January 31, 2009

The Ravages of Tribalism (II): Creating the Next Generation

Burton: What does it mean to be tribal?

Lee: You know things, secret things.

Burton: Is that tribal law?

Lee: Yes.

Burton: What happens if you break tribal law?

Lee: You are punished.

-- The Last Wave, screenplay by Peter Weir, Tony Morphett and Petru Popescu
Before reading this installment, I recommend reading Part I for necessary background.

As you read the true story I mentioned at the conclusion of the earlier entry, I urge you to try to see these events from the child's perspective. Most of you won't be able to do it; many of you will have very little idea what I mean. I know this is true, because it was true for me for several decades after I had become an adult. In a future installment, I will republish an essay of mine first published four years ago. Because of archive problems, moving the blog and other difficulties, the essay has been offline for most of the intervening period.

That particular essay speaks to this issue in great detail, and it examines how and why it is so immensely difficult to recapture as adults what abuse felt like for the child (abuse of any kind, physical, intellectual, emotional or a combination of all these factors). I didn't write the following passage about the story I'm about to share with you, but about a similar story Miller recounts:
In her books, Alice Miller often comments on the fact that it is close to impossible for most adults to recapture the full reality of what any form of abuse felt like to the child. The important part of that sentence is the end: what the experience of the cruelty was like for the child. If we do not understand that -- which means in many cases that we must fully experience as adults what it was like (or come as close to that experience as we can) -- we cannot fully heal the wounds from which we suffer. Beyond that, it is the inability of adults to remember fully what the experience of abuse was like for them when they were children that permits them to continue to inflict the same kind of abuse on their own children. Most families continue the cycle of cruelty from one generation to the next, and it is never broken.


In her book, Banished Knowledge, Miller relates a story sent to her by a reader that is very instructive about our inability to recognize cruelty to children for what it is. I will tell you in advance that I'm certain most of you will react to this story exactly the way I did at first, and my reaction only changed over a period of several years. When I first read the following, I thought: "Well, honestly, what's the big deal? Things like that happen all the time. It's not that destructive. Many children have to deal with things that are infinitely worse, and they still manage to become functioning adults."

My own reaction reveals yet another means by which the truth of childhood is buried and denied: as we grow up, we identify with the authority figures in our lives. We dare not question them, or their "goodness," or their "good intentions." We dare not, because we depend on them for life itself. Since the child cannot question them, he must question himself, and he must believe that the fault lies within. And that leads him to believe that if he alters his own behavior (and even his very being) in some unidentified manner, then he will win his parents' complete love. The child cannot grasp that his parents' behavior has nothing to do with him at all; it arises out of their childhoods, and the abuses they themselves suffered. In this way, the child is left feeling that he himself is wrong, in some fundamental way.

Because most of us identify to varying extents with authority (and most adults identify with authority almost completely), it is impossible for us to understand the child's experience.
With these observations in mind, here is the true story I came across just over two years ago:
A few nights ago while twin #1 was taking a bath, I spent some quality time with twin #2.

I could hear twin #1 splashing around in the tub, but I didn't think anything of it. When I finally went into the bathroom to help him get cleaned up, I saw water All. Over. The Bathroom Floor. The towels and bath mat were soaked and water was dripping down the side of the tub and the bathroom walls.

Furious and trying to control my temper, I asked twin #1 why he splashed the water out of the bathtub. I could tell he felt ashamed, because he wouldn't look at me and he wouldn't answer.

Of course I realized that this could be an excellent "teachable moment" about impulse control, so I knelt down and spoke to him. I told him that I was very disappointed, that I really didn't like what he did. I asked him again why he did it, and he still didn't answer. Then I asked him "Do you know what we call people who know what they are doing is bad, but do the bad thing anyway?"

He replied, "Democrats."
If you are a Democrat or identify yourself as a liberal or a progressive, does this story enrage you? Does it strike you as immensely unjust and utterly false? Do you perhaps think that this manner of describing all Democrats is no different in principle from vicious stories that describe all African Americans, or all Jews, or all gays and lesbians, or the members of any other group in similar fashion? Do you think it is especially awful, even terrible and abusive, to "teach" a very young child in this way, about issues he cannot possibly understand?

You would be right to feel and think all of that. Would your reaction be different if the young boy instead had replied, "Republicans"? Please consider that question very carefully, and as honestly as you can. Your reaction should not be different, not in any respect, not to even the smallest degree. If it is, I respectfully suggest that you consider the following argument with special care.

