Archive for July, 2014

Family values politics in welfare states

July 21, 2014

In The Politics of Child Abuse, Nigel Parton (1985) quotes June Lait lamenting “Possibly there cannot be, certainly there is not, a single piece of evidence which establishes that social work intervention, short of removal, has prevented child abuse.” Similarly, in Battered (1987) the problem of making keeping families together a child welfare services priority is presented as problematic.

“The social worker who enters the family makes contact with the parents and strives to maintain a good relationship with them as they provide access to the child and the hope for the child’s future. As a result the parents, rather than the beleaguered children, too often become the focus of attention. Children are often sent back home even where there is considerable risk, and what is called a ‘distinct lack of parenting abilities’.”

Perversely, social workers sometimes respond to a “disclosure” of full accountability for having intentionally injured a child (after the family is referred to the child welfare services system out of concern raised by unconfirmed suspicions of abuse) as a sign of progress in a parent’s relationship with service providers, and are too easily persuaded to return the child to the abuser’s care once the parent has begun responding to their demands for open dialogue about the abusive behavior and, with coaching, has adopted a posture of intending to change their parenting habits in the desired direction.

Abusive parents also find social workers gullible toward their claims that they will, in the future, channel their evident aggression problems toward being fiercely protective of their children, rather than utilizing the children as permissible targets for aggression provoked by those they cannot afford to retaliate against.

Healthy alternatives to child battery would need to share certain attributes:

  • An exertion of physical prowess over someone substantially weaker without the need for time-consuming strength training
  • Convenience, something that can be done without time management planning after a bad day at work or a miserable commute in traffic
  • Low risk of consequences for oneself (and possibly the satisfaction of observing lasting consequences for the victim, who replaces your child self if you were abused as a child and need to adopt the dominant role in your limited imagination’s role options)

There is a troublesome commitment here to not viewing child batterers as cynical and opportunistic, possibly a holdover from medicalization of “child battery syndrome” or the desire of social service providers to emulate the medical model for case work in mental health services, despite evidence that rates of child battery tail off as children reach school age and the chances of getting caught increase. Helping professionals have strong preconceptions about biology and family politics that militate against suspecting parents of a potential for sadistic attitudes toward their own children.


What would the alternative entail? Acknowledging the potential in parents for coldness toward their own children so profound they could set out to cause them pain and suffering in a premeditated fashion and calmly avoid getting caught doing so, that if more than one adult was fully aware of the behavior, groups of adults colluded in covering it up if not in perpetrating the abuse intentionally, and that the child’s opportunities for eliciting help from those not directly responsible for the maltreatment were thwarted by the biases of teachers and doctors and their unwillingness to provoke parents and initiate paperwork.

If deterring intervention were not difficult for the responsible adults, the sense of impunity such a situation instilled would be unconscionable. But anyone who was already pessimistic about the benevolence of human nature would be reluctant to admit that most children who escape maltreatment in their own homes are coasting on the goodwill of adults who are not being forcibly held accountable for their own best behavior in any effective way by society at large.

In Failed Child Welfare Policy (2002) it is explicitly argued that the “veil of confidentiality” between service providers and clients, which is officially only invoked in the name of protecting the client, is in actual practice readily used “to insulate the agency” from its critics instead. The conflicts that service providers fear include friction among agencies (such as social work, public administration, family therapy and family court systems) and shortcomings of the whole system that are easily traced to the mundane failings of any bureaucracy – “service providers’ tendency to categorize clients’ problems according to services and divisions of labor is convenient for administrators but can have grave consequences for clients.”


This book focuses on the reforms that have prioritized keeping families together by working with families as units rather than rushing to remove children at risk from their imperfect homes, and warns that these reforms put the social services system in an awkward position where it can end up mirroring and reinforcing the “dysfunctional characteristics” that are purportedly being brought to light and addressed within the client families. When shortcomings become scandalous, the typical approach to reform comes in “the form of new leadership, new rules and reorganizations that further demoralize an embattled workforce.” The undertrained staff at the bottom of the pecking order tend to focus on treading water.

