Posts Tagged ‘frontiers of justice’

The Frontiers of Justice

August 8, 2015

In The Frontiers of Justice, philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that under neoliberal governments like ours, there are four major groups of persons who are excluded from recourse to the justice system by virtue of their lack of means (money to bring a case in court) and/or lack of voice (ability to reason with a court/right to stand before a court). These are children, the disabled, non-citizens, and animals.

This is an important book to me, and one I mention often in my blog. Lately I’ve been wondering whether these frontiers of justice are really a product of neoliberalism. Or are they more deeply ingrained than that in human behavior? Do they in turn shape human behavior, through childhood psychology? It seems to me that these groups have always been at a political and social disadvantage, regardless of what system of government we’re talking about.

This brings up two questions. The first is, what is neoliberalism? The core values of neoliberalism are individualism, private ownership and freedom of choice. Under this regime, social space is a form of market capital, cultural resources and political voice (via the mass media) have been privatized, inequality levels are high, and consumption rates have everything to do with willingness to pay and competition over paid work. Nussbaum argues that it is through a fee-for-service justice system and through doubts in their capacity to reason that children, the disabled and animals are denied the ability to enforce their rights in court, whereas non-citizens are simply denied the right to bring cases in court.

The second question is, how would we treat children, the disabled, non-citizens and animals if ours were not a neoliberal regime? It seems to me that even under conditions of anarchy, maybe especially under conditions of anarchy, these groups would get the short end of the stick. As human animals, we have limited patience with our own offspring and less with those of other people. Towards disabled kin, we have moderate sympathy – towards disabled strangers, we have little to none. Outsiders to our social groups are greeted with skepticism or outright hostility, depending on how well they have acculturated to our norms (from language use to attitudes and beliefs). And animals are either dinner, personal property or an at-large nuisance – even those we think of as family are excluded from the consolations of language use and the rights that come with it.


If these frontiers of justice are in our animal nature, and not a product of our social contract, how do these boundaries shape us as individuals? Object relations theory seems to scratch the surface of this question, with its emphasis on the contingency of infant emotional life on the attentions of the mother. Impatience with the willfulness of their own children is the natural pressure parents exert (without any special training in how to teach children to grow up), and once they have internalized adult habits and come of age, they are sent away to fend for themselves. Later, I’ll look at Freud’s theory of child psychology in this context of actual (not merely imagined) parental hostility towards the developing child.

Returning to the first question, is there really anything about neoliberalism that would lead us to exclude non-citizens from the courts? Here I am inclined to turn to Jane Jacobs again, and look at the two codes of conduct described in Systems of Survival, one more similar to traditional conservative politics in America, and the other more characteristic of liberalism. But this time I would argue that they blur together, rather than competing for political dominance. If neoliberalism were like the market-oriented code of conduct Jacobs describes, it would protect the rights of strangers and aliens and promote multiculturalism. I would argue that it does not, and that instead, this moral question is ceded to the hierarchical code of conduct that stands in opposition to commercial norms, one in which in-group loyalty is paramount.

Neoliberalism is often compared with neoconservatism, but some would say they are two sides of the same coin. The centrist policies of the Democratic party and the radicalism of the Republican party have produced a situation in which domestic politics are, by and large, neoliberal and foreign policy is neoconservative, even when a Democrat is in the White House. Neoconservatism has less to do with individualism and more to do with unilateralism. This co-existence of market-oriented values in the domestic sphere and hierarchical values in the international sphere mirrors what Jane Jacobs describes as the natural symbiotic relationship between market norms and hierarchical regimes. (But it also represents a type of perverse hybrid that she describes as a recipe for corruption. I’ll return to the topic of perverse hybrids later.) War powers are used to open markets and break up cartels, all in the name of the peacetime values of freedom, individualism and private profit.

Some commentators describe this neoliberal hegemony as a depoliticization of the public sphere, and to understand this critique, you have to compare neoliberalism and neoconservatism with their ideological opposition, contemporary Western communism. The hallmark of communist regimes is a top-down redistributive policy on property ownership, as opposed to private ownership of capital and competition over work, housing, food and ultimately, profit. To say neoliberalism depoliticizes public life is to say that politics is, fundamentally, the legal negotiation of class conflict, and that neoliberalism deprives the poor of their negotiating power.


