March 02, 2004

THE ROOTS OF HORROR: The Search for Underlying Causes, and Why Spanking Is Always Wrong

In an earlier part of this series, I indicated that I would explain why I was drawn back to Alice Miller's writings about childhood development, and about the numerous, high costs of the infliction of suffering on innocent children. Here I will briefly mention a few of the factors involved, before proceeding to the main topic of this entry. [Added 1/23/06: More of my reasons and some crucial related issues will be further explained in future essays, which will deal with a very deep underlying truth captured by the story of Jesus and the Crucifixion -- although it is not the truth that most Christians believe it to be -- and which will also discuss some of the seemingly eternal underlying mythologies that inform our view of the world.]

I have written a great deal about current events over the last year and a half, and about many issues in both the domestic and foreign policy spheres. I have also read a great deal of commentary about these same subjects, from many and varied sources. After having been immersed in all this analysis for a prolonged period of time, it became more and more clear to me that the reasons people continue to maintain their belief in the truth of certain ideas cannot be explained simply by reference to the policy or factual arguments that they employ.

I will use an example that I have often used before, simply because I think it reveals the problem more clearly than almost any other current dispute. In the area of foreign policy, I have written a great deal about how corporate statism (or the New Fascism) informs the actions of our government, and how it has done so for over a century. And I have traced the results of that policy, showing how it is central to understanding the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the threats we now face. (As I have had to say many times in the past, I repeat again that this is not meant as any kind of excuse or justification for those attacks -- but to identify the causes of events is not to excuse them. It is simply the legitimate and necessary effort to understand the entire context in which certain events took place.)

I have also written many entries about the Utopian delusion that we can successfully "remake the world," or even one portion of the world. As I have pointed out with a great deal of historical evidence, there are no examples to support this delusion -- and in fact, there is overwhelming evidence to demonstrate that it is simply that, a delusion. I have also pointed out the necessary connections between foreign and domestic policy: that a policy of aggressive foreign intervention, followed by lengthy periods of occupation, necessitates and requires the growth of an authoritarian government at home. The two spheres are precise mirror images of each other. Many other writers, almost all of them much better known than I am and with much wider readerships, have made these same points, and numerous related ones. Yet to this day, almost without exception, the hawks and the most dedicated defenders of our foreign policy will not address any of these issues in any serious, comprehensive manner. For them, it is as if all these facts simply do not exist.

There is another area that appears to be pointedly neglected by many hawks: the human costs of our actions over the last year. Our government follows this course as a matter of policy: our own non-fatal casualties are significantly undercounted and/or ignored, and the deaths and injuries to innocent Iraqis are almost never mentioned. It is as if, in a very deep sense, these human costs of our policies are not fully real to certain people, or they refuse to allow them to become real. One would think that a strong advocate of our foreign policy would at least have the good grace to acknowledge the costs to American soldiers and to their families, even if they won't mention dead Iraqis, but they almost never mention either of these subjects.

At a certain point, one is justified in thinking that much deeper psychological mechanisms are involved -- and to conclude that the manner in which the debate about foreign policy has been and continues to be conducted obviously involves much more than the surface issues which people are willing to identify. Repeated denial and avoidance, across a wide range of issues and engaged in by very large numbers of people, requires an explanation which consists of more than noting that people will look for information that tends to support what they already believe. That is certainly true -- but it isn't enough to explain many people's seemingless limitless ability to deny what is literally screaming in their faces.

So I began rereading Alice Miller. Here is one obvious and very important point about why her work has so much explanatory power: the one universal experience that all of us share -- an experience that crosses all cultures, all economic classes, and all political systems -- is that we have all been children. And as Miller demonstrates in her books in great detail, the experiences of early childhood leave patterns of thinking, feeling and behavior which last all our lives. This crucial fact is confirmed more and more, by numerous studies. Miller further shows that the most basic of the mechanisms that she analyzes are to be found in almost every culture, and in every historical period -- most notably, the commandment that we are to obey and respect our elders, and especially our parents.

Thus, all the facets of the denial-obedience mechanism that I summarized at the beginning of this entry are not to be found only in the United States, or only in the last century. These results can be observed throughout all of mankind's history, in every culture, and across the entire world. The long history of these phenomena will be further amplified in future entries about certain religious myths.

