The Trauma Theory of Everything

October 27, 2018

Human history is a grim procession of war, violence, cruelty, poverty, injustice, bigotry, oppression and exploitation. There’s no period in human history in which societies the world over have lived together in peace and in which the members of those societies have all been treated as morally and politically equal. We’re intelligent, social animals, and we all need to love and be loved in order to flourish, and yet we treat each other so appallingly, and in doing so make the world worse for everyone. Why is this?

The standard explanation is the supposed ‘fatal flaw’ in human nature, which may be a problem with our corrupted souls or with our selfish genes. We’re all said to have a dark side, an innate tendency toward aggression, anger and cruelty, which reveals itself when we feel sufficiently angry, fearful or frustrated. This idea appears in religion as an innate tendency toward sinfulness or rebellion against the spiritual powers that are alleged to rule the universe. And it appears in the popular version of the scientific theory of evolution, where we are told that all life is a struggle for survival in which only the strongest and most cunning can succeed. In order to deal with this fatal flaw we are told that we must obey the rules of religion and the rules of society, and that there must be powerful law enforcement and the threat of harsh punishment to keep us under control.

The idea of the fatal flaw in human nature is an excellent way of defending current social arrangements and avoiding seriously questioning the way that human society is organised, as it’s assumed that the problem lies with individuals and not with the society in which they live. But in fact we’re only justified in invoking innate characteristics as an explanation of human behaviour when we’ve absolutely exhausted all possible social explanation. If we rigorously examine the social environment in which we live and can find no possible cause of a particular kind of human behaviour then we can look somewhere else, to our genes or to our souls, or whatever we prefer. But if we fail to rigorously examine our social environment before passing judgement then we are ignoring the conditions in which people actually live, the pressures they are under, the difficulties they face, and the potentially preventable causes of aggressive behaviour.

So what might a social explanation of human aggression and cruelty look like? Well, for the sake of argument, assume that the following two premises are true:

1) We learn how to interact with other human beings by copying the behaviour that we encounter in childhood. For example, we learn how to talk to others in socially acceptable ways by imitating the way that the people around us talk. We learn social conventions like politeness, gratitude, modesty, and so on, by observing how others behave and copying them. Boys learn from adults that they’re expected to be tough and like sports; girls learn that they’re supposed to be nice and like clothes. The personal inclinations and preferences of children are largely irrelevant; conformity to social convention is a precondition of social acceptance. Those who defy convention can expect mockery, rejection and punishment.

2) The vast majority of children, both today and throughout history, have been treated appallingly by the adults around them. For example, childhood in human societies is usually built on threats and fear. Children are told that they must obey adults or be punished. Obedience is considered good, disobedience is considered bad. Adults have immense power over children and this is taken to give them the right to dominate children, to reward and punish them as they see fit, and to determine the course of their lives and the values they live by. Defiance by children is considered the greatest crime; they are not to assert themselves but must instead submit to the whims of adults. Most parents around the world still subject their children to physical abuse – pushing, pulling, slapping and smacking. And most subject them to emotional abuse – shouting, criticism, threats, intimidation, ridicule, humiliation, neglect. If we experienced these things as adults we would be appalled, but we think it’s fine for children, who are so much more vulnerable than us, to experience them.

If we assume these two premises, that children copy the behaviour they encounter in childhood and that children are often treated appallingly, then it follows that adults, who are simply grown-up children, are likely to often behave appallingly. The need for biological or spiritual explanation disappears, and it becomes clear that the ‘fatal flaw’ is not in human nature but in human society, specifically in the treatment of children. In order to reduce or even end human violence and cruelty the answer is not that we should implement more laws, more police, more surveillance, more threats and punishment, but that we should instead start treating children with genuine respect so that they will grow up to treat others with respect. By genuine respect I mean recognising children as the unique individuals that they are and allowing them to make as many decisions about their own lives as possible, to express themselves freely and creatively, and to develop their own ideas and values without being crushed by adult tyranny.

