The parallels between abusive families and the culture of civilization illuminate why protest has become futile.
Futility is not to say that something is difficult, verging on the impossible. Futility arises when an action makes the condition it is meant to ameliorate worse. When unintended consequences pile on, blocking any possible benefit from making a difference. At that point an activity is no longer simply a waste of attention. – As grave a fault as can be found since attention is all we have. – It has co-opted our efforts. We have been tricked into aiding that which we were seeking to end.
The clue is in the way a dysfunctional family channels attention and energy. Since, in these situations, any real change is unthinkable – if it were thinkable we would no longer be in the dynamics of dysfunction – effort is displaced. Roles are carved out and agents become characters in a drama. There are the defenders of the abuser’s point of view, and various critical and rebellious roles. There is relative freedom to choose which character to play. After that, our shadows, unexamined, rear their heads as external Fate. All freedom of action disappears.
In a horrible situation it can be comforting to have a role. Choosing the one most fitting our disposition, we settle into playing our part. The result can be a sort of vocation. Years, decades, entire lives, generations are consumed by the resulting perpetuation of maladaptive patterns of thought and behavior. How is this possible? That something when viewed from outside can seem in its own way unthinkable has prevailed? It has become normalized.
You see, questions of justice, the instincts we all have to look for ways to “make things right,” have been hijacked by this disorder. What is seen as just – curiously by all parties – ends up being the continuation of the drama. What is seen as unjust is any attempt to discredit the entire edifice of lies maintaining it.
Ask anyone who has ever attempted to intervene. Most often there is a solidarity between all parties. It might be mistaken as “family loyalty.” It’s often couched in those terms. It is loyalty to the drama. If we attempt to enter into that drama – no mater how destructive this might be to family members, to the entire family’s survival – we would most likely be welcomed with open arms: Directly by those whose faction we joined. Tacitly by the “enemies” we took on. Solidarity is shared in maintaining the status quo.
What is most confusing, either in families or in a culture, about all this is how easy it is to confuse a “just cause” for an actual change. We can spend a lifetime caught in the dislocation. Unable to parse the cognitive dissonance. Unwilling to suspend our reactions long enough for some underlying clarity to make itself visible.
“But they are so wrong!”
“This injustice cannot stand!”
“They killed Kenny! You bastards!”
The way back into the drama is always readily available. It promises an immediate gratification. It brings us two very welcome categories of companionship: allies and enemies. It offers a way to define our selves without the need to work at it.
Most often we succumb. As much as we have been mauled by previous battles, we turn back onto the familiar road and find the strength to “carry on.” Perseverance, it’s called. Putting a laudable gloss on an obsessive compulsion.
It’s no surprise that we remain confused. Accessible to the twists and turns of this dynamic. At the mercy of the abusers and controllers. Those skilled in the ways and carrying the traits most likely to succeed under these circumstances. Sociopaths, psychopaths, we have labels for them…. They often have titles too: Father, Mother, Leader, Tycoon. In our exhaustion, caught in a perpetual cycle of fear and anxiety these perpetrators deploy to maintain their positions, it would be easy to add another normalizing layer of rebellion.
All this does is bring us back to where we started.
Normalization. When the unspeakable becomes a point of negotiation….
Let’s attempt to enter the mindset of one of today’s most deadly destroyers, an executive at a company toiling tirelessly to dismantle the livable planet. One that gains its profits on the backs of the consumption of countless lives lost in horrible and life-threatening servitude. Or those actively in the business of designing, building, deploying, as the term is now so coyly put, “WMDs.”
Their talents and their innate lack of empathy may have made them susceptible for these roles. Ongoing displacement and our natural ability to rationalize and justify what we desire all come into play. Still, at some point? These are not unintelligent people, no matter how much their privilege has worked to destroy that trait. They must have qualms?
“Checks and balances!”
Living in the realm of negotiation, the hellish invention of civilization that has closed off our access to integration and dialogue and creativity, they can say, “I’m doing my part! If it’s so wrong, then my enemies will defeat me. If not, well…?”
Quite Medieval once you look at it? Justice by Combat, it was once called. The ultimate justification for any usurped advantage from the Rights of Kings to the Invisible Hand.
Today’s height of sophistication has it that not only is life a game, it is best spent inside elaborate games invented to be, not compelling or meaningful, but simply addictive.
Entitlement, as the term is now brandished, an epitaph hurled at our opponents when they claim a right or privilege that interferes with our own. More broadly, the climate of competing entitlements itself, is a symptom of this normalizing dynamic at work.
Perhaps, as with anything worth knowing, it is not possible to convince anyone of this. How pernicious it is. How it holds us as no external chains ever could in a dance of death.
Still, it might be that if attention is drawn to the sleight of hand we may come to recognize how we dupe our selves.
This, still only a first small step, fraught with peril.
At some point, the unspeakable does find voice. Funny how even the construction of that statement sounds ominous? It would more rightly be seen as a comfort. It’s not the “unspeak-ability” of horror that does the damage. At least not on its own. It is the normalization of it that comes about when it is banished from consideration. This is what allows the unspeakable to keep us from the unthinkable.
Again, a word turned on its head by convention. “Unspeakable, unthinkable horrors! Is what comes immediately to mind.
Yet, throughout history, it’s not been horrors that are unthinkable. They have always easily come to mind. The Pantheon of Innovation is filled with banal horror!
It has been alternatives that resist conception.
This condition is the price of normalization. So long as we remain in this trap we have no attention, no energy, free to create actual alternatives. To enter into dialogue with each other, with the world. To individuate in ways that integrate us into existence instead of keeping us at odds, in a battle that is consuming us all.
Think of that the next time we all run to pile on.