One of my current pieces of reading is Quentin Crisp’s 1968 autobiography, The Naked Civil Servant. This went on my to-read list when Crisp passed away in 1999 (at just short of 91 years of age) and it’s taken me two decades to follow up. Early on in the book, he shares an anecdote of a classmate who was flogged by the headmaster having been caught in a tryst with a fellow student. I’d thought to just quote a sentence or two, but the entire paragraph is worth sharing for a couple of reasons. Both the brutality of his self-assessment (a hallmark of the book – he pulls no punches on himself) and the precision of its reflection of the larger world.

His sin was the occasion of the only public beating that I have ever witnessed. The entire school was assembled in the big hall and seated on benches on either side of the room. In the open space in the middle the modern Romeo bent over and the headmaster ran down the room to administer the blows. After the first two strokes the younger brother of the victim left the room. Even now I can’t help wishing that we had all done the same. What made this exhibition so disgusting was not the pain inflicted. Today a go-ahead schoolmaster would say, ‘This delights me more than it delights you.’ In many parts of London, such goings-on are just another way of making a party go with a swing. What was most insufferable was that a simple form of self-gratification should be put forward as a moral duty. Before that day I had disliked the head; afterwards I hated him. (p. 18, emphasis mine.)

QCselfportrait30The conflation of self-gratification and moral duty comes up in a variety of circles. One can consider it in the context of politics, military justice, familial dynamics, and general human interaction. This quote struck a nerve with me because my own schooling included a headmaster-equivalent who made an example out of kids when they were, for example, late by paddling us in front of our classmates. This was in the period my family lived in Synanon, a commune where children were kept separate from their parents. It was also a place that preached a doctrine of non-violence. Very confusing. The lines between self-gratification, morality, straight-up sadism, and personal confusion on the part of that tormentor have been blurred by more than 40 years of intervening time and the total lack of closure with the person in question.
In the political sphere, we see this dynamic play out with the conservative insistence on austerity for the poor who have somehow worked terribly hard to earn their punishments at the hands of the social system. I’m not sure if conservatives in England or the United States even mask this in the guise of moral duty any more, but there was a time. Authoritarian behaviour is not at its root sexual or deviant, until you call it something else. Is this the nature of authority in general, though? We run into folks like the current so-called leaders of the US and UK demanding the kind of moral purity from the poor that they have never exhibited or felt the need to exhibit. There’s a joke that goes around that Boris Johnson doesn’t even know how many children he has. Trump’s are from three different wives, and those who remember the impeachment of Bill Clinton have a hard time forgetting that the man who led the charge had left one wife while she was undergoing treatment for cancer and the second shortly after her diagnosis with MS. Was Gingrich’s hypocrisy and the ways he wallowed in it at the time a form of self-gratification? I shuddered at his insistence that he and his fellows on the right side of the aisle possessed some moral high ground over those on the left, and that the prosecution of the Lewinsky affair was some kind of moral duty, but I’ve always been unabashedly on the other side.
What can we say about the verbal ganging up that goes on in social media? Do we confuse various forms of virtue signalling with moral duty? And are these things confusions of self-gratification? I don’t follow many conservative leaning people on social media, but we do our own dirty work between ourselves on the left in which my support for candidate X can’t be good because candidate Y is the only one who can win (for example and for whatever reason). As if the positional debate were somehow invalid. Is this one of those places where moral duty masks self-gratification? Crisp, of course, is discussing sexual gratification, but how different is this from the gratification of our own moral upstandingness?
I want to argue that certain workplace dynamics fall into this category, but the ways in which middle management manipulates the rank and file are just a refraction of how middle management is manipulated by the various upper members of the hierarchy. Gideon Kunda in his 1992 work Engineering Culture posits that there’s much that we do in the workplace to ingratiate ourselves within an organization. Kunda quotes one person as saying, ‘Like the joke. you get to choose which 20 hours to work out of the day.’ (p. 18) How we feel about management in the context of the modern technological workplace is a product of our personal feelings and how we feel about/react to/interact with authority, both consciously and unconsciously. This workplace masochism seems to me to be an identification of a company’s stated morality with one’s own gratification on the organizational ladder.
I haven’t even delved into the various interplays of moral duty and self-gratification in the context of organized religion. Crisp is ostensibly describing a secular institution in England in the early 1920s. It’s no leap at all from there back to the Jesuit schools James Joyce describes or the Magdalen Laundries, the latter of which conflate venality and greed with claims to the satisfaction of moral duty and upholding the moral center of Irish life.
Crisp’s identification of self-gratification with moral duty is limited to that one instance of authority in the school, but it extends to how we operate in society. My tormentor was also acting out the morality of the organization, just as we attempt to act out the morality of the political world within social media.