There are two other major points of departure between communism and neoconservatism: the close regulation of daily life, breaking up traditional power structures within family units, and the endorsement of universal suffrage regardless of race (which, when it comes to Palestine, leads neoconservatives to accuse the radical left of anti-Semitism). Here I am talking about communism in Western democracies, not in China or Cuba, where state censorship is also an important point of departure from neoliberalism (to be compared with market-oriented control of the mass media).

Under neoliberalism, racial discrimination is most apparent in the housing market, where it is enforced by private associations colluding to exclude minorities from certain neighborhoods in a formal strategy largely ignored by public agencies responsible for upholding civil rights. This is the regressive side of liberalism, promoting freedom of choice (the opportunity to live in a predominately white suburb) for an elite minority on a willingness-to-pay basis. This racist elitism is normalized in national culture, and ‘minorities’ are encouraged by entertainment/advertising media to identify with and compare themselves to white role models, and to associate minority status with being lower class, poorly educated and/or a criminal.

The neoconservative police state’s use of racial profiling and indiscriminate deportation policies, and the neoconservative foreign policy administration’s tendency to equate Arab race/Islam with terrorism, both function as scapegoating behaviors on an irrational level, fostering black-and-white thinking about group loyalties and aversion to multiculturalism and international law. Neoconservatism, at its most basic, is an us-versus-them mentality in which U.S. national interests and preconceptions trump international diplomacy and military force is a first, rather than a last, resort. Outsiders (and, arguably, ‘minorities’) are viewed with contempt or fear, rather than curiosity and admiration.

But perhaps it is through the exclusion of ‘outsiders’, the disabled, children and other animals that neoliberalism is so atomizing, lonely and monotonic. Competition over resources is a never-ending struggle under this regime, and cultural resources are monopolized by a remote elite (from the privatization of Google to the total control of local news coverage by Fox). The agenda of this elite is remote from daily life (minority status now belongs to whites in the census), and tied to a foreign policy agenda that has more to do with direct subsidies than with imperialistic resource extraction. Patronage politics serves a tiny sector of special interest groups and a thinly stretched, poorly compensated military, while the rest of the 99% are at the mercy of the market.

From this point of view, neoliberalism and neoconservatism certainly don’t co-exist in a system of checks and balances – the most obvious feature of this political unity is that it is unsustainable. The real question is, could an alternative system of government expand the frontiers of justice? Or are they simply in our nature?

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.

Frontier moralities

February 24, 2013

If Whitman is the poet of vagabonds fleeing the colonial conceit for a breath of fresh air at the edge of the wilderness, Virgil is the poet of colonists who garden for love of an empire, domestic dreamers who dwell on the past when they look at the stars, and threaten to rise up over “tilth and vineyard, hive and horse and herd.”

I feel that I have lost you now, evil
times have made of love pain without relief.
The world that has lost you will replace you,
a yellow leaf framing a cluster of grapes
will shine, grief will hide itself, hope of wine
remind us of sweetness in loss, belief
in rebirth console us.

Give me the splendid sun, the trellised grape,
take back the bitter medicine of time
and give me back my solitude – the nape
of my neck longs for your hand, and I mime
your presence with my own. No rhyme
or reason is enough to make this lack
a philosophical burden.

I haven’t read Virgil, but I’m curious. The book Strangers at the Gate held my attention on a day when I had been skimming all the other library books until I’d read it cover to cover, by mixing prosody with anecdote for modern South Africa’s Latin poetry fandom. Africa has more than great migrations to offer the 20th century, and can keep a writer busy doing things other than writing, while abroad.


Airports are also good, for writing foreshadowing to sequence.

A writer not writing will even listen enough to become a better writer without having noticed. Aspiring to something more than residence in Kenya, Karen Blixen kept too many found mottos not to be known for it, and could not refuse when Denys gave her his family’s motto, “Je responderay,” as a present – it means I will answer and give account.

She said this motto spoke to her, partly because “the Danish word for responsibility is plain ‘Ansvar.’”

She did not like to see frontier morality as an off-color idiom of polite sayings from home, about what is not intended to pass for justice so far from the courts.

“.. just the same .. and everyday, there comes a song ..”

Martha Nussbaum’s phrase “the frontiers of justice” resonates for just this reason – at the edges of the map we find an unconstructed society, where invaders and invaded have each begun losing their capacity to govern in good faith. Their ambassadors must be ready to betray the trust they cultivate at any moment, or be set upon by their own people instead.

