Category Archives: Suffering in the Modern World

Masochism in Political Behaviour

A few months ago I commented on Jeremy Carrette’s essay, ‘Intense Exchange: Sadomasochism, Theology and the Politics of Late Capitalism’, expressing frustration at the way in which the author speaks of the need to ‘free our gendered bodies from the market of global exploitation’, but refuses to commit himself to identifying sadomasochism either as part of the problem or as part of the solution. It might be supposed, then, that I would feel much more comfortable with Filip Kovacevic, ‘Masochism in Political Behavior: A Lacanian Perspective’ (2011). And yet, despite the fact that Kovacevic makes it perfectly explicit that, in his view, ‘masochism is a part of the problem and not the solution’, I found his thesis so unsatisfactory that, by the end, I felt positively well-disposed towards Carrette, whose ambivalence at least gives tacit recognition to the imperfectness of the fit between masochistic tendencies and political achievement. By contrast, Kavacevic’s equation of any kind of voluntary-undertaken suffering – from the sufferings of Christ to hunger strikers and suicide bombers – with masochism seems to me to be a distorted oversimplification.

Not that Kavacevic doesn’t hit the nail on the head now and again. Some of what he says about the vicious cycle of political protest and reform rings true, as when he says of a miners’ strike in Montenegro that the miners’ intention ‘was not to effect permanent and lasting changes in their position toward the Other who confronted them, but only to create “enough” anxiety in the Other so that [Prime Minister Djukanovic´] would resolve this particular situation’. A few weeks later, when Djukanovic´ ‘did not fulfill all that he promised’, the cycle repeated itself, and ‘the miners took it out on themselves again’. In this way, through a process of, on the one hand, gratifying and on the other of producing anxiety in the ‘Other’, ‘the masochistic relation will be reasserted, condemning the masochist to constant repetition and the Other’s enjoyment is re-established as a trap from which the masochist can never (quite) escape’.

The way out of this endless cycle, Kavacevic argues, is for the oppressed to ‘move from being the objects of the Other’s enjoyment to being the objects of the Other’s desire’. He sees a neurotic / hysteric response as being superior to a masochistic one;  ‘hysterics, positioning themselves as objects of the Other’s desire, reveal the fact that the dominating Other is lacking and this is exactly what allows them to push for the construction of less oppressive, tolerant Others’.

Having made it clear that he regards Christ and Christianity as doing more harm than good, Kavacevic holds up Socrates as a positive role model, homing in on Socrates’s ironic call on the state of Athens ‘to provide him with life-long honors, while he was being condemned to death’. ‘Masochists’, he says, ‘cannot be ironic’, concluding:

conveying the irony of their situation to hunger-strikers (and suicide bombers) is the only way to help them begin their subjective transformation. Stated in Lacanian terms, masochists position themselves to serve as instruments of enjoyment to a non-existent Other. What could be more absurd and open to ironic interpretation than that?

This does, I admit, give me food for thought, but I am really not sure that there is any real way to distinguish between the ironic sufferer and the masochistic one. I can see that appealing to the Other through self-inflicted suffering is a weaker option than working through the Other’s desire/need for approval, but I’m not even quite sure that this is what Kavacevic is saying.

In short, yet another thought-provoking article that ultimately fails to completely satisfy!

“Necessary” suffering

I posted this on Quora, in answer to someone who wanted to know if there is such a thing as necessary suffering. To see the complete thread, click here (you’ll need to create a log-in ID if you want to add comments).

In an age before anaesthetics this question could hardly even have been asked. Suffering was unavoidable, inevitable, inescapable, and therefore, given the belief in a benign deity, it had to serve a purpose, to be necessary in some way. Today the assumption is often that suffering is avoidable and should be avoided wherever possible, but in terms of the history of ideas, belief in the necessity of suffering is actually fairly close behind us.

