Posts Tagged ‘violence’

Paranoid maturity | Paranoid impunity

June 6, 2018

Coming of age is an act of unveiling. Ignorance gives way to experience, innocence is swayed by its first great doubts, and it’s out of the nest and into the lifeworld of housing-insecure underemployment, hand-to-mouth, not being able to afford the next level of education and the slippery slope into the political cynicism of the disenfranchised, in a world of money politics. Money buys rights as well as food, shelter, and learning. Money is the defense of our rights, and without it we are at the mercy of the world.

Fringe voices that seemed alien when we lived in our childhood homes begin to sound like the forlorn voice of reason filtered through the histrionics of despair. Hip kids pick up tropes and make cheeky fan references inspired by the outside-over-there, the forbidden language of open revolt.

Demagogues know how to push adolescents’ buttons.

How to coattail on their slang, their informalities, their insincerities and experiments with seriousness. Violence isn’t native to the language of late childhood and coming of age, it’s the idiom of one of many borrowed shades of off-color jokes that they trade in, collecting ideas like exotic stamps for show and tell, testing the limits of comprehensibility with mash-ups of rapid-fire soundbytes intended as riffs on the obscene.

These are the immaturities of the first flowering of paranoid maturity. Immature because students still harbor the grandiosity of children, whose ignorance is a grant of impunity.

And then there are our vigilantes, the party wolves in civilian clothing, the improvised weapons of hearth and home – animalistic in their cynicism, adult in their financial commitments, paranoid in the way only a mob can be, counting on herd impunity. These are the inverse of child soldiers.

The answer to weaponized hostages is, of course, fear itself. And to speak fear to ‘terror’, civilian power wears a crony’s face in the mobilization machine of vote-buying partisan politics.

From the top, a lone madman rages on television, consistent in his rages whether there is any need for a microphone to deafen his hearers or not, shaking as only a justly maligned devil can, secure in his seat of power, rejecting psychotherapy.

What can peace journalism do in this toxic situation?

Draw young people away from the sirens of radicalization? Deny their killers anonymity? Put out the fires of vandalism with the clarity of television? Shelter the refugees?

The endless corruptions of public discourse involved in normalizing underdevelopment, youth unemployment, income inequality and everyday microaggressions among neighbors who are learning to see themselves as in-groups and out-groups in a winner-take-all polity are the only forces of radicalization capable of inciting grown children to open revolt. But to shed their blood over the excesses of adolescence is obscene.

Isolation breeds paranoia.

Isolating the man in power will not induce him to refashion electoral rules in ways that repair the fractures along which his country is falling apart. Something has to be said to slow this progressive disease that is rapidly setting in – this epidemic of paranoia, this fruitless search for spaces of impunity.

So I turn to a long letter from Antoine de Saint-Exupery, written to a friend who lived in occupied France and later published as the book, Letter to a Hostage. In this heartfelt letter that could not be sent, to a Jew trapped in France under Nazi rule, a soldier writes with the utmost gentleness and sincerity about the importance of remembering to smile.

He recalls a time during the Spanish civil war when, as a journalist, he was intercepted and taken to a rebel hideout, where it was indicated in a language he did not quite understand that he should produce his papers. He tried to explain that he had left them at his hotel.

“Several times I attempted to protest in Spanish. But my protestations came to naught. They gazed at me without any reaction, as if they were looking at a Chinese fish in an aquarium.