What privacy the wild affords is false –
a public mind works on the natural world.
I can’t forget my oath, the flag unfurled
above our fort to give the weather’s pulse
an air of expectation. What promise
this overwhelming strange enchantment holds
for me teases my sentiments, but folds
before harsh terms for trade. There is but this:
the nourishment of the James River’s fish,
the closeness of the timber to the sea,
our access to the tributaries’ kings –
such circumstances dictate every wish
and govern blindly. “Subsistence first” brings
strength without warmth, our mere security.

Some people seek out the frontier with the wilderness, rather than with strangers whose laws are not their own.


Tomohiro Inaba

My grandfather retired as far from the nearest neighbor as he could without losing access to a grocery store. Maybe distance makes the heart grow fonder, of company in moderation. I remember my grandfather best for his hospitality, keeping house in the Oregon woods.

Farming trees in a black bear neighborhood called airplane ridge after a small plane accident, he never used a gun there, except to kill a porcupine that tried to eat his house. A salt lick in view of the breakfast table brought in morning guest lists of deer that would scuffle over the dirt it had percolated into, when it had washed down to nothing.

Coyotes could be heard singing there at night, though the wolves had been gone for generations. Listening for bugling elk, though, you are more likely to hear the cattle sounding in the dark. Coyotes inspire a healthy fear in ranch hands, and can sometimes be found crucified on a fence line where the range is being used for grazing. But coyotes have never been that easy to run off.

Coyote is the trickster hero, everywhere he’s known to storytellers, a savior everyone is loathe to turn to, but an acknowledged genius, sure to be rather brilliant when all else fails. A thief and a practical joker, he gave the world stars by stealing a bag of sacred white corn from a goddess of the Southwest, and carelessly spilling it in the sky.

A great basalt landmark in Oregon is all that remains of an all-swallowing monster he slew in the origin story of the Nez Perce people. Even the monster that swallowed every other living thing in the world hesitated to eat coyote, suspecting somehow that this could backfire.

But coyote bathed, and rolled in sagebrush, and persuaded the world’s enemy nothing could be tastier, so that he could roast the gorgon’s vitals from within, rescuing all the demoralized survivors languishing in stomach juices but not without humiliating the only marsupial known to him.


“Feathered” is from The Daily Coyote (Charlie, 2013).

Baby coyotes have big voices, and make for an eerie local caroling troupe. But it’s easy to fear for them, since the national forest on all sides of the tree farm is used for grazing. Ranchers don’t mind the cattle often while they’re there, or gather them efficiently, but they kill predators sometimes.

Things have begun to change. Even wolves are showing themselves lately, from the jogging trails of Boise to the meadows above Joseph, Oregon. A few weeks after my grandfather’s funeral, neighbors gave word a wolf pack had taken on his part of airplane ridge.

Pain-silencing dynamics

February 14, 2013

In The Body in Pain, Elaine Scarry explains why social pressure to hide pain can be so profound that in a tragic drama like Alkestis, the bereaved husband can be imagined suppressing his fresh heart-break because of the presence of an unexpected house guest. He hides his loss out of sheer terror that making his unhappiness known would bring his household into disgrace.

Would you like it better if I drove my guest away?
I’d look like I don’t know the rules of civility!
It would just add another layer of pain,
to have my house called inhospitable.

Scarry’s focus is on phenomenology, and how pain violates the barrier between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ the body in disturbing ways that invoke the social anxieties of public/private dualism, loaded with suspicions of secrecy and misdirection. At the same time, she reveals how pain-silencing habits are unthinking responses.

We tend to shush people in pain impulsively, irrespective of the circumstances. This can be a comfort to the person so reassured that the fear behind their cries is needless now, but in chronic pain it is an effort to stem constancy and move the subject away from regrets.


