"...it's not the training to be mean but the training to be kind that is used to keep us leashed best." ~ Black Dog Red

"In case you haven't recognized the trend: it proceeds action, dissent, speech." ~ davidly, on how wars get done

"...What sort of meager, unerotic existence must a man live to find himself moved to such ecstatic heights by the mundane sniping of a congressional budget fight. The fate of human existence does not hang in the balance. The gods are not arrayed on either side. Poseiden, earth-shaker, has regrettably set his sights on the poor fishermen of northern Japan and not on Washington, D.C. where his ire might do some good--I can think of no better spot for a little wetland reclamation project, if you know what I mean. The fight is neither revolution nor apocalypse; it is hardly even a fight. A lot of apparatchiks are moving a lot of phony numbers with more zeros than a century of soccer scores around, weaving a brittle chrysalis around a gross worm that, some time hence, will emerge, untransformed, still a worm." ~ IOZ

May 4, 2010

The Temptation Towards Punitive Asceticism

I don't know if I can demonstrate sufficiently that the lot of us come from some culture or community in force, or at least a recognizable subculture, that we emerge into our individual variations of adult social awareness in part by recognizing that greater culture to which we, like it or not, belong. We identify the experience of self because we experience others, others who came before us, who formed some aspects of us, and not always nicely.

I can state this premise, speak it, put it into print.

But I'm not sure that this medium provides the best venue for demonstration. Anyway, Donne wrote it far better than I, "No man is an island."

With that limitation in mind, and accepting the consequences of it, I recently engaged in a debate with someone whose goals I share but who promotes methods with frankly give me cause for concern. An unfriendly debate, in all honesty, and so I won't link directly to it, because I do not wish to tar the author's premise with my a priori judgment of it.

I don't wish to expose the author's argument by way of my biases.

What troubled me during the exchange, and what troubles me still, I can reduce for brevity to: the will to punish.


We come to awareness within the confines of society. As mammals, we need other people - if only in the most extraordinary case, to survive infancy and early childhood. To develop language, to understand the cues of facial and body comminication, to interact with others, to complete any number of tasks, we need other people.

We inherit the skills and techniques developed over time, and ages, from people who have lived and died before us. That inheritance does not occur passively, like eye color. Some one or many others must teach us. Must teach at us, at a minimum, how to learn.

I know shared memory and exosomatic learning started somewhere, anthropologically distant from this present moment, within the known and unknown datum of our shared history. Reduced to zero, culture might start again. It also might not, though I'd wager hard and often on the tendency towards shared memory.

Whatever the origins, nearly every person who has the capacity to read and understand these words on the screen has come to some awareness within the net of culture, within a community of shared premises and memory.

And yet, even as inheritors of it, still sharing the languages and structures of thought, some of us have come to assume an existence - a standing out - which opposes the culture in which we live.

We can with little effort identify a number of those internally contained but nonetheless opposed sets of positions: feminism, black power, socialism, anarchism, communism, mutualism, indigenous awareness, and the host of more personal, more immediate rejections of the community in force, or aspects of it (as well as the many I simply have not named).

Still members, by that inheritance, of the society at large, still shaped by its structures, its premises, its arrangements of exchange and power - we have come from varying perspectives and uncommon experiences to inhabit similar positions within or against that predominant social arrangment.

Shaped by it, we reject it.

Which brings me back to that original and hostile discussion, mentioned above.

The two of us* agreed that the existing social structure promoted oppression. We both agreed that the consequences of the normal operation of these social arrangements resulted in daily reprehensible abuses of power, producing violent pornography, rape, the vast superstructure of patriarchy and any number of (for the purposes of that debate) unnamed violations of life and flesh.

I don't want to suggest that I had the superior position, and he the inferior. I don't believe that, one bit.

I just want to note that his prescription seemed to embody the errors of the society which he himself had come to reject.

His solution, at least as I read it, depends upon the repression of repression, on the punishment of punishers, on the suppression of punitive and crippling social arrangements (or the symptoms of them) by the creation of crippling and punitive social arrangements, on the crippling of cripplers.

As another interlocutor remarked, by the construction of an "Incorruptible Censor Board" tasked with dealing with the problems and persons who currently benefit from violent pornography, the oppression of women, et cetera.

A position which I believe depends on a very specific reaction to power: revolutionary asceticism. In rejecting patriarchy, he has come to embrace a view of the world which depends on withdrawal from contact with the sin of its possessors, a sin which righteous people must expurgate from the world, by repression and punishment, or else condemn themselves and others to the continuation of degradation.

That this did not work for the Inquisition, did not work for the early Christian ascetics, did not work for Augustine or Bernard of Clairvaux, does not work for Wahhabists in Saudi Arabia, does not work for Hindutva zealots in India, does not work for Christian terrorists in India, did not work for Bolsheviks or Maoists, did not work for fascists, falangists or conservative oppressors...

...well, perhaps you get my point.

A number of us have chosen, together and alone, to stand against the current social situation. Our reasons vary. Our objectives and goals differ. Our perspectives come and go.


The moment we decide to embrace punishment, the will to punish and the purity of ascetic withdrawal** as the best way to oppose the totalizing effects of the current society, we set ourselves up (I believe) as future oppressors.

Our rejection of this destructive society, by heading down that path, becomes its latest validation. And a lasting one.

I don't know if the opposition to the abuse of power itself necessarily contains the seeds of future power. I don't know if the rejection of one society, to have any chance of success, requires the enforcement of another.

