|The civilizing process (Childrearing and Society)|
There is, of course, no one most important truth. There are an indefinite number of interpenetrating "issues and answers", e.g.: Is it most important to be able to breathe or to urinate? (Tycho Brahe died of a urinary blockage brought on by being too polite to leave the dinner table one night when "nature called".)
Here, I want to discuss one "show stopper": The social "customs" which persons act out largely below full awareness and which operate under cover of pre-reflective prejudices and rationalizations. The issue is the process of childrearing: how the infant is made into a member of society -- aka how the human individual becomes an instance of the ethnicity into which he or she was born.
Some parts of childrearing are so destructive that we could only think they were from "The Silence of the Lambs" or Jeffrey Dahmer (a serial killer who mutilated persons' brains to control them), if they weren't real. The most spectacular examples -- like ritual female and (less worse only in degree but not in kind) male genital mutilation (aka "circumcision") perhaps distract us from the almost universal psychological seige warfare against almost all children in almost(?) every self-called "culture".
The goal of childrearing would seem incredible if it wasn't real. Childrearing either breaks the child's will, or preferably tricks the child into believing with all his or her heart, mind and spirit that he or she wants what the adults want him or her to want rather than what the child himself or herself would have wanted had the child been allowed to have and become aware of his or her own wants instead of being "educated" into total amnesia that he or she ever might have had those wants and that the opportunity to have them was taken away -- by some combination of coopting the child into identifying with the adults' values to get the rewards the adults associate with thse values (the "carrot"...), and/or by pressuring the child to disown his or her values to avoid punishment (the "stick"...)....
The problem should be obvious: After countless generations of the brain-washed washing the brains of the next generation (a different kind of "ethnic cleansing"...), social life is so thoroughly based on falsified consciousness that we must "doubt our senses", because they are not ours but are products of deceived people having deceived us. The most discouraging part of all is that the deceivers in each case have themselves usually been deceived into thinking they are neither themselves deceived nor deceiving the child. As Hannie Lightfoot-Klein wrote in her classic study of female genital mutilation in Africa, the parents do not do these mutilations to their children out of hate or jealousy that the child is intact whereas they are not: the parents do it out of love for their child, so that the child can become fully human and enjoy the benefits of civilized adulthood (if the parents did not mutilate their child, the community would ostracize the child).
I shall here address one aspect of the problem: Once a person's "instincts" have been distorted, the distortion cannot be pre-programmed to handle unanticipated situations. In homogenous "traditional" cultures, there are few if any unanticipated situations. In a closed circle of life, everything "fits together", and the mutilated child achieves esteemed adulthood, where the social rewards which derive from being a good member of society (including mutilating one's children in their turn...) leave little or no space in experience for the person to notice anything is missing or amiss. Indeed, nothing may be amiss, if, at bottom, the individual knows that without social approval they will be ostracized and die as surely from lack of social support as an astronaut who leaves his or her space ship without a space suit will die from lack of oxygen. Those few individuals who do realize something is wrong either "keep it to themselves" or risk going the way of the parable that, in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is adjudged to be mad or sick or evil, and dealt with accordingly.
In our culture, increasingly, the child faces too many unanticipatable situations for the traditional strategy to be adequate. Children cannot be kept in ignorance of sexuality and to be constantly on the lookout for "child molestors", AIDS, etc. Adults cannot be expected to "be creative" in questioning technical processes and to not even think of questioning social processes. If you really absorb the lessons of the Nuremberg war crime trials, where "we" punished "them" at the price of "blowing the cover" on the very idea of obedience to command, you simply can no longer straightforwardly "follow orders". Etc. Self-called "conservatives" are right when they protest that teaching kids about drugs and contraception, etc. entails risk of the children "experimenting" with these things, whereas if the child's "worldview" did not include these categories, and if the objects to which the categories refer could altogether be kept out of the child's environment, the child simply could not do what they do not want the child to do, and the child would not notice "anything".
No "superego" (or its phylogenetic precursor: auditory hallucinations of the gods' or G-d's commands) can tell persons what to do in genuinely novel -- unprecedented -- situations. Here, the individual really needs to be able to think for himself or herself. And that means: The individual must be able to think and feel with complete (to use a lovely word which Kofi Annan applied to the process of monitoring Iraq's weapons programs...): transparency. Each factor must appear as it is, not as it is supposed to be seen [in terms of the distorting "carrot and stick" ontology...]. The only way things appearing as they are supposed to be seen instead of as they are can perpetuate itself (aka "work") is if the falsified perception always is an index to an effective coping response, a response that really works, in the sense that, at the end of the cycle of observation, orientation, decision and action (John Boyd's "OODA loop"), the outcome is restoration of individual and social order. Where, however, as the Anglican hymn (ref. lost) says:
New situations teach new duties; new knowledge makes old wisdom uncouth
only something other and better than what's being replaced can oversee the replacement process.
There can only be one candidate (since all the rest would be instances of what no longer can "do": results of social conditioning). That candidate is: the child's own innate motivational structure, unbroken, undistorted. "But the infant is a little beast which needs to be civilized", comes the knee-jerk response of "the obvious" (i.e., falsified consciousness) --which echoes in even the writings of a writer like Cornelius Castoriadis. And I do not deny there is truth in this assertion. Item: Every infant (literally: one who cannot speak for himself or herself) needs to acquire language, and this is a process of "socialization".
