A Bourbon Interlude

Although of course we all know Tocqueville, I had not been aware of the political backstory to his famous American tour.
The Revolution of 1830 overthrew the Bourbon king Charles X and put the Orléanist Louis-Philippe on the throne. Tocqueville reluctantly took a loyalty oath to keep his job. This placed him in a difficult position with his pro-Bourbon family and relatives, who thought his actions treasonous. But his oath did nothing to allay the regime's mistrust of him. This suspicion was not unwarranted; in 1832 some of Tocqueville's relatives would be involved in a plot to overthrow Louis-Philippe. Beaumont fell under suspicion for similar reasons. He and Tocqueville therefore sought a pretext to leave the country for a while. 
Fortunately for them, a shift was taking place, not only in politics but also in penal practices: torture and public executions were being replaced by efforts to rehabilitate criminals. The United States was seen as a vast social laboratory, in which prison experiments were being conducted that might profit France. Tocqueville and Beaumont were therefore able to convince their supervisors to grant them a leave of absence to travel to the United States to study American prisons.
It's interesting that was his reason for coming.  The shift to rehabilitation is something we've discussed from time to time; it turned out to be based on theories of psychology that hold no water at all.  Sadly, if anyone followed the American model of prisons, they made a detour into an expensive new way of failing to solve the problem.

They're subject to an additional complaint, which is that they were probably worse forms of torture than the ones they replaced.  Prisoners were forced to remain silent twenty-four hours a day, and kept in solitary confinement when they weren't working in gangs:  they were also lashed regularly.  The stated point was to "break down their sense of self," so they would be easy to reform.  It's roughly the idea later mocked by A Clockwork Orange, but before the advent of psychoactive drugs.

So it turns out that Tocqueville came to learn about something we did poorly but were reputed to do well, and ended up learning about (and writing about) something we did well in fact.  That shows a good judgment. 


Texan99 said...

I'm pondering the notion that you can improve someone by breaking down his sense of self. There's decent evidence you can control him more easily that way, but make him a better citizen? Not unless you can afford to put a lot of resources into providing him with various types of custodians 24/7.

Anonymous said...

Texan, I've heard military boot camp described as being a time where the self is broken down and then rebuilt. However, the participants are (now) voluntary, and they know that the end goal is more desirable than their starting point was. As you say, it is the custodians (and the initial motivation) that make the difference.


Tom said...

Maybe it was the idea of returning to the blank slate, kind of an Etch A Sketch approach.

Also, I have to say I was disappointed to find we wouldn't be discussing Buffalo Trace, Woodford Reserve, or similarly refreshing beverages.

The end of the semester is rapidly approaching and I'm feeling the need for a bourbon interlude of the Kentucky kind about now

Joseph W. said...

The stated point was to "break down their sense of self," so they would be easy to reform. It's roughly the idea later mocked by A Clockwork Orange, but before the advent of psychoactive drugs.

No, the idea mocked by A Clockwork Orange is straight Skinner-style behaviorism, where you "reform" (i.e., condition) a person by associating painful stimuli (brought on by drug injections) with the things you want him to avoid (sex and violence). The idea is not to "break him down to build him up again." The doctors and prison officials don't even care about his thoughts or values, which pretty well remain the same before and after the treatment, but only about his behavior.

That point became clearest to me when I was reading it, and hit the point where Alex was screaming about the background score, and one of the doctors commented, offhandedly, that he knew music was an "emotional intensifier" - and, apparently, nothing else about it. I could feel the author's hate for the Behaviorists at that point.

The book-within-a-book that gives the work its title is also, from what little we see of it, the same - a show of revulsion against the idea that humans could be machines (or at least such simple machines to operate) as Skinner proposed.

(Nice article on it here)

Grim said...

There are a lot of demons in psychology, and it's true that Skinner was the most immediate factor in the book.

Still, Skinner was himself part of a tradition. The earlier tradition included Edward Thorndike, the early psychologist; and of course Pavlov.

Before that, psychology as such did not exist; nevertheless, people still practiced predecessor attempts to influence the psyche. Naturally, since at that point they were thinking of it in terms of a psyche, they thought it necessary to engage the spirit, which is what 'psyche' means:

The Penitentiary was intended not simply to punish, but to move the criminal toward spiritual reflection and change. While some have argued that the Pennsylvania System was Quaker-inspired, there is little evidence to support this; the organization that promoted Eastern State's creation, the Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons (today's Pennsylvania Prison Society) was in fact less than half Quaker, and was led for nearly fifty years by Philadelphia's Anglican bishop, William White. Proponents of the system believed strongly that the criminals, exposed, in silence, to thoughts of their behavior and the ugliness of their crimes, would become genuinely penitent....

[T]he guards and councilors of the facility designed a variety of physical and psychological torture regimens for various infractions, including dousing prisoners in freezing water outside during winter months, chaining their tongues to their wrists in a fashion such that struggling against the chains could cause the tongue to tear, strapping prisoners into chairs with tight leather restraints for days on end, and putting the worst behaved prisoners into a pit called "The Hole", an underground cellblock dug under cellblock 14 where they would have no light, no human contact, and little food for as long as two weeks.

When I say that it is "roughly" the same idea, thus, I think I'm right; but you might precisely say that it is in fact the grandfather of Skinner's idea. You're right to note that Skinner's approach was particularly mechanistic (and cruel).

Grim said...

By the way, the first time I read A Clockwork Orange -- also the last time, which has been fully twenty years ago now -- I read what the article describes as "the full British version." It came with a foreward by the author explaining the difference, and pointing out that he had put significance on the fact that the book ended on chapter 21 -- that is, symbolically, the age of adulthood. By truncating the book at chapter 20, the publisher in America had kept the story artificially adolescent.

douglas said...

I think the line not to cross in breaking down a sense of self has to do with breaking down a view of self as center/island, to make one more amenable to seeing one's self as part of a system- some greater good. IF taken too far, it simply destroys the person, or forces them to rebel against the push to dissolve their self, (for survival) and they become completely self-centered, perhaps psychopathic.