The priorities of administrators trying to make the bureaucracy itself run smoothly tend to trump other concerns, because in professionalized social services “conformity to agency policy or to the standards and procedures of professional casework” is something on which each service provider’s livelihood and social status depends. Direct contact with clients occurs at the bottom of a chain of command, where there is little recourse to alternatives whether or not a client’s needs demand flexibility from the service provider, and at the top of the organization’s hierarchy is often a political appointee.

Thus the case workers may end up being as inflexible and authoritarian in imposing prescriptive interventions without responsive listening to client needs as the stereotypical doctor suffering from “medical narcissism” – with the important difference that a social worker’s bag of tricks is largely limited to allocating welfare payouts, assisted housing and mental health services. No effective science of behavior change exists to equip them to actually reform the dynamics of families they are tasked with improving as independent units.

Failed Child Welfare Policy (2002) cont’d: “The term ‘iron triangle’ has been used in reference to the strong, interdependent relationships among federal agencies, congressional committees and subcommittees, and interest groups.” At the local level, this pattern is replicated by tight-knit “relationships that exist among the public child welfare agency, the court, and private contractors” who often operate public service institutions through the privatization of management contracts. Private contractors often have politically influential individuals on their boards of directors, and where services cannot be readily replaced should a contractor be found noncompliant with service agreements and terms, firing the contractor may not be feasible.


Any kind of interagency hand-off would undermine the predictability bureaucracy could otherwise offer to clients trying to learn how to navigate the system, and even intake and protective services referrals are often provided indirectly “by connecting families with other service providers that offer counseling, parenting training, and day care, among others.” Sometimes “connecting” the client with these resources is merely a matter of providing the flier disseminated by that particular service provider.

Coordination among these service providers beyond this level of cross-provider referral is something the various institutions tend to resist – the authors of Failed Child Welfare Policy describe this as the behavior of “contentious, often resistant systems (mental health, health, other social service providers, among others) whose members acknowledge the value of coordination in principle,” but defend their own organizational prerogatives.

The now-tired media circus protocol for child battery fatalities to be built up into a cause célèbre with one villain per victim to keep the community on the same page about the need to unreservedly condemn the outcome was recommended by a doctor early in the history of recognizing and responding to child batter – Eric Turner, writing for BMJ, put it this way (paraphrased by Parton 1985) authorities and public service providers should cooperate with the media to “create an atmosphere in the community which did not overlook violence, and he argued that ‘what is really needed is a cause célèbre with front page treatment in the press’. Secondly, it was important to make conviction virtually certain and then give an exemplary sentence of many years in prison.”

In HBO’s The Newsroom this scandal genre is roundly critiqued for promoting a naive exceptionalism (under-recognition of the frequency of child battery fatalities) – the public is encouraged to deceive itself about just how abnormal a parent and a set of circumstances surrounding the child’s case would have to be for things to go that far. Just as infotainent promotes an “evil genius” theory of serial killer success stories, in reality what people have the good sense to do behind closed doors is generally difficult to discover or confirm. The Wire comments persuasively on the general difficulty of solving any murder case whatsoever, much less linking multiple cases to a repeat offender who knows how to take basic precautions against getting caught.


American Psycho satirizes the phenomenon with an end sequence in which the culprit in a killing spree is surprised and frustrated with the difficulty of boasting credibly of such success. He is brushed off by an ambivalent lawyer who knows better than to humor a client who wants to confess; Vegas is rumored to have lawyers who notarize consent forms for gang bangs that specify a porn star who enters into a regrettable film shoot has waived her right to pursue the issue.

Among on-line support groups stories of referrals to punitive inpatient treatment facilities made at the behest of parents determined to stamp out the adolescent or young adult’s confidence that speaking out against an abusive relative would be worth while tend to come out once in a while, sometimes detailing levels of punitive behavior change intervention that could at best be described as unhealthy bullying and at worst inspire horror movies like Gothika and satires like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

Isolating strategies for deterring the victim’s effort to get help from friends or authorities are well-known, including use of discrediting narratives (e.g., Anne Sexton’s family alleged her creative writing about experience of child sexual abuse was “in imitation of Sylvia Plath”), and of course mentalizing the allegations as a symptom of psychosis or attention-seeking behavior of a milder variety.

