Musings on Social Control

23:40 Sat 24 Feb 2007. Updated: 02:49 25 Feb 2007
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One of the key problems with attempting to suppress certain behaviors in a subject population is that you end up introducing corruption into your system of government. I’m really referring to attempts to suppress behaviors that are popular in themselves (drinking alcohol being a classic example). You can’t really enforce demand, and most of the population will know that the proscribed activity goes on all the time behind closed doors.

Furthermore, they will know that many of the enforcers engage in it themselves, leading to immediate technical corruption (law enforcement engaging in illegal behavior that they’re supposed to be eliminating), corruption through selective enforcement (large segments of the population engage in the activity, and law enforcers will use this against people they don’t like while ignoring many others), and corruption through market forces (demand remains high, supply is limited by enforcement activities, so price skyrockets and makes available a lot of money for remaining suppliers to bribe law enforcement).

Also, a lot of feedback loops will be increasingly unreliable as the subject population becomes (even more) used to lying to authority.

These problems are all familiar, although many governments persist in trying pure enforcement approaches. Social control is easier with a veneer to back it up, of course. This veneer has traditionally been provided by religion, but any kind of morality with an emphasis on guilt will perform the same function. People who feel guilty about themselves will be more eager to escape that by denouncing others, and also to embrace a solid-seeming moral structure that gives them an illusion of clarity and direction.

In fact, things are a little murkier at this point in the discussion, because it’s not clear that what is being prohibited is more relevant than the fact that something is being prohibited. True social control isn’t necessarily about eliminating those behaviors that are openly suppressed (whatever those may be), but about maintaining power via a docile or distracted population.

People are obviously more timid if they’re insecure, and so social control systems push insecurity through guilt, and often seek to suppress activities that might obviate insecurity. The canonical example here is sexual intimacy, which is obviously a powerful human experience that it’s difficult for the power structure to mediate, and so seeking to restrict it in various ways is a hallmark of systems of social control.

It could be argued that drug use is another form of relief from social control, hence explaining why governments expend so much energy to suppress it, but I’m not sure I entirely accept that. However, it’s clearly the case that a lot of effort goes into attempting to make illegal drug users feel guilty and ostracized—despite the fact that illegal drug use is amazingly widespread.

There are more subtle methods, which the Western democracies have been perfecting over the years. The moral element is still present, but as more freedom (of expression, particularly) brings freedom to choose one’s own morality to a greater extent, other areas of potential insecurity are tapped. The big one in the modern West is status anxiety, specificaly insecurities about one’s place in the imaginary social comparison table.

This also involves the promotion of sexual insecurity, although it’s not clear whether that’s a subset of status anxiety, or vice versa, in us primates. Either way, the two are intermixed in our cultural environment, which features a tremendous amount of messages that are ostensibly designed to help us feel better, but are really designed to make us feel worse—this is basically the function of advertising, which pushes upon us status anxiety in order to sell products.

(It is, incidentally, an amazingly successful endeavor, despite the fact that most of us think that it doesn’t have much effect upon our thinking. The empirical evidence is clearly against this misconception.)

Apart from being more subtle in that no behaviors are openly prohibited using this model (just made to appear “uncool” or “unsexy”), it is also more subtle in that the power structure itself isn’t directly responsible for the messages. In the older models, the organized religion would attempt to pass on these messages and maintain an apparent independence from the state, but most critical observers could see where the two large organizations were joined. In the current Western model, the power structure merely fosters an environment in which independent organizations compete with each other to produce anxiety and insecurity in as many people as possible.

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