Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Wandering, the Directed, and the Coerced Mind: A note on satisfaction, optimal learning, and oppressive strain.


I've been thinking about wandering attention, when it's a gift, not a diagnosis. This led to some thoughts about three states of choice and some of their implications. 

1. My favorite state: Being free to follow my whims of the moment. A period of flexible, easily revisable choices without dire consequence. A state free of desperation.

2. Here's what I think for most of us is our ordinary and "normal" state and a strategy I find optimal for learning.  Most of time, there is something we've been assigned or taken on to do. There's always something not the agenda. When time is limited, and it's always limited, my advice is to first attend to what is most interesting.  This is my favored learning strategy. My second strategy, should the task, at the time, be too daunting,and you can get away with it: Find another mission with a greater expectation of satisfaction. 

3. This one I hate. A potentially pathological state: Being in circumstances that evoke a set of values with priorities that distort, constrain, or coerce the capacity to attend to much else. Practically speaking, when we feel that there is no choice about what requires attention especially when there is a sense of attendant jeopardy. This can come from inescapable circumstances and/or unyielding priorities. 

My clinical work is frequently with people in this third condition that, for different reasons, are strained and unhappy by feeling forced to constantly think about things they'd rather not. Often, what they feel is at stake is the integrity of honoring what they take to be vital commitments.  It becomes a matter of character.  They are never on vacation.

Realistically, most of what we do is neither freely chosen nor coerced. The choices we have are bounded by the available options and our priorities. In life, we find, choose, and accept one mission after another. Think of being in school, months before summer break.

A reminder. The satisfaction of following one's whims is a luxury, similar to Maslow's recognition that creative growth is more likely after survival needs are met. Another way to put this: Desperation and adversity rarely brings the best out of us. Mostly, it makes us mean, anxious, and depressed. It's hard to learn, create, and prosper under the gun.


Here's some examples of states one and two:

At the moment, happily, I'm on vacation.

Vacation involves the time and place to follow one's whims free of desperation and coercion. The missions are chosen for their potential to satisfy. 


Early this week, anticipating a break from my usual highly structured schedule, I told myself I'd spend Saturday focused on my half-finished chapter, Language and Verbal Behavior.  I've a book due and a clock ticking.  But when the day came, not finding the energy to work on my self-assigned chapter, I reassured myself I'd find the time, later.  Even remembering the fable of the ant and the grasshopper, I choose to hop about. My slogan of the week: "Sometimes be the grasshopper, sometimes be the ant. But don't count on the ant bailing you out".


I woke up Saturday knowing I would not get to my self-assignment. Verbal Behavior would have to wait. After all, it was Saturday, so rather than move to my study, I went for a walk and enjoyed the first of fall's sunlight.  Finally, near sunset, I was in the mood to summarize what I'd been mulling over. During the walk, I had been remembering a conversation with a friend concerning Csíkszentmihályi's concept of "flow", and about the interesting things that might get captured in the current.

The conversation had started with concerns about my teaching. My students are assigned far more than they can possibly read, and end up reading far less than they should. With that in mind, I advise them they should read first whatever interests them most. They should at least get that done. I suggest they prioritize what they authentically value. This is a variation of telling them to play their strengths. (And since they've paid a pretty penny for school and are required to take the course, I suggest they start with what fits who they already are, with what they already enjoy. I give them a choice within the constraints of the lesson I am contracted to teach.)

If they have the requisite competence, what they find most interesting to study will stick with them better than if they struggle with their lack of interest. I tell them that the knowledge and skills they actually value will naturally assimilate additional knowledge and competence. I'm sure I'm often right about this. I feel especially vindicated when they end up surprised by the unexpected themes that became intriguing owing to its relations to their initial interest. 

I offer them the image of a seed crystal that enlarges as it attracts kindred content, and a complex rock's fused assimilation of component minerals. 

This sort of learning works like a love triangle. When I teach Freud, I point this is how his Oedipus Complex can be understood.  I'll simplify. It begins within the mother-infant dyad, with a dependent infant enthralled with love and desire for mother.  But eventually the infant, while becoming a toddler and child, notices with intensity, mother's connection to father, and in doing so, learns much more about about him and what he stands for. Mothers have their version of the dyad in what Donald Winnicot aptly called "primary maternal preoccupation".

