We have a counseling-heavy, therapeutically-oriented culture. If you’re not doing the right things, or not acting in the right ways, it’s not actually down to you, it’s caused by some shadow-you, buried deep inside a part of you that you don’t know at all. That shadow you that is totally foreign, it was made by someone else. It’s not just haunting you, it’s infesting you, causing you to struggle to do the right things.
And we tell our kids this, too.
The older I get, and the more experience I get, the more I think this is kind of… well… bunk. It’s another way of not growing up—of not having to own the things that you do—of looking for a shortcut to actually doing the right thing. It’s there largely because as a culture, we endorse that. We don’t want anything to be anyone’s fault. We want to let everyone off the hook. We don’t expect the same things from adults that we used to expect because frankly we don’t like adults. They’re strict and stodgy and boring and old and we’d rather live together in the world as a lot of troubled teens. We love drama, we love ups and downs, we love unbridled enthusiasm and also extreme sports, and we love not having to be boring or to be around boring people.
So we’ve all made a pact. It’s not our fault. It’s the adults’ fault—mostly the adults that came before us and raised us, or the other people around us that are (unlike us) responsible for their actions, presumably because they’re adults and ought to know better, unlike ourselves and our children and the people we like, who are just in need of drugs and therapy.
And we do the same thing for our kids. It’s not that Timmy’s just being bad in class and needs to sit down and shut up even if that’s no fun. It’s that he’s got a therapeutic issue that needs to be taken care of. No need for him to do the hard work of just plain learning how to behave; he can sit idly by and not suffer while doctors, therapists, school counselors and so on work on the shadow him. It’s not his responsibility, it’s ours to tame that shadow him so that his life is easier.
— § —
Look, being good is hard. It’s boring, and it sucks. And sometimes you’re in a really salty, down mood and the last thing you want to do in the whole fucking world is “be good.” Plus, you don’t get what you want. When you find $400 on the street, you don’t get to go on a shopping spree, you have to take that money that you could really, really spend really, really well and you have to give it away, even though nobody would ever know if you just spent it. When you’re really, really mad at someone, you have to just understate it as “I’m really mad at you,” which feels like a complete letdown and misrepresentation of your feelings. You don’t get to bash their head in with a brick so that they and everyone else know just how mad you are and just how wronged you are positive you have been. When you owe bills for things that you really think ought to be free, like electricity and telephone service, you have to pay them anyway, even though that designer item at the boutique store—the very last one there—is going to be sold before you can afford it as a result, and you might never, ever own it. And when you’re in public interacting with others, you don’t get to just own the spotlight to show everyone how cool you are, or act out of turn so that everyone knows that you’re actually an impulsive, exciting person and not some stodgy, boring schmo.
That’s being good. At most levels, it sucks. It’s no fun. It’s hard. You have to work at it all the time. Especially when everybody around you (say, our culture) is refusing to do it, and especially especially since the whole crowd is looking for some poor sap who’s willing to take responsibility for things, and will then lay every last god damned bad thing in the world at his or her feet. Trust me, nobody wants to do it. That includes me. I’ll admit it, I mostly don’t want to do it. I want to tell people how I really feel and I want to get mine back. But to what end? Seriously? What if there was nobody left, anywhere, that took responsibility for anything? What if everyone were always fully medically or therapeutically or experientially justified in everything? What then? Think hard.
Anyway, sometimes it gives you a headache. Sometimes you do the right thing and then go gnaw on your own shoes you’re so mad. Sometimes it makes you want to go and seppuku afterward it sucks so bad. Nobody likes being good, and it’s not easy for anyone. That’s why it has to be trained into us as children and why we need a penal system for those who just won’t do it. Because we have an inkling that without long years of socialization and positive and negative social sanctions, nobody, frankly, would ever be good.
It’s not that I am better than Timmy at not acting out because Timmy has a secret him that controls his actions and needs to be neutralized behind his back. I am better than Timmy at not acting out because when I was growing up, people told me over and over again, “Sit down, shut up, and stop acting like an ass.” And because now, having grown up, I decide, even when I really, really don’t want to, to be fucking good.
Because civility and good behavior are the crowning achievements of the human race, are what separates us from the animals, and are what have enabled us to build the society that we have.
— § —
Here’s a hint: nobody ever thinks that their own impulses are unjustified. Nobody. Nobody wakes up and thinks, “gosh, everything I feel is wrong, so it’s obvious that I shouldn’t trust myself and should always do the opposite.”