The issue is what "socialization", "civilization", etc. mean. They can mean -- and, traditionally, generally have meant -- "taming" or otherwise messing with (constraining, deflecting, deforming, etc.) the child's innate motivational structure. (I have argued above that, apart from whether such a strategy of childrearing is desirable, it will no longer work.) But "socialization" can alternatively mean "civilization" in a very different sense: cultivating (providing nourishment to) the child's innate desires, providing the child with facilitating opportunities for his or her own motivations to elaborate (enhance through work) and refine (make richer) themselves. Renaissance paintings of the Madonna offering an interesting object or small animal to her infant, for him freely to explore in the safety of her arms, beautifully illustrate this possibility: Mary is at hand to participate with Jesus in his explorations, to share his experience with him and protect him from harm, but she does not interfere with him following his own interests in, and drawing his own conclusions from the situation.
Or consider the "classic" problem of the child's sexuality: From earliest infancy, the child can be helped to realize the richest nuances of sexual pleasure, which, if there is anything to the notion that persons are social beings, will not be simply "private" (a word which, to the classical Greeks, meant: privative), but shared in a process of mutual elaboration with others. How many children would become entangled in the dysfunctional behaviors which often result from trying to cope with their sexual drives under conditions of social repression, etc., if they had, from birth, lived in a social matrix which in a thoroughing way straightforwardly supported the growth of their experience of ecstasy in parallel with the development of their physiological potential for it?
It will sometimes be necessary to prevent a child from doing what he or she wants to do, or to make the child do something he or she does not want to do (e.g., to keep the child safe from danger the child does not know about or appreciate the seriousness of). Social life needs to be restructured to minimize these situations arising. What is not acceptable is to try to convince the child that he or she does not want to what he or she wants to do, or that he or she wants to do what what he or she does not want to do. Perhaps the child needs help from the adults focussing his or her awareness of his or her desires, precisely in those cases where they will not be satisfied ("You want [X], but you will have to do [whatever not-X]. Later let's examine what happened here.").
Similar desiderata apply to all areas of childrearing. How can we be sure children will not unthinkingly trust and obey strangers when they are taught unthinkingly to trust and obey their parents, teachers, etc.? How can a person who has been taught to obey distinguish between obeying Hitler or Stalin and obeying G-d (The Gulag and Auschwitz were a kind of hell-on-earth, etc.)? On the other hand, if children "obey" their parents only insofar as what the parents ask makes sense to the child, then when a stranger tries to enmesh the child in something that does not make sense to the child, the child will not likely be "taken in". If the ability to "sniff out trouble" is important, then it helps not to have been taught that certain smells "aren't really there". Etc.
Would such a form of childrearing which transfigured rather than "sublimating" the child's "instincts" work, or would it lead to chaos? The obvious answer is that we don't know because it has never been tried (at least in any place we know -- it may have happened, at least fragmentarily, in Margaret Mead's Samoa, or medieval Cambodia [Al Lingis's Khajuraho], but such speculations are of little more help to us than what may be happening on a planet somewhere in the Small Magellenic Cloud).
The evidence increasingly points to the inescapable conclusion that no permutation of the traditional stategies of childrearing which aim as the ethnic colonization of the child: manipulation, repression and excision, can any longer be viable in our place and time (militant Islamic fundamentalism may constitute a massive in vivo test of this hypothesis). We seem no longer to have much to lose by "risking" treating children at least as well as we do automobiles, where we try to keep them all in good working order, and, as to the best ("classic cars"), we lavish effort to make them even better than new (even at the price of making them less "useful"). Only in extreme circumstances do we do to cars what, almost universally, we do to children, e.g., [mis-]use a Ferrari or Rolls Royce to drag a plow through a field. Granted: if we must plow a field and we have nothing other than a Ferrari, then we have no choice. But the cliché "My kingdom for a horse" has force because kings generally do not find themselves in such straits. What is the quantity of unnecessary surplus repression of children's instinctual life? What are the costs and losses to society due to this unnecessary destruction and corruption of "human potential"? (And, of course, I have not here asked the question: Which kind of life would you rather have for yourself?)
I know a man whose parents were "dirt farmers" in rural Appalachia, that country antipodal to "Lux et Veritas", where, in C. Wright Mills' haunting phrase: "Night Comes to the Cumberlands". The father probably was not given the opportunity to complete high school, but he was given a course of ECT. These parents were not "rocket scientists" (to adduce an in-vogue cliché). But, somehow, they got some very important things right. They could not know what was right for their child, who may be a genius (he has become a "high-power" computer consultant). But they did know how not to get in the way of, and even to nurture their child having a chance to discover by himself what was "beyond them". Thus they are a model for all parents and societies which, their own -- i.e.: our own -- growth stunted and mutilated by their (our) parents and societies, throughout the "generations"..., can at least, here and now, put an end to this not-only Hindu "wheel of karma". Their child was named "Tom", but I invite you to fill in your own:
Tom: Do what you believe is right;
You will make mistakes;
We stand behind you.
|E-mail me your thoughts.|
|Return to McLuhanesque Probes Table of Contents.
Return to Essays page (Science and civilization).
Go to more thoughts.
Go to (my) aphorisms: Aphorisms for a human[e] world!
Go to (other people's) quotes I like.
|Learn why a city can deserve to exist (Louis Kahn).
|Discover a big secret about secrets.
Go/Return to reflections on myth.
Go to website Table of Contents.
Return to Brad McCormick's home page.
Return to site map.
|Each person needs to be a peer member of a world, a family and a community: cosmos, oikos and polis.|