Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The Ravages of Tribalism Parts 1 & 2, by Arthur Silber

Part 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. posted by Arthur Silber Part 2 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. The Ravages of Tribalism (III): Learning to Hate "The Other" Some General Observations The analysis of the final part of the true story we are considering will reveal several significant patterns of thought and behavior. Before turning to the story's specifics, I want to offer certain observations about the behavior of tribes in general. With regard to these issues, the particular basis of tribal definition is of no moment: these characteristics are true of tribes defined on the basis of family, religion, sex and/or sexual identity, race, political party, and/or nation. I will be discussing all these points in much more detail as this series progresses, but it might be useful to begin even now to see how these patterns operate. I would not go so far as to describe the following as "Laws of Tribal Behavior" or in similar grandiose terms. Let's designate them in a simpler way, perhaps as "Observations About Tribal Beliefs and Behavior." These are the observations that I consider of special significance: ONE: To the degree that membership in a particular tribe or tribes is important to a person's sense of identity, that person believes that his own tribe(s) is inherently and uniquely good. To the degree that tribal membership is a critical element of personal identity, all members of all tribes are convinced this is true of those tribes to which they belong. TWO: Insofar as the tribe's centrally defining characteristic(s) (race, religion, political beliefs, etc.) are concerned, all other tribes that differ with regard to these characteristics are necessarily inferior and wrong. This has an especially critical implication: at first with regard to these centrally defining characteristics, and inevitably in a more general sense, the individual members of all other tribes are necessarily inferior to and less worthy than the members of one's own tribe(s). THREE: The basic dynamics of all tribes are the same. This applies to all tribes in two different critical respects. It is true of dynamics within the tribe -- that is, of those particular mechanisms which create and maintain tribal identity and cohesiveness -- and it is also true of how one tribe views itself and behaves in relation to other tribes. FOUR: The major mechanism by which any tribe creates and maintains tribal identity and cohesiveness is obedience: the requirement that each member of the tribe conform his thinking and behavior in accordance with the major elements of the tribe's belief system. On the last point, I refer you to my discussion of obedience in, "The Honor of Being Human." I prefaced the description of obedience offered there by noting: "I wanted this description to encompass at least three fundamentally different kinds of relationships, but to isolate the dynamics of obedience that are common to all of them. Those three relationships are: parent to child; one adult to another adult; and the adult to the state." Because it is critical to what follows, I repeat the description here: Obedience is the term used to describe the demand by a person in a superior position (superior psychologically, legally and/or in terms of the power he possesses in some other form) that a person in an inferior position conduct himself in a particular manner. The essence of obedience is the demand without more: a reason may be provided, but a reason is unnecessary. Moreover, the reason may be unconvincing or incoherent, and it may contradict other reasons provided for other demands. Most importantly, the reason need not be one that the person in the inferior position agrees with. Informed, voluntary agreement occurs when a person is presented with a reason(s) to act in a certain manner; he understands and is ultimately convinced of the validity of the reason(s), and therefore acts in the manner suggested. Obedience is the opposite of voluntary, uncoerced agreement: the understanding and agreement of the person in the inferior position are not required, and are often not sought at all. The person in the inferior position may profoundly disagree with the reason(s) offered for the demand, if any. When the person in the inferior position obeys, he does so because of his certain knowledge that if he does not, he will be punished in some form: psychologically, legally, socially, or in some other way. Thus, the primary (although not the sole) motivation that ensures obedience is negative in nature: it is not the promise of a reward (even though certain rewards may be offered), but the assurance that he will not suffer consequences that are painful in varying degrees, i.e., that he will not be punished. You are probably already seeing how all these issues are involved in the story we are analyzing. The Final Part of the Boy's Lesson We turn now to the final part of the deeply damaging lesson being taught to the boy in this story: 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, "Republicans." I want to be very precise here, and I also want to answer in advance one particular objection to my argument that I can easily imagine might be offered. If one wanted to minimize what I consider the deeply damaging effects of this kind of incident, I suppose one might contend that the mother isn't saying that those people are "bad" as people. Rather, she's making a narrower claim: that they "know what they are doing is bad, but do the bad thing anyway." Thus, they are bad actors, if you will, rather than bad people. In this context, I consider this a meaningless distinction. First, this lesson is being offered to a very young child. As is true of every aspect of the particular content offered in this lesson (as distinct from the psychological dynamics involved), it is impossible for a young child to grasp an issue of this kind in anything close to the manner required. Many adults can barely understand it; how in the world is a young child going to, especially in a situation as emotionally