Violence, “Tough Love,” Sadism and Government Policy

I have long been deeply troubled by how pervasive violence is in American society, by how many Americans believe that violence is the best way, the only realistic way, to deal with other people. Especially when those other people are in some “defiant” or “non-comformist” or allegedly a threat to stability or order.

It’s as if a meme was loosed in our society that has convinced too many Americans that the best way — the only way — to reform others is to beat them, to humiliate them, to degrade them. It’s about controlling and dominating people, and the only way to do that is to break them down.

It isn’t just our foreign policy, one championed by both Democrats and Republicans (bomb the wogs into submission! — I have no love for CommieNazi neoconservatives and their dreams of world conquest and domination, but I truly hate the Liberal internationalists/interventionists of places like Brookings, who are their intellectual and emotional enablers, the justifiers of state terror and murder, from Southeast Asia to Iraq!!), but the entire society. Our schools are simply, and have been tiny factories of inhumanity and terror, places where the sadists rule and the strong terrorize the weak. It’s the encroachment of the largely punitive regulatory state since the Reagan era, of the expanding reach of the cops (and their ability to do violence with impunity). It’s just everything. I know that doesn’t seem to explain much, but my sense is more incohate — that something is deeply wrong too many of my countrymen, that they cannot seem to see the humanity in others. It isn’t that they don’t want to, it’s that they can’t, as if we have become a nation with a large segment of sociopaths. They are obsessed with order and self-righteousness and cannot accept the complex and chaotic wonder and difference that is humanity.

Maybe such things are endemic to all of humanity. But Americans are, unfortunately, too powerful and thus are capable to far too much evil and destruction as they “do good.”

(Again, lest I come off as solely partisan, let us remember — Liberals and Democrats are not just the enablers of brutal imperialism, but often times its most vociferous advocates. When it comes to state power, there is precious little difference between Democrats and Republicans — both want the power to force others to obey, and believe it is right to make people obey.)

One of the ways this faith in violence manifests itself in our society is the phenomenon of tough love, an offshoot of the “personal empowerment” and “human potential” movements of the 1960s. Just to make it clear, I never spent time in or even got anywhere near such a place, so my opposition to such things is not vengeance — there was violence in my youth, but never as a matter some institution’s official policy; my experience with human cruelty in institutional contexts was mostly indifference and emotional cruelty, and not the physical kind. Not that I think there’s much difference. Anyone who believes that cruelty, physical or emotional, builds character and makes people stronger is a sadist, whether they lift a finger in violence.

Plus, I just think it sucks that so many mean people run the world.

I have considered trying to link things like war, prison abuse, government hectoring and nannying, with the horrible way we treat each other, treat our children, with the fact that so few of us have faith in love, compassion and empathy as a way of dealing with other human beings.

Maia Szalavitz, a sometimes writer for a host of vaguely “progressive” publications and author of Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids, did this job for me. It’s a frightening book, one that made me angry, one that I couldn’t put down (I read it inbetween the dense chapters of cranky English Catholic Michael Burleigh’s Earthly Powers, about the politicization of religion and the sanctification of politics in 19th century Europe). I am taking the liberty of putting a lengthy excerpt from the book here, but see what else you can see in this:

While there undoubtedly were some well-intentioned, idealistic, caring people who staff some tough love programs, the atmosphere of fear anjd the programs’ very structure continually discourages [sic] genuine affection and truly theraputic relationships. The setup genuinely encourages abusive use of power because there is no oversight, because inflicting pain is viewed as “helping,” and because the people at the top can never be wrong. As Philip Zimbardo found when he had volunteers play prisoners and guards in his famous Stanford prison experiment, those roles can become so powerful that they overcome individual values and common decency.