If successfully confronted about a failure to report child abuse to the police, physicians have various ways of insisting they could not have known, laid out early in the discussion of “child battery syndrome” as a medical discovery. “Firstly, doctors in casualty departments were simply unaware of the possibility, secondly, they were psychologically unwilling to believe that parents could do such things, thirdly they were unhappy at violating the principle of client confidentiality, and fourthly, doctors are usually reluctant to become involved in the criminal justice process that might forfeit both their time and ability to control the outcome.” Social services have historically preferred alignment with doctors and mental health professionals to working with the courts or police, and are prone to mentalizing assault allegations as paranoid ideation when working with adult clients.

The idea of preventing child cruelty being a major part of the child social services mission was quickly rephrased as a mission to prevent child neglect; it is ironically easier to substantiate and process a child removal decision on the basis of unsafe housing conditions (rats, mould) than on the basis of intentional child maltreatment, which puts parents who can’t afford well-maintained housing at serious risk of arbitrary and punitive child removal should an opportunistic authority figure want something from them, even if the parent is not liable for imprisonment.


This may be why the conventional wisdom is that nothing could be worse for a child than being diverted into foster care, an intentionally under-resourced “safety net” that is actually used largely as a last resort for placing the children of the prison population. There is also a conventional attitude that only one’s biological parents can be expected to take a child’s welfare seriously, since children are essentially a public nuisance and removal would be doing any parent or primary care-giver a favor, as seen in 19th century objections to the idea of child removal in abuse cases: “it would free the self-indulgent at the cost of the self-controlled and, worse still for the children, would put a premium on their ill-treatment.”

Once contact has been made with helping professionals and due diligence on their part has been satisfied, any evidence that this didn’t resolve the child welfare problem that was brought to their attention is to the discredit of all parties that were involved, and there is considerable temptation to suppress that evaluation or find a more flattering way of looking at the outcome. Reopening a closed case in the event of recidivism is something the social worker themselves would resist out of personal embarrassment, because it would represent a failure of their earlier efforts to reform an abusive parent.

This is family values politics in the form of bureaucracy, a form of institutional violence that reifies the unchecked prerogatives of biological parents over those too young to earn their own income or testify cogently on their own behalf in court. Bureaucratic inertia and the defensiveness of ineffectual service providers are the cause, and unremitting vulnerability to child abuse is the consequence. Children are one of the four groups Marth Nussbaum identifies as excluded by neoliberalism’s frontiers of justice, and the state of child welfare policy bears this out.


July 16, 2014

Here’s a mental experiment: look at whatever you have decided “constitutes evil” in more concrete instances as organic in the sense of self-sustaining and viable, but possibly still self-limiting in its appetites. Picture it as an attitude in the physicality of a stage villain, a breathing pattern and a gestural sensibility for violence that is reactive but not driven from without, an unease with one’s environment that’s impassive but untenable, a disturbing force that is autonomous and mortal.

Physicality and critical thinking go hand in hand – to let your body speak to you in metaphor about things that would seem more intellectual and are normally encountered in abstraction is a rare skill. Excellent stage combat in actors conveys this connectivity, and has dramatic intelligence, not just as an expression of violence but also a display of subtlety and pause. Heath Ledger’s performances were deeply informed by his study of modern dance, and profoundly expressive in gesture and poise.

There is an animalistic simplicity to stage villains – they struggle against all odds to survive the fragile worlds that they disrupt.

Kipling wrote in The Bull That Thought, that in the bull-ring he “raged enormously; he feigned defeat; he despaired in statuesque abandon, and thence flashed into fresh paroxysms of wrath – but always with the detachment of the true artist who knows that he is but the vessel of an emotion whence others, not he, must drink.”

They are performative caricatures of evil, more afraid of inconsequence than death. Death as a backing for mirrors is a sterile aesthetic theory, the apocalypse genre and its “human shadows bright as glass” is too morbid. Shadow catching frightens us into awe. The embodied image of a victim, or a villain, stirs mimetic imaginative forces in the audience – identification, sublimation, catharsis. Resistance to the final act in which “everyone who is marked for death, dies.” The rich vibrations of denial in the heart.

Fear is an experience of particular interest to Christian Bale, multidimensional and subversive. One can crouch in fear the better to revel in an intertwined discovery of courage, or smile in fear over an intellectually overwhelming irony, step towards fear in defiance of intimidation, or stumble in abject fear of indifferent consequence.