“They were waiting. What were they waiting for? The return of a companion? The dawn? I thought … ‘They are going to do a silly thing. It is absolutely ridiculous..’ My feeling then, more than anguish, was a disgust of absurdity. …

“Was I really in danger? Did they still ignore the fact that I was neither a saboteur nor a spy, but a journalist? …

“I did not know anything about them, except that they shot without debating much with their conscience. The revolutionary vanguards, to whichever party they belong, chase symptoms rather than men (for they do not value man in his substance). The opposite truth appears to them like an epidemic. Even diagnosing a doubtful symptom, they send the contagious to the isolation hospital and the cemetery. That is why I found so sinister the monosyllabic questioning which fell upon me from time to time, and which I could not understand.  A blind wheel was gambling with my life. That is also why, in order to load myself with the weight of real presence, I felt a strange need to cry out something about myself, which would impose upon them the truth of my existence – my age for instance! That is impressive, the age of a man! That summarizes all his life. This maturity of his has taken a long time to achieve. It has grown through so many obstacles conquered, so many serious illnesses cured, so many griefs appeased, so many despairs overcome, so many dangers unconsciously passed. It has grown through so many desires, so many hopes, so many regrets, so many lapses, so much love. …

“Then the miracle happened. Oh! a very discreet miracle. I had no cigarette. As one of my guards was smoking, I asked him, by gesture, showing the vestige of a smile, if he would give me one. The man first stretched himself, slowly passed his hand across his brow, raised his eyes, no longer to my tie, but to my face, and, to my great astonishment, he also attempted a smile. It was like the dawning of the day.

“This miracle did not conclude the tragedy, it removed it altogether, as light does shadow. There had been no tragedy. This miracle altered nothing visible. The feeble oil lamp, the table scattered with papers, the men propped against the wall, the colors, the smell, everything remained unchanged. Yet everything was transformed in its very substance. That smile saved me. It was a sign just as final, as obvious in its future consequences, as unchangeable as the rising of the sun. …

“The men had not moved either, but, though a minute earlier they had seemed to be farther away from me than an antediluvian species, now they grew into contemporary life. I had an extraordinary feeling of presence. That is it: of presence. And I was aware of a connection.

“The boy who had smiled at me, and who, until a few minutes before, had been nothing but a function, a tool, a kind of monstrous insect, appeared now rather awkward, almost shy, of a wonderful shyness – that terrorist! He was no less a brute than any other. But the revelation of the man in him shed such a light upon his vulnerable side! We men assume haughty airs, but within the depth of our hearts, we know hesitation, doubt, grief.

“Nothing yet had been said. Yet everything was resolved. To thank him, I laid my hand upon his shoulder, as he gave me the cigarette. And now that the ice was broken, the rest of the militia also became human, and I entered into their smiles, as into a new and free country. …

“Care granted to the sick, welcome offered to the banished, forgiveness itself are worth nothing without a smile enlightening the deed. We communicate in a smile beyond languages, classes, and parties. We are the faithful members of the same church, you with your customs, I with mine.”

The hardest thing about learning hospitality work is learning how to smile, again and again, no matter what, and in a genuine way, for each and every patron. Be pleasant and genuine, we are told. It doesn’t come as easily as cash handling, not by a long shot. But it is the most valuable skill I have ever been taught.

Codependency and authority

June 18, 2014

I find it difficult to look at the domestic violence crisis that precipitated my move to the Pacific Northwest as a productive displacement and a timely disruption. If my mother hadn’t been arrested, I wouldn’t have had access to the same kind of transitional support from my extended family that I needed to get a job and start living independently.

I should be glad her behavior came to a head in an incident that brought the attention of the police to a situation in which I had grown accustomed to feeling disbelieved and ignored whenever I reached out for help. She had been abusive before, but I had had extreme difficulty following through on the simple imperative of making a home somewhere safer. Instead I keep catching myself looking at the crisis as an aberration, something that ruined a perfectly stable living situation and turned my life upside down.

I can tell this is distorted thinking, that I had some sort of attachment disorder, maybe a codependent relationship with my mother. Difficulty distinguishing between stuckness and stick-to-it-ive-ness is probably somewhat normal (i.e., confirmation bias), but there was no way to make that toxic relationship work. It’s bizarre to miss the awful familiarity of it.

