Sunday, November 03, 2019
The Everyday Obscenity of American Collapse: How Norms of Domination and Dehumanization Made America an Indecent Society
This analysis of American collapse, by Umair Haque, in Medium is cutting and powerful—a definite must-read. We, in the U.S., are absolutely led to believe as a consequence of our (mis)education that only people of color have been dehumanized in history, when the truth of the matter is, as Haque maintains, that only the dehumanized can dehumanize. In addition, under-recognized is how this exacts a great cost with respect to “empathy, gentleness, mercy, wisdom, courage, defiance, grace, and truth” on those engaged in the practice of dehumanization.
These are indeed virtues in short supply. I can’t help but think of Lyndon B. Johnson’s famous quote to Bill Moyers that speaks to the process of domination recounted herein:
“If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”
Haque’s analysis is a very bleak, if accurate, portrayal on the logics of domination and dehumanization that clearly render explicable separating children from mothers and putting kids in cages and other atrocities that do appear to be getting normalized in some or many sectors of society.
Haque would do well to call out the public school system and how fights over curriculum are precisely about domination and whose knowledge counts, and how the high-stakes-testing status quo reinscribes relations of dominance and subordination, while simultaneously making so much of what passes for "school" as reductive, dull, and lifeless.
What might follow would be a plug for Ethnic Studies and struggles over curriculum—not solely, or even primarily, for youth of color, but for the progeny of the dominant group in power so that they can get re-humanized and become part of a caring, compassionate, and virtuous human family and community. Some day, it'll just be called "a good education."
It's going to take a lot of work. A lot of educating. No shortcuts. But we can do this, my friends. Sí se puede! Yes we can!
How Norms of Domination and Dehumanization Made America an Indecent Society
Oct 2, 2019 · 7 min read
Here’s a tiny observation. American life is becoming obscene. As in “so bizarre and gruesome, you can barely describe it in everyday language with polite company.” Take a look at the picture above. The Trump administration is planning to collect DNA from kids and migrants in concentration camps. Fascist enough for you? 50% of crowdfunding going to…healthcare. The latest boom among retirees — bankruptcy. Suicide rates skyrocketing. The list is endless. These are things which simply don’t happen, not just in other rich countries — but anywhere else, even poor ones.
American life today is full of everyday obscenities. So here’s a tiny question. Will America ever be a decent society? You can add “again”, if you like. Is that a terrible thing to say? I think it’s a great question that collapse is trying to ask us — but maybe we don’t want to hear.
What does “obscene” mean? It means that which violate norms of decency. The things above disgust and repel most sensible moral stances, hence, they’re generally considered “obscene.” But in America, it seems, obscenity itself is normal now. Just mundane, everyday reality. How did that come to be?
America has always been cursed by two demons. Dehumanization and domination. These are the two definingly American kinds of everyday violence. When we say that America’s “original sin” was slavery, that is precisely what we mean. Whole groups of people were dehumanized for centuries — at the barrel of a gun, at the crack of a whip. Now, you might think — as unfortunately we’re still in taught in high school — that the detrimental, destructive effects of dehumanization and dominance were limited to minorities, black, natives, history, and so on. My friend, you are wrong. Those norms ended up collapsing society from the inside out, as people only came to want to prey on one another more savagely, never lifting each other up. Hence, no enemy had to fire so much as a single bullet to bring America crashing down. And that is the great folly and tragedy America still hasn’t understood.
America learned from its founding to dehumanize and dominate people. But there is a great problem here, which America has never understood, much less reckoned with. Only the dehumanized can dehumanize. Dominance always requires our own subjugation. To be able to treat another person as if they are not a human being, but a mere possession, also costs us our very own empathy, gentleness, mercy, wisdom, courage, defiance, grace, and truth. And in the end, my friends, that ruins a nation. How so?
The norms which evolved in America weren’t like those of any other society — especially its peers. In other rich nations, norms of decency developed — after strife, it’s true, yet develop they did. What do I mean by norms of decency? Simply the idea, if you like, that every person is one. All people deserve dignity, equality, and freedom. Nobody stands alone — especially when they are in need of support, nurturance, and guidance.
But Americans developed a perverse, backwards set of norms: I am only good when I punish you, when I’m above you, when I dominate you, when I dehumanize you. But that means that I am not good if I don’t do those things. And that means that Americans never developed a sense of intrinsic worth. Isn’t that obvious if you look at America today? In no other country do people need to tell themselves they are perfect, blessed, wonderful, or special — nor do they need to put on fake smiles and work out constantly and be the richest and have giant houses and cars and so on — even while constantly picking on everyone else less perfect, desirable, “attractive”, and so on.
