the ideas and beliefs that separate societies? Well, obviously, allegiance to a country, a government, an economy, and a culture. But there are also more general principles, such as us versus them (or more generally, manichean thinking), racism, neo-liberalism (which sets economies against each other), war and a history of war, religious hatred, and so on.

Based on this reasoning, what can we use an analogy to these criteria?

Milieu Control: Information is controlled within society by the capitalist media, and particularly by the capitalist media’s dependence on the government’s favor for access to important people and information. While this has been especially noted in the case of the United States (e.g. see Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent), people in all societies are artificially limited in their access to information and communication by the constraints of capitalism. Only certain groups are allowed to use the mass media, and only in certain ways. The Internet, of course, represents a significant attack against those limitations (in the same way that the Internet has been very bad for cults in general).

Mystical Manipulation: Because it is impossible to manipulate the direct experiences of the people of an entire society, this is not a possible means of control. What can be manipulated is access to information and how to interpret that information, the former which I’ve already covered.

Demand for Purity: Most of the ideas and beliefs I listed above are examples of black and white thinking, and we are constantly exhorted to conform to them (be on the “right” side). We are also encouraged, through the belief in positive thinking, to purify our minds. There is no general idea of “perfection” in our societies, only success, so that doesn’t really apply here.

Confession: Again, because of the size of any society, there is no way for this to be a working principle. But the principle of confession applies to various areas of society, including parenting (confessing your disobedience), justice (confessing your crimes), and religion (confessing your sins).

Sacred Science: This principle is taken literally by cultural relativists (culture is always right), authoritarians and right-wingers (power is always right), and others. But as a more general analogy, the belief in one’s society as the “good” side, and in your culture as the “right” culture, is beyond questioning or doubt (and anyone who questions them is considered a traitor, a secret “them”). We do not consider our leaders infallible, but we do consider them to be representatives of the society, and therefore people who are necessarily on the “good” side.

Loading the Language: The way words are manipulated, in politics for example, is well understood. We use plenty of thought-terminating cliches, even in normal language.

Doctrine over person: All groups affirm the superiority of their agreed-upon beliefs against the personal disagreements of their members. Any group that did not do this would not remain a group for long. Societies are no different. Experiences which lead people to deny some socially mandated belief (e.g. the superiority of “our” way of life compared to others) are denied or reinterpreted.

This is an extremely cursory examination of the issue, and I am not claiming otherwise. And again, I am not literally saying societies are cults (because such an evaluation is impossible). What I am saying is that by reasoning in analogies we can see ways in which societies sometimes operate in a similar manner to cults.

This is not to say that society is evil. Actually not all cults are evil, and some are rather benign (although they tend to be the exception rather than the rule). The reason why we are against cults is because they are the perfect sort of environment for a leader to brainwash people. And we don’t like brainwashing because it negates the native value system of the individual in favor of some imposed value system, a value system which benefits someone who is not the individual holding it.

Well, of course we have that in our societies also, just not in the same extreme form. Take religious brainwashing, for instance. It is a well known phenomenon that people who deconvert from a religion generally and suddenly drop all the other positions that came along with it (like political positions or ethical positions). This is because most people are indoctrinated as children into a religion, which includes the value system imposed by that religion on the believer. That value system overrides the native value system of the individual. Once they leave the religion, they also drop that imposed value system. The same thing is true of people who leave cults. Other ideologies, like political ideologies, philosophical ideologies, child-raising ideologies, racist or sexist ideologies, and so on, can warp people’s value system to some larger or smaller extent, making certain things acceptable which otherwise would not be, and making certain things unacceptable when natively the person would have nothing against it.

With brainwashing and indoctrination in general comes its opposite mechanism, cognitive dissonance. If you don’t know what that is, cognitive dissonance is the mental tension generated by acquiring a belief which contradicts one of our other held beliefs. For example, if you believe that your friend Peter is an upstanding individual who would do no wrong, and then you observe him punching a person you believe is innocent, you would experience cognitive dissonance because you both believe that Peter is an upstanding individual and that Peter punched an innocent person, which is a contradiction. If you want to no longer experience the discomfort, you would have to resolve the contradiction by rejecting one of the two beliefs. People who change their minds about something they used to believe strongly usually do so because of cognitive dissonance.