Codependency is an awkward way of describing a relationship in which my mother was both the breadwinner and the one abusing painkillers, but it does capture the learned helplessness I’ve become prone to, and the thoughtless way I relied on her for instrumental support while harboring nothing but resentment for the way she treated me. It’s possible she learned codependent relationship habits while living with my father, an alcoholic, and transferred those behaviors to me after he left.

If codependency is relationship addiction, I had withdrawn from other relationships on the perverse logic that only my assailant could “truly understand” what I had been through in the abusive relationship. She was the only witness to most of the abuse, and in that I invested the dignity of having endured years of bullying and death threats, as if it were a private club we belonged to in which the world was harsher and the stakes were higher, a club to which I had paid my dues.

Those I had confided in seemed to have accused me of blowing things out of proportion or of not having done enough to help myself, when my relationship with my mother was so emotionally taxing I didn’t believe I could handle the simultaneous stress of a job. I felt pressured to normalize my home life for appearances’ sake, a pressure so stifling I preferred to avoid social contact altogether.

“Though a good deal is too strange to be believed, nothing is too strange to have happened.” – Thomas Hardy

On some level you nurse the hope that you’re merely being disbelieved, that the truth might finally come out and lead to a reversal of the injustice you’re so accustomed to, but it’s more than that, people are waiting for you to save yourself, and they’re not holding their breath.

Peter Weir directed a wicked psychological thriller about the claustrophobic intensity of being harassed behind closed doors and treated with bemused disinterest by those you turn to for help, in which the villain is a deranged plumber who comes across as a likeable eccentric to everyone but his victim. He said / she said disputes with no witnesses provoke conciliatory reactions from most informal arbitrators, insisting that the distressed party let it go to save everyone else the trouble of an investigation.

Asking for help coping with abuse that takes place behind closed doors means leveling accusations at someone who modifies their behavior when witnesses are present, and it is also special pleading for a favor – two strong reasons for friends to brush off the request as inappropriate, especially if it’s coming from someone who seems flustered or upset. The complaint will bring nothing but trouble, and lacks the dignity of confrontation with an adversity faced voluntarily, so everything about it is socially awkward.

The ego-centric social expectations of self-discipline militate against reaching out for help with relationship violence, and speaking out is often greeted with pressure to smooth things over and conciliate with the abuser.

• pain silencing
• denial of emotions
• concealment of weaknesses

Not making a show of distress is important to avoid alienating people whose social commitments to you are casual or professional, not close and personal. But it’s typical of an abuser to isolate the victim from close friendships, so that only flimsy social ties remain.

The social isolation that results promotes cognitive distortions that are, themselves, isolating and confusing. Daniel Araoz describes “negative self-hypnosis” that produces catastrophizing delusions or excessively disastrous expectations as a process in which negative evaluations are accepted uncritically, revisited habitually, easily visualized as convincing expectations, with the ability to produce havoc in everyday life through effects on “mood, motivation, and behavior, limiting the individual in such a way that s/he cannot break through those hypnotic limits” (1982). He quotes The Reluctant Messiah (Bach 1977), “Argue for your limitations and, sure enough, they’re yours.”

I like the pantoum “kidding myself in Kuta, Bali” for its depiction of a dream within a dream and the experience of cognitive dissonance or denial in the face of disruption. Denial is a difficult concept to operationalize in metaphor, but I tend to see it as a pervasive force of nature, as intense as social pressure but internalized and more obscure.

“They’ve hired too many actors for the scene
The piles of bodies really are a laugh
The blood however excellently done
With limbs ripped off and bodies cut in half
I am the one in shock who laughs and claps

Confused? Concussed? A little drunk perhaps
At last it dawns, there is no camera crew
A man in white sticks something on my brow
He smiles and whispers sorry and departs

The frantic search for living victims starts
A second man comes close, and shakes his head
He smiles and whispers sorry and departs
I can’t accept I’m very nearly dead

A second man comes close, and shakes his head
I do not want to face my life’s conclusion
It’s just a film: my final self-delusion”

I have a working notion of attentional bias dancing through layers of cognitive dissonance in a non-linear system of veils that move because of those who are concealed and those who seek to be disillusioned, but can frustrate either or both in their own movements somewhat, and are inconsistent in which way they conceal one another and what moves among them that is not a veil.

