There is a great, empty space in our minds, and it’s right in the middle of everything. It’s a place we cannot enter, but we must go to all the other places, so we’re always going around it, unaware. We live in curved space, we say, there is no straight line to anything; the quickest route is always an arc, around this unspeakable void in the centre of everything. The straight route is just around the next corner, always.
Of course, this meme works for many scenarios. The forbidden place can be the loss of God to an evangelist, the unconscious to an analyst, etc. I think to evolutionary biologists and many psychologists, when they must insert this void into their writings – a “black box” exercise, the trick of gleaning what you can from observing a thing in a system when the thing’s function is unknown – I think, to these modern scholars it is “aggression.” It’s a variation on the Man’s sinful nature theme, an unexplained, blanket value judgment right in the middle of our earnest attempts at understanding, science, psychology, everything.
Two paragraphs, that’s all the tension I can build, I don’t make you wait. I’ve worked it out, or I worry that I have, I mean, I’m not happy with my answer either, but I also haven’t changed my mind since yesterday: it’s abuse, or rather the mental and emotional pain of abuse. I’ve looked at rules and punishments, and while I understand the concepts of deterrent and control, the narrative about civilization and majority rule (as recently expounded/expanded by Richard Wrangham), I also understand some things that should place all that in some perspective.
First, the same suite of scientific thinking about humans and their origins that includes this majority morality places us as still being that proto-hominid, that ape, just under our skin, and all the glory of modern civilization, in another but parallel conversation doesn’t add up to spit, it’s a veneer and we are constructed of the same wood as chimpanzees. To talk about our moral accomplishments is an odd, puffed up stance that fits better in church or politics than in science.
Second, I did a thought experiment along the lines of one of Kant’s (OK, the only one I recall, the first part of the book I haven’t finished. He’s tough) about time and space where he decides that he can imagine space empty of things, but no things not in space, or time passing without anything happening, but nothing happening without time passing while it does, and so space and time to Kant were properties of the mind, since his mind could not operate without them. My point, the analogy is, rules and punishments are endlessly variable – “Thou shalt not kill” has its correlate in many times and places among nearly all people when thou shalt absolutely kill or be shunned, reviled or killed yourself. In a less extreme and more accessible vein, different societies have different rules, and things forbidden in one place can be ubiquitous elsewhere, some societies generally are more permissive than others – but all have rules, all have punishments.
No one rule is sacred, though some are more universal than others, and no penalty is sacred, though we say they all are, they change, new rules are created with new technologies, etc., – but we can imagine a completely alien set of rules and we perhaps cannot imagine a society with no rules at all. We can perhaps imagine a completely foreign set of punishments to go with a given set of rules – but can we imagine no punishments at all? Wow, I started the Critique nearly forty years ago, this analogy may have figured hugely in my approach to this.
Mama, can this really be the end?
No. Rules serve a purpose, one we all know – but no particular rule serves this purpose, none are indispensable, yet the purpose exists, so we are able to accomplish it with a set of rules that I assume I’d need some proof to call random, but that can certainly be variable, enforced with a set of penalties that are, shall we say, also an opportunity for some human creativity. So here’s the game: pick your rules, pick your penalties, we don’t care which ones, but you have to pick something from each bin. What does this accomplish, when we’ve ruled out the contents of any given rule?
The first, easy biology answer is of course, dominance. If the content of the rule doesn’t matter, then it’s who writes it, and who forces it upon whom, and clearly, that is absolutely what’s going on, all over the place, no question. The discriminating aspect of rules are all about our human groups, about who has to follow the rule and who doesn’t or who is forgiven and who isn’t.