In cults, people often experience cognitive dissonance by observing things happening within the group that contradicts what they were told about the group (e.g. “the group is a paragon of virtue” vs “the group kicked Peter out even though he did something praiseworthy”). Likewise, we experience plenty of cognitive dissonance between commonly accepted beliefs in our societies and what we observe or read about. Belief in the rightness of the country or government may be challenged by what the government actually does or has done in the past. Belief in the inferiority of certain classes or races may be challenged by meeting and living with such people. Religious and political beliefs may be challenged by a wide variety of events, including reading about scientific or empirical counter-evidence, being unable to satisfactorily answer contrary arguments, and so on.

Entitlement and privilege: hierarchy is the root problem.

It is not fashionable to blame hierarchies for systemic problems. It seems most people believe that hierarchies are necessary, and even beneficial.

The case of gender is no different. Gender is a hierarchy, where men are the superiors and women are the inferiors. Genderism, the ideological support for gender, is as strong as it ever was. One of the main consequences of this denial is the justification of entitlement and privilege. People don’t really oppose entitlement unless it is part of dysfunctional behavior (like young male mass shooters), in which case they single it out as “sick.” And privilege, as far as I can tell, is rarely opposed at all, except by those who are victimized by it (and not even then, if those victims have any hope of getting the privilege themselves in the future).

Hierarchy is a system of systemic and directed control. This system can be an organization (a school), an institution (the family), or a prejudice (genderism). Whatever the hierarchy is, it has superiors, people who wield control, and inferiors, people who are targeted by the control (not necessarily completely separated, as people can be part of both groups in different ways, such as in a workplace with layers of management). Superiors expect certain patterns of behavior from their inferiors (such as a submissive or humble attitude), and inferiors expect certain responses from their superiors if they fail, disappoint, or do the wrong things (getting reprimanded, getting fired, getting punished, losing resources).

Entitlement happens when a person feels owed something because of their social role. We all know the stereotype of the rich shopper who treats store employees like shit. Although it may not seem like it, this is directly related to hierarchy: the rich shopper has control over the employees because they have some influence over the managers.

There is no sense of entitlement that is not mediated by a hierarchy. We all expect to be treated in certain ways because we are aware of our status in the hierarchies we navigate in, and we all adjust our behavior accordingly. In those areas where we are either superiors or have influence over them, we naturally expect to be treated in certain ways and to be allowed to do certain things. This does not mean you can’t be nice about it: magnanimity towards your inferiors is considered to be a good trait, and even people who abuse their power don’t generally do it in the open (and when they do, it’s almost always a form of abuse which is supported and/or codified by the hierarchy or society as a whole).

Male entitlement is a good example of all these points. It is not only the result of the gender hierarchy, but it is also mediated by many other hierarchies, such as the mass media, the family, and capitalism. Men in relationships with women, or dealing with women in the public spheres, expect certain behaviors from women (such as meeting fuckability standards, or openness to being validated by men), and women prepare for certain responses from men (by putting on makeup, by preparing for self-defense, by not doing certain things such as being alone at night, by guarding their drinks, by making first dates in public spaces, and so on). Many men behave completely respectfully and appropriately towards women, but they still benefit from women’s responses, which are generally geared towards appeasing men.

Privileges are actual benefits granted to people on the basis of their social role. If entitlement is the psychological side of domination, privilege is the concrete side. Many people who hold to an entitlement are clearly mistaken, such as men who become shooters because they believe they are entitled to voluntary sex from women (while society does operate under the assumption that men are entitled to sex through prostitution or rape, that sex is not at all voluntary). People may feel entitled to something that is not their actual privilege, and they may not feel entitled to something that is their privilege. Privilege is all the benefits we actually get.

Again, all privileges exist because of hierarchies. White privilege, which is much talked about these days because of racial warfare in the United States, exists because of the racial hierarchy and is mediated by other hierarchies, like the justice system, the military, the government as a whole, and capitalism (and of course the mass media, as the servant of public opinion, which is largely racist). Being white confers a number of privileges, such as being assumed to be reasonably intelligent, trustworthy, and peaceful unless proven otherwise, not being targeted by the justice system and other government organizations, having an easier time finding a job and getting the highest levels of schooling, and being heavily represented at the highest levels of most hierarchies and in most media. While many white people believe they do not possess these privileges, they do, nevertheless.