Our most vital understandings often start with a dyadic focus on what most compels and then move to concerns with who or what else holds the initial object of desire's attention.  I know much of my education has worked this way, starting with an idealized teacher and then expanding out to that teacher's other kindred interests)

Peter Ossorio has a set of maxims regarding value and behavioral choice that frame some of this behavioral logic:

C3. If a person values a specific something, e.g., an object, a circumstance, a behavior, or, more generally, a state of affairs, they will thereby also value other specific things of the same kind to the extent that they are relevantly similar to the original.

C3a. If a person values a general something they will thereby also value a specific something to the extent that it is a paradigmatic instance or realization of the more general value. (Place, 1998/2012)

None of this is particularly helpful for students who know they must read for the test but have no clue what the test maker values.  For students who do not intrinsically value any of their academic subjects, my advice falls also flat. They might as well try to follow whatever reading order the syllabus provides. 

Now to condition three.  Consider another truism: Coercion elicits resistance or resigned compliance.  In my clinical practice this shows up in symptoms of chronic anger and depression.

A couple of examples: 

I work with a devoted mother, who is often distressed and exhausted from spending an epoch relearning algebra and studying the life cycle of snakes and snails. It is important to her to be generally available and to assist her children with their homework and idiosyncratic pastimes. She expects this will go on for decades. In an ideal world, she'd be free to think about other things, ideas that intrinsically please her, that challenge and enrich her considerable intellect. But she accepts that her consuming duty to her kids does not allow the time or energy to pursue much else. At least not now.  Her domestic obligations, vital and valued, are performed without fail but are implemented through forced attention to her children's needs and that requires attending to their interests, including some she'd rather not entertain. This tragic and noble conflict comes with her vision of motherhood.  A lot of life is like this. The life cycle comes with demands. But she keeps faith that at some time in the future she'll return to the other possibilities that also fit her. I expect she will.

Another person I see struggles with the burden of fulfilling his parents' obligations. He's in a constant state of demoralization, stressed to exhaustion, unhappy, and painfully depressed.  He often sighs, "when can I return to my life".  For months, I didn't understand and unhelpfully thought, "this is your life until you do something else, and reorder your priorities".  It finally dawned on me what he meant, what he desperately wants me to understand:  "When can I have my own thoughts, the one's the come from me naturally, what I'd turn to if I wasn't so goddamned under the sway of parental ghosts, and my family's unfinished business".  Resentfully obliged to hold the family purse strings, he's become his sister's keepers, obligated by a trust and a mix of competitive revenge.  Despite his sister's inept and sleazy ways, they were clear parental favorites. He says he would rather have other priorities, but demonstrating to his dead parents that he is the worthy one keeps him enslaved. This tangled narcissism is a  very tough knot to loosen, let alone untie.  Here his character, his sense of integrity, is also his disorder.

Sometimes out of compensation, revenge, competition, or just sheer duty, we value something so much that when the opportunity or dilemma arrives, practically speaking, we can't attend to anything else.  We don't have the time or head space to manage it and it arrives with a terrible sacrifice of freedom. Like finding a beast in the corner of our room, unless we escape or are eaten, we've no real choice where to focus. 

Unlike that tired and burdened mother who someday will launch her children with great satisfaction, some obligations, even fulfilled, are pyrrhic victories at best. Some values, like an  occupying force colonize the lion's share of one's mind. 



The noted scholar of love, Marvin Gaye, had some things to say about preoccupation: Too Busy Thinking About My Baby  

But sometimes, Mose Allison reminds us, your mind is on vacation but your mouth....

Csikszentmihályi, M. (1988) Optimal experience: psychological studies of flow in consciousness. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 
Maslow, A. H. (1968). Toward a psychology of being. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Co.
Ossorio, P. G. (1998/2012). Place. Ann Arbor, MI: Descriptive Psychology Press.
Winnicott DW (1956/1984) Primary maternal preoccupation. in Through Paediatrics to Psychoanalysis: Collected Papers. London: Karnac, 300–305.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Personality Disorders are Different. A note on clinical and moral labels and Presidential psychopathology.

Clinical and moral language serve different functions. The clinician's diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder is the disliked neighbor you think is an entitled, self-absorbed asshole. Both fit our current president. 