If we’re lucky, at least a few wake up and think, “despite what I think and feel, I’m going to do what is right [a.k.a. socially normative] because that’s the right [a.k.a. socially adaptive] thing to do. Which sucks, but dammit I’ll do it anyway because I’m a grown-up and my parents taught me well.”
— § —
Look, I have no doubt that there are some people that legitimately can’t control their behavior, children included. But I think the number is far, far smaller than we as a society pretend that it is right now. We mistake “hard” for “impossible.” As in, we don’t say “It’s hard for Timmy to sit still and not hit and not act out,” but instead we say, “Timmy can’t sit still and not hit and not act out, which is why he needs Ritalin, a special-needs class, and two counselors.”
Hard is just plain not the same thing as can’t.
And sometimes what I wonder is this: how consistently is Timmy told, by everyone, that his behavior is unacceptable? As in, not “Oh, Timmy dear, let’s not be loud in class, and please don’t hit, that hurts other people you know!” but rather as in, “Timmy, sit down and shut up, because your behavior right now sucks and if it doesn’t change, you’re going to live a sad life. And part of the reason you’re in school is to learn that so that you don’t have a sad life. So sit down and shut up. Now.”
At the most crass level, we embrace rather than ostracize Timmy if he doesn’t shape up. And I think that’s a mistake. Straight up. Hard truths. Hate me now.
— § —
I really used to be pretty far on the hippy-dippy liberal side of things, I think. I was one of those that thought that therapy and gentleness were the answers to everything. But now I have seen enough of the world—and of bad behavior—to have serious doubts. And I am raising my own kids. I am watching them grow up.
It dawns on me just a little bit more every day that they have zero indication as to what is acceptable and what is not—what the limits are—unless I lay it on the line for them clearly, concisely, and firmly. If I tell them that their behavior isn’t their fault, they can’t help but hit each other and make a mess, and they’ll not be able to help themselves until we get it fixed, then by god, that’s what they’re gonna do. They’re gonna carry on while waiting for me to fix them. But you know what? They can stop the crap. They are perfectly capable. All I have to do is say, “Okay, stop the crap. Now.”
Sure, they moan and whine and cry. And we hate that as a culture these days. We’re terrified of it. We’re supposed to be their gentle cushion against all of life. And in so doing, if we keep it up, we will raise a generation of people that can’t behave themselves unless drugged into submission because they have never developed any other beliefs or habits.
They throw tantrums because stopping the crap just plain sucks. And it will always suck because that’s life in society. You don’t just get to do what you want when you want whenever you want. They fight against it just like I did as a kid.
And to stop the crap doesn’t come from therapy or for drug-taking. It comes from being told that over and over again that shitty behavior is shitty and unacceptable, in no uncertain terms. And from telling them when they get hit not “Oh sweet dear, are you all right? Oh let me get you an ice pack and some Twizzlers! Let’s be understanding of Timmy, he can’t control himself, he has special needs!” but rather “Sucks, don’t it? Don’t ask me to have sympathy for you. You may be crying your eyeballs out right now at the punch you took, but I saw you hit Timmy on Wednesday. So suck it up. Now you know why adults don’t go around hitting each other. Because if we did, we’d all be dead in a couple of days. Felt right when you hit him, didn’t it? Well it feels right to him right now. What do you think about that? Maybe we should all make a deal not to hit each other any more. Duhn-duhn-duhnnnnn.”
— § —
So, to recap: yes, counseling, therapy, and drugs for those that actually need it. But don’t ask me to believe we were underdiagnosing for decades. Everything I see in life tells me that we are soft and stupid now. We are trying to solve shitty behavior, amongst children and adults, by telling them that they can’t help themselves—instead of telling them, like we used to, “Keep that up and someone’s going to kick your ass soon, because it’s bad behavior, end of story. Can’t wait to see it happen!”
— § —
And lest anyone think that this is some kind of elitist post in which I speak from above with moral purity, it isn’t.
Having come from the world of academics, I saw more than one could ever hope to see of “lie-cheat-and-steal” from people that supposedly live in pure-as-snow ivory towers.
Now my degree and my work are legit. I am happy to say that I didn’t compromise there, never would have, and that my conscience is totally clean on that front. I’m proud of my work and it’s my work.