When love is commodified as it is in these programs, when it is treated as just another tool, it loses its essence. Though tough love providers claim to be fighting consumerism and modern decadence by putting kids through character-building ordeals, instrumentalizing love as a reward for the bell-behaved instead reinfroces a consumerist perspective. Here, love is something to be traded, something to be paid for, to be given for good performance. It becomes exchangeable, not something God-given or a blood tie that transcends immediate displeasure or conflict.

The extreme toughness of tough love also presents another major problem: its ideology is essentially antisocial. The message presented by every tough love program in this book is that hurting others “helps” them, and the empathy and sympathy are weakness. At Straight and KIDS, defending someone who was being confronted or confronting them afterwards was “enabling” them to stay “in denial” about their problems. At North Star, sharing food with a starving person was allowing them to avoid the “natural consequences” of his actions.

Further, in online dialogues between teens who believe the program have hleped them and those who found them hurtful, program supporters invariably blame the opponents for bringing pain on themselves by not complying or for exaggerating their hurt. They are also told to “get over it,” and are dismissed as whiners, losers, and complainers, who couldn’t cut it and now want to evade responsibility. The idea that some kinds could be naturally more sensitive than others and thus at greater risk from confrontational apporaches is rejected out of hand. If it didn’t help, it wasn’t the program’s fault; it was the kids’s fault. Individual differences are a problem to be solved with conformity, not something to celebrate or even accept.

Tough love’s embrace of a philsophy of “total personal responsibility” is ironically used by the programs as a way to avoid their own culpability in their brutal treatment of participants. Groups like WWASP claim that people are responsible for everything that ever happens to them. By extension, then, their teen victims have chosen to be in the program even if they were brought in and held by force. Whatever the program does to them is what they really wanted to happen. Every rape victim here is “asking for it” — and no perpetrator, conveniently, has any responsibility. In KIDS, Straight, and WWASP, rape victims and those who had been sexually abused were actually told that what happened to them was their fault.

And WWASP openly claims in its seminars that “there is no right or wrong, only what works and what doesn’t.” This is unquestionable a sociopathic ideology: it means that people are morally justified in doing whatever they believe “works” are that they aren’t responsible for the harm they may cause to others, because those others’ own choices put them in whatever situation they now find themselves. While many of the other programs are less obvious about presenting these ideas, they all treat that the ends justify the means and that altruism is foolish. This is not a lesson that most parents usually intend to impart.

The similarities between the exercises in sexual humiliation, food deprivation, sleep deprivation, and stress positions used by those programs and the American human rights abuses we are currently seeing in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, and elsewhere are not coincidental, I believe. They derive from the same kind of morality, the same desensitization to the suffering of others, and the same belief that there is no possibility of error when the “good guys” have positive goals. [My italics — CHF] Of course, tough love programs don’t usually go to anywhere near such extremes — but do we really want to train potential antisocial kids to be less empathetic, to see altruism as despicable “enabling”? Do we really want to teach them how to find the emotional sore spots of others and poke them, “for their own good”? Can we really be surprised if people put through these kinds of ordeals grow up to believe that torture is an acceptable part of justice?

She makes the connection with Abu Ghuraib and Guantanamo Bay, a connection I made years ago in an essay for — had anyone who doubted that Americans were capable of this ever been to a public school? How can anyone believe in the goodness of having power over others, such absolute and unaccountable power, when it is conintuously used so badly?

What became clear to me as I finished this is that many people — the parents who send their kids to these programs, the people who run them, the politicians who shill for them, and oodles of others — believe in them, believe in the efficacy of violence, have so mixed up tough and love that they cannot see the difference. After years of “getting tough” as social, government and institutional policy, they may not understand there is a difference. That allows us to bomb people and think we’re doing right, to occupy nations, shoot people, arrest and incarcerate them, lecture them, belittle them, humiliate them, and think this is good for them, that it should be making them both better people and keeping them in line.

I’ve lived too long to believe that what goes around comes around. It doesn’t. But cruelty as policy has consequences. And I truly and fervently hope we eventually choke on ours.