Many white people interpret this as a personal attack against them, that they are personally oppressing black people. But as I pointed out about male entitlement, you don’t have to be personally coercive in order to reap the rewards of other people being coercive. But white people are not, by and large, aware of the effects of white privilege on black people, so this process is generally invisible to them. So they have no frame of reference by which they could systemically analyze the issue.

Compounding the problem is that superiors in a hierarchy typically have weak egos. When you are routinely not challenged by anyone or anything in an environment, you will not mature emotionally in relation to that environment. It is said that men are less mature than women, and that’s because they tend to encounter fewer challenges. Likewise for white people as regards to race.

I do atypical work for a white person, which is that I lead primarily white audiences in discussions on race every day, in workshops all over the country. That has allowed me to observe very predictable patterns. And one of those patterns is this inability to tolerate any kind of challenge to our racial reality. We shut down or lash out or in whatever way possible block any reflection from taking place.

Of course, it functions as means of resistance, but I think it’s also useful to think about it as fragility, as inability to handle the stress of conversations about race and racism.

This is understandable. If you are white or male, if this is part of your core identity, and you get constant benefits from it, then you would have no interest whatsoever in discussing whether being white or male harms other people. In general, people will not question anything their livelihood or personal identity depends on.

In all cases, entitlement and privilege are not the root problems, hierarchies are the root problem. Entitlement and privilege exist because hierarchies exist. Generally, the most unequal systems entail the highest levels of entitlement and privilege, and the more egalitarian a system is, the less entitlement and privilege can exist within it.

“THOSE people aren’t like me and mine.”

I found a statement on a blog which was such a perfect representation of bigotry that I couldn’t help but write a commentary on it. I won’t post any link to it, although you can find it easily by searching on Google. Here is the statement:

Those people aren’t like me and mine. They’re different. You can never tell what they’re up to, you have no idea what they’re thinking, what the world is like to them and what they think of you and your own. It doesn’t matter what they say, you can never tell when those people are telling the truth. So often it happens to be the case that one of them acts all nice in public, but then he turns around and blows something up. You just can’t trust them. When it comes to my own, I know what they’re thinking, because I’m one of them; I know what it’s like. When one of mine acts up, I know it’s just because he’s a bad person – but with those other people, you can never tell. Why are they so violent?

You can clearly tell it’s about Muslims, because of the “blows something up” part. But if you take that expression out and replace it with something more generic, say, “but then they turn around and do something that’s just plain wrong,” then you’d have a completely universal statement.

It’s easy to dismiss the spirit of this statement as pure ignorance or mindless hatred, but I think there’s a lot more to talk about here. It’s an eloquent demonstration of the things you need to do in order to incite hatred against people.

1. People we hate are unpredictable and inscrutable.

Dehumanization is a big part of bigotry, but dehumanizing people is not that easy. One way of doing this is to say that those people don’t think like humans do (i.e. like you do), that they can’t be understood, that they are so different that you just can’t trust them. They can’t be “good people” because “good people” are predictable: they’ll always do the right thing. But those people can’t be counted on to do the right thing.

So when he writes “You can never tell what they’re up to, you have no idea what they’re thinking, what the world is like to them and what they think of you and your own,” the intent there is to dehumanize. They don’t think like us at all, you can never have an idea what they think, because they’re not human. You can no more understand what their thoughts are like than you can know what being a bat or a cow is like. Women are “crazy” and “irrational,” POCs are “bestial,” children are “wild,” and all could explode in either verbal or physical violence without any justification.

2. People we hate are all the same.

As the writer explains, when a person on their side “acts up,” it’s because they’re a “bad person.” It’s their fault, not the fault of the group they belong to. This dovetails easily into the “bad apples” rhetoric: when people on our side “act up,” it’s because of a few “bad apples,” and all we need to do is cull those “bad apples” from the bunch, because we’re “good people.”