To this social explanation of human cruelty I give the modest title of the Trauma Theory of Everything. By ‘trauma’ I mean long-term emotional disturbance caused by past events. When these events involve the deliberate actions of other human beings then they are examples of abuse, whether physical, sexual or emotional. If the Trauma Theory is correct then the whole shape of human history and society, of religion, morality, economics and politics, can only be properly understood if we assume that most children suffer abuse at the hands of adults, that they are left permanently traumatised by the experience, and that this trauma expresses itself in anger, fear, aggression and cruelty as adults.

The aggression and cruelty of adults may involve direct action against other human beings, such as bullying, abusing and exploiting others; criminal behaviour; punishing children; acts of terrorism; fighting a war, and so on. But it may also involve indirect action, as in the case of a person who is too fearful and inhibited to directly express their anger and aggression and so instead supports the anger and aggression of others. This inhibited person might, for example, vote for an authoritarian political party that promises strict discipline for children, harsh punishments for criminals, welfare cuts for the poor, sick and vulnerable, and the use of threats and violence in international affairs. Political authoritarianism replicates on a national scale the abusive behaviour of parents within the family. Children are trained to obey their parents and when they grow up this obedience is often transferred to the political authorities. Taking the side of the powerful seems like a good survival strategy, but it simply perpetuates violence and cruelty.

The standard view of childhood the world over is that children are born wild and need to be tamed by rules, discipline and punishment. We’re told that without discipline children would become savages and society would descend into chaos. This might lead us to wonder if the people who advance this view have actually examined human history. History is full of savagery perpetrated by adults, not children, and the idea that more harshness, more punishment, directed specifically at children, the smallest, weakest, most vulnerable members of society, is going to make the world a better place is insane. The world desperately needs more love and kindness, not cruelty and punishment. Children are not born wild or savage, they’re born pure and innocent, and the only thing that makes them savage is the harsh treatment they endure at the hands of adults. When children defy adult tyranny the adults usually become indignant at this behaviour, and most adults would probably be indignant at the idea that they treat children badly. This is no surprise. Bullies always believe themselves to be in the right and react with indignation when challenged.


The Formation of Character

October 12, 2018

The human body is fundamentally shaped by the environment in which it develops. Without sufficient food, water, air, warmth, sunlight, space to move around in, and so on, the body can’t develop normally. Toxic substances in the environment also impede normal development. This should be obvious, and it ought to be equally obvious that the human mind is also fundamentally shaped by the environment in which it develops. After all, the main purpose of the mind is to guide us through our environment, so it must be highly responsive to what’s happening around us. This is why children are naturally full of curiosity about things. They want to look at things from all sides, touch things, move things around, climb on things, and see how things work, and this curiosity is essential for them to learn how to survive in the world.

The mind is a product of the brain – we know this because changes to the brain cause changes to the mind – and the brain is the most complex part of the body. The brain isn’t a formless mass when we’re born; it has a complex structure right from the start, so we can be sure that children have complex minds from the moment they’re born. Babies obviously can’t express themselves as adults do but they do produce spontaneous and urgent sounds and movements which indicate that they aren’t merely passive observers; their personalities are developing and they want to be active in the world. And since the brain is constantly forming new patterns of connections we can be sure that the formation of character, by the interaction of the mind and the environment, is happening right from the start of life.

To talk of the body developing ‘normally’ is to assume that it has its own innate tendencies or characteristics distinct from the environment in which it develops, that it has its own inner program or pattern – its genetic structure – that determines how it should develop, and that this program can be helped or hindered by the environment. A body can grow healthily and reach its full potential for strength, endurance, agility and so on, or it can grow unhealthily and be thwarted in this development. This applies to the brain, and hence to the mind, just as much as to the body, as the brain has its own genetic structure. Each of us has certain innate psychological tendencies or characteristics that will strive to exhibit themselves in our individual way of thinking and behaving, if we are allowed to develop in our own way and to express ourselves freely and creatively. Each of us can be helped by a healthy environment to realise our potential, or we can be hindered by toxic experiences, and become a traumatised and neurotic shadow of what we might have been.

