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Taking Umbrage

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Let me start out by agreeing with a few of the posts.  There is certainly a lot of moral posturing in the group I’m talking about, and certainly a lot of inauthenticity. 

But the fact remains that these people–not just any goup of moral posturers or any herd of independent minds–were first off the dock on slavery, at least in the US, and the first to champion the political equality of women, among other things.

These are not small things, nor are they in any way negligible, and I think it remains an open question a to whether the ability to think through them–to arrive at the determination that slavery is wrong, and then to commmt do do something about getting it abolished–requires a certain kind of mind that thinks a certain kind of way, and that mind and its way of thinking are also susceptible to all these other specific things.  

Annoying as these people may be, and dangerous as they may be in certain situations, we may need them.

But, yes, back to Nurse Ratchett.  Robert is right, of course.  Nurse Ratchett isn’t confined to tis particular group of people and this particular kind of politics. She occurs in all movements and in most institutions.  I’ve been trying to figure out if she’s always a she, and although I’ll admit that I’ve never met a male who uses this particular approach, I can imagine one.   And the psychiatrist played by William Fichtner in The Chumscrubber is one, so maybe other people have run into the male variety.

I think fewer people are familiar with Nurse Ratchett these days than are familiar with her most recent popular reincarnation–meaning  Delores Umbrage of Harry  Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

I don’t know the actress who plays the part in the movie from anything else, but she’s absolutely rilliant.  If this is a character type you’re not sure of, you might want to see if the movie is on one of your local cable stations.  They’re replaying it a lot these days because the new movie is due in theaters next week.

What characterizes a Nurse Ratchett has been described by many people as a kind of “soft totalitarianism,” and it’s characteristic of certain kinds of “fuzzy science” “professionals.”

I’m using all those scare quotes advisedly.  The thing is, this is as much a management technique as anything, and I’ve seen it used in public meetings and other places where somebody had an agenda they wanted to push through and not a chance of getting it through in a free and open debate. 

It consists of using a very soft voice, a very “encouraging” manner, and driving relentlessly to a single acceptable conclusion.

“You don’t really want to do that, now, do you,dear?”

In the last twenty years or so, a lot of teachers have been taught to deal with students this way, especially elementary and middle school students, a circtumstance that I think could account for at least some school shootings.  

It’s also the basic method behind some of the big anti-drug abuse, anti-alcohol abuse and anti-bullying programs, which is funny, because it is, of course, a particularly brutal brand of bullying in itself.

We’re going to help you make good choices, the programs say–but only one choice is allowed, and if you don’t make it, well, we’ll just “reason” with you until you do.

“You don’t really mean to say that, do you?”

“We all know that alochol is bad for us, don’t we?”

Before I read other people writing about this, I used to think of it as “forced consensus.”  The leader decides what “we” will all “agree” on and then just says we do.  If anybody objects, she just nudges, in a very soft voice, and looks rather sad and disappointed.

And the most effective part of this is that trying to counter it is nearly impossible, because when you do try to counte it, you look like an idiot.  So much of it is played out in tone of voice and manner, that a transcript would often make the conversation look innocent and the dissenter look wild and extreme. 

Really reasoning with someone requires meeting her head on, as an equal, addressing her objections directly and accepting that she might just think you’re wrong. 

This method consists of creating an atmosphere where the assumption is that you could never be wrong, and anybody who disagrees with you does so not because he has honest objections to your position–after all, there are no legitimate objections to your position, that’s been established from off–but because he’s being emotional, or irrational, or immature, or he has psychological problems (his opposition proves it).

I don’t know who came up with the idea that this is a good way to deal with children, but it’s really not, and what you end up with is a lot of seething resentment.  There’s seething resentment among the adult victims of this approach, too, and a strong feeling of helplessness.

Back in the late 1980s or early 1990s, a number of Christian family groups offered training sessions for their members to counter this approach when it was used in public meetings to try to authorize certain kinds of birth control curricula in the public schools.  I don’t know if the training did any good or not.

I tend to think of the Nurse Ratchett/Delores Umbrage approach as a kind of McCarthyism.  We tend to think of the problem with  McCarthy as the fact that people were often accused and punished on the flimsiest evidence, or no evidene at all.

But the simple fact is that almost anybody hauled in front of the Senate or the House committees could get off scot free simply by saying, “oh, yes, you’re right about everything, I was really guilty, I have reformed, I confess, I want to atone,  here are a bunch of names.”

The point of the hearings was too often to get the accused to abandon any claim to integrity, to deconstruct his individual will and make it wholly subject to the will of his accusers.

“In your heart, you know that naughty children deserve to be punished,” Delores Umbrage tells Harry Potter, and that’s what she wants, not his obedience to her rules, not to punish him for his disoedience, but to get him to accept right down to his blood and skin and bone everything she decrees is true.

She wants him to accept it even when she doesn’t believe it herself.

I feel like I’ve been blithering here, and other people do this a lot better than I do.   I’ve tried several times to write a Ratchett/Umbrage character, and I find I can’t do it, at least not from the inside, the way I write most of my characters.  Something in my head just can’t seem to penetrate the thought processes that would m ake it possible to behave like this without being deeply and abidingly ahamed of yourself, and these people are not ashamed of themselves.

And, confronted over the last four years with my own personal Nurse Ratchett, I made all the mistakes honest people make when they try to defend themselves from this kind of bullying.

So maybe I’m not a very good source of information on this.

Written by janeh

July 11th, 2009 at 7:48 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Taking Umbrage'

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  1. Maybe the US is different in this respect, and maybe my knowlegde of the history is incomplete. But when I think of the great anti-slavery advocates in the UK, I don’t think of that type of person (not Ratchett, Zenobias, didn’t you call them?) I think of Wilberforce and Newton, both evangelical Anglicans, as was Josephine Butler, the supporter of prostitutes I was thinking of earlier. The Quakers were involved too. Early local efforts in support of better conditions for the poor and the mentally ill were from noted local Jews, Catholics and Protestants. None of them espoused free love and spirituality etc etc as far as I know, although there were people who followed such beliefs. Spiritualism (as opposed to spirituality-not-religion) and freethinking were certainly popular in some circle, as was atheism. Certainly some of the freethinkers and atheists argued against slavery (as well as pointing out at great length their views of the relationship between religion and slavery), but I don’t see them as being the first, and I certainly don’t see most of them as being among those who actually did most of the tough work of changing society (although that could be explained by their comparatively smaller numbers at the time and the greater power of those more involved in mainstream society).

    I mostly ignore the Ratchett types, and I’ve been fortunate in recent years in being able to do so. I used to get really angry and resentful over it, but ignoring it is less hard on my nerves.


    11 Jul 09 at 8:58 am

  2. I’m sorry? Every state north of the Mason-Dixon had abolished slavery before the first NET was born. Did Henry Ward Beecher fall in love with Buddhism while I wasn’t watching? Women’s rights are more complicated. There were women voting in 17th Century New England, which would seem to predate the NET influence somewhat.

    But I also note the careful hedging “in this country” to give the NET a claim for originality when the bulk of their agenda seems to be a pretty straight crib of Pantisocrat (English proto-hippies) material from fifty years before. You’re not, I trust, thinking they were unaware of the tradition? The English-speaking world is too much a single intellectual entity for me to give the NET credit for independent invention.

    More generally on the status of women, I’ll back Abigail Adams, Jane Austen–see the next to last chapter of PERSUASION–and Mary Wolstonecraft against the lot.

    All due respect for the flowering of New England–but only the respect which is due, please.


    11 Jul 09 at 4:12 pm

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