But let’s talk (to take one slice out of a big complex that is commonly referred to as the “politics” of the academy) about the patronage system that exists in academics, and that stands behind all of funding and career advancement (it has almost nothing to do with hard work or ideas, contrary to what you’ve been told). Point of fact, all of academia, so far as I can tell, is thoroughly corrupt, except perhaps at a few wide-eyed and idealistic community colleges, where there isn’t really enough in the way of cash or career capital to tempt anyone anyway.
And of course, as was the case with Timmy above, it’s all explainable. It’s all explained. It’s all to be embraced. Everyone is convinced that they are doing good by making “good” easier—by refusing to do what was obviously once, a long long time ago in those regressive times loved only by reactionaries, the right thing—by being willfully blind to the hard edge of reality. Nobody is willing to admit that they are doing wrong. In fact, there are some who don’t even realize it. Because, like Timmy, they’ve never been told. Corruption is a great word, but it’s useless against someone who has no idea what it is and has never been called on it.
Two obvious extremes exist in academia: you can be entirely the “man of integrity” and go absolutely nowhere, or you can buy entirely into the patronage system and shoot straight to the top—with lots of dollars and lots of strings pulled, and all for doing and saying the requested things like a puppet.
I benefitted from this system. It is with mixed feelings that I say that there were things done on my behalf, and dollars moved around, that I’m not comfortable with today. That were a matter of people, including myself, rationalizing and excusing and refusing to do the hard thing that was and is the right thing. From my examples above, what happens in academia is closest to the “find $400” example.
And at the same time, I did have my limits. There came a time (more than one of them), when I decided to do the right thing. The hard thing. And it did not help my career, when it so easily could have.
In a sense, those of us in the middle have it worst. In academics, this is certainly true—not tossed out on our ass for being so upstanding that we were recognized as the intolerable bubble-bursters that we were. So instead, we were allowed to stay, for years, even decades. But because we refused to go all the way—because we did sometimes do the right thing, the hard thing, we also didn’t advance.
My decision these days? Stop being in the middle. But don’t go to the “It’s all fully justified, it’s all okay, it’ can’t be helped” side of things. Instead, I’m firmly on the “shitty behavior is shitty behavior and I won’t have any part in it” side of things. Or at least I’m trying, every day, to get there. Because beyond individual happy feelings and “embracing difference” (euphemisms that often characterize the exposition I gave farther up), and beyond the “mission of the academy” (which characterizes this section), I believe in the necessity of society as such.
And for that to work, people have to learn to behave in culturally-determined, ethically-informed normative ways. Even if it sucks. Even if they can rationalize it. Even if everyone around them is willing to play the game, too. Because societies in which people stop “doing the right thing” collapse, whether slowly or rapidly.
— § —
Put another way, I want my kids to grow up in a society in which they don’t get hit, shot, or abused, and are in general inconvenienced only in predictable, collectively-agreed-upon-ways on a day-to-day basis. For that to happen, I need to train them that you don’t hit, shoot, abuse, or inconvenience others but for in predictable, collectively-agreed-upon-ways.
And I need other parents to teach the same—not that nobody’s behavior is their own damned fault and everything is to be embraced so long as it is explainable by someone, somewhere, in personal terms.
If you’re thinking that I’m naive, you’re probably right. But I can’t stomach the alternative—to teach them how to most efficiently rape and pillage like drunken pirates to get what they want out of everyone, or to teach them never to stand up for themselves, but to embrace everything that happens whether just or not.
— § —
And I realize that at the deepest level, what I am doing here is that most conservative, un-modern of things to do. I am making a transcendental argument for free will, for the natal emergence of initiative, and against determinism (which is the root of medicalization) in personal life.
I am making an argument for a soul. A free soul, that makes choices, that chooses between things that can be labeled right and wrong. Not because right and wrong are eternal, unchanging qualities that I grant a priori, but because without the transcendental component—without responsibility that can only exist under conditions of essential freedom—then it doesn’t matter what I, or anyone, does.
Without a soul, we can do what we like, because without a soul, whatever happens, couldn’t have been helped, no matter what, good or bad. There is no choice. Murderers are as innocent as babies. They are merely the product of their material, epiphenomena of the universe. As am I. As are my kids. Nothing matters, so there is no need to try.
The avoidance of nihilism requires a transcendental foundation. Period.
If I really thought the world worked that way, I’d be out of it. Yesterday.
— § —
I don’t know. I guess much of what I see in the world right now—or at the very least in our own society—makes me feel ill and frustrated.
I wish for a wold of Confucians.