In fact, the boy did reply, "Republicans." You will find this story -- a true story, offered with pride by the mother -- at Daily Kos.

As discussed in detail in Part I and the other essays linked there, I immediately state that I am not saying this mother doesn't love her children. I'm certain she loves them, just as I am certain she believes she is raising them the "right" way and teaching them the "right" ideas. And that may well be true in some areas of these children's lives, but it is not true with regard to this story and the lessons it contains. Because this mother offers this story proudly and even happily, one might well wonder what other lessons she is imparting. As we will see shortly, the boy's reaction tells us this pattern is one already very familiar to him. But I repeat -- and consult my Alice Miller essays for very lengthy discussions of these questions -- the problem is not that this mother doesn't love her children. The problem is what she believes that love should properly consist of -- and the problem is that she is almost certainly reenacting what happened in her own childhood, with her own parents.

Because I consider this story so revelatory, I will examine it in detail. I have to do this for the reason discussed above: because we have forgotten the reality of events like this from the child's perspective, our entire viewpoint and all our judgments about it are profoundly distorted. Almost nothing we are likely to think about such a story is true. What follows is far from short, so I would hope you read this when you have sufficient time to consider these points carefully. The power of this story lies not only in the particulars of the incident itself, but in the patterns of thought, feeling and behavior that are instilled in the child. As we will see as we proceed through this series of essays, these patterns are carried into adulthood, where they lead to much of what we witness in our politics today.

Because knowledge and understanding of the child's experience as experienced by the child himself is inaccessible to almost all adults, we must look at every aspect of this story, beginning with the nature of the incident itself.

I am 60 years old. I am ridiculously excited to tell you that I find splashing in the bathtub to be great fun today. I love splashing in the tub. It's fun. I need no further justification or explanation for doing it. It's fun. That works perfectly for me, as I hope it does for you. We should never regard having fun as something unimportant or trivial: having fun is a deeply serious matter. It is one of the primary ways we experience the inexpressible joy of being alive. For a child, this kind of fun carries an additional significance, one that is especially noteworthy. (The post doesn't tell us exactly how old the children are, but it would appear they're perhaps around seven or eight, perhaps younger, certainly not much older than ten. But what follows would apply to children of any age and even to adults, as I just indicated.) For a child, building a big tower and then knocking it down -- or splashing in the tub -- is not just fun in itself. For the child, it is also experienced as a sign of his own efficacy: "I made this happen!" This is one of the ways in which the child learns what he is capable of, what he can make happen as he interacts with the world. It is a wonderful experience, one that should be encouraged.

Obviously, limits and consequences must sometimes be addressed and imposed (but never by spanking or any kind of physical violence, no matter how slight -- see this essay and this one), especially if the child is causing irreversible damage and, most obviously, if the child is inflicting pain on another child, or on a pet or other animal. Here, I will only note that if a child is inflicting pain on another child or animal, problems of a seriously greater magnitude are already present. In every such case of which I am aware, children only learn such cruel behavior by observing the adults around them. Such instances of cruelty must be stopped immediately -- but the adult cruelty, which is always also present, must be stopped as well. But these additional, gravely serious complexities (some of which I will address in future) are not present here.

In this case, it is very simple to explain why the water needs to be cleaned up. The parent (or other adult caregiver) might begin, and ideally would begin, by affirming that, yes, it is great fun to splash water around. It probably isn't a good idea to do it all the time, or every day, but once in a while, absolutely, it's fun. The adult occasionally enjoys it him or herself. But if we're going to splash water this way, then we'd better clean it up. Water on the bathroom floor could be dangerous; someone might slip if we left the floor wet. Leaving the walls wet might damage them, which could lead to major repairs and considerable expense in time. That's also not a good idea. Better to make sure everything is dry again. And the towels and the bathmat are now soaked, so we need to replace them. This is one reason why splashing every day isn't a great idea, unless the child wishes to undertake the task of making certain there is an endless supply of dry towels and bathmats. He probably won't want to do that and doubtless can't, unless he wishes to become a full-time linen maid. Once he realizes the results of his splashing -- and that he himself will need to deal with them as required -- he'll probably only want to do it every now and then. And he'll realize that on his own, with just a little prompting.

This is a very valuable and important lesson: it's wonderful to have fun, as long as you aren't causing serious or irreversible harm, and as long as the child cleans up as necessary. And the child himself will appreciate the value of having a clean, dry bathroom, and having dry towels and a dry bathmat after a bath. (Again, if he doesn't, the problems are already far more serious, and will require much more attention -- attention which the adults will undoubtedly need, too.)