Childhood experiences are crucial in determining whether or not we get to realise our potential. What we experience in childhood stays with us for the rest of our lives, whether we consciously remember it or not. We don’t remember learning our first language, or learning to walk, and we don’t remember most of what happens to us in childhood. But just as our first language is fixed in our minds, and walking is fixed in our behaviour, so too the other lessons in being human that we learn in childhood are fixed in our minds and behaviour, whether we remember how we learned those lessons or not. Expecting a person to ‘get over’ their childhood makes about as much sense as expecting them to forget their first language or their ability to walk. If a child is mistreated, if they’re threatened, ignored, humiliated, ridiculed, or abused in other ways, these experiences will be implanted in their mind and behaviour, whether they consciously remember what happened or not.

If anyone doubts the effects of childhood experiences on adult human beings I’d ask them to consider the psychological and behavioural development of other, less sophisticated animals. Cats and dogs aren’t able to speak about their experiences, they may not even remember the details of their experiences, but they certainly remember which people have treated them with kindness in the past and which with cruelty. And it’s often clear from the appearance and behaviour of these animals which of them have generally been treated with kindness and which with cruelty. Children have greater mental capacities than cats or dogs, so we can be sure that their early experiences, whether they consciously remember them or not, have at least as profound an impact on them as the experiences of cats and dogs have on those animals.

If you beat a dog long enough it will come to hate and fear all human beings; it may cower and whimper when approached or growl and bite. A similar thing happens with children. If you treat them badly enough they will come to live lives dominated by fear and anger. Most people have at least some sympathy for an abused dog that becomes fearful or aggressive, but children can generally expect criticism and condemnation if the abuse they suffer leads them to withdraw from social contact or to become aggressive. Personally I wish that people loved their children as much as they love their pets, and had as much patience and sympathy for their children as they have for their pets.

Violence Against Children

September 28, 2018

All around the world, throughout history, most children have been subjected to violence by their parents, and most of them still are today, as only a minority of countries have banned physical punishment. The people who have brought children into the world, and have the chief responsibility for their well-being and healthy development, periodically erupt into anger which expresses itself in harsh words and violent actions. I’m thinking primarily of pushing, pulling, shaking, slapping and smacking the child, although sadly even worse things do happen.

Violence by a parent against a child, along with the verbal abuse that often accompanies it, sends a number of powerful messages to the child, as powerful and lasting as anything else they learn in childhood. I don’t mean that the child is necessarily consciously aware of these messages, but I do maintain that they are implanted in the unconscious mind of the child and affect their behaviour for the rest of their lives. Here are the messages:

1) Do not fully trust anyone. If the people closest to you in the world, with the chief responsibility for your welfare, can turn on you then anyone can.

2) Violence is acceptable, providing that you are angry and that you are more powerful than the person at whom you are directing your anger.

3) It’s normal and acceptable for human beings to relate to each other by means of shouting, criticism, anger, intimidation, threats and even violence.

4) Don’t express yourself openly and spontaneously as it may bring down punishment on you; adjust your behaviour to please or impress others, in order to receive positive attention and affection, at least while they’re watching or likely to find out what you’ve been doing.

5) The weak and vulnerable must be punished without mercy. A child may be small, weak and vulnerable when compared to an adult, and may even be crying and begging to be spared, but this is no excuse for not punishing the child.

6) Might makes you right. Parents can dictate what’s right and wrong, and enforce their will on their children, because they are bigger and stronger.

When we turn from childhood to look at the wider world we see many instances of powerful individuals, groups and nations preying on weaker ones. Examples include domestic abuse, robbery, rape, murder, oppression based on race, gender and sexuality, the economic exploitation of the working class, terrorism, war and threats of war. Across the world and throughout history we see people turning to violence and threats of violence in order to achieve their ends, and we see many other people prepared to support or go along with this. In many of these cases the perpetrators of violence, from an angry parent to a warmongering politician, insist that their violence is morally justified and that their victims deserve their punishment.

It seems to me that these are exactly the attitudes and behaviours that we would expect from people who have been trained from an early age to believe that violence and the threat of violence is an acceptable way of achieving your desired ends. It’s also what I’d expect from people who have been trained from an early age to believe that those who have the greatest capacity for violence have the right to dictate to others how they should behave.