The Prestige explores this sort of deception intricately, and includes pain silencing as a reason that cognitive dissonance can leave us unwilling to say something.

“One half of me swears … the other half convinced…”
“How can he not know?!?”

Refusal to believe the pain of another is real is what makes the trick bearable for the man who consigns himself to death but is remade as a double without having experienced the deadly last act yet. He refused to believe he could exist in both bodies, that there was no dodge for being the same man before and after the turn, for drowning every single time. This captures the self-destructive delusions of a psychopath to me, someone in denial about the consequences of their own actions.

So what have I been in denial about? Identification with your abuser feels empowering if going out on your own would be a step down in socioeconomic status, and that probably explains what’s bothering me. In a way I felt entitled to the rewards of living with someone as aggressively self-seeking as my mother, for having put up with her for so long, and I feel betrayed now that I’ve lost access to the comforts and conveniences concerned. I also had to rehome two family dogs.

But I think there’s more to it than just that. I also lost access to the vicarious experience of explosive anger so characteristic of life around my mother. I had been reliving childhood beatings and trauma through every tantrum, and crediting myself with having put up a resistance commensurate with the scale of each tantrums, as if I were accumulating points in a zero-sum game. I was addicted to stress.


Michael Ignatieff says of the role of revenge-killings in modern ethnic warfare, “revenge … is a desire to keep faith with the dead, to honor their memory by taking up their cause where they left off. Revenge keeps faith between generations; the violence it engenders is a ritual form of respect for the community’s dead – therein lies its legitimacy. … Political terror is tenacious because it is an ethical practice. It is a cult of the dead, a dire and absolute expression of respect.”

Paradoxically, he argues “it is the very impossibility of intergenerational vengeance that locks communities into the compulsion to repeat. As in nightmare, each side hurls itself at the locked door of the past, seeking in vain to force it open.”

Repetition and futility characterized the one-sided feud in my mother’s house. She wanted revenge for her own childhood and she wanted it from me, and I stayed as a sort of vendetta for having been treated so badly myself, or to prove I was strong enough to take anything she could throw at me, to prove that she couldn’t win.

After she was arrested, she evicted me, and that settled it.

To really enjoy the greater freedom from abuse that comes from having left, I need a more stoic attitude towards materialism and the virtues of independence. There’s a fertile paradox in Stoicism that applies to my mixed feelings, I think. Stoics prize strength and fortitude to reduce the scope of situations in which they feel forced, yet cultivate fatalism about the limits of freedom and dignity.

Stoicism is like embracing the freedom to choose duty – recognizing constraints on individualism and cultivating the virtues of deferred gratification within those limits on self-aggrandizement.

Walter Bagehot gave this sense of moral conflict a poignant, earnest expression. He called the conscience the source of a religion of superstition that takes shape spontaneously within the mind, and in which “the moral principle … is really and to most men a principle of fear.” He felt little of “the delights of a good conscience … by vivid and actual experience.”

He argued that “a sensation of shame, of reproach, of remorse, of sin … is what the moral principle really and practically thrusts on most men. Conscience is the condemnation of ourselves. … the secret tie which binds the strong man and cramps his pride, and makes him angry at the beauty of the universe – which will not let him go forth like a great animal, like the king of the forest, in the glory of his might, but restrains him with an inner fear and a secret foreboding, that if he do but exalt himself he shall be abased; if he do but set forth his own dignity, he will offend ONE who will deprive him of it.”

In feeling constantly embattled at home, I enjoyed a sense of victory over this nameless threat, a self-satisfaction or release from bad conscience that came from always being able to compare myself to my mother, always feeling superior to her, but always enjoying the moral high ground of an innocent victim at the same time. Now my everyday life lacks a scapegoat for the mundane vicissitudes of anger and shame that normal frustrations provoke, and I have to make do without the purging excitement of my mother’s flights of rage.

