January 30, 2009

The Ravages of Tribalism (I): Introduction

I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate wilfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth's the right place for love:
I don't know where it's likely to go better.

-- Robert Frost, "Birches"
To begin, I need a story. We tell stories to distract us from the cares of the day, to amuse, to entertain. We tell them to explain, to illuminate, to inspire. Stories help us understand what has happened in the past, and they offer guidance about future action. We may be rich or poor, we may be happy and surrounded by family and friends or desolate in our loneliness. Our circumstances are as variable as our moods and momentary obsessions, but our hunger for stories unites us all. The superficial differences among human beings in place and time may appear to be insurmountable obstacles. Yet when we strip away the comparatively insignificant surface details, the similarities in the most enduring stories told across cultures and over thousands of years may well astonish us.

"Why the Stories We Tell Matter So Much" examines certain aspects of stories and our need for them. It also analyzes the great dangers that arise when our favored stories are false. In the political realm, and in the case of the United States, every major national narrative is false and dangerously misleading. We see today the disastrous consequences of insisting on the truth of a story which is fundamentally wrong. Yet most Americans have an inexhaustible willingness, even an enthusiasm, for believing lies. As I have remarked, lies are the diet that sustains us, the poison we will swallow time and again, without end. And still worse: "Truth is the enemy; truth is to be destroyed." It is far from obvious why so many people should enthusiastically embrace a lengthy series of lies, particularly when those lies continually result in death and destruction on a vast scale, as they do today, as they did yesterday, as they will again tomorrow. It is a question that merits investigation.

So, I need a story. As noted in my essay about the importance of stories, it was Philip Pullman who said: "Stories are the most important thing in the world. Without stories, we wouldn't be human beings at all." The title of a collection of Joan Didion essays conveys this idea with eloquent simplicity: We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live. It was Pullman who also said this, which provided the title of my blog:
We don't need lists of rights and wrongs, tables of do's and don'ts: we need books, time, and silence. Thou shalt not is soon forgotten, but Once upon a time lasts forever.
An article about Pullman excerpted in my earlier piece notes the lines from Robert Frost that appear above. Perhaps those thoughts are not directly relevant to what follows, except for this particular thought: "Earth's the right place for love:/I don't know where it's likely to go better." That will do for me, and very wonderfully, but the value of this idea depends on love being healthy in its source, expression and effects, love that acknowledges and honors the independence and irreplaceably unique value of another human being.

This series will examine some of the many ways that love goes wrong, the ways in which love destroys the genuine vitality of another soul. All too often, which is to say in the case of almost every person, the pattern of this destruction is set in early childhood. Once the pattern has been embedded deeply enough, it will be dislodged later in life only in the rarest of circumstances. For the great majority of people, the destruction is carried from generation to generation.

The same pattern also becomes the basis of the political systems we establish, and of the specific manner in which those systems function. (See "When the Demons Come" for examples of how and why this happens.) Political systems are not devised or operated by individuals who supposedly manage, always by some unspecified means, to set aside or rise above those motives and concerns that dominate the lives of those they rule. In terms of certain underlying human dynamics, rulers and ruled are fundamentally alike, for better or worse. Throughout most of human history, it is almost always for worse; consult any one of numerous history books for the frequently terrifying evidence, and consider how rare the exceptions are and how briefly they lasted. (I should note that certain critical differences between the ruling class and those they rule can be identified; you will find some of those differences analyzed here.)

This is one of the great problems with political commentary: politics is only a symptom of a more fundamental condition. Unless we address these more fundamental concerns, the symptom will never be altered in a lasting way. Yet we (and I) spend so much time on political matters because politics affects our lives so dramatically and with such immediacy. Because politics has the power to alter our lives so profoundly and, far too frequently, even to end them, some of us fiercely resist the especially destructive aspects of its operations. Yet this will never be enough by itself, as history, including our recent history and ongoing events, prove repeatedly.

The final installment of my series "On Torture" speaks to this connection between the personal and the political. This perspective is crucial to what follows, so I offer this excerpt from that article:
In the previous essay, I analyzed how [Andrew] Sullivan approaches the question of torture as a political one: he considers the legitimizing of torture in terms of its effects on the United States as a political entity. He discusses torture's ghastly effects on the victim -- but only in very abstract, impersonal terms, as if he were writing a textbook on political theory. And, very significantly, both Krauthammer and Sullivan -- even though they come down on opposite sides of this dispute -- exhibit the same blind spot: the reality of the person who will always refuse to inflict torture on another does not appear to exist for them. We are left with the sense that, in their world, if the order comes down to torture, the order will be obeyed. So the critical question for them is whether that order should ever be issued. Krauthammer says it should, and Sullivan says it must never be.