charged as this one? He won't understand it. But his understanding is not sought or required. Second, consider further the introductory phrase of this part of the lesson: "Do you know what we call people..." This is the very essence of name-calling. This is one form in which a person seeks to demonize members of other tribes that are especially disfavored. This is the way any vicious racist might begin a particularly disgusting description of those people he loathes. The message is unmistakable, and this is trebly true in this setting involving a young child: "Those people are bad." For these reasons (and others), it is very striking to see a story of this kind proudly offered on a self-described "liberal" and "progressive" site. And as we will see in a moment, not one commenter had anything other than enthusiastic praise for this story. So I can already refer to the general observations offered above, and offer this story as one proof for them. And with regard to these issues, remember: The basic dynamics of all tribes are the same. As I noted in Part II and with these additional points in mind, I say again that your reaction to this kind of condemnation of those "bad" people should be identical, regardless of the designation. Replace "Republicans" with "Democrats," or African Americans ("Do you know what we call people who are lazy and irresponsible, and who know that's bad but do the bad thing anyway?" -- Barack Obama knows all about that one), or Jews ("Do you know what we call people who are greedy, manipulative and dishonest, and who know that's bad but do the bad thing anyway?"), or any other similar category, and the lesson is the same. It is utterly wrong, and deeply destructive. I should repeat a point I made in introducing this story. I didn't select this story to introduce these issues because I think this mother doesn't love her children (which I emphasized I do not think), or because this story represents some unusual kind of emotional manipulation and abuse. We are all tragically familiar with numerous examples of much worse treatment of children. I selected this story for precisely the opposite reason: because it is so completely and absolutely ordinary. As I said before, this is the kind of incident that most people wouldn't even notice. I'm sure that some readers are thinking even now that I'm inventing problems out of next to nothing (in which case, I refer them back to the issues discussed in Part I and Part II). It is because this kind of incident is so utterly common and ordinary that it is of such immense significance. As I am trying to demonstrate, it is by such means that certain patterns of thought, feeling and behavior are instilled in young children -- and it is these same patterns that lead to enormous suffering as those children grow up, suffering which very often continues after they have become adults. These same patterns also underlie many of the horrors that we see in our world today, just as similar horrors have engulfed the world in the past more times than bears remembering. This particular story, together with the patterns of thought to which it gives rise, presents still further issues that merit analysis. Whether we call the "bad" people Republicans or Democrats, this perspective entirely rules out the possible existence of those individuals who might hold different political convictions in good faith. The "bad" people are not simply mistaken or misguided. They are bad. Not only are they bad, but they know they're bad. Despite this knowledge -- which the accuser knows the "bad" people to possess with the certainty of the True Believer -- the "bad" people persist in their evil. The young boy in this story certainly does not want to be "bad" or evil, and he desperately does not want his mother to think he is. So of course, the boy will say whatever his mother demands. He will obey. We might very well wonder whether the mother believes her own condemnation. It would certainly appear that she does. Consider the insurmountable obstacle this belief represents. Such a belief makes impossible the idea of changing the opinions of those with whom one disagrees about issues of any significance. For according to this perspective, we aren't faced with a problem of knowledge or understanding. Those who disagree aren't innocent in their error, if it is error: they are "bad," and they know they are "bad." So what is one to do in political battles? Try to overwhelm your opponents by sheer numbers? If you can't do that, what then? Eliminate them? One need only consult the leading liberal and conservative blogs on any given day to appreciate that this perspective is widely held on both left and right. Both "sides" frequently accuse the other of inherent dishonesty and all manner of sin. While editing and rewriting an earlier draft of this essay, I came across another such example just this morning. The title of the post announces the same perspective held by the mother in our story: "Crazy People." The post concludes: As John Cole explained this week, "I really don't understand how bipartisanship is ever going to work when one of the parties is insane." Between sanity and craziness, there is no common ground. When the young boy in our story grows up, he can write for Washington Monthly. What we learn and internalize as children, we perpetually reenact as adults. As some readers may know, John Cole was once a conservative and a fervent supporter of the Iraq war and occupation (as well as of the Bush administration in general). He once wrote identical posts with identical condemnation running in exactly the opposite direction. Now he is warmly embraced by many liberal and progressive bloggers, for they recognize, at least on the emotional level, a committed tribalist when they see one. Remember these words from Alice Miller that I offered in Part I: 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... Cole's loyalties have changed, but that is only on the surface: it is only "a switching of values," which in themselves are unimportant. His arguments and his perspective reveal that "his whole value system is dominated by the principle of