Poisonous Pedagogy and our Culture of Violence
(a reprise from December, 2012)
As often happens when a diary grows too long for comfortable reading, I’ve found it necessary to rewrite it, and edit out all but what seem to be the most important themes. While considering the inherent difficulties of reducing firearms violence in this nation by the most prevalent ‘fixes’ discussed in the media and in the liberal blogosphere: gun control and mental health ‘help’, I collected a lot of links to facts and opinions on both. Most data collection and op-eds were spurred, of course, by the heinous mass murder of innocents at Sandy Hook elementary. Rather than loading this post up with worthy considerations, allow me to shorthand most of it with links.
Mother Jones has compiled information on the past three decades’ worth of mass murders and spree killings here; they report that ‘a majority of the shooters were mentally ill’, and ‘had exhibited signs’ of such prior to the shootings. The Guardian has an interactive US states map of gun crime statistics as well as admittedly incomplete global statistics. For those of you interested in how FBI instant background checks work, and especially the category three-fourths of the way down the page: Categories of Persons Prohibited from Receiving, it’s here. Note that the mental health prohibitions are pretty narrow, as they perhaps should be, lest the FBI be privy to prescription databases. There are plenty of videos and printed material concerning SSRI antidepressants and increased violence; I’ve even been involved in some online discussions about neuroscience and the illusion of free will’ (Sam Harris).
The theme concerning our nation being engaged in perpetual war as being related to our tolerance, or often even reverence for military violence is a worthy one, as studies have shown a correlation between the two. But that still doesn’t get to the point of asking why ours is such a violent society, or even aside from the profitability of Incessant War, why so many of our ruling elites either love or don’t mind killing, and extol the virtues of torture and drone assassinations, as do far too many of our citizens.
Even as experts theorize that the glorified violence in movies, television programs and video games may play a part, few seem to ask what drives the desire to watch or play, even become immersed in those socially bankrupt genres?
Of the many pieces I’ve read that offered some counter-arguments to the conventional fixes of mass murders and gun violence, this piece by Mike King at Counterpunch; he’s done a lot of research at the intersection of mental health and criminality, including soldiers. It’s a great piece, even though King may cause you some discomfort as he pricks some holes in your/our sacred cows by showing the many historical and current social injustices that have been created by even what he calls ‘well-meaning’ legislative fixes.
King’s piece comes the closest to what I see as a brief but careful analysis of the situation, but still…I’d like to look even further behind the American Curtain of mistrust, fear and violence that is so endemic to our society.
While the many beliefs of how individual consciences develop (or don’t) are too broad a discussion for this post, the general definition of conscience is that with which we make moral judgments as to Right and Wrong, to which can be added: experience remorse when we act in ways that work against our moral principles. Religious views are even more complicated than philosophical/psychological ones, since the divine is involved. In most psycho-social models, I think it’s safe to say that as an infant’s brain and awareness develops the most rapidly over its first three or four years, that each experience is imprinted for better or worse, on the child. Attachment theory, or bonding with at least one primary caregiver, as a basis for learning to trust that a warm someone can be trusted to provide the care (physical and emotional) required for the infant to thrive and learn and become self-aware and authentic as it individuates from its caregiver/s or parent/s, ventures out on its own both physically and figuratively, and finds a secure base on its return. Trust, learning, and beneficial deeds are rewarded, thus imprinted, and if parenting is consistent, warm and stimulative/creative, so much the better. And of course the importance of warm and loving touch can’t be overstated.
There are many schools of thought that violence and psychopathology are bio-determined (one example), and clearly in cases of brain abnormalities, that’s possible. This post will consider the experiential ones.
Polish Ph.D. and author Alice Miller (1923-2010) rejected her lengthy practice of Freudian analysis and spent the next decades of her life immersed in the childhood causes of psychopathic violence and cruelty later in life, as well as early experiential causes of simple neuroses and personality disorders. There are others who’ve written extensively about Trauma models, but for the purposes of this post, I’ll use her body of work since it was so extensive and familiar to me. It happened that much of my life was spent in researching answers to questions she and many others wrote convincingly about, although many of their conclusions have been reviled and rejected as heresy against conventional psychiatry. She understood the great backlash against her conclusions and activism well, and grasped that only those who reflected on their own childhoods honestly could hope to embrace them. It’s Miller’s belief that most all psychiatric models fail mightily in rejecting childhood treatment as the key to later mental health status and interpersonal relationships, which has allowed parental and institutional cruelty to flourish for far too long.