For me, the question is a profoundly different one. I recognize that the order will not necessarily be obeyed. So for me, the key lies right there: why will some people refuse, while others won't? Krauthammer and Sullivan never ask this question. They are both the victims that [Alice] Miller describes. Obedience is the ruling principle that informs their approach -- and the only question is: obedience to what? (I note the following, because it is very revealing of the extent to which the principle of obedience dominates Sullivan's approach. Sullivan is an openly gay man, who writes extensively about gay issues -- and also about his Catholicism. It is quite striking to see the enormous struggles that engage Sullivan -- struggles which are entirely self-selected and to which he voluntarily submits -- as he tries to reconcile his own homosexuality with a Church that continues to explicitly condemn gay people for their sexuality. He cannot make peace between these warring parts of his worldview and of himself because, in fact, no such peace can ever be attained. But he refuses to give up the principle of obedience that is still represented by his allegiance to the Catholic Church.)

As I was reflecting on these issues, I recalled a line I once heard or read somewhere. I've tried to remember its source, but I can't. It is not the way I would choose to make the point; it's a sentimental, not fully serious manner of expressing the thought. The line went something like this: "Nothing happens in politics, that did not happen first in the human heart." Let us set the style aside: there is a great truth contained in that statement. It is crucial to appreciate what it is.

For me, the ultimate truth of any question is an individual one. Individual human beings are the ultimate components of all the questions that concern us, whether they are philosophical, political, aesthetic or of any other kind. Politics represents the summation of many individual actions. In all the heated debates about politics or foreign policy, we too often forget where the final consequences of our actions are felt: by individual human beings, by people who are happy or sad because of what we do, by people who all too frequently today live or die as the result of our actions. Obviously, this is why politics and foreign policy matter so much: the lives of countless people are affected because of the decisions we make. This is why I spend so much time on these questions myself.

But the final significance of all these issues is intensely personal: these questions matter so desperately because of how they affect me, and you, and all of us. And this is why, when I consider a subject like torture, the most critical question for me is the personal one: why are there some people who will refuse to obey the order? If everyone refused, the problem would never arise. This is another way of expressing an old cliche. It may be a cliche, but it goes to the identical personal issue: "What if they gave a war and nobody came?"

Think about that for a moment. What if no one did come? Put it another way: why are so many people willing, even eager, to engage in violence? Almost all of us reject violence on the narrower scale: we all condemn the thief, or the individual murderer. But when violence is engaged in on a wide scale by governments, many of us enthusiastically embrace it. We allow ourselves to forget the personal impact, and the horror becomes manifest. And when it comes to the question of torture, some of us will approve it, while refusing to consider its ultimate source -- and while refusing to acknowledge that some people will never permit themselves to act in such a manner. Still others, while they condemn it, similarly refuse to consider the issue in any but the most impersonal and abstract of terms. They cannot imagine the person who simply says, "No" -- because they themselves would not. They have been taught to obey, and they will not challenge the principle that lies at the foundation of their identity.
As noted above, this series will examine some of the many destructions that result from deeply mistaken ideas of "love," beginning with the horrors that most parents visit on their helpless and defenseless children. Yes, there are some parents who understand what it means to respect and honor their young children, and who nurture the development of a genuinely autonomous self. But I tell you this at the outset: such parents are exceedingly rare. I consider it almost certain that your parents were not such exceptions, as mine most definitely were not (as a subsequent installment will demonstrate in detail). Almost every person reading this will have been damaged in countless ways by his or her parents, just as I was. It took me the better part of three decades to understand these issues, and to begin to repair much of the damage. The work still goes on today. (For further details of this journey and for some suggestions on reading Alice Miller's books on this subject, I recommend you read this essay.)

I apologize for excerpting myself still one more time, but I realize that many readers do not follow links. The following passage, again from the concluding installment of the "On Torture" series, is also needed to establish the context of the discussion to come:
[T]here is a necessary corollary to the obedience we are taught: the idealization of the authority figures in our lives. 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.

This knowledge is inaccessible to the majority of adults. We are taught to obey, and we learn to idealize our parents. We tell ourselves they did the best they could, or they couldn't help it. In one sense, that is true: they raise their children as they were raised. They learned obedience very well, and they do to their own children what was done to them. But most of us cannot leave this truth at this point: to maintain the veneration of our parents, we must insist that they in fact were right -- that they did it "for our own good." That is where the great danger lies.

