Sunday, May 4, 2014

Degradation Ceremonies in Everyday Life

A person will not choose less behavior potential over more. Peter G. Ossorio

When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose
You're invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal.  Bob Dylan





The Degradation Ceremonies of everyday life don’t look like ceremonies. Instead, they look like how we treat people as not one of us, how we deliberately or inadvertently assign the status that someone is not in good standing with what we believe we represent. 

Social interactions are framed by status assignments that address the place we have in each other's worlds.  Are you good enough, are you worthy of being one of us?  Am I?  
Harold Garfinkel

The ethnomethodologist Harold Garfinkel, writing about the sociology of moral indignation, described Degradation Ceremonies as rituals that remove people from a valued place and restrict their eligibility within a community.  Social practices that a person could previously perform are now limited or forbidden. After a successful Degradation Ceremony, the degraded person is not one of us. They fail to meet our standards.

What counts as a degradation ceremony?  How do they vary? Let's employ a Paradigm Case Formulation (PCF). PCFs provide a method for capturing a wide range of related content in situations where simple definitions might prove inadequate.  A PCF consists of a description that all competent judges would agree contains all the necessary elements that mark the case in question. The goal is to provide a starting point of agreement.  Generally it should consist of the most complex case, an indubitable case, or a primary or archetypal case.  It should be a sort of “By God, if there were ever a case of “X”, then that’s it.”  When the complete paradigm of a degradation ceremony is performed, there's little doubt that the degraded has undergone restriction. When less than the full case is employed, the outcome is less clear. I think the less than full case informs everyday engagement. While moving though the day with a welcome greeting or a dismissive glance, we let each other know where we stand. Whether obvious, subtle, intended or not, our stances and actions can degrade or accredit those we encounter.  

The full PCF identifies the "official" degradation ceremony. Altering the paradigm helps us understand other more mundane degradations as well.  

Here's the full paradigm:



Notice that degradations are social practices that involve a community's shared values. To be one of us in a particular role carries the expectation that we value certain states of affairs in a similar way. As fathers, we value our children; as police, we respect and enforce the law; as friends, we trust and go out of our way to engage and play with our buddies; as Boy Scouts, we are trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. And so on.  We all have varied roles and are members of multiple communities. I have a friend who was once a scout and is now a father and a cop. 

Some roles comfortably coexist and some do not. Conflict is more or less inevitable. Life is complicated this way. I may feel degraded in some roles but not others. 

We play our roles and demonstrate our values through our actions. We take it that true membership requires more than lip service to these values. We walk the talk. Whether or not our performance reflects our true colors, the choices we appear to make define what others see as our character. 

In any community there are people who are obviously the real McCoy, who serve as exemplars of what it takes to be in good standing. They are the ones most eligible to denounce transgression and to witness, acknowledge, or enforce the transgressor's removal from privilege. In the classic ceremony, they perform these roles in public. 

Here's the paradigmatic ceremony:



Garfinkel's full ceremony is deliberately done out loud and in public, but it can be accomplished quietly, discreetly, silently, ambiguously, or perhaps unconsciously. It can be unintentional or performed by mistake. Certainly two people can do this to each other. 

Since the the ceremony involves social roles, a person can play the different parts. People can play this out by themselves and to themselves. I can recognize my transgressions, my own moral failings, denounce myself, and restrict myself accordingly. I might not be good enough for myself regardless of how you see me.


Some Effects of Degradation:


The degraded are prone to anxiety and depression.  They have lost something significant, their world of valued action is now smaller.   This depression corresponds to lost eligibility, the loss in esteem that reflects the restricted ability to do what the community values.  An important role cannot be fully performed. The experience of satisfaction that comes with the successful accomplishment of a valued role cannot be achieved.   Sadness, shame, humiliation, regret, guilt, emptiness, resentment, and other kindred moods and emotions are part of the package. 

Anxiety attends the insecurity of inhabiting an unfortunate place in the social world. This insecurity follows from being seen as  incompetent to maintain the values of the community along with the expectation of an absence of support when confronting tasks that only members in good standing are permitted. Members in good standing have each other's back and are expected to be competent players. The degraded no longer have that support or opportunity.

When the degraded find themselves in the company of members of the valued community they often exhibit signs of inferiority and rejection. Encounters become awkward.  The recognition of stiltedness intensifies whatever anxiety is present. Since the rhythm of gesture and speech that flows among peers is broken, engagement is skew. 

The degraded may develop a paranoid expectation of harsh judgment, making social contact even more awkward and defensive.  It is no wonder they end up lonely.

Anger, hostility and rage may also be present and serve as a move to negate the degradation. To the extent I have nothing, I may have nothing to lose. 

Threatened degradation elicits self-affirmation. Attacking the integrity of the denouncer or blinding the witness are reasonable responses to attempted degradation. Excuses that the so-called transgressive performance  is misunderstood, not in character, or a result of mitigating or coercing forces are understandably attempted. It is not for you to say and I had no choice, may counter the threat of being degraded. 

