Most people persist in believing two utterly discredited falsehoods. The first is that punishment is necessary; ultimately good for the people punished and that it works effectively. Further, we believe that people that “need” punishment, the application of various sorts of violence on those people in particular, leaves no lasting effects, other than to correct their previously unacceptable behaviour. These two falsehoods are upheld as if they were true (or ever true). In fact, they are the fundamental basis of our approach, at an institutional level, to dealing with so many aspects of society.
People live in fear of violent coercion their whole lives. They fear the State. They fear the authorities. Do the wrong thing by them and they will physically or psychologically injure you, take away your livelihood, or worse, lock you in a cage. Just about everybody seems more powerful than a lone individual and all of those mighty institutions are happily, blithely willing to deal out a bit of punishment for the most petty of transgressions. We are their prey.
We deal with this fear by supporting the notion of “forces”. We vote for them, in the hope that they will exercise their capacity for violence on our behalf, to protect us, yet so often all that happens is that those forces, which we created, funded, sustained and staunchly advocated, turn against us. We create the predator which preys upon us.
It’s the logic of the strongman. I am strong and you are weak, therefore you must bend to my will and if you don’t, I will exert decisive, coercive, violent force upon you, until you do what I say. Every speech, by political candidates that rely on base, irrational fear for their support, argues along these lines, routinely. Every one of their speeches is just a variation on this essential theme.
Strongmen believe themselves to be invincible and to have become strong by having been hardened (i.e. abused) themselves. In reality, many of the biggest bullies in the world had it easy, though there are notable historical records of terrible madmen, who killed millions, by their dreadful acts and attitudes to others, who were not as strong as them. These notorious monsters were, indeed, horrifically brutalised and abused in childhood. Hitler and Stalin spring immediately to mind.
What is coming to light, from recent research, is how very fragile we are. Increasing evidence is showing how very sensitive to adverse childhood experiences we all are. We are so exquisitely sensitive to the abuse, that it changes our very physiology and psychology permanently, for the rest of our lives and not for the better. We lose something forever, with every episode of abuse. Those events are unrecoverable. We never get the chance to regrow. There are so many “once and forever” events in human development, but they don’t cease in the womb and the damage cannot be erased.
It’s the psychological damage that appears to be so decisive. The physical scars resulting from violence and abuse often heal, eventually, but the memory of the injustice dealt to the psyche lasts forever. It’s indelible and it seldom heals, like a physical wound does. The mental scar tissue is far more complex than previously realised.
Yet, so much of the modern world is purpose-built to keep people under sustained psychological assault. It’s unrelenting, ambient and inescapable. Every waking hour, for some people, can be nothing but more psychological abuse heaped on a mountain of existing psychological abuse. The manipulation, coercion and barely concealed threats of violence are incessant. Obey, or bad things will happen to you. Comply or die. The interference in your life is unending. Some people are actually so fearful; they believe that more of this is better for us than simply choosing to end it. They are tragically, misguidedly, catastrophically wrong.
What accumulates, steadily, over time, is dysfunctional anxiety, chronic stress, burnout and even what, for all practical purposes, is equivalent to post traumatic stress disorder. Every adverse event we experience, strong enough to scar our psyche, adds to the changes that take place in our physiologies, due to stress. Our blood and brain chemistry responds by releasing fight or flight hormones. If we’re constantly under some kind of existential threat, real or perceived, our reaction is one of constant over-stimulation of our instinctual responses to escape or defeat the threat. Studies have shown that a wide range of adverse events that we experience, especially in younger life, contribute to this heightened sense of danger and distress. Even being ignored by somebody whose attention really matters to you equates, physiologically, to experiencing pain. We actually feel the hurt in measurable ways.
You may ask what the consequences of living life in a state of constant anxiety and upset are. How does the human body react to the sustained assault on its wellbeing and peace of mind? Research reveals that it wipes decades off your life expectancy. Everything in your body is being pushed harder than it was designed to be, as you constantly fight for what you perceive to be your survival. You experience a range of physical ailments, some of which will prove to be prematurely fatal. As you experience each new adverse event, you feel as though you are dying, a little more, inside. The reason is that you are.
If authoritarian institutions and culture were the only cause of adverse childhood experiences (and adulthood experiences, for that matter), we might be able to withstand the indignities and injustices, but we’re punished in myriad other ways, at the same time. We’re not only punished as a means of coercion, by the self appointed busybodies that wish to straighten and correct the rest of us; we’re also punished for our poverty, health misfortunes, sheer bad luck and for trusting those who we ought to be able to trust. They betray us.
