Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Objectification, continued further

So, my question has been:

Is there a useful way to frame oppression and abuse that includes, but is not limited to, sociopolitical context as we tend to think of it these days (i.e. class, race, identity politics, gender and sexuality, age and ability, governmental politics and material "issues")? In other words: what if male over female (white over black, rich over poor) isn't the "primary" oppression? O.K., they're all real, and they all intersect; maybe one doesn't have to take precedence over the others. They're all worth studying, and fighting. But what's the common denominator? Is there one? What does it all mean, dear? Why do people act like this, anyway?

Well, now we're really getting into fundamental questions about human nature: what is aggression? what is power? Why are they necessary, or are they? Volumes have been written with this sort of question as a starting point, of course. One that's given me a lot of food for thought is "The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness," by Eric Fromm. I've also gotten a lot from various works by Robert Jay Lifton and Alice Miller (although I sometimes have the impression that Miller's work has undergone some reification in its own right)

For purposes of looking at this thing that's been called "objectification" though, I'm going to turn to the often-maligned field of self-help. Specifically, a book called "Controlling People," by Patricia Evans. Even though she never actually uses that word, objectification, preferring such terminology of her own as "connecting backwards." Whatever you want to call it--subtle as it is, yes, there is something wrong with this picture, for example:

A woman I'll call Betty walked into a cafe where I was having coffee with a friend. She was accompanied by her daughter, whom I'll call Suzy, about seven years old.

"What kind of ice cream do you want?" asked Betty...

"Mom, I want vanilla," said Suzy.

"Have chocolate chip," said her mother.

"No. I'll have vanilla."

"You'd like chocolate-walnut better."

"No. I want vanilla."

"You don't want vanilla. I know you prefer some kind of chocolate," said her mother.

"I want vanilla."

"You don't want vanilla."

"Yes I do."

"Well, aren't you a strange one," said her mother."

As the conversation progressed the mother's statements seemed more and more strange to me. They had an odd, backwards quality about them. Betty could only know her own likes and dislikes, not her daughter's. Betty was acting as though she knew what Suzy wanted.

Since Suzy's personal reality was negated, she was invited to ignore herself. She was actually told that what she knew from within--her preference--was wrong and that what she heard from without--her mother's conjecture--was right. She also heard that her authentic self (the one that wanted the vanilla) was not acceptable to her mother.

While Betty appeared to have had a good intention, to buy her daughter some delicious ice cream, she was in fact assaulting her daughter's psychic boundary

...even though, yes, it was a "small" assault, and yes, in this case, the child withstood it and stuck to her guns. No real harm done here...probably. But.

Evans goes on to talk about what would happen if the girl did take her mother's message to heart ("Oh, you're right, I guess I did want chocolate after all.")
What would happen is that she might temporarily get more approval from Mom (big relief) but at a price; she's disconnected from her own internal knowledge. Specifically, in this case, she'll need to disconnect from her sensory awareness--the way the ice cream tastes to her-- in order to convince herself that, oh, yeah, I do "like" chocolate better than vanilla. And she'll probably have to disconnect from her emotions somewhat; instead of feeling disappointed and angry at Mom (her real emotions) for twisting her arm, in order to maintain the relationship, she'll convince herself that she's happy and grateful.

Or, take another example of Evans': a young boy falls down and hurts himself. He starts to cry. Mom and Dad, for whatever reasons of their own, are upset by his crying. Instead of owning this, though, they say:

"You're not hurt. Stop crying."

...perhaps with a little "Boys don't cry" thrown in, just for that extra socialized layer of control. In order to maintain Mom and Dad's approval, sonny has to disconnect from the sensation of pain; from the sad emotions; from the shame at having his gender identity put on trial; and from the anger and confusion at having his needs for comfort dismissed.

Not such a big deal, though, that sort of thing, of itself. Right? Probably happens all the time, that sort of thing, right?

Well: yeah, exactly.

Evans is clear that this sort of transaction happens between adults as well as between adult and child. However, it's also pretty clear that someone who's grown up around very unconscious, controlling people is more likely to carry on the tradition him or herself as an adult, from both directions. (After all, the child has no other frame of reference, and the prospect of losing his/her caretaker's approval is much more devastating as it would be for an adult encountering this sort of behavior for the first time, as, for the child, it seems to carry the threat of actual abandonment; which means, essentially, death). There are other terms for this sort of thing, at least at the relatively mild level we've been talking about; "codependent," for example. It doesn't necessarily stop there, though.