During the early modern period people were trying to reconcile classical ideas like Stoicism with Christianity, and at the beginning of the 17th century there were still people who held up Stoic practices as an inducement to Christian virtue. The message was something like, “If those pagans could suffer so much, could you not suffer for Christ, who also suffered so much for you?”.
Unlike Catholics, Protestants did not on the whole go in for self-imposed penances, but they nevertheless believed that, as a rule, if you wanted to get to heaven you had to suffer. Not only that, but you had to rejoice to suffer “for Christ’s sake”. This was slightly different from the aim of the Stoics, which was to inure oneself equally to pleasure and pain, but it was clearly related.
Suffering was of two types, punitive and redemptive. If one was merely suffering, one was probably simply getting a foretaste of the suffering one would endure after death and damnation. If one gladly bore the burden of one’s sufferings one was thereby purified and made suitable for entry into heaven.

The belief in the necessity of suffering in these terms put an incredible psychological strain on people. If you weren’t suffering, well, you were very likely going to go to hell, but if you were suffering and not rejoicing in it, then you were also probably going to go to hell!
It’s perhaps not surprising that this way of thinking, which was particularly widespread among puritans, resulted in fairly widespread depression. Alec Ryrie writes well about this in Being Protestant in Reformation Britain, though, since his interest is in showing the life of everyday Protestants, he largely overlooks Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy.

As Gowland puts it, ‘Burton’s medicalisation of the moral and theological traditions of melancholy gave them a conceptual coherence which they had previously lacked’ (Burton’s Anatomy and the Intellectual Traditions of Melancholy). Burton opens up the debate on the whole issue of whether we have to suffer and be miserable in this world, or whether we have a right to be happy. He’s not the only one, of course, but his is a coherent and influential voice. 

By the end of the 17th century, attempts to incorporate or adapt Stoic attitudes in a Christian context were more or less routinely rejected (Yamamoto-Wilson, Pain, Pleasure and Perversity: Discourses of Suffering in Seventeenth-Century England, p. 32) and the idea gained ground rapidly that, yes, it is OK to be happy, and if you pursue a path of suffering you are being perverse.

In our modern world suffering has become something of a taboo. We don’t (thankfully) whip, hang and disembowel convicted criminals on the street, as they did in those days. People don’t flagellate themselves for the good of their souls, as many Catholics routinely did even into the 20th century. We don’t see lepers dying on street corners (though, in many cities, we see junkies and the homeless). 

Most crucially of all, though, perhaps, most of us don’t go through the kind of mental agonies of people like John Bunyan (see, in particular, his Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners) about whether we are or are not chosen of God or predestined to eternal torment. Except in a very few spheres (notably training for sports, swotting for exams, etc., with a clear goal in this world, or news stories that, in part, satisfy some morbid atavistic curiosity in the suffering of others), suffering is mostly swept under the carpet.

But this comfortable, anaesthetized world has its own weaknesses. OK, it might seem unduly heavy to say that we should spend our days anticipating and preparing for our inevitable death, instead of frittering our lives away in pursuit of shallow pleasures, but there must be many, many people who spend their final days and hours – or even weeks, months or years – in terrible physical pain, totally unequipped, mentally or emotionally, to deal with it, because they have never given this prospect a moment’s serious thought in their lives.

Equally, there are many many people who have no insight at all into what others are going through, no empathy, no ability or even wish to care about the pain of others. This is a difficult one; even back in the 17th century, people like Hobbes were of the opinion that to be pitied is to be looked down on and dishonoured ( Leviathan, page 43). He was also pretty clear – like many others of his period – that there were occasions when to be kind was actually a form of cruelty in itself. For example, if you deal with a murderer with compassion and let him/her go free then you are responsible for the consequences when that murderer maims and kills others. From the 17th-century point of view, there are times when it is necessary to impose suffering, a view that modern society still reflects in its penal system.

