March 09, 2004

THE ROOTS OF HORROR: The Demand for Obedience

Contemporary cultural and political commentary offers countless examples of the mechanisms and dynamics that Alice Miller discusses. Before looking at two notable recent instances, let me review the key points of Miller's thesis, particularly for those people who might be joining this discussion in midstream.

A very kind reader just purchased two books for me from my Amazon Wishlist (and my deep thanks to A.B.). One of the books I received yesterday is Miller's The Truth Will Set You Free, and Miller offers instructive summaries of her central points. First, these definitions (the passages in bold are highlights I added):
Poisonous pedagogy is a phrase I use to refer to the kind of parenting and education aimed at breaking a child's will and making that child into an obedient subject by means of overt or covert coercion, manipulation, and emotional blackmail.

In my books For Your Own Good and Thou Shall Not Be Aware, I have explained the concept using concrete examples. In my other books I have repeatedly stressed how the mendacious mentality behind this approach to dealing with children can leave long-lasting imprints on the way we think and relate to one another in our adult lives.
I want to emphasize (and I will return to this subject at greater length soon) that, despite the common acceptance of spanking and corporal punishment as "legitimate" means of obtaining obedience from children, it is probably true that the much more common forms of "coercion, manipulation, and emotional blackmail" are not physical in nature at all. The damages and costs resulting from the demands of parents and educators for adherence to rules which are arbitrary and nonsensical to the child -- and to most thinking adults as well -- are terrible to contemplate. I will offer numerous examples of these everyday tragedies in the near future.

A second definition from Miller:
A helping witness is a person who stands by an abused child (consistently or occasionally), offering support and acting as a balance against the cruelty otherwise dominant in the child's everyday life. This can be anyone from the child's immediate world: a teacher, a neighbor, a caregiver, a grandmother, often a sibling.

Helping witnesses give sympathy and affection to these beaten or neglected children. They trust the children and help them feel that they are not bad or evil but worthy of kindness from others. Thanks to such witnesses, who may be completely oblivious to the role they are playing, children in difficult situations can see that there is such a thing as love in this world. In the best cases they learn how to develop trust in their fellow humans and to accept the love and kindness that come their way.

In the total absence of helping witnesses these children glorify the violence they have been subjected to and frequently make blatant use of it in later life. (It is no coincidence that as children, mass murderers like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao had no helping witnesses to turn to.)
In my own case, my helping witnesses were my piano teacher of many years, a fourth-grade teacher and, most of all, our family maid of several decades. This last person, Lannie Earle, is a woman to whom I owe my life in a significant way. I still recall what was for me a stunning moment during a therapy session with a psychologist about ten years ago. We had been discussing the role that Lannie played in my life, and the therapist suddenly asked me: "Do you remember what she smelled like?"

In an instant, I was transported back to the small child I had been at five or six years old, and I remembered hanging onto one of Lannie's legs. And the smell of her skin flooded over me. But what came back to me above all else was this: the feeling that here was someone who loved me absolutely, and offered me complete acceptance and safety. Lannie saw me as a human being worthy of respect, she treated me with complete seriousness -- and she also offered me the incomparable value of physical comfort and affection, something I never received from either of my parents (not even from my mother, and not even as a very small child). And hardly coincidentally, Lannie never made demands of me in the manner that my parents did (demands which were frequently entirely unexplained and/or nonsensical), either explicitly or, much more often, by unstated emotional blackmail.

Without Lannie, I might not have survived, certainly not to the extent I did. Many people have similar helping witnesses in their lives, and it is important to recognize how much we owe them. While it is true that such treatment is precisely what children are entitled to by right, most children do not receive it in anything even close to the degree they deserve.

Returning to Miller's thesis, here is the summary I offered at the beginning of an earlier article in this series:
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 [emphasis added]:

"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."
With this background in mind, consider the two recent examples of this phenomenon to which I referred. Let's look first at the latest column from David Brooks, published in our "newspaper of record."

I do not mean the following observation as a below-the-belt kind of insult, although Brooks or his admirers might well view it that way. But I mean it quite literally: Brooks is not an original thinker. And that is precisely why this kind of view is so significant -- it perfectly captures the mechanism that Miller identifies, and expresses it in a way that most people would consider fairly unremarkable, and even "sophisticated." Here is Brooks introducing his subject:
Who worries you most, Mel Gibson or Mitch Albom? Do you fear Gibson, the religious zealot, the man accused of narrow sectarianism and anti-Semitism, or Albom, the guy who writes sweet best sellers like "Tuesdays With Morrie" and "The Five People You Meet in Heaven?"