I have mixed feeling regarding the psychiatric diagnosis of American presidents, an indoor sport currently stimulated by the reasonable conjecture that Donald Trump manifests a Narcissistic Personality Disorder; his condition severe enough to render him dangerously unfit for office. I have no doubt his desperate self-centered hunger impairs his judgment. Who in their right mind trusts his honesty and leadership? I don't, and the statistics suggest you do not, either.

Regardless of the accuracy of this diagnosis, and setting aside my concern with the Goldwater rule, I need moral language to adequately describe Trump. His condition may be psychiatric but it's clearly a moral pathology.  

There is a literature detailing past president's depressive grief and alcoholism. We know about Nixon's paranoia and Reagan's Alzheimer's.  Some presidents have been intellectually unsuited for the job, incurious, prone to the other's sway. The second Bush is a prime example. But pointing out that many American presidents have been mentally ill offers a false equivalency and blurs an important distinction that moral language is better positioned to expose. Some conditions of the psyche, call them sicknesses if you like, are morally problematic.  In particular, the Personality Disorders, the so-called Axis 2 pathologies of the old Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.  Among clinicians, it's usually pejorative to comment that someone is "an Axis 2".  And for good reason. These are disturbances where the bearer of the diagnosis locates their problems not so much within themselves as with the faults of those around them.  They have been wronged, hurt, and let down. They become sullen and belligerent when their vulnerability is exposed. 

Narcissists indulge in fantasies of greatness and require an admiring audience to confirm it. When challenged, their claims of greatness have clinical and moral consequences. All presidents probably think they are grander than the rest of us. They almost have to. Some even had the stuff to back it up, but not our current one. Trump is not like other presidents. Trump is profoundly different. Even at his most paranoid, Nixon was far more competent. Trump's threatened narcissism severely warps his judgment. I don't know if he aches in the early morning when he tweets, but I wouldn't be surprised. His boasts, his fragmented attempts to shore up his entitlement and grandiosity are painful to read.  But his pain is our hazard. 

Psychiatric illness is awful, the carrier dreadfully suffers, but the character disorders of narcissism and paranoia target and harm the rest of us. The narcissist's pain, their knee-jerk reaction to failed attempts to hold admiring attention, is defended through escalating claims and demands, and a preoccupation with victimization and revenge.  The problem from the narcissist's perspective is you. You didn't appreciate their grandness. You got tired of their endless winning.

A focus on Trump's illness, undoubtably real, obscures the most important point. It misses the importance that political leadership requires accountability and authentic service to the citizenry.  Trump serves himself.  Suggesting he's sick rather than bad, clinical language lets him off the hook.  Given Trump's privilege and power, the moral language of blame and condemnation is a better fit. Maybe he is sick, but he's a very bad person. He may be a sad little man, but he's a danger to us all.







Friday, April 7, 2017

A Preface to a Work in Progress: Descriptive Psychology and the Person Concept

Preface

My introduction to the Person Concept came early fall 1972 when I learned NASA had asked, "If green gas on the moon speaks to an astronaut, how do we know if it's a person?"  High in the Rockies, keeping warm around a campfire, a classmate said one of our professors had the answer.

I started graduate school in clinical and experimental psychology skeptical whether I'd find psychology satisfying. In college, the well-designed experiments I had been taught were compelling, but the personality theories that held my interest seemed more akin to warring theologies than science. The experiments and theories made different sorts of sense, but how they fit together or were about the same thing was a mystery.

I entered doctoral study having read Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Stephen Pepper's World Hypotheses, so was attuned to the history of empirical anomalies eliciting new paradigms and the troubling idea that most contemporary personality theories stem from incompatible "root metaphors" grounded in ancient metaphysical assumptions.  Working my way through Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, its end notes especially resonated, ".... For in psychology, there are experimental methods and conceptual confusion." Psychologists might have significant knowledge and useful practices, but their theories aren't built on a coherent conceptual base. Nor, for that matter, do they have all that much in common. Fundamental concepts in one theory can mean something quite different in others. One theory's thorny anomaly is another's starting point; an unquestioned given for one is treated as unreal by another.

As I write this not much has changed except for an ongoing refinement in experimentation.  Even today my students interviewing for training sites are asked if their orientation is psychodynamic, cognitive-behavioral, or humanistic.  It still seems that concepts of accountability, choice, reason, intention, and cause, concepts at the cornerstone of civilization, and the scientific necessity for reductionism and determinism reside in contradictory intellectual universes. At least when I read physics, chemistry, or biology, the foundational concepts in one text resemble their use in the others; not so in psychology.