obedience." And I repeat again: The basic dynamics of all tribes are the same. I will be analyzing this kind of "switching of values" in more detail in the future; in another variation on this theme, Andrew Sullivan also represents an example of this phenomenon. (See my analysis in the concluding parts of the "On Torture" series -- here and here -- for my earlier discussion of the problems in Sullivan's approach, many of which are related to these same concerns.) In addition to the unavoidable fact that this perspective and condemnation in this form ("bad," "crazy," "insane") are not susceptible of proof, both "sides" render their own belief incomprehensible. In different ways, and frequently in the same way, both left and right appeal to "American exceptionalism," and to the "inherent goodness," even nobility, of "the American people." But if that's true, how is it then that so many Americans -- tens of millions on either side in the last election -- are "bad," and know they are "bad"? In "The Elites Who Rule Us," I considered various forms of "American exceptionalism." The full essay discusses these issues in much greater detail, but here I offer this passage as especially relevant (the essay was published in May 2007): [A]mong progressives, the appeals to the wisdom and infinite goodness of "the American people" are unending. So exactly which Americans are they talking about? We can safely assume they probably don't mean the 62 million people who voted for Bush in 2004, long after the criminally murderous nature of his policies had been made unequivocally clear, or the millions of Americans who still support Bush even today. They probably don't mean those Americans who enjoy hearty laughs watching repeated acts of torture on 24, and who wish only that their government used similar methods still more systematically (as if we don't use them systematically enough already). But here is where the genuinely religious nature of this belief in the innate goodness of "the people" becomes clearer. We should first note that, whenever political leaders or would-be wielders of power appeal to "civic democracy" or "the will of the people," they operate on a crucial but unspoken assumption: that the people they invoke just happen to agree with them. When these seekers after power use the state to force people to act in certain ways, they will only be doing what the people themselves want, for the beliefs of "the people" coincidentally overlap with their own at every important point. I repeat that every bloodthirsty dictator has said the same. But note a further religious element involved. Every fervent "believer" thinks that if only others saw the truth as he does, if they only had all the "facts," they would be overwhelmed by his particular vision, and come to see its indisputable veracity. In exactly the same way, all these seekers of political power think that if only "the people" had all the "facts" (which are the ones they view as important, and no others), they would embrace every significant part of their political program. This avoids one obvious and fundamental aspect of human nature, and human behavior: people can have precisely the same information -- yet they will reach vastly different conclusions because they operate on the basis of different moral premises and values. People make different choices; as we all know, those choices are often entirely unlike ours, and not infrequently directly opposed to ours. Keep in mind that the state is a system of obedience: the essence of the state is force and compulsion. If you violate the state's requirements, you will pay a penalty. But this reality is washed away with appeals to "the will of the people": the power-seekers convince themselves that you are only being forced to act in ways that you would choose yourself. This is only a very brief beginning on what is an inordinately complex subject; I will return to these issues in much more detail in an upcoming series about the primitive tribalism that has overwhelmed our politics today. It's almost two years later, but I finally got here. This perspective dispenses with the idea of legitimate opposition, legitimate in the sense that a person might have access to all the information you do, but decline in good faith to draw the same conclusions. This belief system necessarily means that all opposing views are not only mistaken, but fundamentally illegitimate and even immoral. Up to this point and despite the fact that I regard this as a gravely dangerous method of proceeding, insofar as specifically political questions are concerned, this is not necessarily a problem. Certainly, I think my own views are correct. As just one example, an especially important one, I think there can be no valid disagreement that the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq represented and continues to represent a monstrous, unforgivable series of war crimes. I am further convinced that all those who directly support and enable these war crimes are war criminals -- a category which includes almost everyone in Washington since 2003, with only a handful of exceptions. You may disagree, but to do so requires that you choose to disregard the plain meaning of the Nuremberg Principles. That may indeed be your choice; it is not mine. I don't consider these conclusions open to question, yet I recognize that many people (most people, in fact) do not agree. While I will draw certain general conclusions about those who disagree -- they are lacking the required information, they don't know how to process that information they have, perhaps they've never seriously examined these questions, or possibly, in some exceptionally rare cases, they know these are war crimes and simply don't care (although if there is such a case, I have yet to be pointed to it) -- I will not presume to pass judgment in an individual case without having a great deal of further knowledge. Among other things, I would need to know the extent of the person's knowledge, what sources of information he relies on or is even aware of, and the specific arguments he uses to support his views. That is only the beginning of the questions. But I