Women, POCs, and children, on the other hand, are said to be representative of their group. When they “act up,” it’s not because they’re a “bad person.” it’s because they are part of a subhuman group. Unlike us, they have no individuality: they are all inherently violent and none of them can be trusted. We know how people blame all women for the perceived shortcomings of one woman, all POCs for the perceived shortcomings of one POC, all children for the perceived shortcomings of one child. This is only an extension of that concept.

3. People we hate are innately violent.

Because there is no possible explanation or justification for their actions, because they do not think like us and are inscrutable, and they are all equally untrustworthy, the only conclusion one can come to is that they must be innately violent or immoral. It is rather hard to be a constructionist and maintain hatred against any group of people, because constructionism and the belief in some innate violence or immorality in an entire group of people simply do not mesh. Anyone who wants to propagate hate must therefore argue against constructionism and for a specifically racial, sexist or ageist view of human nature. It is not a coincidence that racists, sexists and childists either vigorously attack constructionist positions or substitute their own (such as what I’ve called the “no-subconscious model”).

So usually the question “why are they so violent” is answered with “because that’s how those people are.” Understanding of their thoughts (which is posited as impossible) is replaced by the position that they are thoughtless and moved by some biological imperative. Women are biologically made to be radically different from men because of their differing role in procreation and child-raising, and they are made to be caring, emotional, and irrational. POCs were thought to have different lines of descent from whites, and therefore impossible to understand from a “white” standpoint. Children are thought to be born evil, wild animals, who need to be pacified (like natives).

“You’re just trying to turn everyone into victims.”

For more than a century now, there has been a rising awareness of the need for universal human rights: first for the workers of the world, then for women and people of color, then for many other groups. This has led to many different waves of backlash, all tied to the specific movement they are going against.

In this era of continued growing awareness, it seems to some people that there’s no end to the complaints about subgroups being exploited or mistreated, which is why they use the term “political correctness” derisively. They are trying to reduce these movements to demands about words, when the use of words is only a symptom of the greater problems. Calling a black person a “nigger” is not the root of the problem. It is a symptom of the underlying racism that made that person say it. Wanting white people to stop saying “nigger” is an attempt to get white people to see black people in a more respectful light. People who object to such “correctness” only see the word, not the causes of the use of the word, or they are racists and simply don’t care if people use that word.

But there is a more sophisticated strategy that they can take here. Instead of just objecting to the “correctness,” they sometimes say something like, “so you think [oppressed group] is so fragile that they can’t stand hearing the word [slur]? I think you need to start treating [oppressed group] like adults who can stand up to a simple word.” Here is a real life example of a misogynist commenting on the “ban bossy” campaign:

The biggest level of cognitive dissonance is – this is a campaign that is done in solidarity of young women and girls, yet it is making it sound like they are so fragile that they can’t handle being called a word. I mean, really? Are we really making that argument? Cause if we are, then you are tacitly admitting that they shouldn’t be holding positions of power. Reason – because they can’t take criticism.

This is an insidious tactic because it claims to be on the side of the oppressed, that the oppressed are not weak and can take the abuse, so it’s not really abusive. This particular example is even better because it creates a double bind: either women are too weak to be called “bossy,” in which case they don’t deserve power (as if men can take criticism any better), or they are strong enough to be called “bossy,” in which case we should continue to insult them. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Inevitably this tactic is framed in terms of “fragility” or “weakness.” The implication is that if members of an oppressed group are offended by a certain word, then they must be “fragile” or “weak,” and (at least in the case of the example I quoted) therefore unable to withstand serious human interactions. This is, of course, disingenuous and hypocritical: when people in power are offended, they don’t conclude that they are too “fragile” or “weak” to keep holding power. It is therefore purely a matter of self-interest, and the end goal of the maneuver is to shut people up.

I’m talking about tactics based on arguing that the person defending a given group is trying to turn the people of that group into victims. This particular argument is just a specific instance of that category, since it contends that the people trying to abolish slurs are implying that the oppressed people are weak. In general, though, the rationalization used is not that the oppressed people are “weak,” but rather that they have “agency” or “choice,” which is even more insidious because it seems to “empower” oppressed people with the ability to decide their destiny. The argument goes something like this:

1. You claim that a group of people P is oppressed.
2. But such a statement denies that people P have agency and (have chosen the life situation that you decry/need to choose a better life situation and “life themselves by their bootstraps.”)
3. Therefore you are denying people P agency, portraying them as victims when they actually (are/should be) empowered.

