You will note that the title of this entry is similar to that of an earlier one. This is no coincidence, as the topics are also similar, but I hope this entry can shed light from a somewhat different angle.
My starting point on this one is from Alice Miller’s book Banished Knowledge. For those of you who don’t know her work, Alice Miller was a tireless worker for children’s rights and believed that child abuse must be identified and acknowledged by society. Despite being a mother herself, she attacked pedagogy itself and showed how even seemingly irrelevant verbal abuse can have consequences for a child’s future well-being.
In Banished Knowledge, she says:
It is only from adults that an unloved child learns to hate or torment and to disguise these feelings with lies and hypocrisy. That is why, when the child has grown up, he or she will say that children require norms and disciplining: this lie provides access to adult society, a lie that permeates all pedagogy and, to this day, psychoanalysis. The young child knows no lies, is prepared to take at their face value such words as truth, love, and mercy as heard in religious instruction in school. Only on finding out that his naivete is cause for ridicule does the child learn to dissemble. The child’s upbringing teaches him the patterns of the destructive behavior that will later be interpreted by experts as the result of an innate destructive drive. Anyone daring to question this assertion will be smiled at for being naive, as if that person had never come in contact with children and didn’t know “how they can get on your nerves.” For at least since the days of Sigmund Freud, it has been known in “progressive” circles that children come into this world with a death drive and might kill us all if we didn’t ward off “the first indications.”
It’s easy to recognize in Miller’s pointed analysis the dichotomy between constructionism and some form of innate evil. I will not use the label adaptationism for the latter, since there are many contra-causal positions which believe in innate evil as well (e.g. Christianity), but the argument can be adapted to adaptationism as well (no pun intended).
In the entry I linked above, I noted the following double standard: that we claim “we” believe things on the basis of free willed thinking, and we claim “they” believe things on the basis of unreasoning reflex. “Our” beliefs are the result of free will, which is “good,” and “their” beliefs are determined, which is “bad.”
The actual truth of the matter is that everyone’s beliefs are determined by who they are and the circumstances they live through, and there’s no substantial difference between how “we” (the “good guys”) form beliefs and how “they” (the “bad guys”) form beliefs. The double standard is an excuse to not question our beliefs and to justify hating our enemies.
Miller talks about this “innate destructive drive” that people commonly believe children possess. Actual scientific observation has shown that children are born with the same ethical mechanisms (like empathy and fairness) that we all have: those are innate and don’t just pop up after a certain age, and, since they are feelings and not reasoned propositions, neither are they the kind of thing that you can learn. Children are human beings, with all that it implies; the fact that we consider children to be subhuman partially explains why we fall prey to such ridiculous beliefs as “children have a destructive drive.”
But there is a further part to this discussion. Children are essentially powerless bundles of need whose lives depend on their parents exactly as much as if they were still in the womb. They need food, sleep, heat, space to live and experiment, but they also need affection, care, a sense of belonging, love. Deprived of any of these elements, they will fail to develop as they should and may become “destructive.”
This is not normal and should not be interpreted as normal; it is the result of neglect and abuse. Try to understand a baby’s situation. The baby cannot feed itself, cannot move on its own, is only beginning to comprehend the world, and its life is dominated by two human beings who tower over it and control its activities. Adult slaves do not live through such a level of powerlessness, let alone your average adult. For those who have blocked their childhood experiences, even grasping a fraction of what it means to have such an existence is a daunting task.
Because they block understanding of this situation, adults become ridiculously judgmental and hostile to their own children. We routinely hear about parents who take their two year old, three year old, four year old, five year old to the task for not fulfilling the parents’ needs.
To put it as mildly as I can, this is batshit insane. I don’t know why anyone expects a toddler to process information the same way an adult would. But most importantly, a toddler does not exist to fulfill the parents’ needs, the parents exist to fulfill the toddler’s needs.
I imagine some parents may argue “well you don’t have children, you don’t know how it is.” Alice Miller had children and she knew how it was, and that didn’t stop her from denouncing parents in the most direct way. Child abuse and neglect by parents is caused by the parents; children can never be responsible for being neglected or abused. I don’t need to be a parent to understand that, any more than I need to be a murderer to be against murder.
The flip side of the “innate destructive drive” is that parents who neglect or abuse their children are said to be justifiably cranky or weak. You will note that unlike a drive, being cranky or weak is a temporary state which does not define the person. Children are evil by nature, parents are evil because of specific circumstances; in no way can pedagogy, or the person of the parent, be attacked. To do so is one of the biggest taboos in our societies (again, because we hate children and therefore the children are always held responsible except in extreme cases).
We use this same “innate destructive drive” excuse to explain away hardened criminals. If we can convince ourselves that criminals are born that way, then we can be reassured that there was nothing society could have done to prevent their crimes. “There is nothing we could have done” is always the clarion call of the “we live in the best of all worlds” delusion which is so necessary for all of us to keep living in our evil and corrupt Western societies. I do not argue that this is not a necessary delusion; the trouble is when people start taking the delusion as reality.
There is, however, a racial and genderist distinction. When white men kill, they are usually labeled crazed, mentally ill (which is an insult against the mentally ill, who are no more violent than the rest of the population), temporarily insane; only the serial killers and mass murderers are called “monsters,” which is just another way to evade reality. When black men kill, when women kill, no one shies away from the responsibility of the murderers.
Since my previous entry was about determinism, I think I should mention it in this entry as well, since it may yield some confusion. The concept of an “innate destructive drive” is not specifically deterministic: indeed, as I already pointed out, many free will beliefs include a belief in innate drives. It’s important to distinguish between determinism and adaptationism: the former is an obvious logical deduction, the latter is a formidable mine of pseudo-science. Despite what some people think, determinism doesn’t mean we can completely predict people’s behavior; that’s the hallmark of a quack who has no interest in the subtleties of, and numerous conscious and unconscious influences on, human behavior.