certainly would not say that all those who disagree are "bad," and I most definitely would not say that they know they are "bad." (I have drawn certain conclusions about some individual writers and bloggers, as I will further discuss in future parts of this series. But in those cases, my conclusions are supported by a considerable amount of evidence, in the form of the writings and opinions offered by those writers and bloggers over a substantial period of time.) But note with care precisely the point at which the problem arises. I am not attempting to gain power in the political system (either directly or indirectly) to compel obedience on the part of those who disagree with me. I am certainly trying to convince others of the correctness of my views and perspective, but I am seeking their understanding: "Informed, voluntary agreement occurs when a person is presented with a reason(s) to act in a certain manner; he understands and is ultimately convinced of the validity of the reason(s), and therefore acts in the manner suggested." In terms of action, the action I suggest most often is that people consider withdrawing their support for our current corporatist-authoritarian-militarist system, in those ways that are open to them given their particular circumstances. Given the nature of the state itself -- and the essence of the state is its power to compel obedience -- and given the particular nature of the present system, those who are seeking political power are not seeking understanding and voluntary agreement: they want the power to force people, including those people who profoundly disagree with their convictions and goals, to act in those ways they themselves consider to be "good." As I often have cause to note, every murderous, slaughtering dictator has made the same claim. And the lesson imparted by the mother in the story we have been examining is radically different from my own perspective and views as described above: "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, 'Republicans.'" As we've discussed, this is the prototype of the most primitive form of tribalism, the dividing of the world into "us" and "them." "We" are right, "they" are wrong, and there are no exceptions. "We" are "good," "they" are "bad," and there are no exceptions. In any matter of moment, "they" are to be defeated, by any means necessary. It is impossible to change their minds or alter their opinions: they are "bad," they know it, and they do "the bad thing anyway." The young boy in the story -- and any child who is incapable of surviving without his parents' approval, which means any child -- will not question these beliefs, for these beliefs cannot be questioned, or so he is told. Therefore, he will do whatever is necessary to please his mother. In this quest for approval, which is neverending as the blogger whose email I discussed in Part II demonstrates, all those facts which may call this division of "us" and "them" into question are cast aside. Facts don't matter, truth which does not accord with what our tribe demands doesn't matter, nothing matters except the continued approval of the tribe we have chosen. Of course, choice in any meaningful sense is completely irrelevant with regard to this very young boy. As noted above, the tribal division of "us" and "them" cannot be defended by an adult. How is a young child going to make sense of any of this? But he won't make sense of it: his understanding and voluntary agreement are beside the point. The point is obedience. A few of the comments to the Daily Kos post should also be noted. Not one of the comments raises even a minor question regarding the content of the mother's story. The mother knew her story would meet with great approval from her tribe; tragically, she was entirely correct. All the commenters find the story delightful, even wonderful. And they offer some of their own similar stories. One commenter calls the boy's response "the perfect answer," and goes on: I'll share mine: My 9 y.o. recently asked me what would be a good name for a crazy monkey (have no idea where that came from). Out of my mouth, without any thought, came: "Bush" He looked at me for a minute and completely cracked up. He gets it. A nine-year-old "gets it"? What exactly does he "get"? Certainly he gets that his laughter would be the response that receives parental approval. It would be valuable to know exactly what the boy saw as he looked at his father "for a minute." Almost certainly, he saw the beginning of a smile or some other indication that laughter was the expected and approved response. He's already learned how to pick up the emotional signals of approval and disapproval, and he's learned how to adjust his behavior accordingly. He's also learning how to dehumanize those who are not "us," those who are on "the other side." Could this nine-year-old begin to explain, on his own and in his own terms, even one of the political issues involved? Yet this parent is convinced that his child "gets it." Or consider this comment: We took my daughters, five and seven, to see the Yeoman of the Guard, an operetta set in the Tower of London. We explained that the Tower was where important people who had done bad things were sent. My five year old said "Like George Bush would have to [be] there?" A five-year-old, who has already learned just what to say to please Dad, although she could not possibly understand in any genuine sense any of the complex political questions at issue. It is all too easy to teach children to obey, to teach them how to be alert to emotional signals from their parents, and how to act in ways that will merit the parents' approval. It is much more difficult to teach them, in those terms appropriate to their age and level of development, how to be truly independent, and how to think and act in ways that are spontaneous and genuinely their own. The question of teaching and nurturing young children in ways that are not destructive and that do not lead to the tribal perspective requires further examination, and that will be the subject of the next installment. posted by Arthur Silber

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