There are two branches to this argument, and they switch from one to the other depending on whether they find the oppression desirable or not. So for instance, homemaking, pornography or prostitution get the “they’ve chosen the life situation that you decry” branch, while poverty or police harassment get the “need to choose a better life situation” branch.

One major problem with this argument, however, is that it does not apply to bigotry, which is the foundation of the oppressions they are trying to rationalize. So for example the following argument makes sense to them:

Women in pornography and prostitution have agency and have chosen the life situation that you decry. Therefore you are denying women in pornography and prostitution their agency, portraying them as victims when they actually are empowered.

But once you start trying to address sexism itself, neither branch of the argument makes sense. While genderists do believe that various parts of sexism are empowering (such as the fuckability mandate or rigid gender roles), sexism itself is still not considered “empowering,” and it makes no sense to say that women who are victim of sexism need to choose a better life situation, since they can’t change being a woman (genderist blathering notwithstanding). The “agency” ploy only works on the oppressed’ reactions to bigotry. It doesn’t work on the bigotry itself.

That’s obvious if you understand what “agency” is really all about, and that’s victim-blaming, more specifically, defending evil institutions by claiming the victims’ participation is justified by “agency.” But obviously victims of bigotry do not participate in it, they only participate to their own reactions to the bigotry.

But this is a major flaw of the argument, as it doesn’t actually explain the oppression itself. Homemaking, pornography, prostitution, poverty and police harassment are effects of misogyny and racism, which are the root causes. The latter cannot be addressed without also addressing the former. Therefore any argument which justifies one without justifying the other is logically flawed. If the existence of those effects is justified by “agency,” then misogyny and racism must also be justified by “agency,” otherwise neither can be justified by “agency.”

Is identifying oppression the same as turning people into victims? Well, I think there is a problem with the question, insofar as a belief in “agency” seems to preclude any victimhood whatsoever. How can anyone be a victim if everyone has the “agency” to “choose” their oppression or to leave it? Take a very clear-cut example of oppression: a mother is beaten by her husband but does not want to leave him because of the children. According to the argument, the mother is not being oppressed because she has the “agency” to leave him, so the fact that she’s not leaving is actually “her choice” (they would never say that last part, but it is implied). Things like financial dependence or fear never factor in “agency” explanations (they never count against prostitution or pornography, for example), so we can’t let them factor in here either.

Such arguments reduce victimhood to a matter of subjectivity, whether a person feels “empowered” or not, whether they are said to have “chosen” where they ended up. This is generally not based on any facts or statistics. Every case is treated as a separate entity, and institutions are portrayed as being somewhat fluid, not quite real. Coercion and exploitation is obscured by the stories of the happy homemakers, the happy hookers, the happy actresses. Poverty and lower social status are portrayed as a sort of laziness, reserved for people who don’t work hard enough to get themselves free of it. There is a great deal of vagueness, of ambiguity, projected upon the whole thing, following the principle of inserting a “shadow of a doubt” in order to secure innocence. If some people aren’t victims, then none really are.

I like to think of this as “eracism.” It’s become fashionable to deny the existence of racism, while hiding it behind codewords and dogwhistles. A racist candidate is now a “law and order” candidate. A racist policy against blacks is now targeting “welfare queens” or “urban crime.” One erases racism by turning victims into miscreants. It is a high priority of anyone who supports the status quo to deny that anyone is being victimized by the system, that it’s all fair and just part of the game.

Eracism is necessarily victim-blaming, and I would include the “you’re turning everyone into victims” argument in that category, because it seeks to cloak oppression with “empowerment.” When people treat victims of sexist or racist oppression as “empowered,” they are hiding the victimhood, and they are also hiding their own role in the process as social agents. By projecting blame on the victims, they exculpate themselves. This is a comforting thought, if you don’t care at all for truth or justice.

“You can’t tell me how to raise my child!”

There seems to be a pretty common response when people criticize the behavior of a parent, and that’s “you can’t tell me how to raise my child!” Although I try not to talk to breeders because they generally disgust me (although there are some exceptions), I have been treated to this line more than once. But besides the fact that it’s a stupid thing to say, I find it rather interesting to think about.