I worry about Albom more, because while religious dogmatism is always a danger, it is less of a problem for us today than the soft-core spirituality that is its opposite. As any tour around the TV dial will make abundantly clear, we do not live in Mel Gibson's fire-and-brimstone universe. Instead, we live in a psychobabble nation. We've got more to fear from the easygoing narcissism that is so much part of the atmosphere nobody even thinks to protest or get angry about it.

Albom is far from the worst of the schmaltzy shamans, but his fable "The Five People You Meet in Heaven" happens to sit at No. 3 on the Times best-seller list and pretty much exemplifies the zeitgeist. It's about an 83-year-old man who feels lonely, adrift and unimportant, and who dies while trying to save a little girl from a broken carnival ride.
And here is Brooks describing what he sees as the problem with the kind of heaven envisioned by Albom:
In this heaven, God and his glory are not the center of attention. It's all about you.

Here, sins are not washed away. Instead, hurt is washed away. The language of good and evil is replaced by the language of trauma and recovery. There is no vice and virtue, no moral framework to locate the individual within the cosmic infinity of the universe. Instead there are just the right emotions — Do you feel good about yourself? — buttressed by an endless string of vague bromides about how special each person is, and how much we are all mystically connected in the flowing river of life. ...

Reading "The Five People You Meet in Heaven" is a sad experience because it conjures up a mass of people who, like its hero, feel lonely and unimportant. But instead of offering them the rich moral framework of organized religion or rigorous philosophy, instead of reminding them of the tough-minded exemplars of the Bible and history, books like Albom's throw the seekers remorselessly back upon themselves.

The flap over Gibson's movie reminds us that religion can be a dangerous thing. It can be coarsened into gore and bloodshed and used to foment hatred. But we're not living in Afghanistan under the Taliban. Our general problem is not that we're too dogmatic. Our more common problems come from the other end of the continuum. Americans in the 21st century are more likely to be divorced from any sense of a creedal order, ignorant of the moral traditions that have come down to us through the ages and detached from the sense that we all owe obligations to a higher authority.

Sure, let's get angry at Mel Gibson if he deserves it. But let's not forget that the really corrosive cultural forces come in the form of the easygoing narcissism that surrounds us every day.
It is worth pausing to consider how common this view is, and the dangerous and mistaken associations that Brooks offers. Note carefully the alternative that Brooks presents: either one engages in "narcissism," which Brooks maintains inevitably leads to immersing oneself in one's emotions and dispensing with thought, and abandoning any kind of "rich moral framework" -- or one submits to a "creedal order," or "organized religion," or the demands of "rigorous philosophy" (the last of which Brooks notably fails to define further).

In other words, Brooks sees only two possibilities: endless, uncontrolled "self-indulgence" and self-centeredness -- or a willingness to be the obedient servant of some "higher authority." This is the voice of the abused, neglected child described by Miller, now grown to adulthood and offering his views in the pages of The New York Times -- and revealing that he never developed an authentic self, and still does not have one. He has to resort to a "creedal order" or "organized religion" to find "purpose" in his life, and to avoid "narcissism," because in the most profound sense, he has no individual self to fall back on.

(This is related to another issue that I will only mention briefly here, although I will discuss it in some detail in a separate entry: it is this same lack of an authentic self that permits people to cling to obviously mistaken ideas with regard to what constitutes genuine "selfishness." It is not genuinely selfish to believe that manipulation, lying and even violence and crime are in one's self-interest -- but it is easy to believe such notions if one has never developed an authentic identity in the first place. Such people literally cannot conceive what would be in the real, actual interests of a genuine self, because they were never allowed to develop one as children -- and they have never learned how to do so as adults.)

Brooks may offer a respectable, "sophisticated" version of these views for his readers -- but other commentators are somewhat more honest about what the dynamics of obedience require. Joseph Farah at WorldNetDaily is a writer who may not appear in The New York Times, but I think his views accurately reflect those of many others. And he reveals precisely the same underlying attitude that is offered by Brooks.