Essentially, she believed that when children were either neglected, abused physically and/or emotionally, and reared in accordance with a ‘might makes right’ authoritarianism, they weren’t able to build authentic selves, the natural ones that were instead stifled, preventing the victimized children giving voice to their emotions, personal truths and creativity. She described how personally empowering the simplest loving kindness is, and how toxic the long term effects of withholding it, or worse, being ruled by punishment, rather than simple discipline, meaning teaching…or learned personal developmental accountability…is.
She describes the various voices we often hear in our heads, chiding us, disempowering us, creating shame or guilt reflexively, based on nothing more than negative imprints, rather than negative deeds, which some religions call sins. Her belief was that one of the most toxic dictates of religion was the ‘honor thy father and thy mother’, and by extension, all adults, rules, rather than the opposite: ‘Honor thy children, for they will inherit the world, and must needs be ready to be able to perceive truth, behave lovingly, with dignity, act cooperatively for all, and to be creative and honest in their communications with others’. Or something like that. ;o)
At the further end of childhood abuse is the dislocating and often ruinous practice of hurting children, sexually abusing them, or creating such fear in them that their bodies, brains, and even cells…record and remember the abuse, and become central to their perceptions of others and their social interactions. (My apologies; I seem unable to write along that road much further, but your imagination will fill in the blanks I’ve left with your own knowledge.) Author Ron Kurtz, from whom I took classes and had personal sessions, explained in both The Body Reveals and his Hakomi Therapy manuals that our bodies respond to negative influences by tightening muscles in certain areas to desensitize us from emotional pain. The body doesn’t lie. An easy example would be if a toddler reached toward his/her caregiver for help, food, anything, and were regularly smacked for it….that child would begin to build tensions around its heart area to protect it; another might ‘armor’ its solar plexus to dull constant fear, etc. Great emotional burdens unresolved can lead to hunched shoulders (kyphosis), a fear-driven bully might stand with elbows cocked, ready to ‘draw on’ the next person he/she meets.
Of course there are varying degrees of silencing or manipulating children to bend their wills through coercion and deception, but she and her mentor Katharina Rutschky named both the individual and institutionalized practices poisonous pedagogy. She explains that since children are pretty much hard-wired to love their parents, they tend to internalize abuse or neglect as their own fault, and repress their anger, hurt and indignity where unless one day let out into the light of day, it brews more poisons that will one day be heaped on others, as in bullying, coercion, revenge, and violence, either latent or actual, and/or turned inward, creating depression, shame and guilt, most of which stays buried and unrecognized (repressed), ‘poisonous perpetrators and voices’, unidentified.
Miller says that one of the worst themes that’s been perpetuated over time is the notion that authoritarianism and corporal punishment has been institutionalized in most schools, and is touted as ‘for the child’s own good’. Additionally, as I mentioned earlier, she’s even found a lot of resistance to the dangers of spanking and hitting from parents who were hit or maltreated as children, which she wrote about, and Arthur Silber (the Power of Narrative), featured in one of his many essays on her work. The resistance often goes: ‘Look at me; I was spanked, and I’m fine’. She guesses that since most psychiatric therapeutic models are based on blaming us as victims, and hastening ‘forgiveness’, far too many of us will be, and are, taking medications to alleviate the symptoms of toxic parenting and institutional authoritarianism, rather than being willing to do the hard work of remembering what we were encouraged to forget.
Most severely abused children, of course, didn’t turn into monsters, and are able to have loving relationships, even though they may need to deal with plenty of emotional baggage, as most of us do. Miller writes of the crucial ‘helping witness’, a figure that is unable to rescue a child, but provides enough love and consistent attention that the child can learn some measure of trust in others; it might have been another adult, or even a sibling who helped to ameliorate much of the potential damage of abuse. Those who grew up without helping witnesses can benefit tremendously from ‘enlightened witnesses’, or those who intimately understand the consequences of child abuse, and can encourage us to find their own inner truths, thus neutralizing their needs to inflict hurt on others or themselves, and instead building healthy relationships.
From Alice Miller:
I have wrongly been attributed the thesis according to which every victim inevitably becomes a persecutor, a thesis that I find totally false, indeed absurd. It has been proved that many adults have had the good fortune to break the cycle of abuse through knowledge of their past. Yet I can certainly aver that I have never come across persecutors who weren’t victims in their childhood, though most of them don’t know it because their feelings are repressed. The less these criminals know about themselves, the more dangerous they are to society. So I think it is crucial for the therapist to grasp the difference between the statement, “every victim ultimately becomes a persecutor,” which is false, and “every persecutor was a victim in his childhood,” which I consider true. The problem is that, feeling nothing, he remembers nothing, realizes nothing, and this is why surveys don’t always reveal the truth.
