Saturday, December 7, 2013

Culture of Behavior Modification

Why is the Troubled Teen Industry an important topic for artistic exploration?  (I'll leave aside for now the larger question of whether Art may or may not be useful  for addressing social topics at all.  I sometimes wonder... recalling the famous Adorno quote.)
For one thing, there is the broader cultural drift I've been noticing - toward a widespread use of extreme penalization in new and increasingly "ordinary" contexts.  The use and abuse of solitary confinement in prisons has been in the news lately and is an important human rights issue.  Solitary isolation has been recognized as a form of torture.  But until recently, I was completely unaware of the use of isolation chambers in public schools (often used for students with autism or learning disabilities).  I find this to be extremely disturbing - a clear example of police state creep.

Isolation chambers in public schools are disturbing for a couple reasons.  First is the way our public education institutions are becoming ever more transparently mechanisms of control with the rise of "zero-tolerance policies". Our schools have become increasingly harsh in their enforcement of "normality" and increasingly punitive in how they deal with undesirable behaviors.  Of course, these punishments are enforced discriminately, along lines of race and class.  Students become familiar with extreme punishments at an early age, as the prison system is literally imported into the school.  This has come to be called the "school to prison pipeline" - a subject I would like to research further.
Second is the way these isolation cells represent the increasingly common use of psychological manipulation.  These dark, padded rooms are tools for sensory deprivation - a technology for altering perception.  It's one thing to choose to be in such a space, for purposes of meditation or psychological exploration.  It's entirely another thing to be forcibly placed in such conditions, as a form of punishment.  School officials state that students often appreciate the quiet time, but I have my doubts.

The Troubled Teen Industry as a whole is founded on the misapplication of therapeutic and behavior modification techniques ("re-enactment therapy", "confrontation therapy", "bioenergetics" and so on).  (And has also been known to use isolation for extended durations.)  There is no scientific evidence for the efficacy of these "therapies" (especially when conducted by untrained staff), and much anecdotal evidence that these experiences are incredibly harmful for survivors, leading to symptoms of PTSD and other trauma.  The spread of psychological manipulation from extremely specialized contexts (torture, interrogation, POW camps, etc.) into everyday life strikes me as extremely dangerous.  Additionally, shifting therapy from voluntary to involuntary leads to a very vulnerable position known as the "double bind" - a concept I will explore further in my next post.

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