When the idealization of the authority figure spreads once we become adults, it can encompass additional authority figures. There are two primary such figures: God -- who may have been there from the beginning, if the child is raised in a very religious household where God is the ultimate authority, and the parents only speak on His behalf; and country. When one's nation becomes such an authority figure, there are subsidiary ones as well: the nation's leaders, and the nation's military.
The story I ideally require to convey these themes and to demonstrate how the damage of children begins would have to combine several elements. It would contain a very ordinary, everyday example of commonly accepted child rearing practices, so typical that most people would view it as entirely unremarkable and not even worth mentioning. At the same time, it would reveal the enormous damage caused by the actions of most parents, damage which sets patterns of thinking, feeling and behavior that will last a lifetime. And with regard to my theme of tribalism, the story would show how the division between "us" and "them" is initially implanted, and how all those who are placed in the category of "them" are viewed as "less than" and not fully human. "They" are to be condemned and to be treated accordingly. The story thus would have to combine the psychological and the political in a particular way, and to set these considerations in the context of raising very young children.

I might have sought in vain for such a story, and I might have had to present a fictional scenario to set forth these ideas in the specific way I require. Fortunately -- or I should accurately say, unfortunately -- I came across a true story that meets all these goals, a story offered by a mother with pride, and even with joy. This mother is convinced that she is raising her children the "right" way, and teaching them the "right" ideas. But if one understands what is actually happening, this commonplace story is a tale full of horror.

As background to the next post in this series, I strongly recommend that you read the final installment of the series "On Torture" in its entirety, and "When the Demons Come" for some useful background. The installment of the "Final Descent" series referenced above should also prove useful. Relying on the issues discussed in this piece and the earlier ones, I will devote the next installment to this true story, and to untangling the complicated dynamics that inform it.

ADDENDUM: I understand that many readers will not have the time (and/or inclination) to peruse my numerous Alice Miller essays. You will find a brief description of each of the essays at that link. A considerable number of more recent essays on these subjects are not listed there; when I have time, I will prepare an additional post describing the newer articles which explore further aspects of these themes.

To help establish the needed context a bit more fully, permit me to offer two further excerpts that capture the heart of Miller's argument, at least insofar as her argument concerns what follows.

The first passage comes from the "Final Descent" essay:
As a final prefatory note to this further exploration of Miller's work, I want to emphasize the following: I would never say, and I have never said, that Miller's explanation of the damage we sustain as children represents the only explanation that matters, or the only causative factor of significance. Here I echo what Miller herself wrote in, The Truth Will Set You Free: Overcoming Emotional Blindness and Finding Your True Adult Self, in answer to a certain kind of criticism:
Many of my critics protest that one cannot trace world events back to the childhood of a single person. But I have never asserted that the causes I have discovered are the only ones conditioning the course of history. What I do keep pointing out is the consistency with which they have been ignored. I stand accused of using arguments that I have never put forward.
This is the key: "What I do keep pointing out is the consistency with which they have been ignored." The damages inflicted in childhood by almost all parents are forbidden territory: it is the single subject which most people entirely prohibit themselves from ever investigating, even as those damages continue to influence their lives as adults.
The second passage concerns the centrality of obedience, and the endlessly destructive effects of instilling obedience as the primary virtue. I addressed this issue in one of my first Miller essays, a consideration of Mel Gibson as an unusually extreme and public example of this phenomenon. From that earlier piece:
In Part II of this essay, I excerpted several passages from Alice Miller's work. To focus this discussion on the issue I now wish to address, let me summarize my understanding of Miller's central argument. By demanding obedience above all from a child (whether by physical punishment, by psychological means, or through some combination of both), parents forbid the child from fostering an authentic sense of self. Because children are completely dependent on their parents, they dare not question their parents' goodness, or their "good intentions." As a result, when children are punished, even if they are punished for no reason or for a reason that makes no sense, they blame themselves and believe that the fault lies within them. In this way, the idealization of the authority figure is allowed to continue. In addition, the child cannot allow himself to experience fully his own pain, because that, too, might lead to questioning of his parents.

In this manner, the child is prevented from developing a genuine, authentic sense of self. As he grows older, this deadening of his soul desensitizes the child to the pain of others. Eventually, the maturing adult will seek to express his repressed anger on external targets, since he has never been allowed to experience and express it in ways that would not be destructive. By such means, the cycle of violence is continued into another generation (using "violence" in the broadest sense). One of the additional consequences is that the adult, who has never developed an authentic self, can easily transfer his idealization of his parents to a new authority figure. As Miller says:
This perfect adaptation to society's norms--in other words, to what is called "healthy normality"--carries with it the danger that such a person can be used for practically any purpose. It is not a loss of autonomy that occurs here, because this autonomy never existed, but a switching of values, which in themselves are of no importance anyway for the person in question as long as his whole value system is dominated by the principle of obedience. He has never gone beyond the stage of idealizing his parents with their demands for unquestioning obedience; this idealization can easily be transferred to a Fuhrer or to an ideology.