But psychology is special.  It has, for me, a more interesting problem than sorting out the meat and potatoes of the natural sciences. Psychology must have a place for the creation and practice of science itself.  The physicist, chemist, and geologist do not have to account for their personal interests as part of their subject matter but the psychologist must.  Inescapably, every scientific theory and experiment is someone's theory and experiment, is part of the practice of people doing science.  Ad hominem.  (In a following chapter, I will manage this dilemma with a recursive and reflexive formulation of deliberate action.)

So I decided to become a psychologist expecting interesting but contradictory theory and with faith I'd learn reasonable methods for establishing facts. Sticking close to the empirical seemed a smart way to go; still, I remained ambivalent about the discipline.  I ended up in my chairman's office worried I'd made a bad choice.  He responded, not smiling, "I suspect you might like Pete's stuff ", and with that I went off to meet the guy pondering the green gas problem. This book is mostly about what I learned from him and the people that formed a community around his work.

Peter Garcia Ossorio introduced me to the job of making competently acquired but implicit knowledge about the behavior of people explicit and systematic.  He called this discipline Descriptive Psychology. By 1972 he was well into working on the Person Concept, the central concern of Descriptive Psychology.  Unlike anything I had encountered, it required thinking about science in ways new to me. (But later, when he asked me to revisit Wittgenstein, the family resemblances in their approach to rule following and reminders became clear). He told me to start with what I already know about people; to start with what is required to live as a person in the community of others. The work of Descriptive Psychology, he said, was to carefully and explicitly formulate concepts and rules that can systematically interconnect everything we know about people without leaving anything out. He also reminded me, "things that aren't intellectually satisfying tend to be unsatisfactory in other ways as well".  Sharing this aesthetic, I began. 

What I will present here is not the usual fare for the practice of behavioral science. Descriptive Psychology is not psychology in the conventional sense of a comprehensive personality theory. It is not a theory, but instead a pre-empirical conceptualization, a formulation of the essential attributes of persons and behavior that any adequate theory must encompass.  The function of Descriptive Psychology's Person Concept is to provide an explicit, extensive, and systematic analysis and connection of all the "moving parts" of what we implicitly mean by persons and behavior.  To accomplish this requires a sharable lexicon and a set of rules, clearly articulated and suitable for coordinating all possible facts regarding people and behavior.  As such, one use of this project is a framework for comparing theories and judging their scope and adequacy. The goal is a map with a place for what is already known with room for what is yet to be found.

Why not call this a theory? Unlike a theory, a conceptualization of a subject matter attempts to establish its full possible range by identifying what it is about rather than the empirical or historically particular form it will take. The focus is the range of possibility. Finding out what really happens is the empirical task. But before attempting systematic observation, it is usually wise to have some idea what you are looking for.  Descriptive Psychology's mission is this sort of pre-empirical formulation. The job of theory is post-empirical to explain why out of the possibilities only certain patterns occur. Good theory can then be vindicated by predicting new observations that are found and fit. We then face the dilemma of how to fit our theories together.  Under current conditions, attempting integration can be a fool's errand. 


The continued absence of a shared framework for investigation and practice has resulted in the fragmented state of current psychology and the neurosciences. As an aesthetic judgment, some find this more troubling than others. Descriptive Psychology was invented in response to this difficulty. To the extent it is successful, the explicit conceptualization of behavioral science's common ground should sharpen observation and refine the ability to share and integrate what is found.  I believe it has for me. 

What follows is a work in progress since the essential nature of Descriptive Psychology is a construction with room for significant distinctions yet to be recognized. Nonetheless, what has been built is nuanced, systematic, and entirely interconnected. Made explicit, the Person Concept has complex constituent elements, but none that stand alone without reference to the others: the interdependent concepts of Individual Persons, Behavior as Intentional Action, Language and Verbal Behavior, Community and Culture, and World or Reality.  Tying these together are a set of transition rules, The State of Affairs System, formulated for unpacking and connecting everything. 

Some words of caution. The foundational concepts are interdependent, resembling aspects of a map, so grasping them will be easier after they have all been filled in. The reward for effort will require patience.  I also have a promise for the practitioner. Descriptive Psychology is a pragmatic enterprise, its success rests on enhancing effective action.  I earn most of my keep in the practice of psychotherapy. Any adequate understanding of persons and behavior necessarily involves an appreciation of how people change.  If this is your interest, this book should hold some value for you. That's my intent.