If we continue to believe that criticism, anger, threats, punishment and even violence are acceptable ways of interacting with children then they will continue to learn the same lesson for life, that these are acceptable ways for human beings to relate to each other, and we will continue to have the divided, angry, fearful, violent world that we have today. If parents don’t practice patience, understanding and non-violent conflict resolution in the family home then children won’t have the experience and inclination to use these approaches in their adult lives. Human personality doesn’t spring out of nowhere; it’s shaped by experience. If children become angry or violent towards others it’s because they’ve been born into a world that condones and even glorifies violence, and they’ve probably been the target of anger or violence themselves.

So-called ‘discipline’ in childhood may produce obedience in the short-term, but it also tends to create resentment, fear and anger in children, and in the long-term gives them entirely the wrong example for human behaviour. But there is nothing inevitable about any of this. Through the example of genuine love – which must include acceptance, understanding, patience, sympathy, and encouragement – parents can help children to realise their true potential and become the strong, healthy, loving individuals that they are meant to be, rather than the angry, resentful, neurotic, traumatised people that most of us are today. A sane and peaceful world is possible if we want it enough and are prepared to make the effort.

Welcome to Hell

September 1, 2018

The poor are often criticised for their inadequate parenting skills, and blamed for society’s problems, but they don’t usually raise children to become capitalist exploiters or warmongers. Some tiny fraction of kids who grow up in poverty might become drug dealers, thieves, rapists or murderers, and cause misery for a few dozen people, including their victims, their victims’ families, their neighbours and their own families. But there are plenty of kids raised by the middle and upper classes who become business executives, bankers or corporate lawyers, and do far greater harm. In these positions they carry out the economic exploitation of millions of workers, which creates the poverty and despair that causes the crimes of the poor. Other middle and upper class kids grow up to become politicians who cut taxes for the rich, cut public services for the poor, export arms to violent regimes, and launch wars against countries with oil and other desirable resources.

In the capitalist system the working class does the physical work that keeps society functioning, the work that builds, maintains, and operates society, while the bosses give orders and control the money. The bosses decide who gets what, and they decide to pay themselves the most, unsurprisingly. The bosses get rich while the workers remain poor. This is legalised theft. The wealth of society belongs to all those who create it, not simply those who give orders and control the flow of money. When a poor person robs someone it’s called crime, when a rich person robs someone it’s called business. If you’re poor and you kill one person in a moment of madness you’ll be labelled evil scum and locked up for life; if you’re rich and you give orders that kill thousands in a war you’ll be considered a strong leader.

Both the rich and the poor are miserable, damaged human beings, and this should lead us to question the way that society is organised, and especially the way that children are treated, since that’s where the problems begin that persist through life. Most parents, both rich and poor, abuse their children and leave them traumatised for life, whether they realise it or not. With the rich the abuse typically involves excessive expectations (‘You’d better not disappoint us, child’) and the promotion of selfishness, with the poor it’s more likely to involve the lowering of expectations (‘Don’t expect too much from life, kid’) and lack of interest in the world. Add to this all the usual criticism, threats, intimidation, neglect, isolation, ridicule, humiliation, and so on, that most children endure at the hands of their parents, and most people face a lifetime of doubt, fear and anger as a consequence. They may do their best to suppress these difficult emotions, but they will find expression one way or another.

The way people typically deal with their childhood trauma is by acting it out in some form. For example, those who have critical, demanding parents are more likely to become critical and demanding themselves; those who experience violence as children are more likely to become violent themselves. Both the rich and the poor traumatise their kids but the rich are able to give their kids opportunities to act out their trauma through socially permissible forms of violence and exploitation, and be financially rewarded for it, while the poor generally have to choose between being exploited and being criminal.

The Destruction of Innocence

September 1, 2018

Child abuse is much more common than is usually thought. Most parents engage in some forms of abusive behaviour, and this can leave children traumatised for life. The main form of abuse is psychological, although there are often elements of physical or sexual abuse. Most parents subject their children to some of the following things: shouting, criticism, insults, threats, intimidation, ridicule, humiliation, isolation, neglect, disregard and disrespect. Small, vulnerable, desperately needy little people are treated as though they were criminals deserving punishment, simply because they have powerful needs and because they fail to immediately and perfectly meet their parents’ expectations, and this is considered to be an acceptable way of parenting. Add to this the physical attacks that the majority of the world’s children are still subjected to and it’s no wonder that they are traumatised for life and that we have a world full of anger, unhappiness and conflict.

