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> 
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. 


  1. Wynn: I think this is a wonderful application of DP ideas and of Tony's concept of a community. "Hillbilly Elegy" by J> D. Vance gives a detailed portrait of just such families. Keep up the good work. It is reelevnt to why HIllary lost the electiion. She did not know how to connect thith deplorables. KEDavis

  2. Now let's apply these concepts to American politics. For decades liberals, most often academics and higher-social-status folks, responded to those on the Right not with discussion but with degradation: "hillbillies," "rednecks," "fascists," etc. (Some years back I used to try to argue with more liberal friends about welfare, not on the basis of morals but on the basis if efficacy. And the universal response was not to address the efficacy question, but to degrade me as an unfeeling, probably racist, fascist.) The degradation was consistent and just about universal. And then along came someone who showed the Right that they could turn the tables, degrading liberals as "libtards," un-American, haters of America, stupid (a favorite), and so on: Newt Gingrich. Degradation elicits attempts to regain status. And what's the best way to regain status? Why, to degrade the degrader (as Wynn points out). So now we have two camps who never converse, never negotiate, but only degrade and counter-degrade. Pragmatic implication: don't call people who like Trump names. Instead, cite facts. Like, "Why do you think a wall will be effective, in light of how illegal immigration actually works?" "Why do you favor restricting Syrian refugees, when in fact Syrian refugees are already vetted so extremely it takes 2 years?" "Why would admitting those who claim to be Christians make us safer, when no Islamist would think twice about wearing a cross and claiming to be a devout Christian?" In other words, treat them as people who can evaluate and make judgments. Some of them can't. (But since I believe in being an equal opportunity offender, I'll point out that some liberals can't either. Ever try to argue with a Sanders supporter about the feasibility of universal free college?) And maybe, if enough of us act that way, we might just move the needle a bit, towards negotiation rather than perpetual mutual degradation.

  3. In order to impose meaningful status assignments the assigner must be seen as a member of a shared community, or at least familiar with the 'world' of the assigned. If the assigned already has little to do with a given group, it would be hard to make further exclusion from that group meaningful (E.g. telling Marty Bennett he's a terrible cricket player). Sometimes an 'F-you' is the expression of reactive counteraction, an indignant "Hey that's not fair, I don't deserve that (i.e. "that's not fair according to the rules of play we collectively abide by"). Other times, it's just an expression of dismissal (i.e. "your status assignment has little impact on the arrangement of my world/ situation"). **Also, as a member of multiple communities, individuals can shift worldviews at any given time in order to select among the potential statuses they sometimes hold (e.g. The statement "I may not be acting as the best cop, but I am acting as a great father", might be described in other words as, "I may be acting in a way that garners degraded status in the eyes of other cops appraising me as such, but among the community of fathers, I'd be given a medal of honor!"). emotion terms express the relationship "x is a perceived ____ to p", and so, one's emotional response (or lack there of) to a given set of circumstances can serve as a crude marker of that individual's perceptual accuracy, or otherwise indicate a lack of information in the critic's appraisal of the significance of emotional behavior

  4. Interesting post. I would definitely like to hear more about the boy and his history/presentation.