Early in the book, she rattles off various kinds of ways in which we silence one another’s expressions of pain – many of them unwritten rules, but taken together, a terrifying system of redundancies warning us forcefully not to cry out. Separated into a bullet list from the paragraph in question, these pain-silencing dynamics include:

  • Pain is a feeling that an “enemy” force has been internalized, violating the self’s integrity and making expression of pain a self-betrayal; to admit to feeling pain is a corruption of the will to resist defeat
  • Pain’s internal location implicating one’s own body in the cause of suffering; to believe in the existence of psycho-somatic pain is to fling skepticism in the face of every sufferer (e.g., ‘why don’t you try to take your mind off it?’)
  • Pain that does not let up is totalizing, a distraction from both the self and the environment, while pain that is “chronic” will return whenever your guard is down even if at times you can take your mind off it
  • Pain is unreal to others, in the sense that it is unshareable unless it is separately reproduced for the observer’s benefit (which they would not exactly welcome), and when its reality is held in doubt by observers, this doubles the aversiveness of hurt with the psychological aversiveness of being disbelieved
  • Pain can subvert the ability to communicate at all, monopolizing language in desperate complaint, or even overwhelming the psyche to the point that it is no longer verbally articulate
  • Pain expression that is convincing is obscenely humiliating, because it conflates the privacy of felt-experience with the utterly public experience of disability, handicap or complaint about punishment; the sufferer may expose his feelings to others, but this does not change the fact that they frankly prefer not sharing these feelings he has exposed, and if confronted about this, they offer recriminations like “misery loves company”

You could probably add scar-jealousy to this list, too; the listener’s suspicion that tall tales about a scratch have been embellished out of pride. Think of the scene in Mountains of the Moon when the great explorers strip to show their scars with jealous pride. But for all the good humor in theatrical bursts of enthusiasm for glory, like Henry’s Saint Crispin’s Day speech, pain is a grim topic even as the evidence behind “very true adventure” stories.

This makes the topic of pain silencing a sharp comment on complacency about a particular category among the “frontiers of justice” Martha Nussbaum identifies as intrinsic to neoliberal ethics, the disability stigma that reinforces any socioeconomic disempowerment that physical or intellectual disability entails for the injured, or otherwise crippled.

Silencing of expressed needs is a common element between the disability group and other frontiers of justice she identifies, such as childhood, animal status in an environment controlled by humans, and dependency on savings or “social security” in old age. It is the mutually reinforcing system of norms in neoliberal society that renders these frontiers weak in egalitarian principles and regressive in politics. In each group, status before a justice system that deters cruelty from violence and from neglect is jeopardized by monetary destitution or vulnerability to it.

As Richard says in The Legend of the Seeker, “if there’s one thing I learned from Denna, it’s how to suffer in silence.” It works, in some sense. Pain silencing isn’t the sort of discipline even a redeemed Mord Sith like Cara makes a consistent effort to unlearn. She’d know that would be inefficient, if not suicidal considering the amount of danger their quest is always putting them in.

Compared to competent resolve, maudlin self awareness is petulant unless you couldn’t have known better, and still the prelude to disaster, if so.

To have to assert pain in self-expression is thus a sign of desperation, risking every level of social rejection, from the casual to the insistent.

And even among helping professionals fully aware of the risk of misalliance in empathy and sympathy between care giver and recipient, a conceptual grasp of the danger of furthering the problem one offers to resolve may not make any difference.

Scarry’s book draws attention to the puzzling problem of ‘pain skepticism’ among medical professionals, deep-seated and difficult to square with modern standards of ‘compassionate care’. Strange that doctors, of all people, are characteristically unable to credit self-reported pain. But they, too, tend to chalk it up to a question of efficient use of emotional energy, a need for stamina and cool-headed precision when they make their evaluations.

She suggests they might also be thinking wistfully that a machine’s biomarker readings are unsullied by the voices of those bringing them to moral exhaustion in crying competitions, each trying to insist “me first!”

Doctors have few drugs besides mildly noxious placebos, and built a regrettable reputation with opiates a few hundred years ago, so today’s care givers are more cautious to suspect patients of attention-seeking, though not all that much different from Phaidra’s nurse in the age of Euripides. They feel that many people beset with loneliness and despair come to meet them for personal reasons, and submit to being given a physical exam or having their blood drawn for the courtesy of being introduced.

This makes it tempting to reduce all complaints that result in a second visit to the same doctor to the category ‘psychosomatic pain’ rather than reassessing one’s introductions, already difficult to remember by the time the patient is seen again.


This may not follow from the knowledge that the nervous system’s pain-signaling apparatus is inseparable from the ‘subjective’ experience of pain in the mind, even if it is not obvious how the pain-signal was mechanically produced.

But if the typical patient stops coming back for additional efforts to address the same complaint from the physician, whatever one has been doing for the patients lately seems to have worked.