Discipline Porn

Elections like those seen recently in the US and the UK are discipline porn for the voter who would sooner hurt themselves pursuing the thrill of constraining anonymous others than face a political question of how to get on with the prospect of living well among difference.

It can often be seen in voting behaviour that people vote in numbers ‘against their interests’. Their electoral behaviour seems at odds with what would enable their happy, prosperous lives. But then it is an assumption, prevalent since at least classical Greece, that personal or community flourishing is something the citizen aims for. It seems that alongside this, there is a palpable desire to see harm inflicted on those perceived to be weaker or different.

It seems some voters will deplete their own chances for the future when the opportunity arises to hurt others with their ballot. Recent news from the US, ongoing political menace in the UK, and the complacent reaction to right-wing views reported across the world’s media stand as testimony to this. Various studies demonstrate the phenomena:

“One study… across 15 diverse cultures found that members of all populations demonstrated some willingness to administer costly third-party punishment for unequal division of resources – although the magnitude of this punishment varied substantially across populations.”

Guardian article

In elections, voters will use ballots to administer punishment to those they perceive as being beneficiaries of unequal distributions of social goods. But in so doing, they perpetuate the inequalities and themselves become bigger losers in the distributive enterprise.

So what can we say of the interests of the voter? That they include a sadistic urge to punish and to sideline; that they include a masochistic urge to fetishise their own victimhood by undermining their own position; that flourishing is not among their ‘goods’.

empty-home
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Political questions

Groups of people have generally sought means of organising their intermingling lives. Invariably, different values, goals, imperatives have urged people along, and so political strategies have been required to address these diversities where mutual isolation has been undesirable.

Fundamental political questions then arise: how can a group of diverse people with diverse interests pursue diverse ends? How can they do so with minimal friction, or with mutually enhancing effects? We might reasonably expect any answer to be tentative, temporary, and revisable. This would be expected as, before we can even describe what’s relevant to any answer, we need to understand who is asking what and why. There is hard work to do before even getting started. The endeavour is huge.

A positive response would be to take this on as a challenge. To set about constructing a non-dominating public sphere, or set of public spheres, wherein contestability can be mediated in discourse. Discourses in the first instance would be aimed at evaluating the normative structures and political artefacts available to those diverse publics. Thereafter, they might be reformed where desired. This is a hard job, with no clear end point.

Solidarities of interests play a role, as do empathy, and deliberation. These are each approaches, rather than destinations. This response is therefore open-ended, adaptable, responsive, and non-finite since no-one in principle has a veto on any point expressed in these deliberations:

“Language is not a kind of private property. No one possesses exclusive rights over the common medium of the communicative practices we must intersubjectively share. No single participant can control the structure, or even the course, of processes of reaching understanding and self-understanding. How speakers and hearers make use of their communicative freedom to take ‘yes’ or ‘no’ positions is not a matter of their subjective discretion. For they are free only in virtue of the binding force of the justifiable claims they raise towards one another.”
Jürgen Habermas, The Future of Human Nature, 2003

A cynical response is to take diversity as a problem, inflate it rhetorically to an impossibility, and simply try to squash outliers in order to mainstream some kind of adequacy, however unjust. The political right favour this approach. It is finite, and straightforward: a winners-and-losers, zero-sum game.

The cynicism underlying this is easy, and empty. What it makes up for in control, it loses in meaning. Because it’s so cynical and easy, and tends toward control and meaninglessness, it serves well as grounding for the sado-masochistic urge-to-punish that voters seem to evince:

“There is no social entity with a good that undergoes some sacrifice for its own good. There are only individual people, different individual people, with their own individual lives. Using one of these people for the benefit of others, uses him and benefits the others. Nothing more.”
Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, 1974

What’s more, in its extremity and with its shock value, it makes for good media. News stories frequently contain ‘images that some viewers may find disturbing’. Those very same images, however, may be exciting and emboldening to those who see in them sides to take. The extremity of violence on display, the demeaning activity shown, the desperation, serves as a barometer of how much they must have deserved it and how righteous we are.

The assumption is that the viewer is on the side of the perpetrator, not the victim. The situation is not seen as such, but assimilated as an us and them by virtue of the violence being directed from one to the other. When you can’t see the situation other than from the cop’s point of view, in the story of the violent arrest, it’s easy to assimilate how the robber needs to be controlled.

A portrait of ‘the voter’ and ‘the other’

It is as if ‘the voter’ never resolved the idea of ‘the other’ as a person in their own right. Instead, they appear as an enabler of the voter’s plans, projects, and needs. Stuck in this mode, the voter views all others this way and so can’t see them except as foils and devices in the world. The other as such is therefore to blame when the voter’s plans don’t work out, or when their identity feels challenged.

The subtext of violence against the other, in terms of sadism, is the primal mantle for the voter’s deep fear of the other. The voter never realised their own power or responsiblity. They’ve invested too much in the idea of the other as enabler. This means the other has great power over the voter. The other must therefore not be allowed to act too freely, but must be suppressed, in case they damage the voter’s plans and identity.

But the voter is also, and ironically, afraid in case the other goes away, leaving them to take responsiblity for themselves. So the voter must make sure the other has no independent existence. By extension, the voter needs the others to be passive, bit-part actors in a world revolving around their concave self. They will do anything to normalise this syndrome, rather than look at the dependency critically.

In Hegelian terms, this results in a problem for recognition: The voter, in denying the chances of the other, negates what he too requires for his own. For Hegel, reciprocal recognition is crucial to self-actualisation. [1]

They vote with malice then say things like, “you lost, get over it.” They call the resulting, cruel, arbitrary chaos, “strong and stable leadership.” They imagine more enemies, once those they began with are hurt too badly to be a threat.

pie wealth
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Iron Cage

The idea of the ‘iron cage’ comes from Max Weber. It is a sociological idea that people’s life-choices tend to be curtailed by impersonal forces, as social groups tend toward a ‘rationalisation’ of society according to instrumental imperatives.  In the iron cage, value choices are constrained by technical realities. For the voter characterised above, aspirational space is constrained by the irrational urge to punish. It is personal. This cage is locked by the pleasure felt in punishing others for offences imagined by the punisher. The drive to continue punishing is fed by the self-imposed victimhood made real by irrational punishment-voting, projected onto those not really to blame.

Because it is based in repressed pleasure-seeking, it is not clear how to point out the bars to the prisoner.

[1] Hegel, G. W. F. (1977) (trans. A. V. Miller). Phenomenology of Spirit. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 111-119 (Independence and dependence of self- consciousness: lordship and bondage)

Header image credit: L0035595 An Iron ‘scolds bridle’ mask used to publicaly humiliate

Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org A Belgian Iron ‘scolds bridle’ or ‘branks’ mask, with bell, used to publicly humiliate and punish, mainly women, for speaking out against authority, nagging, brawling with neighbours, blaspheming or lying. Photograph 1550 – 1800 Published: – Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

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