Expected publication by Academic Press-Elsevier in 2018.








Saturday, February 18, 2017

Degradation Ceremonies and the Goldwater Rule: A note on clinical diagnosis, community, and moral indignation.


My vigilance and preoccupation with the incompetence, bluster, and threat pouring from the White House is exhausting.  I should have better things to think about.  Worry and outrage coerce my attention, stink like dog shit I can't ignore or avoid. It needs to be cleaned up.  

I am a clinical psychologist with license to diagnose and a citizen now over-disposed with indignation. No doubt Trump comes across as deeply disturbed, but my provoked distraction is that he's so god-damned disturbing. Although it may be ethically problematic for me to diagnose from afar, I'm on firm moral ground writing about my disdain and disgust.  Frankly, a diagnosis might suggest disability, a sort of excuse that lets Trump off the hook. I don't find that satisfying or adequate when it comes to our President. (I just avoided the impulse to write "so-called" but that fits the degradation ceremony I have in mind).

Two years back, writing about monsters and evil, I wondered about the differences of moral, legal, and clinical language. This is relevant now.  Earlier, I wrote, "Clinical language is appropriate when the goal is to avoid the moralistic stance of blame and to facilitate empathy. We appeal to clinical language when we examine the personal history of the character in question. This can help our understanding. It provides the mitigating facts. It facilitates psychotherapy, disclosure, and confession. We use clinical language to explore a performance under the guise of not being judgmental.

But at times judgment is called for. Clinical and moral language may cover the same performance but with different intent and significance.  Moral language is appropriate when blame is at stake and where agency is treated as irreducibly given. Moral language is employed when we judge a person's place in our community. We employ concepts such as evil when we make the judgment that a person's actions reveal they are not, and perhaps never were, one of us in good standing."  

On February 13th, a letter to the New York Times, co-authored by an old classmate of mine, Lance Dodes, and signed by 34 other mental health professionals argued that, 

"Silence from the country’s mental health organizations has been due to a self-imposed dictum about evaluating public figures (the American Psychiatric Association’s 1973 Goldwater Rule). But this silence has resulted in a failure to lend our expertise to worried journalists and members of Congress at this critical time. We fear that too much is at stake to be silent any longer.

Mr. Trump’s speech and actions demonstrate an inability to tolerate views different from his own, leading to rage reactions. His words and behavior suggest a profound inability to empathize. Individuals with these traits distort reality to suit their psychological state...."


The next day, that letter provoked a response from Allen Frances, the chairman of the task force that wrote the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV. Frances replied,

"...Most amateur diagnosticians have mislabeled President Trump with the diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder. I wrote the criteria that define this disorder, and Mr. Trump doesn’t meet them. He may be a world-class narcissist, but this doesn’t make him mentally ill, because he does not suffer from the distress and impairment required to diagnose mental disorder.

Mr. Trump causes severe distress rather than experiencing it and has been richly rewarded, rather than punished, for his grandiosity, self-absorption and lack of empathy. 


..... Psychiatric name-calling is a misguided way of countering Mr. Trump’s attack on democracy. He can, and should, be appropriately denounced for his ignorance, incompetence, impulsivity and pursuit of dictatorial powers.


His psychological motivations are too obvious to be interesting, and analyzing them will not halt his headlong power grab. The antidote to a dystopic Trumpean dark age is political, not psychological."



It is arguable whether Trump "does not suffer from the distress and impairment required to diagnose mental disorder."  I don't have first-hand clinical data, but I stand with shared certainty when Frances writes, "Mr. Trump causes severe distress..." And when he points out, "He can, and should, be appropriately denounced for his ignorance, incompetence, impulsivity and pursuit of dictatorial powers.... The antidote to a dystopic Trumpean dark age is political, not psychological."   

Here's what I think. The sterile, ostensibly nonjudgmental use of clinical language, the diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder, misses the point, whereas my judgmental and degrading appraisal of Trump as a thin-skinned, ignorant, self-absorbed, entitled asshole doesn't. This doesn't violate the Goldwater rule. I can make that judgment based on the effect of his public performance, regardless of the state of his psyche. Clinical language gets in the way of confronting his effects on others.  A more honest option, moral condemnation, directly addresses his standing in community. The place of moral language is when judgments of disgust and indignation, of community violation and outrage are appropriate. This our call. 

