Tag Archives: glamour

Making everything clear.

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[Well not everything. I hope to write more posts going into detail on this topic. But this is the most general one I mean to make.]

I am not part of the Internet “social justice” community.

I am not part of the Internet “anti-SJ” community.

Both communities have, at different times, tried to claim me. At different times, I have joined in with both, knowingly and unknowingly.

But I can't be in either. Because they are both part of a larger pattern that does great harm.

Each one contains people who are there for sincere reasons. And also people who use these communities to play with power in devastating ways. But the way these communities work, even people's best intentions get turned around until they range from ineffective to destructive. I'm only going to be talking about people who join in for good reasons, because it's already obvious that manipulative power trippers and trolls are bad news, whether they're cloaking themselves in fake good intentions or not.

I can't be there. Not because I think I'm better than the very good people I know who are involved in both. Not because I don't care what is happening. I can't be there because I see what is happening, and if I join in, I will only be joining in with destruction.

I see what is trying to pull me in. I will not be pulled in. I will stand next to and apart from these communities. I will not fight against them, or, like Devil's Snare, they will only pull me in tighter.

The pattern works kind of like this: There is a monster. That monster runs around trying to devour everything in sight. When it can find nothing else to devour, it devours itself.

The whole thing is set up in a way where the only way to move forward is to find something to oppose and devour. There is never a point where the way you do things is good enough. You have to find more and more words and ideas to oppose. Words and ideas that mark who is in the know, and who is bad. These things constantly change. The monster never stops looking for more.

People are judged by how well they can keep up and remember these things. Even when people say it's a bad idea to just memorize everything by rote, that's what most people are actually doing, because that's what this culture encourages. Pretty soon, most people fall into a pattern of dodging and weaving, trying to say the right things, not say the wrong things. And above all not admitting it, because this culture simultaneously encourages this kind of behavior, and says you're wrong if you behave this way.

Within this culture, you stop noticing your surroundings. Instead, you see a network of lines representing various power dynamics, bad words and ideas, good words and ideas, and the way this community responds to them. You stop being able to see that this is not the only way to respond to injustice.

When people start noticing what is wrong, and wanting out, things twist around until they are absorbed into a different part of the same pattern. They fill the part of the monster that, in the absence of anything else to eat, turns around and begins devouring itself. And so people become part of the same thing they wanted to stop. And the fight between these two communities goes around and around forever, providing infinite food for the monster.

In this way, the pattern tries to pull in those of us who try and talk about it. It sucks people in until before they know what is happening, they are part of it. Few people intend to be sucked into either part of the pattern. People mean well, and are not stupid. But this is a whole pattern of connections between people, set up to perpetuate itself. And that pattern ends up hurting both the people caught up in it, and people outside of it, through the actions it encourages people to take.

It feeds on opposition of all kinds. It even makes things work so in the end, the only conversations that take place are arguments against this or that person, this or that action, this or that thing.

Which is why I will stand outside the pattern. I will describe the pattern. I will encourage more people to step outside of it.

But I will not set myself up in opposition to it, or else I will just be pulled in and become part of it. So I am outside of both pieces of the pattern, but I will not fight them.

And I will remind people, there is a huge world out here. There are other ways to do things. Not just my way, either. Lots of ways. You will always be welcome to step outside, to join me and many other people who live out here.

And, together or apart, we can find other ways to make a difference in the world.

[With credit to a friend of mine, who first characterized the pattern we were watching in terms of the self-devouring monster.]

What Makes Institutions Bad

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[I wrote this in response to a Dave Hingsburger post. Andrea Shettle asked me to post it here. Summary of my very long response: Most people don't have the foggiest clue what's bad about institutions. What's bad is something you pretty much never hear about, which is the violence it does to people's insides at a very deep level. And that can't be stopped by just removing the things that LOOK bad and throwing a layer of glamour on top.]

Please, please, please everyone who talks about this in the past tense — STOP. This is still going on. Everywhere.

I can’t even explain what it feels like to read things like this. Because I think too many people get the wrong kind of idea.

They will think that this is over. It’s not.

They will think that the awfulness and cruelty of an institution is measured by the size, the shape, the physical beauty or lack thereof, the amount of money funneled into it.

And those things are not real.

And those things — the belief in those things — are hurting and killing people still.

People don’t understand what’s behind the worst institutions I can possibly imagine. They think I’m kidding when I say it. Understand that I’m saying this as someone with experience of institutions that people often remark (from my photographs) look just like prisons, and institutions that look absolutely lovely to anyone who doesn’t have to live in them.

The worst institutions have lots and lots and lots of staff. They have beautiful grounds that people are more or less free to walk around on. Every room is decorated in ways that suggest a regular, pleasant house — and if anything is stained or broken someone fixes it, washes it, and paints over it within a day. There are no locks on the doors.

All of the staff are gentle and would never physically abuse an inmate. They are highly trained at redirecting and calming anyone who becomes violent. If you go outside, they follow you at a discreet distance, where they think you can’t see, to give the illusion of freedom and privacy. Their every movement and tone suggests sweetness and gentleness.

But they treat everyone as if they were somewhere varying, between infancy and four years old. With everything — everything — that entails.

Because they do not use physical restraint, they have to restrain you in other ways. They do it by such skillful manipulation that if you ever find out you were being manipulated, it’s long after the fact. If you confront them on it they’ll sweetly and politely tell you they have no idea what you mean. And they will continue to somehow always get you to do what they want, or else to feel awful about not doing so.