At the same time, compassion, in particular loving one’s enemies, formed a very important part of 17th-century discourse, especially among Protestants. The ability to put oneself in another’s shoes, to imagine their plight and do what one could to alleviate it was extolled as one of the highest virtues. One of the functions of suffering was to awaken sympathy in others.

On the whole, I’m glad we’ve left the 17th century behind, with its plagues, its massacres, its public spectacles of brutality and so forth. At the same time, I think we have a lot to learn from the past. We can avoid suffering for a while, with money to cushion us and medicines to salve us, but we are fooling ourselves if we think that suffering can ever finally be done away with. And if we think we can routinely turn our backs on the suffering of others with impunity we make the world a worse, not a better place.

For all its faults, 17th century society knew this, whereas today there are a lot of people who are in danger of forgetting or ignoring it.

Suffering in the Modern World #3: Why suffering people make perverse decisions…

Linda Tirado, Night Cook, Essayist, Activist, This Is Why Poor People’s Bad Decisions Make Perfect Sense

Lots of pain here, not much pleasure, and a fine explanation of why decisions that may seem perverse or self-destructive make perfect sense to the people who make them.

Suffering in the Modern World #2: Those who live by the sword…

Another political post, that has nothing (much) to do with the seventeenth century (except, perhaps, insofar as ‘plus ça change…’). I’m not planning to make a habit of posts like these – I just want to get it off my chest!

I don’t think I have ever been so upset by a news story as I was by the account, in November 2008, of  a thirteen-year-old girl stoned to death in Somalia for ‘adultery’. The story is one of unmitigated horror. The girl was terrified, and begged for mercy, but was thrust into a hole and buried up to her neck. Some fifty men threw stones at her. Nurses were engaged to confirm that she was dead. She wasn’t, so they threw more stones.

In addition to the horror of the scene was the background to the
case; apparently, the girl was a victim of multiple rape and, instead of
seeking justice for her, the militia in control of the town made her the guilty party. Even the crowd of over a thousand that went to witness the stoning was reportedly appalled. According to a member of that crowd, ‘People were saying this was not good for Sharia law, this was not good for human rights, this was not good for anything’.

But what will always bring a lump to my throat more than anything else is the role of the girl’s father. When his daughter told him what had happened to her, he went to the authorities to try and get justice for her. That, for me, brings out the enormity of what happened more than anything else – a little girl’s trust in her father, his trust in the authorities, and the sheer brutality and callousness of the violation of that trust makes some of the hardest reading I have ever come across. The anguish of the father, and the innocence of the daughter’s trust in him are not described in the accounts of her death, but just thinking about them adds a layer of pathos that I find almost unbearable.

A month later, Chris Albin-Lackey of Human Rights Watch published an article on the humanitarian crisis in Somalia that – while it does not tear at the heartstrings in the same way – is, in its own way, equally upsetting:

America’s most visible response to the crisis has been a series of air strikes against terrorism suspects that have mostly killed civilians. The air strikes – and the way in which US officials have ignored overwhelming evidence of Ethiopian and transitional government war crimes – have fueled anti-American sentiment.

US policy not only has displayed a callous disregard for the basic human rights of Somalis, but it has failed on its own terms, breeding the very extremism it sought to eliminate. Drawing on widespread hostility to the Ethiopian intervention and resentment of the abuses, insurgents loosely grouped under the banner of a group called Al-Shabaab (“youth”) have become the most powerful military force on the ground. Al-Shabaab’s leaders preach a kind of Islamist extremism that had never managed to take root in Somalia before the nightmare of the last two years. (The US Role in Somalia’s Calamity)

It was Al-Shabaab who put that little girl to death, and I’m not going to be shedding too many tears over the fact that they have been ousted from Kismayo, the town where her infamous murder took place. But I worry when I read reports like this:

Mounting concern about the twin threats posed by pirates and Islamic insurgents operating in Somalia has led Britain and other EU nations to consider the feasibility of air strikes against their logistical hubs and training camps, the Guardian has been told. (Somalia: UK weighs up air strikes against rebels)

At that time (February 2012), air strikes in Somalia were just being mooted, but a year later they were a reality – though not one the US was admitting to publicly (January 2013 Update: US covert actions in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia). Five years on, and the same policy of air strikes which Albin-Lackey accuses of ‘breeding the very extremism’ it is supposed to be stamping out is still going strong.