Because, once you've learned to disconnect from your own internal compass as a matter of course, unless and until you learn to reconnect, you are open to a myriad of other abuses, subtle and gross. You also have the potential to be abusive yourself--at the least, invasive--in one way or another, and probably without ever realizing it. Because you have learned not to feel, or at least to know what you're feeling, partially or completely; because you have learned to rely on others' reactions instead of your heart and your guts and your gonads.

And if you even can't tell what you're feeling, it's very unlikely that you're going to be able to accurately judge what somebody else might be feeling. Of course, you could always just wait for them to tell you, or even ask them; but, mmmm, have you ever really learned to hear, really hear, someone else? Are you listening?

Well, can you hear your own "still, small voice?" Are you listening to yourself?

So how likely is it that you're going to be able to truly connect to someone else in the I-Thou way, if you're that disconnected from even yourself?

What tends to happen instead is, you're generally not actually relating to the other person at all, no matter how "close" you might appear; you are relating to, as Evans puts it, a Pretend Person. Another way of putting this could be to say that you are treating the other person as an extension of yourself, and/or letting him/her treat you as an extension of him/herself.*
Even when it's relatively benign, this sort of thing can be absolutely crazy-making:

"I'm cold. Put on a sweater."

or, better yet, go directly to:

"I know what your problem is. You're cold. Put on a sweater."

And then, there are the times when it's not so benign.

According to Evans, most abuse happens when a person who's very disconnected is suddenly confronted with the a glimpse of the reality of the other person as a separate individual, as opposed to the "pretend person" the controller has made up inside his/her head (and thus, an extension of him/herself). This can happen in a number of ways; the other person expresses disagreement with the controller; the other person expresses a desire that is not the same as the controller's desire; the other person acts and behaves in any way that does not fit the controller's image of the ideal pretend person; the other person fails to read the controller's mind.

In short, from any sane perspective, it could be pretty much any goddam thing at all; it doesn't much matter what the other person does, eventually it's going to go pear-shaped.

But if the other person is used to being around controllers, then chances are pretty good that s/he'll just internalize the criticism/rebuff/abuse and try to adjust...again.

And probably will promptly find herself/himself in yet another of these down-the-rabbit hole interactions:

"I know what you need."


"A sweater. Here. You're cold."

"No, not really."

"Yes, you are. You're cold. I can see you shivering. Put on a sweater before you catch pneumonia, for crissakes."

"Look, thank you, but I'm not cold. But if you're cold, you're welcome to borrow my sweater."

"I didn't say I was cold, I said YOU'RE cold. Why don't you ever listen to me?? And I don't want your goddam sweater, what do you think I am, some kind of charity case?! Stop trying to manipulate me!! Jesus!"

Or, consider the following:

"You're so selfish."

"You make me so angry."

"You should have known."

"Look what you made me do!"

...and so on, and so on, and...

Funnily enough, you can plug those into just about any gender or relational configuration and it still rings, at least to my ear. (That said, those looking for validation for their experience of male-to-female domestic abuse will find plenty of examples in Evans' book, from subtle to extreme).

Evans talks a bit about cults using this dynamic as well, (which is also a key subject for Robert Jay Lifton, by the way: how cults actually work, on any scale; including governments or religions or political organizations that have gone cultlike).

Cult is one of those loaded words. It's awful strong.

What I do think, though, in relation to politics...

Well, just maybe, in the midst of all this rigorous ideological self-interrogation and so forth, it might be worthwhile to tap down and get in touch with one's feelings every so often. Take a breath.

And maybe just consider one more question, i.e., whether there is, in fact, a difference between:

A (to B): "You're cold (as I once was). No, don't deny it. Here's what you need. Trust me; I know; I've been there. It's for your own good."


A: "I'm cold."

B: "Then I invite you to share my fire."

Back Next


antiprincess said...


that was some pretty thorough scholarship and analysis.

And I think you're spot-on, of course. But I'd agree with you if you were speaking in tongues and rolling around on the floor, so take that for what it's worth.

Lis Riba said...

BTW, these are great posts. I hope you'll considering submitting the series to the next Carnival of Feminists

belledame222 said...

Sure. I'm just saying: it's not everything. or at any rate it doesn't always work in such straightforward ways as man:abuser/woman:abusee.

Anonymous said...

I've had to print off these posts on objectification to read and absorb and think about. It feels like a conversation we have to have.

I thought this list from Martha Nussbaum would be useful. (From Sex and Social Justice, 1999 pge 218)

Seven ways to treat a person as a thing...

Hey, I'm going to test post this bit first in case I type for ages and can't send...having problems with my computer...

belledame222 said...

cicely: you know, whatever else might be going on with your computer, blogger's been screwed up all day; which is not uncommon.

as a general rule, one i don't follow but should: probably a good idea to back up the post or at least hit "select all" and "copy" before publishing.

can i just say, by the way, that my word verification here is


Excellent question.