For one thing, it seems to imply that the way parents treat their children is not a fit topic of conversation. But I find that there are few things people love to talk about more than the way people treat each other, whether it’s good or bad, and the motives of the people involved. People are fascinated with stories about celebrities’ lives, reality shows, and all sorts of fictional narratives, because they want to talk about the way people treat each other.

So I find it rather disingenuous when someone says “you can’t tell me how to raise my child.” Actually, we talk about how people raise their children all the time. Who hasn’t complained about a child’s behavior and said something like “their parents must be terrible” or “they must be spoiled”? We operate under the (generally false) assumption that the way a person turns out is mostly due to their parents’ specific pedagogy or character. It seems to me that this implies pretty strongly that people believe they can “tell people how to raise their children.” In fact, from what I’ve heard from breeders, it seems that once you have a child everyone has an opinion about how you should raise it. And yet, even though they are probably annoyed about it, you don’t hear that they told family members or friends that they can’t tell them how to raise their children.

So, if I am correct in saying that, the “you can’t tell me how to raise my child” is not an honest response, but a tactic. It seems to me that they are trying to shut down discussion they find unpleasant. In one case, I was arguing with an atheist mother that she should not have let her own mother take her child to church. Her reply was a fury of indignation spearheaded by “you can’t tell me how to raise my child!” Yet there is nothing particularly strange about discussing people’s religion. We do that all the time, too, from coworkers to celebrities. The religious education of children is always a hot topic within families. Surely this mother has debated the issue many times before. So it seems rather disingenuous for her to tell me that.

I am not trying to tell people how to raise “their children.” What does concern me, however, is ethical principles: how human beings should treat each other, and where those conclusions come from. And since I consider children to be full human beings (a crackpot position for sure, but one that I hold nevertheless), I therefore think that the way some human beings (such as parents) treat other human beings (such as “their children”) is very much something we should argue about. I am not interested in discussing the property claim that parents make on “their children.” I think it is absolute nonsense and that no human being can be owned by definition. Human beings cannot logically be owned any more than any other product of nature. But I am not about to start arguing with the repugnant breeders who screech because we ever so slightly show disrespect towards their property claim. There are few things harder than to convince anyone that they have privilege, let alone to give it up! You might as well howl to the Moon.

I am interested in the principles regulating human relations in hierarchies, and the parent-child hierarchy is the most extreme of all. I do think we should all have a say in how hierarchies demean, mistreat and control human beings. I think that’s a vital topic of discussion. If we just let all parents say “you can’t tell me how to raise my child” and just outright deny dialogue, then there is no place left for that discussion to happen. We need to force that discussion. It is because that discussion was imposed on parents that laws against corporal punishment were passed, it is because that discussion was imposed on parents that the sexual abuse of children is no longer considered acceptable, and it is because that discussion was imposed on parents that we consider that a child being educated is an important thing (unfortunately, the education system itself is still shit). The progress done in the treatment of children in the past centuries would have never happened if we had just let parents continue to cloak themselves under “you can’t tell me how to raise my child.”

It is just as weird that this excuse does not seem to apply to other hierarchies, even though they are not nearly as strict. We would not think it is acceptable for a politician to say “you can’t tell me what laws to pass!” or for a CEO to answer accusations of breaking labor laws or providing dangerous products by saying “you can’t tell me how to run my business!” And people do talk endlessly about what laws are passed and not passed, and what businesses do. It is natural for us to do so. Because it involves a strict hierarchy used against the most powerless human beings in our society, parenting cannot be exempt from scrutiny. To say otherwise is just thought-stopping.

The family unit and brainwashing.

Brainwashing is a term which, if people think about it at all, is solely associated with cults. And people’s idea of cults is still vastly underdeveloped, but that’s another issue. In this, I want to concentrate on the topic of brainwashing as it relates to the family unit.

It may seem bizarre to people for me to associate brainwashing with families. Brainwashing involves taking a human being with their own values and beliefs, and replacing those with the cult’s values and beliefs. This cannot happen with children because, as childism tells us, children do not have thoughts of their own, and when they do, they are trivial and irrelevant.