I don't know if the implied argument - that freedom requires the repression of repression - provides the best ground for opposing oppression.

I just don't know.

But, it seems to me that this will to punish, this temptation to use repression to address repression negates the very act of standing out against, in the first.

That by accepting as valid the urge to totalize society and one's opponents, believing that answering harm or the possibility of harm requires repression, it appears that those who do so undermine their original rejection of harmful society, itself.

I don't know. I might just not get it...

* - The debate involved more than one party. For the purposes of this post, I treat only with the exchange between he and I.

** - I don't intend a criticism of withdrawing from corrosive power arrangements.


Mr.Fundamental said...

way interesting.

it's like an atheist's rejection of religious experience. . .and yet, atheism is still a belief. the inclination to believe beyond doubt is still intrinsic to our being, to our experience.

if your intention is to reject and repress. . .then yes: good luck with that project. I recall an argument with someone over at IOZ's place last year. the commenter was a devoted small el libertarian. the commenter rejected a large state, a large federal government. I questioned, in my way, how could they enforce, how does one enforce small, decentralized government? the participants have to want it, no? libertarians with this commenter's predilections want to enforce a rejection of the size and scope of government. yet the desire and the will for power and scope and wealth is intrinsic to our very being. it's who we are. it will come out in other ways.

so in a way it's like trying to put the genie back in the bottle. the fact of the matter is there is no genie. there's no there there.

"Zen enriches no one. There is no body to be found. The birds may come and circle for a while in the place where it is thought to be. But they soon go elsewhere. When they are gone, the "nothing," the "no-body" that was there, suddenly appears. That is Zen. It was there all the time but the scavengers missed it, because it was not their kind of prey." THOMAS MERTON

how do we get THAT, you know? it's not "how do we repress this in ourselves?" but more along the lines of "how do we render it meaningless?" or "how do we render power benign?" it probably starts with calling things as they are. blogging helps.

Jack Crow said...

Thanks, Mr. F.

I don't know if there's a solution to the problem. I'm just uncomfortable with those arguments which leap directly from "someone might be harmed" to "let's kill speech and use repression to punish and pre-punish ideological offenders."

M said...

I don't know what the debate was about but I feel the need to say something.

I will, however, first refer to Mr Fundamental's claim that atheism is a belief. It is not. Some atheism can be, but my atheism is absence of belief. My position is not "I believe there is no God" but "I don't believe in any of the proposed arguments for God's existence". There is a difference there. I have not committed myself to a position of belief, as a religious person would, but to a position of scepticism.

As for your post, JC, and what you say about freedom - I don't think freedom can exist without repression. In order to ensure everyone has freedom, we must also repress the impulses of those (of us) who would do things that limit or impinge on other people's freedom. Our freedom is necessarily shaped by the community which we are a part of, it is shaped by the constraints that are placed upon us, which are meant to ensure freedom for all and not just for those who might be superior or more powerful in some respect. So I don't think freedom can exist without some form or some quantity of repression. The question then becomes what is repressed, how much freedom is allowed and what possible consequences can result in excessive freedom or in too much repression.

For example, in Croatia it is forbidden by law to promote fascism and "Ustaše," who massacred and prosecuted Serbs, Jews and Roma in Croatia during WWII. I think this repression of promoting fascism is limiting the freedom of free speech, but I also think it is necessary. Less than two decades ago, during Croatia's war of independence, my country was conducting ethnic cleansing which displaced (or killed) thousands of Serbs. The ultra-nationalist tendencies, the glorification of "Ustaše" and hate towards the Serbs have not disappeared since, in fact, they seem to be on the rise.

Ethnic cleansing (by displacement or murder) is the ultimate consequence of unstemmed hate speech and non-repressed harbouring of hate towards a particular kind of people. We could argue that freedom of speech is more important and that it needs to be allowed because when everyone's freedom is ensured oppression like that will not happen again. But I am not convinced.

So when we weigh those two together - the protection of people from prosecution and the freedom to express hate or fascistic tendencies - we need to decide whether we will absolutely protect a person's right to speech, or will we use repression to limit freedom of speech because of its possible consequences? Is the right to speech more important than people's well-being? I don't think it is.

So when it comes to freedom, I think, there always needs to be a certain amount of repression to ensure that one person's freedom is not harmful to someone else. I don't think people can ever be completely free to interact with one another as they want, because people not only need to be free to interact, but also need to be protected from negative interaction.

At least that's what I think.

Jack Crow said...


I have to take some time to mull over your reply.

Ethan said...

This is something I've been thinking about as well recently. I find myself largely in mute agreement with your original post.

Particularly in reference to the part of this discussion that ASP points out, I have to say that deep down I'm always kind of secretly ambivalent about "the individual" and individual liberty. It certainly sounds appealing, but I fear that focusing on it too heavily interferes with thinking about humanity--and the world, and the universe--as a totality.

I tend, or maybe the more accurate verb is "try," to subscribe to a David Bohmian view of all-as-one, and as a result I'm tempted sometimes to think that subsuming the self to the totality is the way to go. Of course, that way lies the potential for fascism.

I don't know if I'm making any sense. I've been kind of working on and off on an essay on just this topic, when mental diseases don't get in the way. Thanks for posting this.

Jack Crow said...

Sane and Ethan,

I'm still thinking about your replies. You merit a considered response, and it's not coming to me at this point.

I have not ignored you, I hope you understand.