Institutional violence

January 1, 2013

Violence has its own momentum, and once underway it gives bystanders pause. “They got theirs with a lead pipe, and I’m still here surviving.” – John Holmes, Wonderland 

Institutional violence is not so different. Blackmail is easy – you hardly need a sex tape over someone to keep them from turning on you. All it takes is a little egotism and insecurity on their part about their own reputation, and you can trade directly on fear of guilt-by-association.

Half of the harm that is done in this world
Is due to people who want to feel important.
They don’t mean to do harm – but the harm
does not interest them.
Or they do not see it, or they justify it
Because they are absorbed in the endless struggle
To think well of themselves.

– T. S. Eliot

This, I think, is one reason why group-think reflexively defends the status quo as “the best of all possible worlds.” Even a fairly inconsequential misunderstanding is difficult to dispute, if the incorrect assumption is somehow associated with a sense of righteous complacency.


Why is group-think so militantly defended? Covering two new books on the way intuition interprets our “moral sentiments” for The Boston Review, George Scialabba tells us, “Experiments repeatedly show that we all believe what we want, regardless of reasons.”

In one of these books, Jonathan Haidt groups intuitions about morality into six categories:

•    Help those in need and minimize suffering everywhere (care/harm issues)
•    Reward people according to what they contribute (fairness/cheating issues)
•    Advance the fortunes of your group (loyalty/betrayal issues)
•    Defer to legitimate superiors and protect subordinates (authority/subversion issues)
•    Resist domination by illegitimate authority (liberty/oppression issues)
•    Respect your group’s totems and taboos (sanctity/degradation issues)

The sanctity/degradation type of intuition strikes me as a fancy way of referring to the importance of going along with group-think, one that assigns an anthropologist’s symbolic capital to mere conventions that are really energized by the loyalty/betrayal issues of group belonging.

Loyalty to a group can promote generosity within the ranks, but group think can also reinforce silence, selective attention and self-deception about within-group patterns of oppression and exploitation. Then one is accused of running down the sanctity of group reputation, if the elephant in the living room is pointed out.


But including “taboos” here does capture the way group-think has the potential to formalize notable situational applications of the other five moral principles that would be counterintuitive to work out deductively. And by making them formulaic, group-think makes rote compliance possible – special cases can be memorized by the group as cultural conventions.

Sadly, a garden variety sociopath is a master of conventionality, content with what are practically permissible evils of a personally abhorrent nature. Thanks to polite distance among neighbors, those who know the limits of what they can easily get away with strike most people as merely troubled, maybe prone to toxic relationships, but not criminally insane. Martha Nussbaum’s book Frontiers of Justice is instructive on specifying just whom the built-in benevolence of civilization actually protects. Theirs is effectively a permissible advantage over the weak.

If the “cruel to be kind” rationale for victim-blaming reminds the vulnerable to assume the burdens of independence from charity in the name of human dignity, we also have reason to silence their protests for the benefit of our own moral pride. For it is an act of resistance to simply think of the experience as victimization, rather than naturalizing it as a banal misfortune.

Society will not be so accused, and even the most distant associates of the guilty party would deny there is a victim of the sorts of things that are commonplace and not on the policy agenda for raising expectations through known means of making them less commonplace. Thus the victim is in a double-bind: one must not have the pride to protest, nor the humility to beg off.

You cannot have both either: it is not possible to credibly express a need for help with ongoing victimization, while expecting one’s sense of human dignity to be honored in the bargain. Group-think is also retroactive – having endured a past grievance one wants to disclose to those who weren’t implicated (even as bystanders) is as strongly discouraged as coming forward about an outstanding grievance that no one wants to try to resolve for you.

Having a “recency bias” against holding onto past grievances is handy when there is reason to move forward in spite of what’s happened. And there is inconvenience value in pursuing cases of inter-generational violence, seeing how the dominoes go back beyond the reach of those asked to pass judgment.

Hence we retain scapegoats in those whose monstrosity we know how to explain, even when in some important sense, we are sure it was not their fault. After all, we know it wasn’t ours, and at any rate we are not the monsters. But when the judges are asked to take the target of convenience in their place, victim blaming can be even more convenient than dealing with the proximate culprit.

“And we’ve got to find other ways to … keep a straight face.”

When abruptly brought to trial for her crimes as a Mord Sith by the people of her own home town, Cara gives up the truth about her past grudgingly, one half-truth at a time. At first she relives and justifies the moment at which she reached her breaking point as a child captive being brainwashed to become Mord Sith. But, having become one of their kind and now familiar with the tricks of the trade, when cross-examined she must concede that she actually knows how she was brainwashed and could do the same to any child.

Her choice within the double-bind would be to die a Mord Sith with her pride, and hide any shame for what she had done. Unwilling to concede that her people have the right to condemn her, she holds up Richard as an example of someone on whom such tricks do not work, as though only he could have the right to be her judge.

In the imagination that keeps higher expectations for a future unknown alive, respect for human dignity depends, in part, on blind faith in the chances of each to thrive under their own resources, no matter how sudden or persistent their misfortunes.

Cara is still very much like those who would judge her in this sense – she needs to believe that she answers to someone who could have endured the same, and preserved his soul. No matter how unusual this seems, she will not question the validity of such a test, believing it has been passed. This alone is the idea of human potential she would be measured against.

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