Cover photo above by j_lai | CC BY 2.0
If you’ve ever been arrested, or served time in prison, or some indefinite detention facility in Cuba, you’re familiar with this kind of thing. Humiliation (i.e., the production of shame) is a basic domination tactic. It is one of the most effective means of establishing and maintaining control over people. This is why, when the police arrest you (for protesting outside the cages they’ve thoughtfully provided for you to blow off steam in, or for being black on Tuesday, or whatever), before they put you in a holding cell, they normally like to make you strip, bend over, and spread your ass cheeks for them, and lift your scrotum if you happen to have one. They don’t really think you’ve been walking around with a ten-inch Bowie knife hidden up your rectum, or a razor blade superglued behind your testicles. They just need to thoroughly humiliate you and show you that they control your body. This, of course, is also the motive for the “rectal rehydration and feeding procedures” (otherwise known as anal rape) used on the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, and the sadistic sexual humiliation enjoyed by our troops in Abu Ghraib prison, and (yes, obviously, to a lesser degree) the utterly degrading “security procedures” that most people now routinely submit to as a prelude to their family holidays.
The purpose of these sadistic procedures is to systematically humiliate people, to strip them of their personal autonomy, to rub their faces in their utter powerlessness, over and over and over again, until, finally, out of desperation, in an effort to recover some shred of autonomy, they begin to misperceive their powerlessness as cowardice, and are overwhelmed by shame. This is one of the better tricks that agents of authoritarian systems and twisted control freaks of every type play on their victims to render them compliant. It works just as well for parents, teachers, and abusive husbands as it does for cops. The steps of the process are fairly simple.
First, you need to establish actual physical power over whomever you’re controlling so they can’t just walk away from your abuse. Then, you humiliate them, over and over, physically, psychologically, sexually, however seems most appropriate for your victim. They will want to fight back, but they won’t be able to, because you’re their parent, or their boss, or a prison guard, or a duly sworn agent of the federal government. They won’t succumb to shame right away, so you’ll have to keep at the humiliation until they accept that resistance is futile (and that no matter how much they try to please you, you’re just going to keep humiliating them), and they begin to totally lose their minds. At which point, you can sit back and watch as the resentment they had been harboring toward you (and the blame they had been assigning to you) is turned inward on themselves in a desperate attempt to preserve some semblance of individual autonomy … which, of course, they won’t even realize they’re doing.
Once that’s all done, and they are emotionally crippled, and shuffling around like medieval penitents blaming themselves for their unfocused rage and more or less constant low-level depression, you can pretty much do whatever you want with them, because no matter what kind of totally meaningless, soul-crushing job you give them to do, or completely hopeless future you offer them, or ridiculous, self-abasing rituals you force them to perform for your amusement, they are going to remain obedient and cooperative.
Say, for example, you need them to stand in line at the airport for several hours (having put all their fluids in little plastic bottles and sealed them in a transparent Ziploc bag), and take off their shoes, belts, and hats, and place them in a separate bin (i.e., not the one for phones and laptops, and definitely not un-binned on the belt), and then allow your agents to grope their genitals, or better yet, their children’s genitals, no worries, they’ll be happy to comply. Or maybe (again, this just an example) you need them to back the invasion or bombing of some foreign country they know nothing about, which poses no threat to them whatsoever, because you’re trying to restructure the entire Middle East … or perhaps, having botched a presidential election and allowed some uncouth, unvetted billionaire to defeat your chosen corporate puppet and actually take up residence in the White House, you need them (these people whose spirits you’ve broken) to believe your screw-up was a Russian conspiracy to overthrow the entire “free world,” and that anyone who didn’t vote for your candidate was being mind-controlled by Russian bots and … well, I think you get the idea.
Now, in case you think I’m mocking you or someone you know and love, personally, I’m not. I stand there, just like you, and get fondled by the TSA whenever I’m back in the USA. And I submit to the somewhat less invasive but no less absurd routines here in Europe. It’s not like we have a choice or anything, those of us who don’t own private jets. And sifting through all the propaganda disseminated by the six corporations that own the majority of the American media is a job most people do not have time for (and one, ideally, they shouldn’t have to do), so I’m not passing judgment on anyone.
My point is, look at what we’ve become … Americans, I mean. What happened to us? When did we become this nation of authority-worshipping, order-following, propaganda-parroting conformists? Or were we, deep down, always this way, despite our individualist mythology? Certainly, there’s more than enough evidence in our history to support the latter proposition.
And yet, as late as the 1960s, when I was being raised (i.e., socially conditioned), the mythic image of American-ness was inextricably linked to rebellion, non-conformity, disobedience, and a generally anarchic Wild West mentality that regarded all forms of authority as suspect. Yes, I realize that that mythic image was part and parcel of our capitalist conditioning, but it also inspired a good deal of rebellion (actual rebellion, as opposed to the kind of corporate-sponsored, party-orchestrated “resistance” we’ve been getting of late). Somewhere inside all the John Wayne malarkey, mixed up together with our wanton brutality, and our racism, and all our other ugly aspects, was something else … something beautiful. Some essentially wild and ungovernable spirit, which had something to do with individual autonomy, and the land, and the chance to escape the prison of class in European society, and jazz, and rock and roll, and horses, and that was celebrated in movies like Cool Hand Luke, and in novels like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I can only imagine how Kesey is being treated in universities these days, given McMurphy’s political incorrectness and the pecking party much of the left has become. Not that it’s any better on the right, where a similarly pathetic herd mentality is being fostered by frightened neo-nationalists who believe that the “American way of life” is under threat from Mexicans, Muslims, and transvestites who want to pee in their bathrooms.
The thing that alarms me most of all is the tendency (on both sides of the political spectrum) to criminalize, pathologize, and otherwise punish any behavior that doesn’t strictly conform to whatever one’s concept of “normal” is. But this is what happens when you break people’s spirits. You turn them into little mirror images of the authoritarian system they live in. What you end up with is a society of cops, policing each other around the clock. It’s like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, except with various opposing species of finger-pointing, screeching aliens walking around in human skins, scrutinizing everyone for signs of deviance from the uniformity of thought and action that they, having surrendered to it themselves, desperately want to impose on the rest of us.
Back when I was still writing stage plays, before the simulated aristocracy that subsidizes most of the English-language theater figured out I was just fucking with them, I wrote one dealing with all this stuff. The title of the play is America, the Beautiful. It takes place in a detention room in an airport somewhere in the USA. Unlike many of my previous plays, it will never, ever, be produced in America, or the UK, or probably anywhere else. I wrote it way back in 2006, but, sadly, it’s just as relevant today. You can download a PDF if you’re curious. Before you do, though, I need to warn you, it gets extremely disturbing at the end. There’s a rather graphic depiction of the type of humiliating procedures I referred to above. And if that wasn’t inappropriate enough, one of the players actually smokes a cigarette. So there’s your official trigger warning.