(The norms which developed in America, in other words, were norms of dominance and dehumanization. Those of cruelty, greed, rage, and fear. You must always be afraid of the next person above in the social hierarchy. They have the power to reduce you to nonexistence. You must always make the next person down from you feel just that way, too. If you don’t do these things, you are not a good person. Doesn’t that describe most of American life, from its incessant work, to its escapism, to its utter meaninglessness? But don’t miss the point: domination and dehumanization were spreading, growing, hardening. They were beginning to oppress the oppressors — though they didn’t quite understand it, yet.)
But norms of dehumanization and dominance had catastrophic political effects. “Why should I invest in schools for those dirty animals?” asked American whites. And so the result of norms of dehumanization and domination were that America never built proper public goods, like healthcare, education, finance, media, transportation, and so on — and yet those are exactly the things that whites needed too, if they were ever to live lives that were genuinely free, healthy, sane, and happy. But now nobody had such things, because such norms make it impossible for people to invest in one another.
Those norms had catastrophic psychological effects, too. Americans came to only prize “self-reliant individuals”. But that also means one must disrespect and scorn anyone who ever needs support, nurturing, or nourishment of any kind. But that is all of us, at some point. Yet Americans made bullying, picking on, and abusing each other for the slightest weakness, the tiniest humanity, the smallest shred of gentleness, the fundamental cultural precept of a way of life. So Americans came to be deeply unhappy people, lacking in self-respect, self-belief, and self-worth — because they idealized an inhuman, self-destructive ideal. Today, that’s have resulted in all kinds of crises — suicide, loneliness, opioids. But what else would norms of domination and dehumanization do? Do you suppose they can ever make people — especially those using them — fulfilled? You must be joking.
So the very norms of domination and dehumanization that had once been used to oppress blacks and natives and dirt poor whites, then, had come to be used as weapons of self-destruction even against the very people who they’d once existed to serve — middle class and even rich whites. As those norms hardened, it became quite alright to dehumanize and dominate more or less everyone. It became perfectly OK, for example, to raid pensions, to work people 80 hours a week, to never pay them more, to prey on white women, too, to abuse and hurt people, to treat even that once relatively affluent white person like just another disposable commodity in the machine — not as a human being. It’s true that minorities always suffered most, of course — but it’s truer to say that such norms made it impossible for a society to really mature or develop at all, because now they were being used by a tiny elite to oppress more or less everyone else.
(What else would norms of domination and dehumanization do? Imagine that there are ten of us, on an island. These are our norms — and in the beginning, we use them to keep two of us enslaved. Soon enough, though, the tide will turn. Five of us will make three more servants. And then two of us will call ourselves better. In the end, just one will be left at the top. We will have created a hierarchy of domination and dehumanization — each person taking power and humanity away from the next person down, and that way, our little society will fall into line. But it will never amount to much, will it?)
That’s exactly what happened to America, more or less. The end result of norms of dehumanization and domination was a that a tiny elite of genuinely terrible people came to oppress even the people who’d been yesterday’s oppressors. That’s complicated, so let me take it slowly.
Norms of domination and dehumanization made it not just possible, but necessary, to dominate and dehumanize the oppressors, too, and turn them into the oppressed — one stratum, group, rank at a time. They made it impossible for them to invest in each other — and develop anything resembling a modern society. They cheated them of happiness and meaning, belonging and purpose, and blew apart their mental stability. And they created a hostile world, from which there was no escape, except fantasy. Bang! American life imploded. Every layer of society was now viciously, violently preying on the one below it — where once whites had en masse oppressed blacks — and the only winner was the tiny elite at they very top. Obscenity was the place these foolish, strange, and ruinous ideas ended.
And as those norms hardened, society became something like a vast, endless contest, to see who could be the most ruthless, cruel, greedy, destructive, of all — every day. Norms of domination and dehumanization had created a society which was one great arena in which everyone competed to slaughter everyone else — a mechanism for sorting and winnowing the most domineering and inhuman. Over time, those people became even more savage, shameless, and selfish. Until, at last, America was led by the champions of such norms: people like Trump, Miller, and the rest. Everyday obscenity triumphed.
Americans lived in a kind of fantasy land. They thought that they could dominate and dehumanize blacks, natives, Asians, poor people, women, immigrants, and so on — but never pay any kind of price, the “real” Americans. But that was never true. Americans incentivized, institutionalized, normalized domination and dehumanization. And then all those institutions, norms, and incentives did exactly what they were supposed to. They were used as tools to oppress the very people who had once proudly been oppressors, too — by a more ruthless and shameless set of predators.
So here America is. Dehumanization and domination are the things it has invested in, cherished, cultivated, tended, and prized most. That is how a society ends up with crowdfunded healthcare, school shootings, a head of state who uses slurs, neo-Nazis in office — and nobody, seemingly, with the power to do much, if anything, about it.