Of course most parents also give their children some care and attention, but this is often dependent on children pleasing their parents by doing what their parents want. At any moment children can be criticised by their parents for how they look, how they speak, how they move, how they dress, for the questions they ask, for the thoughts and feelings they express. At any moment their need for love, attention or play can be firmly denied by parents who might criticise them for being too demanding and for lacking ‘discipline’ and ‘self-control’. Most children learn to be wary in their interactions with their parents; they learn to hide what they really think and feel and to say and do things that are likely to please their parents. This plants the seeds for a lifetime of shame, self-doubt, resentment, dissatisfaction and difficulty in relating to others.

The natural and overwhelming needs that children experience – the needs for love, attention, support, encouragement, social engagement, physical and intellectual stimulation – are absolutely essential to their healthy development. Human beings are complex creatures and they have complex needs, particularly in the earliest years of life in which their minds and bodies are developing and their personalities are being formed. If these needs are not adequately met then they suffer physically and psychologically, although the suffering may be well hidden by children who learn to put on an appearance of cheerful obedience and conformity, since they know that their real needs and feelings are not acceptable to the adults around them.

Children don’t choose to be needy, anymore than they choose to be born or to be human beings. Their needs are an essential and inescapable part of what they are, and yet children are often treated as though they are malicious and manipulative and making unreasonable demands deliberately to annoy their parents. In contrast, when parents deliberately manipulate their children with threats of punishment or promises of reward, or by offering or withdrawing affection, this is considered perfectly acceptable. Parents expect children to be respectful, polite and helpful at all times but they reserve for themselves the right to be harshly critical and to withdraw affection and support in an instant if they disapprove of their child’s behaviour.

We live in a culture that hates children and makes no secret of the fact, although it would vigorously deny it if challenged. Consider the sort of words and phrases that are often used with reference to children: tantrums, terrible twos, greedy, naughty, moody, wilful, lazy, undisciplined. It’s common to see children described as difficult and demanding and to see parenting described as the hardest job in the world. All sympathy is directed at the ‘poor’ parents but none at the poor children. Children are told to ‘grow up’ and stop being ‘childish’; in other words, it’s not acceptable for them to be what they are: children. To accuse an adult of being ‘childish’ or being a ‘baby’ is an insult. This is very revealing. As a society we don’t like childish or babyish behaviour, because we don’t actually like children or babies.

People certainly like the idea of children, of having vulnerable little people that they can control and manipulate, who can be relied on to give love and attention to their parents, who can give purpose to their parents’ lives, and perhaps live out their parents unrealised hopes and dreams. But people really don’t like the reality of distinct, independent little human beings who have huge, legitimate needs and have their own ideas and resist their parents’ control. Children are considered to be either angels or monsters: angels when they do what adults want, monsters when they follow their own inclinations. The real monsters are the parents who haven’t faced and healed their own childhood trauma and instead take out their lingering anger and frustration on their innocent, defenceless children.


August 31, 2018

This is a story based on my childhood. It’s not what happened to me but what I saw happening to others around me.

Imagine that you’re born into the poorest section of society. The area you grow up in has high levels of crime, unemployment, substance abuse and mental health problems. The houses are poor quality and falling apart. The streets are full of rubbish. The police regularly patrol the area. Loud music, angry voices and police sirens are the constant background noise. The schools in the area are over-crowded, with stressed teachers and lots of children with behaviour problems. There’s a sense of failure and disappointment hanging over the whole place. No one really expects anything good to happen. No one is looking for a way out, just for someone to blame.

Imagine that your parents have little or no education and they work in low-paid, low-status jobs, when they’re not unemployed. They drink, they smoke, and they’re often angry. There are no books in the house and there’s very little conversation; there’s mostly shouting between your parents and your siblings. There’s also fighting between you and your siblings, and sometimes your parents hit you. You spend most of your time outside with other children of various ages, maybe kicking a ball around, maybe drinking or smoking, maybe writing on walls or smashing windows to relieve your anger and boredom. Kids hang around on the streets in gangs and sometimes fights break out. You have to learn to defend yourself, and project an air of menace and aggression, in order to survive.