There is one other important aspect of this that should be mentioned. I view the issues that I am discussing in this series as profoundly different in kind from the error of speculating about the psychologies of others on the basis of insufficient or inconclusive evidence. To begin with, all of us can confirm the truth of what Miller identifies -- simply by looking inward, and examining our own pasts. The only requirement is that we do so honestly, and that we are willing to admit the truth. Certainly, I think some people have "happy" childhoods, but I also think the number of individuals who have deeply happy childhoods is very small. I still remember hearing an unusually perceptive psychotherapist say, many years ago, that whenever he heard someone start talking about how idyllic his childhood was, his very first reaction was to disbelieve every word the person was uttering. Most people's childhoods contain a great deal of pain, and most people will not admit it, even though the truth of that statement reveals itself in much of their behavior, and in many of their attitudes. And the fact that they will not admit it is yet another confirmation of how widespread the mechanisms of denial and repression are. To acknowledge the immense pain in their own histories would be to call into question the idealization of the primary authority figures in their lives -- and the first of those figures is almost always one or both of our parents.

Second, what I am writing about are very general, cultural issues -- or perhaps psycho-cultural issues, if you will. I am not attempting to analyze any particular individual's psychology, but speaking about broad, underlying causes. Of course, I will comment about individuals such as Mel Gibson, when their public comments make certain issues indisputably clear, as his comments did, or as the comments of certain writers on foreign policy do. If someone voluntarily offers statements which render certain facts inarguable, that is no longer speculation: it is simply identifying the meaning of what they have said. And in no case am I condemning or excusing anyone on the basis of psychological factors. If I judge someone negatively, it is because of their views or their actions, and only on the basis of those factors. But what I have been searching for, among other things, is the underlying explanation for why people cling to views which are obviously wrong, and usually horribly destructive as well.

I will have more to say about the very different kinds of events that Miller's writing can explain in future posts, but this will hopefully give you some idea of some of the concerns I have had. Let me now proceed to a narrower issue, but a crucial one.

Not surprisingly, I received several emails in response to earlier parts of this essay which argued the following, in various ways: "But, Arthur, you can't be saying that it's never okay to spank a child. Some children make it necessary, and unavoidable. There's just no other way to discipline them. And as long as they know that they're loved and that we're doing it for their own good, it doesn't do them any harm. After all, I was spanked, and I turned out alright."

As should be clear by now, I disagree with every single part of this argument. In fact, this is a centerpiece of what Miller refers to as the "poisonous pedagogy." (I should note that Miller herself has received countless letters in response to her work, and she talks about them at length. Many of her correspondents were amazed to find how accurately her writing described their own situations -- but many others protested the outrageousness of her belief that "the parents are to blame." How dare she! Well, she dares, thank God, and she's correct, as her books show in great detail. I should also emphasize again that much of the cruelty visited on children is not physical in nature at all, but psychological, as I shall discuss more in future posts.)

But I will let Miller herself answer this kind of argument. In Banished Knowledge, she sets out an unusually revealing passage from a book by Phil Donahue published in 1985 -- and then comments on what the excerpt shows:
"So what is a parent to do? Does all this mean you should never spank your kids? You don't want them to grow up stealing hubcaps; but you also don't want them to grow up undisciplined. Is there any way to punish a child without leaving emotional scars? Are children so sensitive to physical punishment that the slightest slap on the wrist constitutes traumatic 'abuse' and will ensure that the child grows up either delinquent or hopelessly neurotic? Is it possible to discipline a child physically without suffering from terminal guilt yourself if you do?

"Not all behavioral experts agree with [Alice] Miller that punishment, even if administered in the context of a loving relationship, is inevitably destructive. Harvard's Jerome Kagan, for example, thinks children are capable of accepting punishment without developing propensities toward violence as adults. He believes that, except in extreme cases of abuse, parental behavior is not as important as how the child interprets that behavior. 'If the child interprets the physical punishment as unfair,' rather than as a reflection of the 'parent's desire to help him become a productive adult,' says Kagan, 'then you get delinquency, crime, drugs, and so on.'

"In fact, Kagan thinks that many scientists exaggerate the role of parents in causing violent behavior in their children. Although he's foursquare against parental beatings and sexual abuse, he has a lot of confidence in the ability of the human animal to survive a traumatic childhood and become a responsible member of society. The typical response of parents who discover their children engaging in some antisocial behavior is guilt. They wonder, 'What did I do wrong?' According to Kagan, the answer is probably nothing. He thinks it's simplistic to assume, every time a youngster snatches a purse from an old lady, that his mother didn't love him enough."

Although Donahue's discussion ostensibly proceeds from the question of which parental behavior might exert a traumatizing and lasting effect on the child, and although it would appear to give priority to concern for the child, the second paragraph shows that basically it is concerned only with liberating parents from justified guilt feelings. They are assured that their actions pose no danger: The child will suffer no harm if he knows that he is being tormented out of "love" and "for his own good." This kind of reassurance that relies on untruths is based on the statements of "experts" quoted here and, I need hardly say, corresponds to the wishes of all parents who are not prepared to question their own behavior.