The scene in Alexander at night when he genuflects in honor of Fear highlights the importance of accepting vulnerability, respecting its capacity to overwhelm other forces, and studying the means to exploit its effect on oneself and others. Respect for fear is where courage and self-knowledge knit together. A villain is practiced in deploying fear, and a villain’s imposture is a consequence of living submersed in it.


My favorite fandom is one in which ideas like fear and compassion loom over the plot like engines of disaster and little truths about the human condition ambush the characters like carnival masks in a Boschian dream.

The emotional logic of magic in The Legend of the Seeker gives rise to archetypal battles rather than convincing illusions, in a world of relationships that don’t have a legitimating context in a world without magic, thrusting into relief deep schisms in the stilted psychology of symbolic expressionism, foregrounding characters whose attributes are larger than life and whose lived experience is epic in scale.

Character moments sometimes register like an idea fixé held in place, a subtle mask contoured by the multidimensional pressures of cognitive dissonance against character and plot, symbolic action and empirical ghost. The articulate tensing of intrinsic freedom against psychosocial constraint.


Quoting Susan Sontag on dissonance and ethical experience:

“The incomparable early 20th century Portuguese poet and prose writer, Fernando Pessoa, wrote in his prose summum, The Book of Disquiet:

“I’ve discovered that I’m always attentive to, and always thinking about two things at the same time. I suppose everyone is a bit like that…. In my case the two realities that hold my attention are equally vivid. This is what constitutes my originality. This, perhaps, is what constitutes my tragedy, and what makes it comic.”

Yes, everyone is a bit like that, but the awareness of the doubleness of thinking is an uncomfortable position, very uncomfortable if held for long. It seems normal for people to reduce the complexity of what they are feeling and thinking and to close down the awareness of what lies outside their immediate experience.

Is this refusal of an extended awareness, which takes in more than is happening right now, right here, not at the heart of our ever-confused awareness of human evil and of the immense capacity of human beings to commit evil? Because there are, incontestably, zones of experience that are not distressing, which give joy, it remains a puzzle that there is so much misery and wickedness.”

On the suffering of others, she gives the example of an earthquake: “Lisbon lies in ruins,” Voltaire wrote, “and here in Paris we dance.”


Just as I wondered why Eckhart Tolle is more interested in enjoying the “now” without noticing his perspective on it is limited by the “here” Sontag asks, “Is it not part of the fundamental structure of experience that “now” refers to both “here” and “there”? … Perhaps it is our perennial fate to be surprised by the simultaneity of events, by the sheer extension of the world in time and space. That we are here, prosperous, safe, unlikely to go to bed hungry or be blown to pieces this evening, while elsewhere in the world, right now in Grozny, in Najaf, in the Sudan, in the Congo, in Gaza, in the favelas of Rio….

“To be a traveler – and novelists are often travelers – is to be constantly reminded of the simultaneity of what is going on in the world, your world and the very different world you have visited and from which you have returned home.”

Somewhere in the world, someone is warming to battle, saying, like Shakespeare in Coriolanus:

“Let me have a war, say I: It exceeds peace as far as day
Does night; it’s spritely, waking, audible, full of vent.
Peace is a very apoplexy, lethargy, mull’d, deaf, sleepy,
Insensible; a getter of more bastard children than war is a
Destroyer of men.”

Someone is stoking the appetites for violence with the rhetoric of victim-blaming and its subliminal narrative’s naive expressions of imposture, invoking free rider social anxiety, estrangement, latent attitudes towards shirking, instinctive exclusionary threat displays and the language of non-exclusionary vulgarity in posturing. Someone is reframing the rictus of a fear grimace as a mask of rage, calling in debts, condemning a deferred presumption of decency, channeling actual bystander attitudes towards other bystanders and reciprocity, harnessing the nameless confusion of social animals into the traces of war.


Someone is unleashing and amplifying the cruelty of micro-aggressions practiced in the informal policing of the frontiers of justice, tacit reminders of inequality given not without satisfaction, even if the aggressive nature of the behavior is unacknowledged out of social pressure to keep the peace.

