Saturday, April 16, 2011

Four Men Who Will Save the World, Part 2

Let's examine the assertion of American conservatives that hetero pair-bonding is the "foundation of society." Plenty of philosophers have searched for the rela- tion(s) that society is "based on"--K'ung Tzu (aka Confucius) comes immediately to mind--but from a scientific standpoint, the idea that all human relations are dependent on marriage is patently ridiculous.

Swedish Semites by Luca della Robbia, Florence, c. 1455
As a quick illustration, con- template for a moment the history of European visual art. For every one depiction of Mary and Joseph there's probably a hundred of Mary and Jesus--as an infant. Virgin and Child is (I'm guessing) the most all-time popular motif in European art, and not just because Europe has been solidly Christian for the past thousand years. It would seem the ancients knew what some who claim to follow them today have chosen to for- get: the most important relationship in human existence is the physical and emotional bond between a child and his or her primary caregiver. It is this relationship, especially as it plays out during the first 3 to 5 years of the child's life, that lays the emotional foundation for everything that the child will do and think and feel for the rest of her days. It's not the emotions themselves that come into being at this time--the brain takes care of that by itself--but the way the child will process emotions--the emotional coping style--that is established within this crucial time period.

An emotional coping style is made up of a person's habitual responses to anything that triggers emotion: novel stimuli, relationships with others, and especially stress. If a young child experiences love, trust, security, and empathy within the caregiver bond, she will carry those feelings into every subsequent relationship; she will respond adaptively to novelty; and she will tolerate a fair amount of phys- ical and emotional stress. If, on the other hand, the child experiences anger, randomness, fear, and cold-heartedness within her primary bond, these experi- ences will damage her ability to relate to others in every area of life from the boardroom to the bedroom--and the nursery. She will be mistrustful of novel stimuli (since the changes she's already experienced are likely to have been painful), and will be easily knocked off her equilibrium by stress.

Sai//gai and son =Toma, c. 1965
The emotional coping style is not a series of conscious choices. Infants and young children do not chose to throw tantrums, suck their thumbs, play with their own feces out of boredom, or shriek whenever they're put to bed. Nor do they chose to become the kind of people who, later in their lives, will take drugs, have too many babies, drive Hummers, or commit mass murder. There is a robust correlation between the emotional coping style that a child develops in the first 5 years of life and how that child will behave as an adult. That is: there are direct causal connec- tions between how we rear our children, the kinds of people they become, and the type of society they create. If you want a stable, humane, and honorable society, your first order of business is to raise happy children. The Bushmn did it for 100,000 years. It's time the rest of us to get on board.

So why haven't we? Because we as a society are still used to the notion that "some people are just born bad," or even "all people are born bad." You might call it the doctrine of Fundamental Badness (FB). Its the deep-seated belief that to be born human is to be born, somehow, BAD--and that this badness is so deeply ingrained that it can never be rooted out or overcome. To put it simply, current global culture is in despair over the future of the human race, because it sees H. sapiens  as being unworthy to have a future. You've heard the public laments: "WE are ruining the planet" or "WE are disrupting the climate," or even "Nature would be better off without us." Politics has little to do with it. Liberals believe "we" are "naturally exploitive"' and (eagerly) await the breakdown of civilization; nothing will happen to them--they'll just grow their own granola. Conservatives think "God is angry with us sinners" and (eagerly) await Apocalypse; nothing will happen to them--they're morally superior. They hate queers, don't they?

But in the words of the old joke, "Who you mean WE, paleface?" There's not a shred of scientific evidence that humans are born with a propensity to wage war, commit rape, over-exploit resources, or murder our children. All of these evils are learned behaviors, no more innate than is a knowledge of trigonometry; they are far less innate than is a taste for mango-habanero sauce or a preference for the color green. There's not much I can do about global warming or legalizing same- sex marriage, but there's plenty the Koch brothers can do--and don't. People who voted for George W knew he didn't give a damn about the climate and voted for him anyway--I voted for Gore. And I'm not taking a bum rap just because I happen to belong to the same species as Adolf Hitler--I also belong to the species that gave the universe Aung San Suu Kyi, Harriet Tubman, and the Dalai Lama.