I stress again that the mother offered this story proudly and joyfully. Note another aspect of what she inadvertently revealed, still with regard just to the surface details of this story. The mother reports: "I could hear twin #1 splashing around in the tub, but I didn't think anything of it. When I finally went into the bathroom to help him get cleaned up..." She has a young child. She heard "splashing around in the tub." What did she think was happening, or was most likely happening? Kids like to splash water around, because it's fun. She heard it, but she was busy elsewhere. The problem isn't that she wanted to spend "some quality time" with the other twin. The problem is that is that it was entirely predictable what she would find when she "finally went into the bathroom." The much worse problem is the particular lesson she then imparted to the splashing twin, and the way she imparted it.

Despite the fact that she could easily have known what was happening and should have been entirely unsurprised by what she found, the mother tells us that she was "furious and trying to control [her] temper." It is understandable that the mother might be upset at the fact that there is a substantial mess that needs to be cleaned up. Perhaps the situation is made worse because she had a long, tiring day, and this was just more than she could deal with. But again, she was on notice about what was happening and chose to ignore it for some period of time. Now, note very carefully what she communicates to the boy.

First and most obviously, her "fury" and the fact that she had to work so hard to "control [her] temper" clearly were communicated to the boy very strongly. He knew his mother was "furious," and he knew that his mother was "furious" with him. We know the boy knew all this, because the mother tells us: "I could tell he felt ashamed, because he wouldn't look at me and he wouldn't answer." He wouldn't look at his mother and he wouldn't answer -- because he was afraid, afraid of his mother's "fury" and that her "fury" was directed at him. The boy immediately reacted with shame about himself and his own behavior, which tells us he is very familiar with this pattern; similar kinds of events have occurred countless times before. The boy is being taught to feel profound shame, and he is already learning to be silent about those matters of greatest importance to him. We also know that the boy will turn in vain to his father in hopes of finding a different mode of behavior. I didn't include the introductory sentence to the above story: "With the 110th Congress now in session, my husband, The Professor, encouraged me to share this story with all of you." Both parents find this story charming and amusing, and they enthusiastically share it with others.

The mother then realized this was a "teachable moment," particularly as concerns "impulse control." The boy had been having fun -- splashing water is fun! -- but now he is "ashamed." And his mother is "furious" and having to work very hard to "control [her] temper." Exactly whose impulses are we talking about here? I often marvel at how much people reveal without realizing it, but you need to know what to look for. But thinking she has a "teachable moment," the mother "knelt down and spoke to him."

But she doesn't speak to him about any of the issues I mentioned above -- that a wet floor might be dangerous, that leaving wet walls might cause damage, that the towels and bathmat need to be replaced with dry ones -- and instead she tells this young child the following: "I told him that I was very disappointed, that I really didn't like what he did. I asked him again why he did it, and he still didn't answer. Then I asked him 'Do you know what we call people who know what they are doing is bad, but do the bad thing anyway?'"

This is the crux of the problem, and the source of profound damage. It is crucial to understand what is happening here. Note the nature of the shift that has occurred: the mother's concern is no longer with the wet floor or the wet towels and bathmat, or with the damage that might result if the water isn't cleaned up. The mother's concern -- and what she demands this young boy focus on -- is her own feelings. The mother was "very disappointed." The mother "really didn't like what he did." And "what he did" was "bad." And there is still more, and it is still worse: what the boy did was "bad," he knew it was "bad" (at least, he did according to his mother), and he did the "bad" thing anyway.

Reflect for a few moments on the kind of self-evaluation a message of this kind will almost certainly lead to, especially if the message is conveyed to the boy repeatedly. I state the message again, to drive this point home: according to the mother, the boy did a bad thing, he knew it was a bad thing, and he did it anyway. If all that is true, the boy sounds like an entirely rotten human being. I can confirm this from my own childhood (and I suspect more than a few of you can, as well): I received messages like this all the time from my own mother. And I concluded that I must be a terrible human being, for reasons which remained utterly inexplicable to me. But my mother told me that, and she certainly believed it to be true. And I depended on my mother for life itself, as most young children do.