Glamour is a word that can refer to a kind of faery magic that can make a hovel appear to humans as a splendid palace. I often use the word to mean a similar kind of deception — a beautiful facade over a terrible reality. I make it part of my life’s work to see through glamour. And I see a whole lot of glamour used in conversations about institutions.

The above institution I have just described has a layer of glamour over it as well. If you look beneath the surface, it’s utterly horrifying. Most people don’t know how to see beneath the surface. Even when you personally are in such a situation, it can be hard to see.

You feel as if there is something pressing down on you, muffling and suffocating. But when you look around, there’s no outward sign of it. So why are you not happy? You must be an awful person to feel so awful when all these nice staff people are doing so much to make you feel at home. You look around, you try to search for what is bothering you, and it’s nowhere. But you’re in agony. Whenever you think nobody’s looking, you cry, sometimes it feels like you’ll never stop. Deep down inside you, you know something is going terribly wrong. But trying to pinpoint it is like trying to get a firm grip on a cloud.

Get a glimpse under the glamour and you see that all that has happened is a bunch of substitutions. They stopped locking the doors, but they started following you everywhere and subtly guiding you where they want you. The institution itself is positioned so that even if you tried to run away you couldn’t get anywhere. They stopped restraining your body, but their manipulation is like a permanent set of shackles on your mind. Their sweetness in manner hides the fact that they are sweet to you the way they would be sweet to an infant — even when you’re pushing sixty. Treat you like that long enough and you begin to respond and structure yourself like an infant, and the damage that does inside can’t be calculated.

I literally have nightmares about that type of institution. When I’m wrapped up in the glamour, this terrible calm takes over. It feels like something soft and smooth pressing all over my skin, and the temptation is to surrender to it and feel its fake calm, fake happiness. Then I wake up and want to vomit I am so terrified and disgusted with what I’ve just experienced.

This past summer I attended a recreation program for DD people. And it was so much like a replica of my nightmare it was scary. Sometimes I would get smothered under the glamour, other times I wanted to scream. I cried more that week than I normally do in years, yet I was at every turn made to feel as if the problem was me. I can be so very passive but even my most passive wasn’t good enough for them.

One day I looked around and saw that everyone there was older. From the era of big institutions. Where they were used to being treated like this, and mostly could out-passive me any day (which is scary because I can get very passive). I talked to a woman whose roommate goes there — she said she goes in a grown woman and comes out acting like a young child. And not in a way that’s just her self-expression — this is one of those places that molds you into that form.

To survive in a place like that something inside you has to break. It’s impossible to fully explain to someone who hasn’t been in that position. Something inside you has to die. And it doesn’t die any less because you got one of the “good” (read: glamour-covered) institutions. The same forces are crushing down on you either way, the difference is cosmetic.

The worst part of institutions is not physical violence, obvious forms of abuse or neglect. It’s not even the experiences you don’t get to have. It’s the damage that is done right down to your soul, by living under the power of other human beings. Glamour makes no difference. Prettiness makes no difference. Size makes no difference. Even length of time makes less difference past a certain point than you’d think.

Until you understand that damage — what it is, what it means, where it comes from — you will never get rid of institutions. You have to understand it on a very intimate level or you will reproduce it without knowing what you’re doing.

I still can’t tell you how long I was institutionalized. I can tell you roughly the amount of time I lived in mental institutions and other residential facilities. But that’s not the same as the amount of time I was in institutions. I call what I got when I got out, “community institutionalization”. That’s where you live with your parents but you spend most of the day being driven between various places — segregated schools, segregated day programs, segregated rec programs, each one with institutional power structures behind it. I remember mental institutions where they walked us to different parts of the grounds for different parts of the day. There’s not so much difference between that and being driven.

The transition between a locked ward on a mental institution and later periods of my life was so absolutely gradual that by the time I was “free”, I never noticed. That’s how they wanted it. I simply created the institutional walls around me wherever I went. That’s why I put “free” in quotes. If I had been someone else, I would have been free. Because I was me — because of my particular history — I was not. There were invisible walls all around me and I certainly never noticed the real ones were not there. Which was exactly the purpose behind what was done to me. They didn’t think I could function outside an institution so they carefully built one inside my head, making me truly unable to function anywhere.

I can get over the physical violence. The attempts on my life. The neglect. The sexual abuse. The parts of “normal life” that I missed and still am missing. So long as I physically survive (which even the recent rec program almost avoided) I will and can get over these things.

I am not sure to what extent I will ever get back the parts of me that died in order for the rest of me to survive. Every now and then I notice I’ve gotten a little bit back, and I think that finally everything will be okay. And then a little time passes and I realize how much is still gone.

I’m not even saying I can’t be reasonably happy. But there are parts of me I still have no idea if I will ever get back. Those parts weren’t destroyed by ugly bare rooms, horrific physical or sexual abuse, the loss of normal experiences, or any of the rest of the things most people think when they think of bad institutions. Those things happened to me and they are bad. But on a real basic level they are not the cause of the problem.

The cause of the problem is a certain exercise of power. Of person over unperson. And in order to survive it the inmates have to become as much of that unperson as they can manage. And that does violent damage deep inside the self, that can be incredibly hard to repair. It’s violent even when it comes with purported love and sweetness and light.

And until people can stop forcing us to damage ourselves in this way, institutions will continue. That, not anything else, is the core of what is wrong with them. But it’s much harder to put that into songs or images or even just words, that the average person would comprehend.