So I understand if people who do not already agree with me about the harms of childism also do not agree with the premise of this entry. But from the anti-childism perspective, I think we can say that children can be brainwashed. After all, children do have their own values and beliefs, and they are not irrelevant. They may be irrelevant from the perspective of a parent who seeks to impose the alignment paradigm on their own children, but they are not irrelevant to the child, or to anyone who is on the side of the child. The brainwashing is most obvious in the case of religion, but I think we should seriously examine brainwashing from the framework of the family unit as a whole.

The most well-known model of brainwashing (or as it’s called academically, thought reform) is the BITE model by cult researcher Steve Hassan, which is composed of Behavior control, Information control, Thought control, and Emotional control.

Behavior control includes everything that can be done to regulate people’s behavior: control where and how people live, their finances, their sleep, their diet, their leisure time, instilling obedience to strict rules, demanding permission for any activity not directly relevant to the group, and so on. This is directly relevant to the extreme control that parents have over their children’s lives. Parents do decide on where and how children live, as well as everything they do, especially at an early age (the time where most child indoctrination takes place). They do so operating under the unspoken assumption that the child is their property and that therefore they have the right to make these decisions. This is not much different from the assumption that the cult leader knows what’s best for his followers because he is “enlightened,” especially since adults believe they have “intelligence” and children do not.

Information control includes deception, minimizing access to outside information, encouraging spying on other members, and extensive use of information generated within the group. Many of these don’t really apply to the family unit, as family units don’t generate media of their own, but parents do extensively control the information that their children are exposed to, under the pretense that “children can’t understand.” Parents will also try to minimize children’s access to information they judge to be counter to their objectives.

Thought control includes requiring members to internalize group doctrines, the use of loaded language, thought-stopping techniques, the rejection of critical thinking and questioning, and the labeling of alternative belief systems as evil. I think that, while parents do demand that the child internalize the parents’ beliefs, they generally are so confident in their ability to control the child that they will not usually care much for controlling its thoughts. The main exception would be parents who are fanatical about some particular ideology (religious, political, or whatever) and who cannot stand the idea of their children thinking differently.

Emotional control includes labeling certain emotions as evil or selfish, emotion-stopping, victim-blaming, promoting feelings of guilt and fear, and inducing phobias about disobedience or leaving. I’d say most of these are also things “normal” parents do to children, especially young children. While we think it’s wrong for adults to do this to each other, we see nothing wrong with making children feel guilt for not doing or believing what their parents want them to, making children fear punishment, blaming children for their own abuse, or trying to censor their emotions when they make us uncomfortable.

All in all, I would say that the family unit definitely fulfills the behavior control criterion, fulfills the information control and emotional control criteria to some extent, and do not universally fulfill the thought control criterion (although some family units do fulfill it as well). So, are family units also thought reform groups? Yes, insofar as their doctrine is the alignment paradigm (i.e. that children must be made to conform to the requirements of “success”). Families brainwash their children to follow the paradigm and believe in it unquestioningly, at the expense of their own values and desires. Of course, many other families brainwash their children in many other things, some of which are deemed necessary for the child to be “normal” and therefore more likely to be “successful” (e.g. gender, religion, nationalism, “intelligence,” to name only those)

Now, although brainwashing is perhaps the most salient attribute of cults, we cannot say that the family structure is itself a cult, simply because we evaluate cults by comparing them from their surrounding society. Since families are defined as “normal” by society, we therefore cannot evaluate them as cults or non-cults. The tests that we have simply don’t work. However they do share many attributes of cults. For example, Robert Jay Lifton frames the most important characteristics of cults as:

* A charismatic leader.
* Coercive persuasion or thought reform.
* Economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by the leader and the ruling coterie.

The family unit definitely fulfills at least two of these three requirements. Western families nowadays do not generally exploit their children economically or sexually, although many children are still being exploited in those ways (not to mention other forms of psychological, religious, or ego exploitation). Some kinds of families definitely qualify as cults (for instance, I don’t think any expert quibbles about calling the Quiverfull movement a cultish movement). Others, not as much. So I would prefer to shelve the issue of “are family units cults?” and keep the conclusion that “whatever else they are, family units are thought reform groups.”