In my case, what ultimately saved me from the worst consequences was that I never believed that judgment, not completely -- and I never stopped asking questions about it, but only in the safety of my own mind. Of course, I didn't dare question my mother about it; as in this story, my mother's rage, which I thought I had caused (for that is what my mother told me, over and over again), was overwhelming. If I asked her about it, she would be still more furious. No young child would dare do that, if any of the entirely legitimate questions even occurred to him. But in quiet moments alone, I would wonder: "But what did I do? What was so terrible? Why is she so angry at me?" And for many long years, I continued to think that I must have done something awful even though I had no idea what it was, because it never occurred to me that my mother's behavior had nothing to do with me at all. But in fact, it didn't. Yet no child can understand these issues, and very few adults do. It wasn't until I was in my mid-fifties that I understood the answers to these questions.

I repeat this passage from the earlier essay excerpted in Part I:
As children, we dare not question what our parents do: we depend on them for life itself. To comprehend fully what is being done to us would be unbearable, and it might literally kill us. So we must believe that, whatever our parents do, they do it "for our own good." To believe otherwise is the forbidden thought. So we must deny our own pain when we are young; such denial is necessary if we are to survive at that stage in our lives.

But if we maintain the denial when we become adults, it spreads throughout our lives. When such modes of thought are established in our psychologies, they cannot be isolated or contained. We deny our own pain -- so we must deny the pain of others. If we acknowledge their pain fully and allow ourselves to realize what it means, it will necessarily call up our own wounds. But this remains intolerable and forbidden. In extreme cases, we must dehumanize other human beings: they become "the other," the less-than-human. By using such devices, we make inflicting untold agonies on another person possible: if they are not even human, it doesn't matter if we torture them. This is always how we create hell on earth.

I said I was not referring only to the obvious cruelties inflicted on children by physical violence. Just as important, and often of much greater significance, are the psychological agonies to which parents subject their children. How often do we hear parents say to a child who will not follow an order: "Why are you making me so unhappy? You don't want to make your mother unhappy and sad, do you, darling? Now just do what I say." We should recognize this for what it is: emotional blackmail. The unstated threat -- but the threat that is deeply felt by the child, even if he is not able to understand it -- is that the parent's love will be withdrawn unless the child obeys. Since the child knows that his life depends on that love, the threat is a terrifying one. Such blows are delivered countless times every day, by millions of parents around the world.
I return to the mother's focus on her own feelings, when she tells her young son of her "disappointment" with him and that she "really didn't like what he did." She is demanding obedience, not by discussing the inconvenience and possible dangers of failing to clean up the water (which would be damaging enough, if obedience remains the primary lesson being taught; see this essay for more on the nature of obedience), but by demanding that the child obey by adapting his behavior in accordance with his mother's needs and feelings.

This particular dynamic, one which almost all parents exhibit in varying degrees -- the parent who demands that the child behave in the manner required by the parent's own needs and feelings, which have nothing to do with the reality of the child's experience -- is one I have discussed before. One of my Miller essays offered excerpts from Miller's discussion of Sylvia Plath's life and deeply tragic death. You might find the full essay of value; here is one passage of special relevance to the current discussion:
Many parents are like Sylvia's mother. They desperately try to behave correctly toward their child, and in their child's behavior they seek reassurance that they are good parents. The attempt to be an ideal parent, that is, to behave correctly toward the child, to raise her correctly, not to give too little or too much, is in essence an attempt to be the ideal child--well behaved and dutiful--of one's own parents. But as a result of these efforts the needs of the child go unnoticed. I cannot listen to my child with empathy if I am inwardly preoccupied with being a good mother; I cannot be open to what she is telling me.
It is in this manner, among others, that a child is taught not to analyze the arguments being offered and the facts marshalled on behalf of those arguments, but to devote his primary attention to the feelings and attitudes of others. If he wishes to procure or maintain the approval of those others who are especially significant to him -- and for the young child, there is no one of greater significance than his mother (and/or other primary caregivers) -- then he must make his behavior conform to that demanded by those others. But the demands presented to the child don't concern the facts: that a wet floor is dangerous, or that wet towels must be replaced with dry ones. The demands are presented, as in this story, by means of his mother's moods and emotions. To survive, he must do everything possible to make sure his mother isn't "disappointed" or "unhappy." For the child, the most powerful signal will be any sign of his mother's disapproval; his greatest terror will be his mother's fury.

So his major concern, and very often his only concern, will be to watch with great care for signs of approval or disapproval. As the years go on, the merits of the arguments on any subject will hold less and less significance for him. The continued approval of those individuals he particularly values will be among his greatest concerns, and among his greatest sources of anxiety. His greatest fear will be the disappointment, especially the very strong disapproval and even condemnation, of those others of special significance to him.

