Friday, October 09, 2009

Without Consequences, the Terrorists Win* (With Update)

Bear with me here. Steve and I generally talk nothing but politics, but his post below about Beck and Murdoch dovetails with my other vocation which is as a parent. And as a parent I'm watching something really interesting play out, at the intersection of what you might call politics, culture, child rearing, punishment, and justice. My children go to a progressive school--no grades, no assigned seats, looped two year classrooms, "child led", blah blah. When I tell you that Alfie Kohn is one of the parents you'll get the idea of the kind of place it is. For the most part, its a wonderful place to raise your children--if your children are well disciplined, thoughtful, loving, eager to learn, interesting kids then the kind of teaching they can handle is pretty high level, the kind of classroom they can create can be wonderful, the lessons they can do and the research and thinking they can do can be extra-ordinary. But what happens when a sociopath is let lose among these kids? If the teachers and parents grasp what is happening, correctly diagnose it, and deal with it forcefully I expect all would be well. But if they fail to diagnose the problem all hell breaks lose and the entire social compact falls under the school/society's inability to protect good citizens from bad. Its the social equivalent of counterfeiting--just as bad money drives out good so bad behavior drives out good. What makes the situation worse is that there is no agreed upon definition of what the currency in question is, or how it gets counterfeited, or what it means to "utter" false currency in place of the good. And, as I'm going to argue, what makes the situation still worse is the same thing that makes SteveM's blog post about Beck relevant: if you don't grasp that people who are part of your society, your family, your school, can have diametrically opposed goals and motivations from your own you can't ever understand them enough to control them when their goals and yours are in conflict.

In our case my ten year old daughter has been the victim of a prolonged campaign of bullying behavior for, as it turns out, her entire time at this school--that is to say six years. This behavior has included physical violence, cattiness, bitchiness, attempts to dominate her socially, interference with her other friendships, and anonymous notes criticizing her weight. The girl who did all this, who is the daughter of a close personal friend of mine, not only left anonymous notes for my daughter and another girl (carefully picking out their weak spots) but posed as a sympathetic ear, offered to help "correct the problem," and helpfully pointed suspicion on several other children leaving my daughter to suspect all her friends and acquaintances of having sent her the note.

Last week all hell broke loose as the agressive girl started to act out in incredibly public ways--prank calling the princpal's house at 11 pm, writing obscene graffitti under a table and showing it to two victims, then crying and asking my daughter to lie for her and blame another girl for the graffitti. The school has been like a bowl of jello. We'd like to get our daughter moved out of class with this girl and into the only other classroom where she could be with her friends. But the school is reluctant to do this because it would place too much of a social burden on the aggressive girl. Everyone would find out what she'd done. She'd become an outcast! But they can't say that directly because that would be obviously a wrong choice--publicly they have to stand up for all kinds of good, liberal, "stuff" like "letting all the girls own their anger" and "say what they need to say" to the aggressive girl. You can only figure out what is really going on when, as it turns out, your child refuses to formally accept a written apology and the whole school loses its shit.

You see, each person has their assigned role in this story. The school thinks that all the children can be raised to be empathetic, responsible, good hearted, in effect--liberal and progressive. When one child acts selfishly, cruelly, brutally the school thinks the right thing to do is to show that child the error of his/her ways and then re-integrate them into society. This has several ritualized steps: first the bully must be recognized and given "consequences" for their behavior. Then the bully and the various victims are brought together in what is almost a parody of psychological gobbledygook (yes, essentially, an untrained librarian with an interest in children's moral development will help out here by miming sorrow and joy. I.Kid.You.Not.) Then the kids who have been hurt are encouraged, within very strict limits, to express their sorrow or grief or, perhaps, their anger. And then there is fake form of reconciliation. The school thinks that because all of this is done without a clear protocol it is somehow spontaneous, negotiable, authentic, responsive to the individual needs of each child.

I'm a trained outside observer. This is what I did for a living. It is unbelievably clear that this system works very well with most children, especially most children from normal families, but its incredibly destructive and ineffective when applied to a budding sociopath. In this case the child in question is attempting, in any way she can, to force an inattentive divorced father back into her life. If you knew what I knew about this guy you'd only be surprised that she hasn't had to kill someone to get his attention. The school insists on treating each one of her offenses as a one off--she did something bad and she's apologized and now the situation is over. If your kid doesn't trust her anymore, or doesn't want to have lunch with her, or doesn't want to work with her on a project, your child is at fault for being so "negative" and "unforgiving." But this is a totally inaccurate way of understanding what is happening here. And I've had to explain to my own child what the school apparently is still too young to grasp: sometimes people do exactly what they mean to do. In fact, most of the time. If someone hurts you, and hurts everyone around you, you pretty much have to start from the perspective that they meant to do it and absent some change in personality or circumstances that they will still want to do it tomorrow. And yes, if they want to do it, they'll do it. They can say they are sorry, and they can even "be" sorry in some existential sense, but they will of course continue to do what they did before as long as the act is pleasurable and the rewards are the same.

