Friday, March 15, 2013

800 Words: To My 19 and 24 Year Old Political Selves, Part III

At my birthday party a few years ago, a friend from Hyde came to the party whom I hadn’t seen in a while. We came to Hyde at roughly the same time, left with the same graduating class, and ended up going to college for four years in the same city. During college we became pretty firm friends, but during our time at the Hyde Hilton, our attempts at friendship with one another had been extremely ill-tempered. On-and-off friendships at Hyde were an all too common thing as each student tried to ascertain the likelihood of which friend would use the blunt weaponry of the school’s psychological apparatus as a means to turn a personal disagreement into an accusation of a character flaw that needed to be ‘corrected.’

And during all those years of our proximity, he and I clearly developed extremely different feelings about our experiences. There are many people who look back upon Hyde with fondness. I won’t pretend that part of me still wants to view anyone from those years who ever held his opinion as a ‘collaborator’, willing to throw the dignity of peers under the bus to feel better about themselves. But there is one crucial thought which stops me from playing such blame games: to yield to such bitterness would be no different than stooping to the level of that shitty place. The most crucial lesson which every long-term Hyde student must unlearn is that standing firm at all costs for what you believe against those who feel differently is a recipe for the highest possible disaster. Hyde would have had us know that the self-glamorizing feeling one gets from sticking to one’s principles through all trials is life’s highest goal, and that the ability to tell truths at the expense of a harmonious existence is something to which we all should do regardless of cost. But it is precisely that ability to compromise, the ability to adapt, the ability to settle for whatever life endows you, the ability to agree to disagree and to live within a harmonious existence as best we can with one another which enables life to go on. Without that crucial ability to compromise our principles, the world would only be a place of fanaticism, cataclysm, and death.

Like any pre-existing system imposed on other people, the Hyde ‘philosophy’ was not a thought through system, it was a substitute for a thought-through system which was supposed to do our thinking for us. ‘Trust the process’ was another of their favorite maxims, and on a 2-dimensional level, they were exactly right to repeat it. If only their students did everything within their power to submit themselves to their exacting standards - or those of Opus Dei Catholicism, or Orthodox Judaism, or the Muslim Brotherhood, or International Communism - humankind would live a happier, more fulfilling existence. But then, human beings wouldn’t be human, would they? And because humans are human, there are some humans who resent the messiness of being human especially badly. And they invent all sorts of systems which are supposed to correct human nature. But rather than correct it, they contort it.

Furthermore, my own behavior in those years was hardly perfect. Not in terms of the screwups which landed me at Hyde, the imperfections of those go without saying - and those screwups continued long into my stay at Hyde (more on that another time...). In this case, my greater regret is for the behavior of the person I became after those screwups were corrected. After two years at Hyde of... for lack of a better description … suffering and cowering, I joined up and did what I could against panic attacks and revulsion to appear ‘with the program’ and distribute the misery to others which for two full years before before had consistently been distributed to me. And I can’t lie, at times, there was a feeling not unlike pleasure which accompanied the administration of such cruel punishment and the ability to say such cruel things to others. I did what I could to convince myself that I was doing the right thing, but you can’t square a circle. We all have our inner monsters, and should we choose to let them out, the results will, and should, haunt us unto our dying hour.  

I don’t doubt that many people really believed in the virtue of the coercion which they partook in at Hyde, but any impartial witness to the school who saw those things they conceal from everyone who is not on campus would be horrified. Not that they ever would see it: Hyde went to comically great lengths to conceal their real methods from visiting families, from school accreditors, sometimes even from the parents themselves.But we still ought to answer the question: would these impartial observers be right to be horrified?

Well... probably, but we should not be quite so quick to judge. Hyde provided a service which many families desperately require to save their children from addiction, violence, and predators. We should automatically grant that the methods with which the school dispels these terrible influences happen to be at a slight remove from the medieval. But has anyone found a more reliable method?

I did not read George Orwell’s essay: Such, Such Were The Joys, until years after leaving Hyde. And while I certainly saw many parallels between his experience of English boarding school and my experience of American 'character education', I had to admit, in many ways, Orwell got it worse; occasionally a lot worse. At least there was a fig-leaf on Hyde’s corporal punishment in which they’d find loopholes in the law to let charges experience as much physical pain as they could possibly find - no doubt with some grateful parent/lawyer going over the details of their proposed legal and physical contortions with the same fine-tooth comb his son once used to cut cocaine. But so far as I know, no one was ever beaten outright (at least not by the school), we had three daily meals of which were never deprived, and the school never used sleep deprivation as a weapon (though I did stay up three nights in a row from stress many times).  Moreover, Orwell went to St. Cyprian as the reward for being a gifted lower-middle-class scholarship student, whereas most of us went to Hyde because we were upper-middle-class to wealthy children of privilege who found a way to abuse freedom on a level about which the most upper-class children of Orwell’s generation could never dream.

At the very least, this is progress at work. What happens in today’s most disciplined boarding schools is not the torture of Imperial England in which the very acts of savagery were still legalized. Instead, it is the torture of Bush-era Imperious America, in which torture is technically illegal, but the law itself is used to resurrect it in more insidious ways. What happens to the most severely disciplined students in today’s America is torture-ish, but certainly not torture by the standards of Torquemada or Saddam.

In some sense, we all judge from privilege’s vantage. I revile torture as much as any well-meaning liberal should. But were I on the front lines of intelligence gathering, were I subjected to the no doubt unbearable knowledge of what it takes to prevent the proliferation of weapons throughout the world, would I feel the same way? And even if I did, would I feel like I had any ability within my power to convince others of my  belief when they’ve seen all the same terrible things as I have and came to the opposite conclusion?

Thankfully, I’m not the father up all night, waiting to see if my kid survives the drive home after another night of heroin use, or waiting to see if the policeman will call me to post bail after my son was positively ID’d as an accomplice in a gang beating, or waiting helpless as my daughter comes home to reveal another black eye clearly administered by a boyfriend she claims she loves. Maybe I’d feel differently if I were that father. I’m lucky enough that I don’t deal with these people anymore. Am I in a position to judge those people who do deal with them and feel differently from me?

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