I should be grateful for a taste of boredom, and for the safety taken for granted in this new normal. There’s potential for creativity in that. Maybe it just takes some getting used to.

Somatization and the sociology of health

June 15, 2014

I’ve written about pain-silencing dynamics in this blog before, but not pain-simulating phenomena, partly because I was uncomfortable with exploring the distinction.

Naming sense perceptions doesn’t feel like a reflective process, the labels are intuitive, pre-conscious, self-evident. Somatization is a radical critique of that accomplishment in self-assessment, a formal medical negation of the patient’s authority on what is of the body, and what is of the imagination, instead. In the treatment of chronic pain, somatization is the verdict that the patient’s mind is inducing or confabulating discomfort where there is no organic cause.

Somatization is strongly associated with a history of violent victimization, anxiety disorders, depression and ongoing relationship problems. Vicious cycles and chronic vulnerabilities are characteristic of the natural history of this psychological disturbance. The body registers complaints that are posited to be more psychosocial in nature, wincing so hard it hurts, so to speak.

The social determinants of health are best represented in a flow chart of interdependent factors promoting wellness or vulnerability, respectively. Their interdependence makes slipping into a “poverty trap” of mutually reinforcing vulnerabilities a very likely and treacherous outcome, especially for victims of family violence denied a healthy foundation of psychosocial and socioeconomic support. The situational drivers of somatization are typically chronic in nature, representing very real and concrete barriers to health and well-being.


Like stigmata, somatization announces itself ingloriously as a demonstrative and intractable discontent. Sternbach’s 6 D ‘s of Chronic Pain Syndrome are:

• Dramatization of complaints
• Drug misuse
• Dysfunction/disuse
• Dependency
• Depression
• Disability

The first bullet in this list grabbed my attention when I was reading about chronic pain. A pain patient who has resorted to dramatization in encounters with doctors is someone, I think, who is rebelling against silencing pressures and trying to “dumb down” the explanation of onslaughts from an invisible enemy within to a willfully obtuse audience. Pain is nothing if not acutely real to the patient, and being told that it’s a psychological phenomenon is profoundly frustrating.

But chronic pain ebbs and flows, and can be exacerbated by psychosocial triggers and cues. Body memories, bone bruises and imperfectly healed fractures blur together in a continuum of sub-clinical, psychologically amplified complaints that confound general practitioners leery of drug-seeking behaviors in agitated patients whose problems are clearly complex and chronic. The absence of a billing mechanism for assault injuries (there’s no insurance for that) further muddies the waters and breeds mistrust between doctors and patients.


Word games and silencing strategies are difficult to disentangle from mindless routines and cynical billing mechanisms in clinical practice. Institutional violence and interpersonal violence are related, in the form of services gaps, prohibitive transaction costs for prosecuting assault cases and stigmatizing victim stereotypes. When an assault victim is diagnosed with somatization, a dead end of sorts has been reached in the Kafkaesque labyrinth of impersonal mechanisms for redressing ill-health and ongoing vulnerability to revictimization.

In a discussion of political torture, Elaine Scarry describes the dyadic dynamics of oppressive violence as ritualistic in use of interrogation modes – “the question” is socially constructed as “the motive” and “the answer” is ritually interpreted as “the betrayal” and provocation for further violence. She notes that political torture employs interrogation routines even when the motive is punitive and information-gathering is not at issue. She defines torture as a demonstrative use of power and fiction aimed at achieving psychological abnegation in the victim.

Chronic interpersonal violence simulates this dynamic in a mundane microcosm of entrapment strategies and multidimensional abuse. Verbal self-assertion is punished with physical assault, and victim-blaming tropes are mobilized to suppress any effort to redress injury or standing threats.