Of the 192 nations worldwide, only 32 have outlawed corporal punishment; in the US, nineteen states still permit children to be beaten, and some states describe the permissible protocols for abuse as punishment ‘for the child’s own good’.
As an aside, neither Miller nor most shrinks I’ve read seem to consider how psychologically poisonous grandparents can also be, all the more powerful in that we are led to believe that grandparents always offer unconditional love and support.
Re: the young, socially marginalized profiles of mass murders:
When I began to consider some of the apparent characteristics of Dylan Klebold, Eric Harris, and Adam Lanza, my mind got stuck on their marginalized-loners status at school. All were considered to be weird, geeks, Goths, any of that. I remembered William Pollack who’d written Real Boys : Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood; the blurb:
Based on William Pollack’s groundbreaking research at Harvard Medical School over two decades, Real Boys explores why many boys are sad, lonely, and confused although they may appear tough, cheerful, and confident. Pollack challenges conventional expectations about manhood and masculinity that encourage parents to treat boys as little men, raising them through a toughening process that drives their true emotions underground. Only when we understand what boys are really like, says Pollack, can we help them develop more self-confidence and the emotional savvy they need to deal with issues such as depression, love and sexuality, drugs and alcohol, divorce, and violence.
In a short video, Pollack rued the fact that young men are encouraged to ‘suck it up’, never ask for help as it’s a sign of weakness, and above all, never admit to being in pain or fear, which conversations could be healing for them. In a staggering statistic, he claims that between the ages of ten and nineteen, boys commit suicide four times as often as girls.
What can we do about any of this? For one, honor our children and grandchildren as they learn to navigate themselves and the world. We can act as helping or enlightened witnesses to others; some counties have organizations like Big Brothers and Sisters, or Partners, teaming adults with trouble teens; and encourage people to lovingly discipline their children. Perhaps most importantly, we can speak truth to our friends and relatives, and bring light to the shallow and false mythologies families often promote down the generations. Secrets held inside us have immense power to poison our souls and psyches. I submit that honest dialogues are supremely loving acts, and can be healing tonics, as can apologizing earnestly to our children and grandchildren when we screw up and dishonored ourselves, temporarily forgetting our love, as Alice Miller says. We can make community, and try to behave lovingly and honestly even with those we don’t care for. Most of don’t have the money to spend on therapy, but we do have each other.
Two excerpts from Miller’s ‘For your own good’ can be found here (the bolded portions toward the end), including:
“Disassociated from the original cause, their feelings of anger, helplessness, despair, longing, anxiety, and pain will find expression in destructive acts against others (criminal behavior, mass murder) or against themselves (drug addiction, alcoholism, prostitution, psychic disorders, suicide)” and
“People whose integrity has not been damaged in childhood, who were protected, respected, and treated with honesty by their parents, will be – both in their youth and in adulthood – intelligent, responsive, empathic, and highly sensitive. They will take pleasure in life and will not feel any need to kill or even hurt others or themselves. They will use their power to defend themselves, not to attack others. They will not be able to do otherwise than respect and protect those weaker than themselves, including their children, because this is what they have learned from their own experience, and because it is this knowledge (and not the experience of cruelty) that has been stored up inside them from the beginning. It will be inconceivable to such people that earlier generations had to build up a gigantic war industry in order to feel comfortable and safe in this world. Since it will not be their unconscious drive in life to ward off intimidation experienced at a very early age, they will be able to deal with attempts at intimidation in their adult life more rationally and more creatively.”
‘The “Pseudocommando” Mass Murderer: A Blaze of Vainglory’, psychiatrictimes.com (srsly)
“The term “pseudocommando” was first used to describe the type of mass murderer who plans his actions “after long deliberation,” and who kills indiscriminately in public during the daytime. He comes prepared with a powerful arsenal of weapons and has no escape planned. He is sometimes described as having the intent to die in a “blaze of glory.” [snip]
“Mullen7 described the results of his detailed forensic evaluations of 5 pseudocommando mass murderers who were caught before they could kill themselves or be killed. Mullen noted that the massacres were often well planned out (ie, the offender did not suddenly “snap”): the offender arrived at the crime scene well-armed, often in camo or “warrior” gear. He appeared to be pursuing a highly personal agenda of “payback.” Mullen’s study also found a number of traits and historical factors that these individuals had in common: They were bullied or isolated as children and had become “loners” who felt despair over being socially excluded. They were also described as being resentful grudge holders who demonstrated obsessional or rigid traits.”
The revenge romance:
‘He piled upon the whale’s hump the sum of all the general rage and hate . . . and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.’
~ Herman Melville, Moby Dick