In the paradigm of the degradation ceremony the denouncer describes the act in value laden terms. Appropriation is theft, death is murder, an absence of assertive response is cowardice, and so on. The perpetrator has reason not only to disown the offending act but to re-describe it as something else. It is not what you are calling it. You don't know what you're talking about. You've got it wrong, that's not what I did. 


The Ceremony May Be Taken As The Natural Order of Things (Or As Already Happened).


Degradation can be taken for granted as the moral inferiority inherent in a community or as stigma passed down through generations. The chauvinisms of sexual orientation, physical appearance, gender, age, race, class, ethnicity, and the indoctrinations of virulent religion and nationalism convey status inherited and degraded. Children who see their parents as occupying an unfortunate social place may see themselves as "born to lose".  Or they may be seen as such, regardless of their merit. 
Community chauvinisms establish the additional barrier of some people being inherently ineligible to acquire full good standing. No matter what you do, you are never really one of us.

If people are born into an untouchable condition, a position of shame and degradation can seem the natural order of things with the choices people make reflecting this unjust status assignment. Rarely is the world a level playing field, but for some the rules are unfair from the get go. 

Some people simply know their place. And some look around and say fuck you. If I start life degraded, maybe I'll rise up and rebel or perhaps I'll accept my degradation and make the best of it, whether you like it or not. I might find a community where I'm welcome while keeping in mind the degradations foisted on me by yours. I need a place where I belong. We both might suffer the consequences. 




What Is The Degraded Left To Do?

If the degradation is accepted by the community and perpetrator, the fundamental problem for the degraded is how to regain status or tolerate the status assigned. Since the paradigm case involves the claim that the transgressive acts were in character, one path for the perpetrator is to show the deplorable deeds were not in character or that the character of the perpetrator has changed. Since we generally hold that character is stable over time, this presents a fundamental barrier to regaining a favorable place. It will take time.  

It is also possible for the degraded to reassign the significance of what is valued. What was once desirable or transgressive no longer matters that way. This can look like sour grapes or gay pride.

One first step in regaining status is to show that the perpetrator's actions may have reflected a transgression of the community's values, but none the less, these values remain important to the perpetrator. Acknowledgments of guilt, through penance and restitution, accompanied by the acceptance of punishment are forms of action that may be required. Non-recidivism is key but may be difficult to demonstrate since the opportunity to continue in the valued role has been restricted. Time will tell. Different judges have different criteria for what passes as sufficient demonstration of dues paid and character changed. 



I've hardly mentioned the varied ways we degrade each other. We treat people as invisible, dismissible, of no consequence; as inferior, not worthy of attention, as sources to an end worth only our desire and use. 

When we treat strangers as already known and pegged, we degrade them by our transferences, typecasts and stereotypes. When we invalidate, we degrade. 

A degradation may be just or unjust, but when it follows from unexamined pre-judgment, it is inherently unjust. Degradation is a natural companion to not treating people, all people, I to Thou. In some social interactions, this hardly matters. While in line at the counter, I only need to be polite, maybe kind. But with people I meet frequently or intimately, where inter-dependence counts, where we share common community, it always matters.  The erosions of degrading encounter grind us down. The fuzzy line that draws a boundary of community should not be taken lightly or for granted. I should be careful not to assume you aren't my brother or sister or peer.

I wish I could claim success in not degrading others, but like kindness and my attention to empathy, it's a work in progress. It takes practice. 

The concept of micro-aggression has meanings similar to the degradation ceremonies of everyday life. Degradation covers a broad terrain not restricted to aggression, but if by aggression we mean the assertion of privilege to put others in their place, the territories are the same. 




Later, I hope to take up accreditation ceremonies and the function of attention, empathy, negotiation and moral dialog in accreditation and affirmation. My earlier thoughts with commentary on the role of these ceremonies in psychotherapy can be found in the essay, Degradation, Accreditation, and Rites of PassagePsychiatry, 1979.  Also note Harold Garfinkel's Conditions for Successful Degradation Ceremonies, American Journal of Sociology, 1956.  And see, Walter Torres and Raymond Bergner's Humiliation: Its Nature and Consequences, Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and Law, 2010.

I have discussed the use of Paradigm Case Formulations in the entry, Empathy and the Problem of Definition.  The Descriptive Psychology concept of "community" is central to an understanding of the context of social roles and gives actions their particular meaning. Anthony Putman's essay, Communities, Advances in Descriptive Psychology, 1981, clarifies this vital concept.

Consider this Harvard Study on Depression and Discrimination: http://hms.harvard.edu/news/depression-and-discrimination?utm_source=Silverpop&utm_medium=email&utm_content=s3&utm_campaign=1.05.15.HMS

But here's a song by John Hiatt, asking, is anybody there? Are you good enough?  It resonates.