Somatization of repressed complaints is a common outcome, carrying the radical embodiment of memories of wounding to tautological extremes. What is not to be spoken of is nevertheless etched in awareness like writing on the back of an eyelid, garish and surreal.

Rape myth research gives a typology of generalizable victim-blaming misconceptions:

• Victim masochism (they enjoy it or want it)
• Victim precipitation (it only happens to certain types of women)
• Victim fabrication (they lie or exaggerate)

The officially fabricated nature of somatic complaints adds insult to injury in confrontation with clinical practice. The search for answers is turned back on the victim’s propensity for attention-seeking behaviors rather than their vulnerability to wounding.

If the psychosocial triggers of somatization include cohabiting relationship violence, housing insecurity is outside the doctor’s purview and the result can be a treatment plan that second-guesses the patient’s most pressing anxieties (by bringing the patient’s sanity into question) and only promotes further repression and dissociation. I’ve had this experience as a patient who was in treatment for complaints driven by family violence while I was still living with my abuser.

Isolation, monopolization of attention, induced emotional exhaustion, threats, occasional indulgences to motivate compliance, demonstrative omnipotence, degradation and the enforcing of trivial demands to develop a habit of compliance have been identified as systematic mechanisms of oppression in penal institutions that violate human rights (from Biderman’s chart on penal coercion in a 1973 Amnesty International Report on Torture). These are generic stratagems for psychological abnegation that can be reproduced in any cohabiting relationship in which dependency for instrumental support simulates conditions of captivity. They promote dissociation and somatic illusions that are pervasive and easily triggered by proximate fears.

The salience of somatization is more clear to me now that I have my own place and can put significant social distance between myself and my family. Ironically, what used to register as an oppressive label and a silencing strategy on the part of empty handed service providers now has a liberating effect on my sense of self-efficacy in coping with chronic pain.

For me, overcoming somatization involves awareness of confirmation bias in my own thinking, and of the way muscles tense uncomfortably when further pain is anticipated as a logical sequelae of the assertion “this pain I am experiencing is real.” As long as I can register a passing discomfort as genuine without seizing on anticipation that it will persist, I can cope with sensations that used to be more persistent and more sensitive to triggers of the uncanny.

Discomforts that used to be frightening to me now register as familiar but transient, reminders of long-healed bruises rather than urgent alarms about seemingly unremediated harms. I’m finally comfortable with interpreting the pain as a metaphor, a physical expression of feelings that have significance even if they aren’t “organic” in nature.

Stranger ethics and fuzzy thinking phobia

June 14, 2014

I feel so tired of hearing harshness in ironies, and my own writing registers as flippant to me in spite of it, but I’m beginning to hope it will fade out – when I think out loud the sound of my own voice is less unbearably pointed, and yet it’s confusing to look at the kinds of thoughts that seem to be helping my feelings resolve away from the jagged-edged sounding sense of disgust with my options for confronting the world as I see it.

That’s part of the reason I pulled back some earlier blog entries about the domestic violence case a public prosecutor brought against my mother. I’ve now heard that the charges against her were dropped and she’s interested in resuming contact with me, after several months of avoidance. I hadn’t realized until then how badly I wanted a conviction even if she was only sentenced to anger management counseling again. Her sense of impunity frightens me.

The things I end up having said somehow seem to jostle the barbs of fear and anger at the same time, I can’t look at my own words or hear my own tone of expressing what I’m angry about without hearing the same cruel habits in myself, yet I don’t know how to demand change of myself. Apart from violating Wizard’s Eighth Rule and becoming a vegetarian.

Maybe I’m just too tired to trust willing change to matter and that makes it easier to imagine it’s a different kind of problem, not a grounds for capitulating to the way things are – a desire to resist a sign of failure to understand the real, a failure to apprehend the truth as straightforward as a bad grade in physics.

I sound like a hypocrite to myself. Misery loves company but when your unhappiness is disorienting, you know better than to take the idea of reducing anyone else to grief and confusion lightly, if they listened hard enough to be hurt by what you had to say for yourself.