You’re sent to school where you’re expected to sit quietly, to listen, to read and write, and to speak only when you’re spoken to. You have no experience of these things from your home life so you feel confused, bored and frustrated. You talk to the other children when you’re supposed to be quiet; you call out whatever’s going through your mind; you get out of your seat and walk around the classroom picking things up and moving things about; maybe you throw things; sometimes you hit the other children if they say something you don’t like. The teachers quickly become angry with you. You’re told that you’re a ‘trouble causer’, that you’re ‘undisciplined’ and that you’re going to have a horrible life – a life like your parents and most of the other people in the place where you live – if you don’t start behaving and doing as you’re told.

You’re unable to do what is required of you at school because all your socialisation at home, all your training in being human, completely contradicts what school expects of you. You’re then criticised for being the way you are, over which you have no control, and blamed for not being able to do things that you couldn’t possibly know how to do, given your background. No one takes any responsibility for what has been done to you; all the responsibility is placed on you, as if you chose to be born into a particular family, in a particular time and place, and chose to be surrounded by poverty, anger and frustration from the moment you were born.

Your parents shake their heads in disgust; your teachers shake their heads in disgust. They can’t understand what’s wrong with you, why you won’t just do as you’re told and work hard. After all, they only want the best for you. Or so they say. What they really want is to put all the blame on you so that they don’t have to take responsibility themselves. You hate them, and you’re right to do so, but you also believe what they say, because you have no other perspective on things. And so you go through life full of anger and resentment, convinced that all your failures – at school, at work, eventually as a parent yourself – are your own fault for being a bad person, but also feeling that something’s very wrong with the world.

You’re right that something’s wrong with the world, but you don’t know where to look. You think maybe it’s because there are too many immigrants in the country. The television and the newspapers seem to agree, as they talk a lot about the problems of immigration. Or maybe it’s because women and children don’t know their place anymore, or because there are too many gay people. You’ve heard your parents and other people complaining about these groups since you were a child. You know someone is to blame. Someone has to pay for your disappointment. Maybe one day a political leader will come along and tell you that you were right all along, that it is the immigrants who cause all society’s problems, and then you’ll be ready to fight back.

But you’re just making things worse for yourself and everyone around you. You spend your life blaming other vulnerable people for your problems and the real culprits escape all responsibility. The people who have really caused your problems – your parents, your teachers, your managers at work, the wider society that keeps you poor and exploited – somehow manage to avoid taking the blame. And that’s how the people in power want things to be. The rich people who run the country want you to blame other poor people for your problems so that you don’t blame them.

If you grow up in a deprived area, with parents who don’t have a clue what they’re doing, and you’re sent to a bad school, and then you’re forced to do low-paid, low-status jobs, it’s not an accident. The people in power want things this way. There is a limited amount of wealth in the world, and the rich can only have more if the poor have less. The poor do the physical work that creates the wealth of society, but it doesn’t do them much good, because the rich people control the wealth and take the largest cut for themselves. The only way to fight this injustice is through the unity of the working class, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, or any other personal characteristics. Only together do we have the strength to fight back against the capitalist elite who oppress and exploit us.

The Gods of the Nursery

July 1, 2018

Various cultures have produced father-gods and mother-goddesses. The Greeks had Zeus and Demeter, the Norsemen had Odin and Frigg, and the Christians have Jehovah and the Virgin Mary. Religious leaders are referred to as ‘father’ and ‘mother’ in the Christian tradition. Many countries have founding fathers and countries themselves are considered to be fatherlands and motherlands. People find father figures and mother substitutes among teachers, employers and political leaders, to whom they give the same obedience and emotional attachment that they gave to their parents. Human beings hold parents in great esteem, even religious awe. God Himself has told us to honour our mother and father, if the Hebrew Bible is to be believed, although we might suspect that it was a human father who took down God’s dictation.

During an angry exchange in parliament a recent British prime minister said that his mother would tell the leader of the opposition to ‘put on a proper suit, do up your tie and sing the national anthem’. It’s interesting that in a stressful moment the leader of a rich, powerful, nuclear-armed state recalled his mother’s petty, conformist advice. The previous prime minister on assuming office quoted his old school motto, ‘I will try my utmost’, as the guiding principle for his time in power, which had any self-respecting person reaching for a sick bag. These examples suggest that parents, and other childhood authority figures, are firmly lodged in the human mind.