Bamboo Lemur Boys Are Mean To Their Girls said...

This is chillingly familiar to me...
There are so many angles from which to look at the perplexities of myself..you've just opened up a door to another gallery room to explore.
Again as always, love the writing. Are you human or a little goddess?

Anonymous said...

I left a comment on another blog discussion about objectification as follows:

“in a way this passage shows that there is more to fantasy and sexual objectification than simply reducing the other to a thing – fantasy imagines the other’s agency, though it does imagine it to be what we want.”

Then it hit me – that’s exactly what belledame has been talking about here.

Of course in fantasy, what else would you have? You’re not going to fantasize that the attractive person over there is going to do anything but exactly what would gratify your desires – what else is fantasy about?

But how do we move past fantasy? What does it mean to move past fantasy?

The only path with integrity is to initiate some kind of contact and then be open to whatever follows, whatever is negotiated between the agency of the two of you.

There are two paths without integrity. The first is simply, stupid. It is to think that one can coerce, trick, deceive, or force the other to do what you want. To control the other. But what is it that you want?

According to the quote I used on the other blog, what you want, is (male heterosexual subject position speaking) something like “the adventure of the other’s caresses, her voice, her gestures.”

But the caresses are only caresses if they are given freely. Coercion, force, control, etc., are problematic for more profound reasons, but from the point of view of getting what one really wants, the results of these sorts of things when it comes to sexual affection would have to be an imitation, not the real thing.

Here is the other path without integrity, which is what belledame has been talking about, I think.

This is to simply project, onto the person who you see, a 3 dimensional holographic image of your own desires and wishes of the other person’s agency, and to use that imitation – fantasy – vision as a replacement of the other person in your own mind. And if you have enough power, maybe the other has to pretend to be the person you are projecting onto them…

The one who doesn’t like vanilla ice cream.

The one who isn’t gay.

Well, the problem is, epistemologically, that we do this sort of thing anyway, regardless. We don’t know each other directly, our senses put together a simulation or construction of “you” according to the rules by which brains do this sort of thing. So how can we really define the difference? Between a “reality-based” apperception of another person, open to surprises, and a “fantasy-based” projection onto them, which “corrects” their agency into what we want it to be?

[btw I use holographic with a very different meaning in my comments on the other blog]

belledame222 said...

You (one) don't do it perfectly, obviously. But it helps to be able to hear what people are actually telling you, to the best of your abilities.

Anonymous said...

One needs an open attitude toward the world, in which one accepts that one can be wrong. In which one is open to (self-)correction. The closed, authoritarian attitude is fundamentally (interesting word here) closed to the possibility of another person's "reality" being different than assumed.

belledame222 said...

This quote grabbed from Bitch Lab's rotating headline feels apropos:

"It takes time to listen; more to sort out what one hears according to the always ambiguous applications of the rules of interpretation. It is often painful to listen; to enter the worlds of others, leaving the haven of the intellect and risking the moisture of emotion so difficult to domesticate through measurement."
-- Manfred Stanley, Listening as Civic Virtue

Renegade Evolution said...

I am glad I went back and read this, very well done!

amanda said...

holy shit whoa.

I know this is over a year old, but I've been linksurfing and found my way to this series. And all I can say is thank you -- this post helped me come to some realizations about my own abusive relationship (with my mother) and I really appreciate that.

I know it doesn't fit in the sociopolitical theme you were going for -- but it hits home in a real way. So thanks.

belledame222 said...

hey, I'm really glad to hear it, Amanda.

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Anonymous said...

Hi. I know this is really old, and I'm mostly a lurker anyway. But this hit painfully close to home for me and I felt the need to say something.

I have been abused (by my father and my ex-boyfriend). I have also been abusive (towards certain friends mainly; I think friendships can be abusive just like familial or romantic ones can). And looking back on all of those experiences, this rings very true now. I can see the ways in which my abuser(s) were trying to control my identity and I can see the ways in which my abusive behavior was an attempt to control someone else. And I couldn't really before. It didn't really connect like that. So thank you for helping me bridge that gap. I know I'm not very articulate right now but I'm not sure how to be.

I relate to disconnection you express. I do feel disconnected a lot, from myself and other people. The only thing is trying to get back in touch with myself emotionally hurts bad, it's so painful that I can't take it and I have to retreat into a disconnected state because feeling a disconnect is better than feeling that searing internal pain that I find I just can't take. So I don't really know what to do about this.

But thank you for writing this post, a lot. It was really helpful in terms of making it easier for me to understand certain things. Thank you.

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