Cruelty is easy to disown. At the frontiers of justice, passive gatekeepers without keys appear to be toying with the alternatives (assist or obstruct passage) every time they acknowledge someone on the other side. They are merely posturing to maintain position on the better end of the social contract’s Pareto optimal sum of political fair-mindedness.

Gloating, posturing, fear, uncertainty, depravity and imposture are a potential blemish on stardom, and the grimace is underrepresented in film apart from the stock villain. Such a villain is a favorite in contemporary criticism of the Iliad, in the very modern Thersites, tragically out of step with the epic love fantasies and military ethics of his time.

A holistic concept map of his foibles would link ugliness and thwarted aggression, soothing and patronizing gestures, imposture and irony, disgust and desire, initiating violence and defending self-efficacy, miscommunication and indifference to strangers, the attention economy and stop-go posturing, phrasebook conversation as the formulaic bent of high diction and indirection as an ambivalent or inattentive vagueness.

I would use the concepts of cognitive bias, working memory, compartmentalizing and strain on the attention economy to develop an abstract theory of ugliness fit to explain the antithesis of a charismatic hero. Errata, grudges, divided loyalties and excessive interests belie a villain’s imperfectible nature, making his virtues forgettable and his failures decisive. He will come to want revenge for being born.


The foibles of the villains in The Legend of the Seeker have overtones of BDSM sexual fantasy, ritualized and sardonic. Porn is a garish metaphor for the strained idea of inter-subjectivity in contemporary identity politics. The boundaries issues, the mutuality deficits, the resentment masking (forced irony as sublimated hatred), all devolve into rote penetrative violence governed by reactive interpersonal dynamics (push and push back w/o pull, ‘telling’ instead of using ‘indirection’, rape scripts instead of seduction). BDSM porn may be richer in symbolic language and relational innuendo, but is still preoccupied with power and its confrontation.

If mainstream film is governed by a market that parallels that for porn, the horror genre is the most emblematic of vulgarity. The banalization of violent pornography in horror films humanizes female protagonists with contemporary plots that take the objectified heroine off her pedestal and establish “she’s no victim, but that is distress.” The distress is guaranteed, exaggerated, inane. Horror films elicit, by repetition and predictability, a matter-of-fact sort of stage feeling about the universal experience of unrelenting vulnerability to interpersonal violence.

In 1944, Orwell wrote a column about what he called “a very dangerous fallacy, now very widespread in the countries where totalitarianism has not established itself. … The fallacy is to believe that under a dictatorial government you can be free inside …. The greatest mistake is to imagine that the human being is an autonomous individual. The secret freedom which you can supposedly enjoy under a despotic government is nonsense, because your thoughts are never entirely your own. Philosophers, writers, artists, even scientists, not only need encouragement and an audience, they need constant stimulation from other people .. Take away freedom of speech, and the creative faculties dry up.”

The subversive energies of violent pornography transgress the vulgar politics of Pareto stability and the impassive obscure with splashy narratives of overpowering force and indiscriminate disruption.


Bertrand Russell speculated that there might be innocent pastimes that could restore the “zest” to indolent headhunters in conquered corners of the Amazon who had been forbidden their favorite sport and grown degenerate in the lassitude of postcolonial angst. Maybe not; the glory they missed had not been and could never be apolitical, without being trivialized.

Pornographic and Hollywood villainy is neither apolitical nor uncensored, a sphere for indulging the senses that embodies the political and dramatizes the radical within the permissive bounds of the trivial, a call of the wild “for entertainment only.” Rousing, provocative, peculiar, destructive, the rise of a villain worth contending with is a spectacle that evinces appetites outstripping the world’s patience in all of us. For the stage villain is the evil genius we choose to identify with, the one who can only be outdone in our estimation by a hero of unusual charisma and supernatural prowess.

“The winds awaken, the leaves whirl round,
Our cheeks are pale, our hair is unbound,
Our breasts are heaving our eyes are agleam,
Our arms are waving our lips are apart;
And if any gaze on our rushing band,
We come between him and the deed of his hand,”

– Yeats, The Hosting of the Sidhe

Such a villain is not defeated – he is undone. He must hide in his strengths the seed of their own destruction, overreach in the fatal direction, foresee his own doom and collapse into nihilism, succumb to a performative defiance of what the world holds possible.