Entire city populations are lead poisoned, by wholly avoidable corruption of their water supply, leading to permanent, irreversible, developmental impairments, so that a few privileged leaders can save about $100 a day. We accumulate fat cells that we can never get rid of, which remain in our bodies forever, once established, because the food we’re fed from childhood under-nourishes and harms us; for profit. We’re exposed to all manner of toxins and endocrine disruptors, stealthily unleashed upon us by people that do not acknowledge the fragility of the human organism, or the permanence and irreversibility of the harm they cause. These assaults on us are perpetrated for the flimsiest, most pathetic of reasons: personal enrichment, so that the beneficiaries can live lives of opulent idleness and unearned comfort. All of these “punishments” have the same root. They are inflicted on others because the perpetrators believe everybody else is unworthy and undeserving of their consideration, care and better treatment. We’re considered disposable, if our concerns are considered at all.
These adverse experiences lead to the diminution and dysfunction of key brain structures, such as the amygdala. Our growth is stunted. Our HPA axis is exhausted. These physiological changes, in response to an avalanche of adverse events, throughout our lifetimes, give rise to a population that takes unreasonable risks, with poor impulse control, who gradually lose their capacity for feeling and empathy. Slowly, by degrees, we’re transformed into mini-psychopaths. The adverse events take their toll on our very identities, changing people who, by nature, would otherwise be loving and peaceable, into addicts, dangerous co-inhabitants of the planet and calloused creatures, capable only of inflicting unspeakable harm on their fellow earth-dwelling beings. They hunt and kill for pleasure. They conquer and defeat each other. They use competition as a justification for cruelty and casual, insouciant torments.
In reacting to the harm and adverse experiences inflicted on them, as children, through bullying, broken relationships, betrayals, the meting out of indignities and injustices, physical, psychological, emotional and even sexual abuse, peer pressure, rules and regulations, from cold, distant parents, from isolation and loneliness, through institutional regimes that deliver only harsh cruelty in the name of discipline and order, they set their course of taking their revenge on humanity. The victims determine to inflict the same, or worse, on other victims, who they perceive to be weaker or different.
This cycle of abuse and violence cascades down the generations. There is strong evidence accumulating of an epigenetic inheritance of the effects of adverse experiences, passing the physiological and psychological damage down to one’s blameless, innocent, offspring, by detectable changes in the expression of key genes. Again, “once and forever” developmental stages are disrupted or degraded, by adverse events and experiences visited upon the mother and/or father.
The way we, as a society, deal with damaged individuals, so dreadfully in pain from their adverse childhood experiences that they turn to petty or violent crime, substance abuse or sheer, anti-social defiance is that we punish them some more. The punishment just makes everything worse. Damaged individuals, already keenly feeling the injustice and agony of previous, punishing adverse experiences have even more injustice piled on top of their existing and accurate sense of injustice. The pain simply becomes more excruciating and so the coping behaviours become ever more extreme and unacceptable to other people. These people become magnets for the straighteners and correctors in society, themselves the product of childhood deprivation, violence and abuse, whose only motivation is to assuage their own psychological agony by trying to control totally their external environment and everybody in it, according to their will.
If you think about it, punishment is a species of adverse childhood experience. It also becomes a type of adverse adult experience. The result of punishment is a series of physiological changes that lead to a diminution of lifespan and quality of life. Life, indeed, becomes nasty, brutish and short, due to the infliction and suffering of all manner of punishments, manipulations, betrayals, coercions and violence of all stripes. In other words, punishment is tantamount to a very gradual form of pre-meditated killing. In fact, it is murder, delivered in slow-cooker fashion.
What can artists do to draw attention to our fragility, the harm we do to each other and to our biosphere and the consequences of a culture that believes in harshness, totalitarian control and the settling of disputes through fights to the death? The role of the artist, I submit, is to enlighten, soothe and heal. By turning humanity’s attention toward creation, instead of destruction and toward beauty, instead of ugliness, artists can help ordinary people understand what has been done to them and what they are doing to others.
Artists can create works of art that lead people to question their assumptions about their irrational (and rational) fears and to challenge their fear-based addiction to punishment and authoritarianism. Their artworks can lead people to understand the true source of their civilisation and to expose the liars that falsely claim to deliver it, while simply, criminally feathering their own nests. In short, artists can help us question what prevents us all from flourishing and help us imagine a better world for all.
In the end, we’re all much more fragile and breakable than we’ve previously acknowledged and adhering to the idea that we’re not is pure bigotry, chauvinism and ignorance; nothing more. It flies in the face of the evidence. Next time you consume anything provided by the mainstream media, bear this in mind.