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Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...

Precedent (2020-05-03)

Quoted snip from a youtube video exploring questions about what support survivors of child abuse may owe to their abusive parents. Quoted snip from a youtube video exploring questions about what support survivors of child abuse may owe to their abusive parents.
Quoted snip from a youtube video exploring questions about what support survivors of child abuse may owe to their abusive parents.

In the course of my wanderings, I have worked at various times in the world of government regulation, that area of government activity that libertarians and corporate shills scream is destroying our freedom. They go conveniently silent and unable to reason when faced with evidence that lack of regulation leads to ruthless destruction and exploitation that ultimately ricochets back even on those who thought they were the inevitably successful destroyers and exploiters. Precedent is a big deal in regulation, because logically enough, we expect to adjust regulations based on the outcomes from having them in place. If they don't have the intended end result, then the regulations get changed. Of course, there is plenty of unfortunate wiggle there, because we have to be clear on whose desired outcome is to be taken as the measure of a regulation, as well as which precedent is taken seriously. A few different quotes I happened upon made me sit down and think very hard about "precedent" and its practical meanings beyond mere government regulation. My trusty OED defines the noun precedent as "an earlier event or action that is regarded as an example or guide to be considered in subsequent similar circumstances." Now, here is the first quote. It is from supposed "friend of the Indian" J. Lee Humfreville, on page 56 of his book Twenty Years Among Our Hostile Indians (1899 edition). Feel free to check a scan of the original at the Internet Archive. I have added emphasis to one word.

Coupled with his barbarous instincts, or rather with a part of them, was his natural inclination to cruelty. It has been said that all savage races are like children, in that they have no adequate conception of suffering or pain endured by others. They were entirely devoid of sympathy. The controlling instinct of the Indian was to kill.

Before delving into this paragraph a bit more, I suspect that many readers would have the same reaction as I did to this, wanting to know who the hell this Humfreville guy was. Well, on doing some further research, I learned that he was a veteran of the united states civil war, fighting on the union side. He stayed in military service for some years after that war, until he took command of a company of Black soldiers. As Ron Field recounts on page 9 of Buffalo Soldiers 1866-91 (Osprey Publishing 2004), punctuation and emphases as in the original text:

Occasionally, the buffalo soldiers were the victims of cruelty from their own officers. During December 1872 and January 1873, Captain J. Lee Humfreville, Company K, 9th Cavalry, inflicted a number of cruelties on the men under his command while on detached service performing escort duty. Seven troopers were handcuffed and forced to march from Fort Richardson to Fort Clark, Texas (a distance of about 400 miles) tied to the back of an army wagon. At the end of each days march, the same men remained manacled and were required to carry a log weighing about 25 pounds up and down in front of a sentinel. On another occasion, Captain Humfreville punched Private Jerry Williams, who was being restrained by two NCOs. The officer next ordered Williams to be hung from a tree, following which he hit him over the head with a club! He also ordered Private Malachi G. Pope to be thrown into a stream during very cold weather and refused to allow any of these men to light camp fires at night time. On December 4, 1873, Captain Humfreville faced a court-martial and was dismissed from the service.

We can fairly conclude that Humfreville had serious problems with respecting the humanity of people under his command or other control, especially if they were racialized in any way. He is far from a neutral or friendly witness. "Buffalo soldiers" nicknamed from the presumed (not necessarily literal) resemblance between the hair on their heads and that of bison, found themselves often ordered to assist in attacks on Indigenous communities and nations in "the west" of the expansionist united states.

I am not raising all this for the reasons that might be expected. Let's go back to the first quote, in which the default "Indian" is male, yes. But more importantly for this thoughtpiece, the attitude and actions of children are equated with a "natural inclination to cruelty," lacking an "adequate conception of pain or suffering endured by others," "entirely devoid of sympathy." We can probably assume he did not intend the last calumny against Indigenous men to be applied to children. Let me be clear, this was not shocking stuff in Humfreville's time for someone to write about Indigenous people in general, even less so about children. For people born into protestant religions of more extreme nature, those insisting that every human is born sinful and basically akin to demons until battered into christian conformity, this was not considered questionable. Plenty of other people did question this, but often only to insist that children be reformed gently by removal from the presumed evil influence of their parents, older siblings, or even peers. They were concerned about precedent, of course, about the examples set before those children's eyes.

This is ordinary stuff, and versions of it are still widespread, so widespread that more and more schools resemble prisons, including on site police officers and demands that students constantly wear and show picture identification without which they can't enter or leave the building. With these sort of messages at the turn of the twentieth century, it is a matter of sheer wonder to me that anyone is surprised by how widespread child abuse is, that it is endemic in colonialist cultures. It is not coincidental that this is tied with self-evidently toxic masculinity. The best description of toxic masculinity I have read, including how it is inculcated in boys, is provided in a long read blog post by That Wizard Guy at his blog Social Justice Wizardry, originally posted 20 october 2019. He provides important counter quotes to those above. I have italicized his quote from bell hooks, which he also clearly marked as a quote in his post.

A large part of masculine socialization is dependent on the killing of positive emotions that are deemed feminine, and the prevention of many ways of thinking and behaving that simply make a person feel wholesome, because they are simultaneously deemed to be girly.

I'm not the first to point this out. Andrea Dworkin talked about it as well if I remember correctly. (I probably picked it up from her.) The brilliant bell hooks explains the same thing the following way, as I've found just recently:

The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence towards women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem. ~ bell hooks

To elaborate: the boy has to be loud and active, so he can't relax. He has to assert himself, which means conflict and stress. He can't be too gentle – even to the things he loves – because he's not some kind of faggot now, is he? It becomes worse when boys begin to ridicule, ostracize, bully each other based on perceived effeminacy. It becomes really soul-breaking at that point. Sure, masculine socialization means learning to be the oppressor under patriarchy, but for the individual boy, especially the one who has no natural predisposition to the characteristics expected of masculinity, who instead is soft and gentle by nature, the role he is expected to play is his doom.

For many, the result is massive repression. Repress all the positive emotions. Even if you're not very active, never just relax and enjoy the calm; sulk around with a grim face instead. If you dare to feel light-hearted joy in the first place: don't dare expressing it with a heartfelt laugh, because laughing is for when you're victorious over your rival whom you've just dominated – otherwise it's a frivolous girly expression. Gentle touches and caresses are for girls and faggots, so you don't let anyone touch you. If you can't be the glorious masculine hero, you become the emotionless robot, the gloomy depressed kid who's indifferent to pretty much anything, because then at least he's not girly.

Now, here we are, in the early twenty-first century. We know what precedent means, we know how we can use it to guide actions and the methods of regulation we set up and apply in our societies. There is now thousands of years of evidence in all of our faces that patriarchy is not working, and how it is handed down and used to deform boys and men into reproducing it anyway. It is past time to take all that precedent seriously.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2021
Last Modified: Monday, May 29, 2017 2:03:23