“The trouble with reality is that it anticipates the hypotheses that deny it.” These are the same expectations that explain why “not only does reality offer no resistance to those who denounce it, but it escapes those who take its side. It may be a way to take revenge on those who claim to believe in it in order to transform it: sending the zealots back to their own desire. In the end, it might be more of a sphinx than a dog.” Baudrillard again.

Structures of accountability for violence

July 15, 2014

To understand the feedback loops that restrain people from acting out in violence, we have to understand the impetus towards violence as well. In war it is at its most nebulous, a group dynamic with an official rationale towards which individual participants are sure to harbor deep ambivalence. Is it boredom and ambition that propels them toward the action, under the banner of a political cause?

Elaine Scarry rejects various intellectual arguments about the sociological, cultural, historical or moral necessity of war: “even if they were valid, they would not have shown the necessity of war, but instead would only have shown the necessity of a ‘contest based on a reciprocal activity that would produce a nonreciprocal outcome abided by all.'” She characterizes war violence as an engine of dramatization for national fictions with an ethos requiring that bloody contests take place, as if the violence enacted were ritual rather than pragmatic.


She cites scholars of social theories that construct war violence as a central function of statecraft as advocates of such ritual purges. Carl Schmitt interprets Hegel’s use of the word ‘bourgeois’ as a pacifist of the following type: “an individual who does not want to leave the apolitical riskless private sphere,” and hopes that his personal resources for self-sufficiency through property ownership “excepts him from conflicts which will, despite his absence, nevertheless take place.”

He attributes pacifism to cowardice, “decadence, the demise of self-belief, the exhaustion of a conception of nationhood, propertied self-exemption from conflict and from self-renewal.” Tocqueville likewise believed the “intellectual creativity of a population and its readiness to go to war are related.” War is associated with initiative and drive, with the intelligence for strategy and the tenacity for tactics, with lust for adventure and pride in distinguished service. Violence tests us against one another, and when orchestrated on a grand scale it tests societies at large.

Scarry finds psychopathology at the root of this view of nationalism. “The dream of an absolute, one-directional capacity to injure those outside one’s territorial boundaries, whether dreamed by a nation-state that is in its interior a democracy or a tyranny, may begin to approach the torturer’s dream of absolute nonreciprocity, the dream that .. one’s opponents will be kept in a state of radical embodiment by its awareness that it is at any moment deeply woundable.”


Here she is drilling down to the microcosm of individual killings within a war zone, the acts of wounding, the moral significance of attacking a fellow human being in cold blood. This focus on the depravities of war gets to the heart of the question, but it is not enough to suspect everyone of harboring some shadow of a torturer’s fantasy inside. The fantasy itself must be deconstructed, its immature or nascent forms recognized in other acts.

I’ve done so with a “sadistic curiosity matrix” that maps four attitudes towards the intersubjective occurring on a fluid continuum from compassion to brutality. In this frame of reference torture is an extreme case of a normal social behavior, receptiveness testing, and it involves a slide towards ego-mania and preoccupation with threat receptiveness. It has parallels in the receptiveness testing of aggressive seduction, and anti-parallels in the cognitive and social process of taking a compassionate interest in another’s affairs.

curiosity matrix

I believe this kind of mental map can be used to normalize the psychodynamics of torture and to naturalize the psychopathology of violence. I think the normative claim “I would never intentionally be hurtful or cruel to anyone” is risky – you have to stop asking yourself “do you believe in absolutes like good and evil?” and start asking yourself, “do you believe in uncompromised evil?” In reality it is no more than an actualization of a universal potential in human nature.

Object relations theory can adapt this sort of mental map to the consumerist sphere of cause and effect, the civilian side of exposure to violence in a contemporary nation-state. Neoliberalism’s moral externalities are rather succinctly explained in George Bernard Shaw’s preface to On the Rocks. “Now the central fact of all these facts is that the private proprietors have irresponsible powers of life and death in the State.”

As to discouraging cruelty per se from a position of power through leadership, he writes “No doubt many private amiabilities have been inspired by this teaching; but politically it has received no more quarter than Pilate gave it.” And amiabilities are contingent on convenience factors – we owe them first and foremost to our personal associates, with whom they are more sincere.