I’ve often heard people utter sentences that begin with the phrase ‘my mother always said that…’ or ‘my father taught me that…’ or words to that effect. I’ve also heard people say that their parents gave them their values and their direction in life; that they wouldn’t want to disappoint their parents; that they want to make their parents proud; that they owe everything to their parents; that their parents are their heroes, and so on. All this is said with great emotion, and God help anyone who dares to contradict it. The idea that we might be living our own lives, not our parents’ lives, and that the goal of life is to realise our own potential, not please other people, doesn’t seem to enter most people’s minds. Even people who are critical of their parents still tend to worry about what their parents think of them and desire their approval. And people who rebel against their parents define themselves in opposition to their parents, and so remain tied to them. Human beings are utterly fixated on parents and parent substitutes.

The idea of a parent, or any other adult, being ‘disappointed’ with a child is utterly monstrous, because it assumes that children exist to please adults. They absolutely do not. Children exist to live their own lives, to develop their own values, and to realise their own potential in their own way. Children are distinct individuals, not the property of their parents or of wider society. No human being owns another human being. No human being has the right to dictate to anyone else how they should live. But most parents subject their children to a kind of emotional slavery by withdrawing support and affection if their children fail to obey them and conform to their wishes. This is child abuse, pure and simple, as it creates anxiety and frustration and denies children the right to live their own lives.

When we are young children we are utterly dependent on the care and protection of our parents. We take their power and wisdom to be limitless and they in turn encourage our deference and obedience. These experiences are burned deep into our souls; so deep that we aren’t even aware of them unless we reflect on the matter. The voices of our parents, and other childhood authorities, live inside our heads for the rest of our lives, telling us how we should think, feel and behave, and whether we’re doing right or wrong. Our own thoughts and feelings are often drowned out by this primitive chatter. Conformity to social convention and obedience to the desires of authority figures become the ruling principles of our lives, to the detriment of human freedom, creativity, and individuality. The mistakes of the past are repeated, over and over again, because children are denied the chance to do things differently.

The parent-child relationship is the pattern for all hierarchical relationships, most notably the teacher-pupil relationship and the manager-worker relationship. This pattern of domination and submission is laid down firmly in childhood and shapes the whole of society. Some children grow up to be authority figures and get to play at being parents; others must continue to play the role of children throughout their lives. Most people alternate between these roles as they go through adult life, sometimes dominating others, sometimes being dominated, in the family, school, the workplace, and even in so-called ‘intimate’ relationships. The idea of an equal relationship built on mutual respect doesn’t enter most people’s minds, or if it does they have no idea how to achieve it, since they have no experience of it. In times of stress most people either revert to being meek and apologetic like intimidated children, or they become angry and judgemental like their parents, depending on whether they feel themselves to be in a weak or a strong position.

It doesn’t have to be this way of course. Imagine a world in which parents allowed children to express themselves freely and to satisfy their own needs instead of satisfying their parents’ needs. Imagine that parents allowed children to develop their own individuality rather than manipulating and controlling them. Imagine that parents encouraged independence of thought and action rather than imposing their own ideas on their children. In such a world children would grow up with a strong sense of self, they would know how to treat themselves and others with the genuine respect that comes from an equal relationship, they wouldn’t be prepared for manipulation, and they would treat authority figures with the contempt they so richly deserve.

Discipline and Punishment

June 9, 2018

The supposed necessity of disciplining children tells us something important about human nature. Adults need to use discipline to make children obey them because children are naturally individualistic and self-directed, or ‘wilful’ and ‘disobedient’ in grown-up speak. Young children don’t simply await instructions from adults, and they don’t immediately do what adults want. They have an inner sense of purpose from the beginning of life; they have a strong desire to express themselves and to shape their environment rather than merely be shaped by it. Children are naturally curious and energetic. As soon as they become aware of some physical capacity – reaching, crawling, climbing, etc. – they want to explore that capacity. As soon as they encounter objects in the world they want to investigate them and see how they respond to manipulation.