More interesting to me than my personal struggle here as the nicest people in the world fuck over my little girl is how this reminds me of recurring issues in our political discussions. On the one hand, its a central thread in Democratic politics over the last two presidencies at least that Democrats have consistently attempted to deal with Republicans as though they were legitimate co-parceners in our democratic institutions and public sphere while the Republicans acted out all over the place as destructive bullies. Isn't that essentially what happened to Clinton and now to Obama? Both men came in and offered to work with the Republican party and from the get go both were treated to massive, highly public, forms of bullying: name calling, attempts to dominate, territorial marking behavior (I've never gotten over Jesse Helms warning Clinton not to enter his state.

Isn't this, in effect, what just happened (and will continue to happen) with the right wing in this country? They have been acting out, on the fringes of our political discourse, for a long time. I'm thinking of the harrassement and murder of abortion clinic workers in particular. Now they've moved on to ACORN. And they have been emboldened, as they see it, by the inability of the community to police itself by noticing and standing up for itself. The next logical place for their bullying is, of course, Obama's inner circle (the push to attack Valerie Jarrett) and Obama himself--the "instructions" to him to refuse the Nobel Peace Prize. Its all part of the same vicious spiral of bullying behavior.

For years now we have had the right wing practically rolling on the floor and foaming at the mouth, encouraging people to bring guns to public meetings, encouraging the most massively anti social, racist, sexist, bitter, ugly behavior imaginable within a unified country the masters of our public discourse and our political leaders have very seldom shown themselves willing to call out the behavior at all or to label it symptomatic and not merely episodic. One reason is that we shrink from applying global labels--as we shrink from admitting that a child is a liar and dodge the issue by simply saying "she lied this time." Another is that we shrink from admitting to ourselves (and our media shrink from admitting to us) that the behavior of the GOP is actually meant to achieve exactly what it does. Divisive behavior is meant to divide. Angry behavior is meant to anger. When you encourage people to shoot their political opposition you actually intend for someone to get shot. Nothing that we've seen in the last umpteen years--from the lunatics accusing Clinton of being a drug running murderer to the current wave of hysterical birthers, is not fully intended behavior. And just like behavior at the level of the child the political bully's goal is control over the victim--whether that is another child, or an entire country.

Ignoring this, pathologizing it, particularizing this, excusing this, or therapizing it doesn't work. It doesn't work for the school community and it won't work for us as a country.

The question for us as a society is--who are the grown ups? What is the community? And what shall the community response be?


I want to link here to the work of Susan of Texas whose thoughts on this matter informed my own. I can't find the post I wanted to link to but she has some stellar posts on the ways in which we allow ourselves to be abused by our desire to please others, and to reconcile with others, when those others (in the case of the conservative movement) can never be placated or satisfied by our submission and our gestures.

*Here's a start. Its weak but its a start.


Well, why should Greenwald get to do updates. I wanted to add that a personal thanks to all the parents and former children who came out of the woodwork to discuss this issue with the seriousness it deserves. I appreciate the moral support. We are going to be totally ok. I hope my blog companions know me well enough by now to know that the school has a greater chance of withstanding force 10 from Navaronne than they do me. Not only did my daughter burn the "letter of apology" she recieved she did it while dancing on a sweater and shouting "I, Mowgli, come to the council Rock with the Hide of Sher Khan!"

In the end the most interesting thing, to me, is the correspondence I see between the Democrats' decade long attempt to submit to Republican aggression and the School's very strong belief that you can teach, and then benefit, from empathy among children and between peers. I think the culprit here, and in our political discourse, is the over-reliance on empathy as a mode of social control. Empathy is a good tool, but a bad master, and there are always going to be some people who are not amenable to it. For one thing we are in a political system with people who don't consider us their peers and equals. Who are not willing to share power, or to submit even to the temporary authority of those we elect simply because we elected them. They don't accept that Pelosi is Speaker of the House while female. They don't accept that Barack Obama is President of the Country while Black. We've watched these guys turn take with white Democrats for years, like the Sheepdog and the Wolf in the old Cartoon. Suddenly, they can't even abide the notion that these bodies occupy these spaces?

I sound in the post like I want to throw the baby out with the bathwater and that I'm cursing the day I ever got involved with progressive child rearing. That's not really it. I just think that some forms of social control are more effective than others. When we live in any size community, from family to state we have to be able to live and die together more or less harmoniously. We can achieve that by severe repression of outliers, high levels of dominance, or consensus building based on reason and empathy. But we simply can't deal with a membership that has totally disparate goals and also submits itself to different rules of engagement, or no rules of engagement when one of their own is not in charge.

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