Am I reassured by new American guidelines, stating that ‘before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured’ (Obama’s Speech on Drone Policy)? Not particularly. Within a week of Obama making that speech, reports are coming in that US air strikes have killed and wounded civilians in Afghanistan (Six Afghan civilians killed, 12 injured in US-led air strike). Whether true or not, reports like this on Islamic news channels have verisimilitude, and will continue to radicalize populations against the US.

The message that US policies are backfiring is as pertinent today as it ever has been, with even high-profile mainstream establishment figures like General Stanley McChrystal and General
Cartwright beginning to voice their concerns (The blowback: When American violence leads to anti-American violence).

As I said in my post on torture, the real issue is not the questionable legality of such action, nor whether it is or is not effective. The real issue is that by adopting methods like these the US and its allies lose the moral high ground. The only way the ‘civilized’ world is going to achieve anything worth achieving is by making it clear that is civilized, and that, however brutal and despicable the methods of others are, it will consistently and guaranteeably rise above such methods. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Suffering in the Modern World #1: Torture in the USA

I’m sorry, but this post can hardly avoid being political!

The degree of cruelty and sheer nastiness that one finds in seventeenth-century discourse is connected, in part, with the extent to which pain was publicly inflicted. Whole families might gather to enjoy the spectacle of a bear being tormented by dogs, a public flogging, or the disembowelment and hanging of a criminal. The idea that humans (if not animals) have a right not to be subjected to certain forms of treatment finds rudimentary expression in seventeenth-century England’s 1689 Bill of Rights (1689), which first uses the expression ‘cruel and unusual punishment’.

However, the purpose of the 1689 Bill was not to prohibit specific types of punishment, and the expression ‘cruel and unusual’ in this context ‘seems to have meant a severe punishment unauthorized by statute and not within the jurisdiction of the court to impose’ (Anthony Granucci,  ‘“Nor Cruel and Unusual Punishments Inflicted”: The Original Meaning’, California Law Review, 57.4 (1969): 855–9; p. 859.). In other words, state-inflicted cruelty was defined as a result of authority exceeding its mandate (which might – and did – include whipping and other forms of physical torture), rather than what we understand by that expression today.

Sheldon Richman expresses the modern view when he says, ‘The fundamental case against torture…is…that it is immoral’ (The State of Torture in America). Just as people have a right not to be subjected to certain kinds of treatment, so governments and their agents have a duty not to implement such treatment or allow it to be implemented. Nevertheless, the Findings and Recommendations of the Constitution Project‘s Task Force on Detainee Treatment devote considerable space to the question of whether the American government acted in contravention of its own constitution, which takes us right back to the concept of cruel and unusual as it existed in 1689, as well as exploring the issue of whether – as is claimed – any significant information was obtained by the use of torture on suspected terrorists.

The Task Force’s answer in the first case is, yes; the American government sanctioned behaviour that was ‘directly counter to values of the Constitution’, and in the second case, no; ‘There is no firm or persuasive evidence that the widespread use of harsh interrogation techniques by U.S. forces produced significant information of value.’ On the contrary, ‘There is substantial evidence that much of the information adduced from the use of such techniques was not useful or reliable’ (Findings and Recommendations).

These two points may help to reinforce the basic one – that torture is immoral – but they should not be allowed to obscure it; the point is not whether the constitution can be twisted in such a way as to allow for the mistreatment of prisoners, nor whether such mistreatment may have led to the uncovering of useful intelligence. The point is that torture is wrong. The seventeenth century fascinates me, but we’ve left it behind, and I, for one, have no wish to bring it back!