Fears feed each other, not in a metaphysical way I don’t think, it’s as simple as associational logic underpinning all the unreflecting habits that make up a susceptibility to attentional bias.

Any strong sense of alarm heightens your alertness to everything else that has come to mind lately that is frightening, and then your concrete perceptions about just those things that frighten you dwarf the other things you already know, and even if one fear can be resolved you look from one to another and it’s far too easy to feel overwhelmed.

Lies are so easy to blame people for, so complete in the harm they seem to do, it’s easy to feel undone by mistrust of your own ability to tell what’s going on. And putting names to feelings when you’re that unsure feels like inviting other people to listen when you know your intuition feels unreliable.

But you wouldn’t reject a reassuring lie that worked for you, if you knew fear was what was keeping you disoriented, no matter what rabbit hole it led down. You’re reduced to that, willingness to believe anything that differs from the sum of all fears, even if it’s a twisting around of whether something confronting you is to be feared, as if what you feared for could be devalued in a way that would help.


When you’re prone to black and white thinking that seems like too much, you look for other explanations for the way you feel even if there are none coherent enough to hang on to.

Perception is the credible threat – not Cartesian anxiety about whether I am there, but a totalizing sense of contingency about how revisable I am as a person who has an identity drawn up by way of self-awareness as well as actual habits and traits of which I may be less entirely aware.

Look at informal credit, and the way people use numbers as if they didn’t know better for ambiguity and indirection about social distance, the absolute value of informal credit ratings, with a give and take measured in price information asymmetry in the sense of access to gossip, always partial in both senses of the word. Walter Bagehot, founding editor of The Economist, was good at explaining that sort of everyday micro-economics. I named a beagle after him for putting a positivist spin on the dismal science.

Part of what I’m struggling with is fuzzy thinking phobia. Fuzzy thinking is how we get through unscripted parts of our lives, but it is rather a lot to face if your biggest fear is being misunderstood and that fear applies to even concrete details of your identity and memories, whereas in real life there isn’t time to so much as verify the verifiable, let alone make your case for what you can’t corroborate with external evidence beyond the integrity of your own testimony.

This is partly why I am so fond of The Legend of the Seeker. Craig Horner interprets Richard Cypher’s distaste for magic as a preference for dealing with tools and threats that are tangible and concrete rather than deceptive and mysterious. This validates my reluctance to allow experts to tell me this or that is merely psychosomatic pain, or that threat perceptions can be chalked up to catastrophizing just because they’re recurrent and inconvenient to redress.

I was a runaway as a kid, but I never got far, and eventually my plans for running became a joke even to me, a comment on the fact that hell is other people but foraging isn’t a viable alternative to life where there is nowhere to run. What I was running from gradually infected my understanding of the world I thought I was running toward until the fantasy fell apart.

Secrets and lies and the group dynamics of gossip and ambivalence compromised my notion of a better world “outside, over there” through incident reports of violence in my home and bystander-typical reactions from the people I confided in about it. Some of the violence was quite psychological – as when a toad was found impaled on a pencil holding down an improbable note implicating a very young neighbor and friend.

Pulled punches left confusing memories – heated verbal threats of bodily harm followed by relatively light bruises, a blurring of death threats and petty injuries into a bleak comedy about the elephant and the mouse.

Zooming out to the sociology of health, all this seems to be part of the social experience of alienation that is widely considered a modern urban phenomenon but has close parallels in the paranoia of rural poor communities concerning envious neighbors. Maybe alienation is the price we pay for trying to live by voluntary agreements loaded with uncertainty about how well trust holds when bargaining rules approximate zero sum games.

There is something perversely reassuring about coercion in this context; expectations reinforced by threats are considered more reliable and can be liberating if you are willing to respond to fear without compunction or if the expectations don’t feel compromising in a way that would tempt you to face your fears and disobey.