In the evolution of Roman law, private tort suits among individuals who could afford access to the courts dominated the field and criminal law was often prosecuted privately (by the victim’s family, in the case of murder) as well. The first public offense was treason, and public resources were not directed much towards prosecuting crimes among individual citizens. “Self-help” was a protected power – the right to use violence to defend one’s property and life, and by default it was protected best in the propertied classes that could afford to litigate.


Contemporary law’s primitive origins still show in the way domestic violence is handled as a special case of assault, and domestic disturbances are handled as nuisance complaints by authorities who would rather be responding to a burglary call. Property owners have considerable leeway at home to characterize guests as intruders and resort to violence to control their turf.

Housing insecurity is a major cause of chronic exposure to domestic violence, and one about which no victim’s advocacy group is up in arms. It inhibits victims who might otherwise testify against their assailants, and the preconceptions police bring to the crime scene are merely pessimistic – that this case will be bad for the department’s performance metrics because it won’t produce a conviction, that it should be classified as a nuisance complaint rather than an assault.

“Direct incentives for safety outcomes tend to drive near-miss reporting underground.” – Taking the Lead in Patient Safety

Most murders are committed by someone known to the victim, often someone with a history of assault. You’d think the police would be more forward-looking about crime statistics and take advantage of any opportunity to break up a domestic violence cycle with “no contact” orders and public prosecution. Direct incentives for reductionist performance metrics like response times and conviction rates are probably to blame for their general reluctance to investigate a domestic disturbance closely.


My mother was arrested on the insistence of an arson investigator who seemed to have had access to better training for investigative work than the police officers who attended the crime scene. He was there to determine whether homeowner’s insurance covered the fire damage, and I suspect the insurance industry subsidized training in his department the better to discourage insurance fraud.

Homeowner’s insurance no longer covers domestic violence cases, a loophole for financing medical attention and litigation that was closed just when divorce law was reformed in the 1980s and demand for such services could be expected to increase as exit from abusive marriages became easier. There is virtually no market for private litigation covering domestic violence cases outside divorce court to this day, because a private attorney would have low expectations of recovering damages out of which he or she could be paid – absent alimony, out of which the lawyer could take a percentage as fee.

Hence the bottleneck at public prosecutors’ offices, and the low conviction rates for assailants in domestic violence cases. Self-aggrandizing behavior involving threat displays, bullying and outright brutality is shockingly easy to get away with behind closed doors.

Love labors and information asymmetry

July 10, 2014

“Ours is a language that makes up in obscurity what it lacks in style..” – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

George Orwell agreed that English is a language for obfuscating prose:

“The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of WORDS chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of PHRASES tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.”

Passive voice and rambling arguments that tack received phrases together into awkward experiments in rhetoric are definitely recurring problems for my blog. I enjoy probing abstract themes in my writing, but the results are often vague and convoluted.

Socially constructed ambiguity about which misunderstandings are real (cognitive distortions) and which are self-serving (cognitive biases) is a hallmark of politeness and political correctness in conversation and writing, respectively. Vagueness is habitual, and intrudes on private formulations of one’s thoughts even when social pressure is not at hand.

The pressure to keep secrets and smooth over differences is intense in everyday life. It is at its most pronounced in close personal relationships, where high emotion is always at stake and the trivial is elevated to immediate significance. Here a badly executed gesture of warmth can give pause to deep bonds of trust, and all conversation takes on symbolic value in the constant project of reinforcing informal socioeconomic ties with social glue.

Hence in our relating and identity-forming projects, we are astute revisionists, always looking for the right way to put things, never the bare truth. Even a secret disclosed is a project in the theatricality of revelation, not a matter-of-fact announcement. Facts barely enter into the choice of timing for such a move.