But don’t even our most egalitarian dreams have rules and punishments, don’t our socialist or democratic fantasies about majority rule still include some built-in idea about rules and punishments, like time and space? Even in our utopian dreams, remove the alpha, the king, we still need rules, right? He was just taking advantage of our older habits, using the rules to his advantage. So, dominance, yes, but not being in that game myself, I don’t place a lot of priority on it. Again, perspective: we ain’t all alphas. That the minority dominants enjoy the situation doesn’t explain why you I and Kant can’t imagine no rules at all, ever. I think, when the excrement has flowed downhill, and the alpha’s bad mood today reaches the zeta man-ape and he turns to beat his wife and/or children for it, I think to call the zeta’s reactive violence “dominance” isn’t right, he’s defined as lacking it, and punching down is not how you acquire dominance, that requires punching up, to climb the ladder. To me it makes more sense to define these transactions as happening at the more basic level, not some highly developed concept of social dominance as much as just the cause and effects around social and physical abuse. A by-product, if you will, if you want to fit this into a worldview about civilization, about organization and dominance. Yes, he learned the rules, and yes, he knows his place.
My concern is that his lessons pissed him off.
And that, I worry, is the deeper point of them. Rules come and rules go and penalties are subject to changing times and to whom they are applied, but there must always be some set of rules and somebody must be penalized – the details don’t matter. You all know this. Here’s a story, names forgotten to protect the innocent (except mine, so it’s all knowable).
In my kid’s elementary school, some kid wrote some nasty gossip in the girl’s bathroom, and people had ideas about who did it but no proof, the school wasn’t bringing in handwriting experts to prove the matter. It was probably kid A, but there was a strong case about for kid B doing the deed knowing it looked like the work of kid A. Honestly, I can’t remember who got the punishment, a call home, maybe a suspension, I was already anti-punishment, I didn’t want to see any child punished, but they picked one and punished – knowing they had a fifty-fifty chance of punishing the right kid – actually something less than fifty-fifty, because there were other possibilities besides the main two kids. A message had to be sent, no crime goes unpunished! This function was served, despite that justice had less than an even money chance.
Even the perpetrator is interchangeable! Just so long as someone gets hurt. Dominance, sure, that principal over those kids, grownups generally over kids – but really, only an even money chance, if she got the wrong kid, a case can be made for the guilty kid’s dominance of everyone there. If she got the wrong kid, it was pure abuse for that kid, the whole world of grownups throwing in with the other kid’s dominance. Of course if she got the right kid, then the principal’s (and adults’ generally) dominance and the child’s experience of the penalty are all things we all agree with – but I submit we have still pissed that kid off. She may learn the lesson, but another kid may learn the same lesson in a nicer way, and if so, these kids’ life histories will be altered in different ways (statistically), both have the lesson’s knowledge, but one has a distasteful experience and memory. Deserved, didn’t “deserve,” this is not the point, the changes are the point. A different society, different set of rules, different crime, maybe a whole different “deserving” dynamic – same changes, this is the point. Doesn’t it sound like some white kid version of a super-villain back story, the unfairness?
What affects us is pain, not some long-winded construction about what the pain is supposed to accomplish. Pain is simple. Any idiot can cause pain and make changes in the world, especially if they’re actually trying to cause it. I know I’ve caused plenty while trying not to, but if I had been trying all these years, I think I could have done worse. I’ve been working all this out for myself and finding concepts I thought I had to name – I said “mimic meme,” and I switched to the generic sounding “useful fiction,” but if I’m talking biology, I’ve just heard “adaptive fiction,” so I guess that’s the term. At some point, though, at some level, if our adaptive fictions are pervasive enough, they become our adaptive truths, self-fulfilling prophecies.
I want to call this rule, that there must be rules and penalties and so pain, regardless of the particulars, one of our foundational adaptive fictions except that once we have adapted to it so completely, “fiction” doesn’t quite get to it; if it is inescapable in the human world, a case can be made that it’s an adaptive fact. If it’s our rule, and we make the rules, then this rule is factual enough for you, something like that? I think in reality it’s a fiction, just maybe not for us.
But it will need to be if we’re ever going to take the next step.
April 28th., 2019