I have noted before that the dispute about same-sex marriage is a particularly revealing one. This issue is causing many people to offer much less guarded versions of their actual beliefs, since they apparently believe that governmental recognition of same-sex marriage would fundamentally alter the nature of what they view as a "Judeo-Christian nation" (although the United States is not such a nation and never was, since as a nation -- that is, as defined by its political structure -- it is intentionally godless).

Here is Farah on what he considers the undisputed, actual nature of homosexuality -- and in a certain way, I have to thank him for his frankness in this column:
Homosexuality is nothing new.

It has always been around.

But it does thrive and flourish when it is condoned.

In fact, it has led to the downfall of more than one civilization when it has consumed societies – blinding them to right and wrong, robbing them of prosperity, infecting them with diseases of the mind, spirit and body.

In Romans 1:18-32, Paul painted a picture of how this happens. ...
The following is the crux of what Farah has to say, and I suggest you read these paragraphs several times, at least:
I have written many times about the practical, worldly reasons to oppose same-sex marriage. But it's time to get down to basics. There is a reason most people frown on homosexuality. It is not prejudice. It is not bias. It is not irrational. It is because God has pronounced it wrong, immoral, abomination, sin.

Our society is on the verge of hammering what may be the final nail in the coffin of our American way of life.

God is good. God is great. He wants what is best for us. He has given us some simple guidelines to follow for a happier, fuller, more rewarding life. We ignore those rules at our own peril – both as individuals and as nations.

When we reject the One True God, we have nowhere to turn but to depravity of all sorts – base and vile actions, of which homosexuality is just one. ...

Marriage is not an institution invented by man. It is an institution created by God. It was created not just to make man happier on earth, but as a way for men and women to better know God. ...

Marriage is a kind of dress-rehearsal for what believers will experience in their relationship with God in eternity. That's why it was created. For 6,000 years it has served the world well.

I shudder to think what will become of us if we tamper with this institution created in the Garden of Eden as the ultimate lesson for relationship with the Living God.
In a future installment of this series, I will discuss the myth of Creation and the Garden of Eden in much more detail, and show that they hardly represent the "paradise" that people such as Farah consider them to be. But it is a grave error to dismiss this kind of view as belonging only to religious fundamentalists. What is crucial is to recognize that this is exactly the same view offered by Brooks, although Brooks offers the "softer" version, which is somewhat easier to digest.

Farah's view of God is exactly how our traditional views of child rearing demand that we view our earthly fathers. Those traditional views demand that we believe that our father "wants what is best for us. He has given us some simple guidelines to follow for a happier, fuller, more rewarding life." In other words, and despite using means which are unspeakably cruel and profoundly damaging, we must view all such cruelties, to use the phrase Miller employed for the title of one of her books, as being For Your Own Good.

When we understand the underlying mechanism, we can see the simple truth, a truth which many religious people will resist until the day they die: God is nothing more than the supernatural version of the traditional, authoritarian father -- a father who knows what is best for us, who demands that we follow his rules regardless of whether they make any sense at all, and who demands one thing above all else: obedience.

And when we understand this dynamic, we can also see that Farah genuinely means this:
There is a reason most people frown on homosexuality. It is not prejudice. It is not bias. It is not irrational. It is because God has pronounced it wrong, immoral, abomination, sin.
Even if it should be the case that homosexuality is largely or entirely hereditary and genetic, even if it is completely unchosen, it does not trouble Farah at all to view it as "wrong, abomination, sin" -- and simultaneously to maintain that such a view does not represent "prejudice," or "bias," or a view which is "irrational."

It must be true -- because God said so. It must be true -- because our fathers said so. If you were never allowed to develop an authentic self, if you were never permitted to think for yourself or to recognize your own needs, you need no further justification. The authority figure said so --and in this manner, "truth" is established.

It is this kind of mentality that leads to the righteous condemnation of entire groups of human beings -- and it is the same mentality that can be enlisted in the aid of dangerous political ideologies.

And it is this mentality that can also lead to mass slaughter -- and to a Holocaust. If you know what to look for, you can see this psychology in the writing of a Joseph Farah, or in the voice of a "respectable" columnist in the pages of The New York Times.

The true horror today is only in part that the needless destruction of human lives continues in our own time. The full horror lies in the fact that the ultimate cause of such destruction has been identified, and is available to us, together with the means by which such destruction can be avoided in the future -- and the majority of people will still not allow themselves to see it.