We are all in a position to assert, as an act of community, an affirmation of the essential shared values of truth and justice.  As a
community of Americans, apparently still a majority, we have the standing to witness, denounce, and judge this vile perpetrator. Regardless of whether Trump eventually requires the legal language of "treason" and "impeachment", for now moral language fits. It does the trick. It brings us together.

Degradation and accreditation ceremonies require a community that honors shared values required to remain a member in good standing. Isolation and lonely preoccupation are insufficient, inadequate as antidote when the dilemma "is political, not psychological".  And community is essential not just to address the political but as a remedy for the psychological.  We are facing an extraordinary psychological stress. With the possible exception of the days that followed the Kennedy assassination, and maybe during the Watergate hearing, I've never witnessed this much anxious attention and preoccupation with the state of America and American leadership. The point of good governing is to be free to attend to other things. Many of us are not.

For far too many, America does not feel like a safe place.  When those in charge who should be adult look mad and incompetent, the unresolved vulnerabilities of childhood awaken. This vulnerability stokes personal fears and traumas and an unsettled memory of mine.  

An October midmorning in 1962, I was twelve and scared, pacing the playground and refusing to go back to class, needing to listen to the transistor radio I'd brought to school after hearing the factory my father worked, Lithium Corporation of America, was a potential target of rockets headed for Cuba. This last month I've felt glimmers, uncanny resonances from that day. 

The bombardment of lies, absurdity, and threat has been relentless since January 20th. The signal to noise ratio hard to decipher. With friends, family, and clients, I've never seen so much preoccupation or defensive avoidance.  A tense sense of necessity undermined by helplessness. Only a month in, and already many of us face exhaustion, demoralization, or numbed indifference. So what can we do? 


I avoid crowds. I don't like to be in the midst of large groups of strangers. I love fireworks but spending a 4th of July on the Esplanade is now unthinkable. But the Saturdays of the Woman's March and the demonstration that immediately erupted in the wake of the Muslim ban offered me comfort and joy, hours of restoration. A companionship of strangers sharing the vitality of united indignation. One sign in particular evoked laughter and hope, "Listen asshole, we can do this every week!"

Demonstrations are not enough, but a necessary first aid. Demonstrations also scatter seed crystals that can organize larger, stronger structures. We need many structures, communities of separate and overlapping interests to harden rock-like to smash the threatening tyranny. Action, participating in what we intrinsically value, provides satisfaction. We'll need a lot of that to resist and persist.  



Here's a practical guide to community action: INDIVISIBLE
A PRACTICAL GUIDE FOR RESISTING THE TRUMP AGENDA. 

Take part. As Woody Guthrie said, "Take it easy, but take it."

All together now, Sing!







I take this a bit further in The Personality Disorders are Different. A note on moral and clinical language and Presidential psychopathology.
Some related thoughts On Choice, Sickness and Evil  and on Degradation Ceremonies.







Saturday, January 28, 2017

Degradation, Accreditation, and the Community of the Deplorables.

Today the Boston Descriptive Psychology Study Group began with
the case of a 13 year old boy whose school system was isolating him as a sexual predator. A smart kid with an elaborate but flaky explanation for his actions, he seemed unmoved by scorn or guilt.

A small bit of context. He is growing up on the undesirable outskirts of a mid-sized New England town in a family that for a number of generations has been considered a clan of deplorables. Well known and ridiculed, their family name is an insult hurled among grade school children. Getting called that starts fights. I knew a few kids from families like that where I grew up in the South. Those kids never stood a chance. Born to lose; treated as losers.  As far as I know, none of them did well. Most are now dead.


So we starting talking about the understandable and likely consequences of being born into a degraded family.  As a Southerner, I am familiar with the lore of Kallikaks and Jukes, not as a sociological tale regarding eugenics, but as an image of marginal white families with yards filled with soiled diapers, chained mangy dogs, broken car parts, and rusted wash machines. People treated as trash, uncouth, considered incapable of civility or redemption. Thought of as inbred, violent, and sexually wanton; a danger to society managed through ridicule and arrest.