The rules of composition are closely knit with the rules of rhetoric, and reflective writing can hardly be rid of the tricks to rationalizing that are so ingrained in our social behavior as verbal animals:

  •  Euphemistic language
  •  Advantageous comparison (minimizing the harm from a morally compromising choice by proposing that it averts a worse outcome that would be an unintended consequence of what would otherwise be a morally preferable choice)
  • Distorting the consequences of the action
  •  Displacement of responsibility (scapegoating)
  •  Diffusion of responsibility (to a team, an institution, or a profession’s imperfection, or even the structure of the service provision system)
  •  Victim blaming (e.g., you should’ve taken better care of yourself to avoid vulnerability to this harm, otherwise the complications from the harm-causing error would not have been as severe)
  •  Fragmentation (compensating for a morally reprehensible choice in one situation with morally upright behavior in another situation, either by figuring a few harm causing errors are outweighed by a career helping people successfully, or outside the helping professions, giving a portion of the fruits of corruption to charity or at least taking assiduous care of the welfare of one’s family)

Passive voice is rhetorically charged with avoidant intent as well. Re-describing wrongs to escape blame often entails using language that implies something bad “happened” without the involvement of human agency in compromising social norms.

It is utterly normal for helping professionals charged with care work or “love labors” to protect themselves with passive voice and rationalizations from anyone who would second-guess their performance. In the informal economy of care-giving relations, the same strategies come very naturally.

“The scope for self-protective intellectualizing is tremendous.” – Trudy Govier

What is available in words, what is mobilized in poetry, is a pregnant and malleable vagueness – rather than a reductionist, closed set of signs. On vagueness (paraphrased by Stephen Mumford from Timothy Williamson’s paper about Bertrand Russell’s work on vagueness): “(1) only representations are vague; (2) all language is vague; (3) there is higher-order vagueness; (4) vagueness invalidates classical logic; (5) vagueness is not generality; (6) accuracy is isomorphism; (7) precision is one-one correlation; (8) meaning is a special case of representing; (9) precision diminishes probability, and (10) vagueness is a natural phenomenon.”

What Joseph Stiglitz describes as information asymmetry is the game play of strategy and error when information can be withheld or suppressed in formal contract negotiations. The informal economy of care work exploits information asymmetry as well, but with different rhythms and outcomes. Some lies are gentler than the truth, and some make kindness possible where the truth would make reconciliation impossible. Not all deceptions aim at extortion at all.

But when information asymmetry is pervasive, when vagueness is extreme, decision making can be muddled on all sides and deception can become a self-defeating habit.

Posner identifies several tricks to gathering information from a disadvantage:

  •  Don’t let the better-informed party steer the conversation toward the points they prefer to make; use polite interruptions to prevent them from controlling the agenda, and insist on changing the topic as needed.
  •  Ask specific questions and pertinent follow-up questions, to avoid settling for non-answers or leaving openings for vague, evasive responses.
  •  Don’t bother asking what their conclusions or preferences are, as if it were in your best interests to humor their preferences or trust their stated conclusions; instead make them reveal how they arrived at their conclusions and preferences, using why questions to expose the scaffolding of their purported reasons.
  •  Notice whenever they give non-answers, as this at least indicates which questions they have reason to avoid answering.
  •  Withhold your own information as much as possible, and avoid any temptation to show off your knowledge, to make it harder for them to manipulate you as they would based on insight into your preconceptions and blind spots.

In injection safety research, I’ve found that a different approach works rather well. Gently anticipating rationalizations and demonstrating insight into the reasons for a deviant behavior can elicit more openness about its frequency. People who would not otherwise break ranks and inform on a surreptitious local practice are reassured when investigators are frank rather than cagey with them.

Organizational behavior theory has more to say about occupational information handling. Here I’m more interested in the role of information asymmetry in private life, as a source of power and a symbol of trust, as a way of easing frictions and flattering hopes, and as a habitual way of relating that omits facticity as a matter of course.

You can’t sell credibility. It disappears at the point of transaction. Influence in politics and the market is usually built on relationships, not bold claims about inside information made openly in search of customers. Trust built on familiarity is far more generous than credit in the market economy – it is unconditional, not just forgiving deceit but indulging it as a shared fantasy, a private alternate reality in which intimacy trumps interfering facts.

Baudrillard: “Reality is a dog.”

Vagueness is the only hedge we have against delusion, in this schema of love labors secured and served by an enveloping web of outrageous lies. It leaves room for the truth, in the indistinct capacity of a verbal residue, a fly on the wall buzzing harmlessly as witness to the deliberations of invention.