But might not there be a different way, other than reassurances? Might not one explain to the parents, in all honesty and frankness, why they traumatize their children? Not all of them would stop tormenting their children, but some would. We can be certain, however, that they would not stop if they were told, as were their own parents thirty years earlier, that one slap more or less does no harm, provided they love the child. Although this phrase contains a contradiction, it can continue to be handed down because we are used to it. Love and cruelty are mutually exclusive. No one ever slaps a child out of love but rather because in similar situations, when one was defenseless, one was slapped and then compelled to interpret it as a sign of love. This inner confusion prevailed for thirty or forty years and is passed on to one's own child. That's all. To purvey this confusion to the child as truth leads to new confusions that, although examined in detail by experts, are still confusions. If, on the other hand, one can admit one's errors to the child and apologize for a lack of self-control, no confusions are created.

If a mother can make it clear to a child that at that particular moment when she slapped him her love for him deserted her and she was dominated by other feelings that had nothing to do with the child, the child can keep a clear head, feel respected, and not be disoriented in his relationship to his mother. While it is true that love for a child cannot be commanded, each of us is free to decide to refrain from hypocrisy.
For these reasons, my view is very simple: it is always wrong to hit, slap or spank a child. Always.

I want to make two additional points about this. First, there is a deep psychological, and even philosophical, error underlying the view that inflicting punishment of this kind is "good" for a child. And the error is to believe that the avoidance of pain can motivate the child in the same way that the pursuit of pleasure can. In fact, many parents and "authorities" on child rearing actually believe that the threat of physical punishment is the most effective motivator of all. This is to make pain, and the avoidance of pain, the center of the child's universe.

A negative is simply that: a negative. It is nothing at all, it is the absence of something else. To make the avoidance of pain a reason for acting a certain way is to distort a child's psychology at the most fundamental level. And in fact, what motivates human beings most deeply and most effectively, particularly in regard to any goal which requires a course of action over any length of time, is the achievement of some positive value: an education, a rewarding career, or a satisfying personal relationship. Or to put the point in more general, philosophic terms: the avoidance of death is not the same thing as the achievement of life.

The second point is that none of this means that a child should be free to operate without any restraints at all. And in fact, Miller herself does not advocate that. But if a child is treated with respect, with seriousness, and with attention to his or her legitimate needs for autonomy and the development of an authentic sense of self, most of the problems that parents have would not arise in the first place. But most of the "accepted" views of "proper" child rearing are geared to one end above all and to the unending defense of one inviolable tenet, which Miller identifies with great clarity: the parents are never to blame.

In a later passage in Banished Knowledge, Miller shows some of the more extreme results to which this syndrome of denial, obedience and repression can lead:
Why is it so difficult to describe the real, the factual, the true situation of a small child? Whenever I try to do this I am confronted with arguments that all serve the same purpose: that of not having to acknowledge the situation, of rendering it invisible, or, at best, of describing it as purely "subjective." The victim is always subjective, I am told: He knows only the wrong done to him, not why it was done to him, especially when that victim is a child, for how much can a child really understand? How should he be able to assess the overall situation--for instance, understand the plight of his parents and realize how greatly he has provoked their violence? Again and again the child's share of the blame is looked for and found, with the result that only in extremely brutal cases is the term "child abuse" mentioned, and even then with reservations, while the broad spectrum of psychic mistreatment is disputed or even totally denied. In this way the victims' voices are silenced almost before they are raised, and the truth, the whole objective truth, of the facts remains in obscurity.

The absurd consequences to which this silencing can lead could be observed in connection with an issue of the German magazine Stern published in 1987. When the son of the infamous mass murderer Hans Frank, the Nazi governor-general in Poland from 1939 to 1945, condemned his father's crimes outright, without embellishing, forgiving, or qualifying them and without acknowledging any blame for his report, he unleashed a wave of anger and indignation. Readers wrote, among other things: "No matter what Hans Frank may have done, his foulest deed was undoubtedly the procreation of this perverse monster of a son." "Anyone else is free to, should, in fact, write this article, but not the son. In doing so he acts just as inhumanely as his father once did." So we are told that it is inhuman and utterly loathsome if a child of a mass murderer is not prepared to idealize his father, to withhold the truth, and to betray himself.
Just recently, we have seen the same phenomenon again, with regard to Mel Gibson's refusal to condemn his father's vicious views about Jews and the Holocaust. Most commentators I have heard on this subject have gone out of their way to be "understanding" about Mel Gibson's "plight." After all, we wouldn't expect or want him to be disrespectful or judgmental about his father, would we?

These are some of the ways in which the denial continues, and future monsters are created.