Such families are rarely happy and seldom have the economic or psychological resources to provide good enough care. Nor are they cared for. Depression and mental illness follow these families who never become members-in-good-standing with their local community even though they share the common ethnicity and religion. They could be one of us but aren't. This is different from the degradation that attends racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia. The difference is profound. 

Here's some of the difference. This morning a member of the study group pointed out that "everyone needs a code to live by." People need a code, a set of significant values that potentially establishes a through-line that provides the evidence they are persons of integrity. An integrity both honored and witnessed. 

Communities have their honored and required social practices, the policies and choice principles people must follow if they are to be recognized as authentically one of us.  So what can groups of people who have learned to expect disrespect do?  They can turn the table. And here's an important social consideration. Groups of people large enough to function as a community have an option unlikely to be successful in an isolated family. With sufficient shared identification, people in marginalized communities have the potential to celebrate their own values especially if they make their implicit code explicit and act politically. Expect conflict. Expect values and practices at odds with those with the previously established power to inform and remind the broader culture what is acceptable and treasured. 

The marginalized and disrespected have good reason to resist degradation. Why wouldn't they? They know they can't expect the established elites and their media to help them feel good about themselves. The code most useful to disparaged folk intentionally undermines the establishment. One way people counter degradation is to discredit those with the power to discredit them by invalidating the judge and affirming the values previously degraded.  What had been deplored becomes a source of pride and membership, of righteous indignation and opposition. Collectively engaged, antagonism becomes an act of integrity and a source of satisfaction. Collectively saying fuck you is defining and establishes the boundaries of community. But this only works when there are sufficient numbers to effectively affirm actions that reflect the values of difference and opposition.  In-your-face anger, rage, protest, and indignation becomes an antidote to counter depression and demoralization. But it takes a community acting together. 

A community can resist degradation more effectively than an isolated family. A community has political power. Degradation and accreditation require valued judges and witnesses with the standing to make such appraisals.  Parents recognized as part of a broader community can feel the affirmation of each other, their children, and their neighbors. An isolated family has only each other to assign the values of success and failure. When pathology and degradation are already part of the picture, life is not likely to unfold well. Self-regulation is too restricted.  Still, people will do what they can to maintain or improve their position, to feel good from their perspective, whether or not that perspective is shared and validated by others. Individuals are idiosyncratic, communities set standards. An individual's self-valued idiosyncrasy may appear crazy and pathological but when done as a community practice is simply the way we are.  

Depression and demoralization go hand in hand with isolation.  Isolation makes it hard to establish a code to live by enacted successfully and witnessed by others who share those values. Whether we like it or not, it matters what other people think, how we feel we look in their eyes.   Some of what we require to feel good rests on significant others seeing it so.  I am thinking of depression and demoralization as the consequence of a degraded personal world, of a severely restricted expectation and achievement of the satisfactions of successful engagement in the world of a valued community. Still, even in isolation there is an alternative in a sort of lawless indifference, a guiltless disregard for other people's established values.  This is a generalized fuck you; a version of if I ain't got nothing, I've got nothing to lose.  I wonder if this speaks to the adolescent boy we discussed today, his predation his way to feel some effect and power whether or not his behavior is considered OK by his family.  We don't know whether he even treats his parents as valued judges given what he knows about how his family is seen.

It takes an affirming village to become a citizen even if that citizen's community is at odds with others. Families in isolation are insufficient unless invited in and can play by the rules.  




                                                                        Tula, Roberto Luti and the Playing For Change  Band 


A link that further elaborates: On the Degradation Ceremonies of Everyday Life.  

Anthony Putman's Parametric Analysis of Community provides useful reminders of what constitutes the moving parts of a system capable of successfully assigning and maintaining values and codes of membership and conduct.

Communities = <M, SP, S, C, Lc, CP, W> 
where: 
M: The Members eligible to participate in the practices of the community. 
SP: The Social Practices of the Community that members engage in when they are doing the community's "done thing."
S: Statuses are the places (roles, jobs, behavior potential, etc.) a member may have within the community.
C: Concepts are the distinctions that members are expected to competently appreciate. 
Lc: Locutions are the verbal behaviors, the general and technical language employed by competent members of the group in engaging in the practices of the community.  "Baseball talk."
CP:  The Choice Principles typify the decisions usually made in acting as "one of us".
W: The World is the domain of objects, processes, events, and states of affairs germane to acting as a member of the community.