I now give you a brief preview of what this leads to in adult behavior. In the last several years, I have received between ten and twenty emails of the following kind. I will be discussing other instances of this same dynamic in future essays. This email was especially forthright about the writer's actual concerns, although I note again, as in the case of the mother in the above story, that I doubt the writer has anything close to a full appreciation of precisely what is revealed here. I will not tell you the writer's identity, for his identity is not at all my concern, and "outings" of that kind are of no interest to me whatsoever. My concern is with the motives and concerns involved, and the behavior to which those concerns lead. And I know, from additional emails I've received, from the general rule that if one person offers these statements, some number of additional people had similar thoughts, and from human nature in general, that such behavior is not uncommon. To the contrary, political developments in the last few years -- and, I emphasize, the behavior of many writers, bloggers and others involved in politics -- have proven repeatedly that this kind of behavior occurs with disturbing frequency.

I received the following email just a few days after publishing, "Once More into the Land of the Blind." That post was a scathing indictment of certain behavior of the ruling class, including the Democrats in Washington, and also of those who continue to offer apologies and alleged justifications for the Democrats' miserable performance with nothing less than religious fervor. It might be useful to read that earlier piece of mine before continuing.

The subject line of this email was: "Thank you for your 'land of the blind' essay." I've eliminated certain passages to avoid disclosing the writer's identity (many of you would know the person involved), but the major points remain exactly as written to me:
I wanted to write something very like it the other day, but I confess that I am a coward. I live in [...], and while my blog traffic isn't very high I've been around long enough to be a fixture, and fear that I'd be regarded as having lost my mind.


It came to me, after the MoveOn vote, that the unspoken postulate on which all blogospheric optimism is based is that the only large banks of politically savvy people in the country are either on the side of the Republicans or writing in the liberal blogosphere. That none of the Democrats 'knew what they were doing.' And it finally hit me that this was unlikely in the extreme. The Democrats, more than enough of them anyhow, really are just like that and there can't be said to be any rational excuse for it other than that they're acting according to their true, and essentially wicked, beliefs. If there's any reason to hope, it's that the party could be taken over such that its hypocrisies were turned into truth, but there's no way it could be done fast enough to prevent so many dire things happening, so much broken that could never be repaired.

I'm so afraid, and I want to leave now and never look back. But there isn't an away anymore, is there?
Here, I don't care whether what I wrote is true (although I obviously think it is, as continuing developments demonstrate repeatedly, and as I have analyzed in numerous essays), or whether you think it's true. The point is that this emailer thought it was true. In fact, he "wanted to write something very like it" -- but any concerns he might have had with what he himself thought was true were overridden by his anxiety that his particular peer group, his "tribe," would regard him as "having lost [his] mind." So he remained silent, just as the boy in our story is learning to be silent. He was, in his own words, "a coward."

This emailer is someone who desperately wants the current system to change. The painfully, even pathetically, obvious question is: How will change of the kind required ever occur if those people who see the truth refuse to give voice to it? It is also worth noting that the emailer places the approval of those he himself considers to be wrong above the truth. Consider this for a moment, and consider how deeply sad and pathetic it is: the emailer is convinced that those people of great significance to him are wrong. He is an adult, not a helpless child. But he has learned the lesson of obedience, of conforming to the demands of his tribe, all too well. He thinks they are deeply wrong -- but he does not dare to do anything that might result in their disapproval. He will not even dare to write a blog post -- a blog post, mind you -- that might cause those others to view him unfavorably.

I will analyze this phenomenon in much more detail in the future. As I said, this is only a preview of how facts and the truth recede ever further from view, as far too many adults permit their actions to be dictated by the ongoing approval of members of their tribe, even when they think those individuals are grievously wrong. Just as the boy in our story is learning, this is a person who has learned to watch for signs of approval and disapproval with ceaseless vigilance, and to place primary importance on approval from those others of special significance to him. The boy has no choice, for he is a helpless child. There is no excuse for an adult to behave in this way. Cowardice may be the explanation (or part of it), but it is never an excuse.

I haven't yet discussed the final part of the story, and the last part of the boy's lesson:
"Do you know what we call people who know what they are doing is bad, but do the bad thing anyway?"

He replied, "Democrats."
Or, in the original, "Republicans." In terms of every issue analyzed above, and in terms of the deeply damaging lesson and patterns of thought and behavior being taught, the designation -- "what we call" those people -- is immaterial.

So we will look at that particular part of the lesson next time.