Maybe alienation is exacerbated by social conditions promoted by marketing culture that exploit asymmetry of information systematically. Could a political economy of seduction produce more atomizing social conditions than the hierarchical compliance culture of patronage politics?

“Don’t stand so near me!
I am become a socialist. I love
Humanity; but I hate people.” – Edna St. Vincent Millay

False sympathy or use of opportunities to tend to the weaknesses of others to curry favor and the idea of “entrenching the need for help” by institutionalizing welfare provision come to mind. Why do the administrators of vital social safety nets come across as patronizing and out of touch to their own clientele? In how many ways are status-oriented microaggressions masked as kindness?

Does defensive posturing about “the best a flawed social safety net can do” capitalize on the prevalence of faux pas issues from cognitive dissonance, or is the difference of intent that relevant if the recipient can’t tell where the speaker’s misconceptions are coming from or to what degree they are rooted in unspoken but internalized hostility rather than unconscious mirroring of a hostile cliché? Victim-blaming stereotypes must come to mind in such a workplace.

People who attend to your sense of distress about a weakness, limitation or source of pain without kindness and a compassionate impulse to alleviate your distress often are relating to you as an enemy, in their minds your claim to their capacity for compassion is presumptuous or artificial on some level. Doctors, in particular, have strong pain-silencing prejudices for coping with patients.

We all have a sense of our own limitations to help others, and recoil quickly when we feel someone is asking too much of us relative to our means; in a helping professional this can lead to internalizing a triage ethic that is rather out of touch with the root concept and rather clumsy as a way of respecting personal boundaries. They feel defensive about relatively impersonal boundaries like purview, workload, minor conflicts of interest like whether or not they get along with the colleague whose help they would need to follow through on a perceived need of a client, etc.

What if conservative economic philosophy is a belief system that also protects the upwardly mobile from shame when they must refuse their own social contacts some of the favors they are asked to grant as if they owed their friends and family to spread their wealth? If they are consistently stingy fewer people will take it personally or be bold enough to put them in a position to have to refuse a request.

Liberals want resource allocation professionalized within the public sector for fairness and efficiency, the same reasons conservatives prefer private charity be responsible for allocating surplus. Both fear the selfish corruption of rhetoric that misallocates resources in the name of the social good.

If futile in another’s eyes, your interest in discussing your own victim status will often be seen as undignified, pathetic and self-defeating. The victim role assigns significance (injustice) to the ongoing distress and thus elevates its prominence, which does mean experiencing it more acutely than you would if you didn’t see a need for redress of the injustice but chose to be more accepting instead.

In this respect counseling someone to stop complaining and accept their fate is a kind of advice that can bring a degree of relief to their distress, and make them more willing to distract themselves from it. Even if your frustrations are blameless on your part and reflect serious fault on someone else’s part, dwelling on the unfairness of what happened to you won’t necessarily solve the problems that were caused for you.

Yet no one should put their own hardships in a global perspective in the sense of trivializing their own unmet needs if they can think of some other unmet needs in the world that would dwarf their own if lined up side by side. There is plenty of external social pressure to keep quiet about one’s unhappiness conditioning us not to be an unreasonable imposition on those we could turn to for help or emotional support at will. Internalizing it is redundant and unsustainable.

In particular, the hidden harms of institutional violence – discrimination in its passive forms, distinct from micro-aggressions – leave their victims with largely unshareable experiences, difficult to discuss openly with anyone who hasn’t been through something very similar. Support groups with people who have had similar victimization experiences are important in part because of the way cognitive dissonance has denied them adequate emotional support and understanding from friends and family who lack the kind of insight that comes from personal experience.

But even within support groups we are all strangers, with reactions to one another’s stories typical of bystander indifference. That’s why I’m getting a copy of Michael Ignatieff’s book The Needs of Strangers. I have a feeling that until I understand what it means to be a stranger, I won’t fully understand how to be a friend.