If you look at families as social units that serve the purpose of molding children to the purposes of society, then you could argue that being a thought reform group is actually the main purpose of the family unit. It certainly seems uniquely suited for that purpose. And it seems uniquely unsuited for its theoretical purpose of helping children grow up and mature in a healthy manner. And as I’ve said before, if the way an institution is organized doesn’t seem to fit its theoretical purpose, then look for what it seems to be fit for.

The tendency towards nounism.

This is perhaps not a complete idea, but a number of observations revolving around one topic: the tendency towards “nounism,” that is, of turning verbs (actions) into nouns (identity).

One may reasonably argue that this transformation of actions into identities guides much of anti-feminist thought nowadays. I think the reason behind that is that it gives them the moral high ground: actions can be reasonably opposed, but opposing other people’s identities is usually seen as bigotry. A similar reasoning, I think, underlies the pathologisation of minorities: if they can’t help being “defective,” then they should be pitied, not oppressed.

So from that we get nounism. And sure, there’s a degree to which this is natural, albeit unfortunate. We are not people who have sex, or don’t have sex, with other people, we are heterosexuals, homosexuals, bisexuals, asexuals. We are not people who happen to fall within a certain class at a certain time, we are the rich, the poor, the middle-class. We are not people with a certain personal cluster of political opinions, we are right-wingers or left-wingers, radicals, reactionaries, and so on. And there is a certain degree to which, yes, it would make language more ponderous to always say “a person who holds right-wing positions” or “a person who has sex with people of their gender.”

But the problem with nounism is that it erases our common humanity, and it helps us objectify each other. Is a woman who engages in prostitution a “prostitute” or a “prostituted women”? Radical feminists write the latter so we remember that the woman in question is, still, a human being, not a sexual object, and that she deserves rights. We may not be in danger of objectifying bisexuals or middle-class people, but in other cases the danger may be too great to “noun.” It may not be a good idea to “noun” people who are poor or prostituted women, if we want to keep thinking of them as human beings with rights. Otherwise people who are already prejudiced may be encouraged into imagining these people as a monolithic block that is not “like us.”

Talking about us versus them, I think nounism relates to the manichean worldview as well. While it’s not exactly nounism, when we think in that mode we do think of people, ideas and things as “good” or “bad” divorced from context. Nounism is also used in religions and cults to create the dichotomies they rely upon to divide and conquer (the saved/the unsaved, believers/doubters, suppressive people, angels/angelic/demons/demonic, and so on).

Nounism makes our reality tidy and neat. We don’t have to think about dissociating people from their actions: people become their actions. It’s a way to simplify social realities that are really complicated.

This can be used like a cudgel, like Ray Comfort’s “have you ever lied in your life? then you are a liar” ploy. This is a clumsy attempt at nounism, and it fails because we are very well aware that doing something once does not justify nouning someone: lying once in your life, or even a dozen times, does not make you a liar. We do have the concept that in order to be justified nouning, the nouning must refer to something habitual, ongoing, or innate in the person. A heterosexual is not a person who had sexual desire for someone of the opposite gender once or a few times: it’s someone who always has sexual desire for people of the opposite gender, and no one else. A right-winger is not a person who once believed that immigrants are scum: it’s someone who holds to the main positions we call “right-wing” and has done so for a while or as a result of strong personal beliefs.

This entry by Independent Radical talks about the political aspect of nounism, especially as related to liberal self-identification. It’s all about nouning people:

Identity politics consists of turning either superficial traits (such as sexual preferences and unhealthy lifestyle choices) or hierarchical social categories (especially race, sex and class) into “identities”, which are then meant to form a basis for political movements…

The term “smokers” is used in a similar way to defend tobacco consumption. Those who create policies aimed at discouraging smoking may be denounced for discriminating against “smokers”. By replacing the verb, “smoking”, with the noun “smoker”, one can obscure the fact that a bad habit is being targeted rather than a set of people. Nobody is inherently a “smoker” (or a “gamer” for that matter, let alone a player of violent games), nor is anyone destined to remain one (however difficult quitting may be). Those who smoke are not in the same position as those born with female genitalia or dark skin. The former have the option of giving up their dangerous habit (which is, after all, the objective of the policies) and escaping any perceived discrimination. The latter do not.