No matter that all the evidence indicates that it is a corrupted childhood--not a corrupted "soul," whatever that is--that is the source of "evil," broadly conceived. No matter that for 99% of our history as a species we lived almost exactly like the Bushmn, who have no history of war, rape, environmental degradation, or child maltreatment. Not matter that we now know enough about the developing brain to observe the effects of different child-rearing strategies. No matter that the international scientific community has spoken out on the origins of war--certainly the ultimate "evil"-- and has concluded that war begins in nurture, not nature. No matter: the "doctrine" of Fundamental Badness is so deeply ingrained in western culture that it's hard to find someone who doesn't believe in it. (Although actually it isn't: the Dalai Lama is one who doesn't. But he's not a Man of the West.)

The one we read in high school.
The idea that we humans are somehow "bad" in our essence, souls, genome, or what have you, is the most irrational, pernicious, and inhumane notion anyone can hold. And yet people can be quite shocked when you contradict it. I remember reading Lord of the Flies in high-school and vigorously arguing with my teacher that the novel was flawed because of its central premise:
Fancy thinking the Beast was some- thing you could hunt or kill! You knew, didn't you? I'm part of you? I'm the reason why it's no go? My poor, mis- guided child, do you think you know any better than I do?
And Simon the visionary looks on "with the infinite cynicism of adult life." Infinite? William Golding got a Nobel Prize for this well-written piece of trash, so beloved of English teachers and the pseudo-learned. Even the Funny Times quotes Golding in their "Curmudgeon" column: "Man produces evil as bees produce honey." Though to give them credit they also quote A. A. Milne: "No doubt Jack the Ripper excused himself on the grounds that it was human nature." I think it's time to stop making excuses for despair.

*   *   *

The difference in attitudes toward same-sex marriage that we observe in the mem- bers of the over-50 and under-30 generations are best explained by differences in the way the generations were raised. The old folk (like me) were raised with a certain level of fear, mistrust, and anger, so that when confronted by anything "abnormal" they respond with these emotions. The youth, on the other hand, do not respond to the "abnormal" in this way because they were raised without the same level of fear, mistrust, or anger. If we can identify just how the under-30s were raised, and what made their childhoods different from those that came before them, we may be able to create future generations of  people who don't reflexively buy into the malarky of Fundamental Badness the way the over-50s do. And once people have gotten FB out of their way, they will be free(er) to be more caring, tolerant, compassionate individuals, and thus--eventually--to create a better society and a better world. That IS what we all want, isn't it? Those of us who aren't Tea Partiers, that is.

So who raised the current generation of under-30s? What made their parenting style so different? To be under 30 in the year 2011 means to be born after 1980. Assuming the parents of this age-cohort were between 20 and 35 years old when their offspring were born, this means the parents we are interested in were born between about 1945 and 1960. Seeing that the vast majority of child-rearing in all known human societies is done by women, we may simplify matters here and ignore males, and instead concentrate on women who are now in their 50s and 60s. What made these women so special? What made them different from their mothers?

For the fact is, they shouldn't have been. Almost all the significant advances in our understanding of child development were made after these women had already matured. And, as the followings of James Dobson and John Rosemond attest, scientific discoveries in this field have been slow to penetrate into the general population: anti-attachment child-rearing is still gospel among many who know nothing of those discoveries and don't care to. Given all of this, the special women we are concerned with here should have been carbon-copies of the women who raised them. Instead, they became something subtly, profoundly different--and not because of anything scientists told them. Nor was it thanks to artists, or writers, or even the Bushmn--it was the doing of those four men who will save the world. . . .

to be continued

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