Adults really don’t like this. They are forever telling children ‘No!’ and ‘Stop it!’ and ‘That’s naughty!’ and threatening them with punishment, whether that’s shouting, smacking, withdrawal of affection, denial of pleasures, limitations on movement, isolation from their family and friends, or some other ingenious way of inducing shame and fear. In other words, children doing what they naturally do, because of the inquisitive and explorative creatures they are, is considered ‘naughty’. This makes no more sense than telling a bird that it’s naughty for flying or a fish that it’s naughty for swimming. And then people are surprised when children becoming angry, upset or ‘moody’, to use a hideous word loved by adults.

Consider the extraordinary moral indignation that adults feel when children disobey them. ‘How dare you, a mere child, disobey me, an almighty adult! How dare you be an independent life form and hinder my purposes for even a moment!’ Perhaps if adults all had happy, fulfilling lives, if they all treated each other with kindness and respect, and the world was a place full of happiness, peace, love and sharing, then they might have some reason to consider themselves morally superior. But this is clearly not the case, and adults use the supposed necessity of discipline as an excuse for taking out their anger, frustration and disappointment on innocent children. Where does this anger come from? From their own miserable childhoods, of course.

It’s a striking achievement of so-called ‘child raising’, of parenting and schooling, that it can gradually destroy children’s natural energy and curiosity and make them bored and apathetic by the time they are teenagers. Children’s natural inclinations are repeatedly and cruelly thwarted by adults from the earliest age, until many of them see little point in making an effort. It’s not as if adults can claim that children’s behaviour comes as a shock to them. We all know that children are hugely energetic and demanding. If you’re not prepared for this, if you’re not hugely patient and tolerant, if you care more about your orderly life, your neat little home, your career development, and what the neighbours think, there’s a simple solution – don’t have kids, because you don’t deserve to have guardianship of a new and developing human being.

You may think that you’ll soon knock your kids into shape, that you’ll mould them to your desires, that you’ll impress your values and preferences on them, that you’ll teach them obedience and discipline. Well, you might do on the surface, but underneath they’ll be seething with frustration and resentment, and that frustration and resentment will seek expression somewhere. Maybe they’ll hit their siblings or other kids at school. Maybe they’ll steal or take drugs to spite you. Maybe they’ll have a relationship in which they emotionally, physically or sexually abuse their partner. Maybe they’ll get a job in management and treat their subordinates like shit. Maybe they’ll have kids of their own and bully them just the way that they were bullied. Or maybe they’ll let other people treat them like shit all their lives because that’s all they’ve ever known. Maybe they’ll cut themselves or starve themselves or hang themselves to escape their shame and fear.

The fundamental point is this: human beings are meant to be free and self-directed, not disciplined and obedient, and this is obvious from the way we naturally behave as children, until we are terrorised into changing our behaviour. All the social structures of the world – the family, school, work, the state – are organised on a hierarchical, authoritarian basis that contradicts and perverts human nature. Hence all the human misery, all the conflict, poverty, injustice, bigotry, environmental destruction, and so on, that blights the world. All this can be traced back to the mistreatment of children. Miserable human beings produce a miserable world; their misery begins in childhood, and that is where we must bring it to an end, if we are to have any hope of a decent future.

Dictatorship for Beginners

June 2, 2018

Schools, prisons and army barracks are essentially the same institution. In each case there is the same alleged moral purpose, the supposed disciplining, training or reforming of the inmates. In each case there is compulsory attendance, unquestionable authority, uniforms, invasive scrutiny, endless petty rules, self-righteous anger on the part of the authorities when they are disobeyed, harsh criticism and punishment without hope of appeal, simmering violence, and the pecking order among the inmates. Schools are the most important of these three institutions, as they create the conditions in which army barracks and prisons become possible, by training some children for obedience and causing others to rebel against the system.

Schools are dictatorships in miniature, and this is considered perfectly normal and acceptable the world over. Children don’t get to vote for their teachers or to vote on school policy. They are forced to attend school whether they want to or not. They are told what to do every minute of every day throughout their long years of incarceration. They have no right to appeal against this situation. If they fail to obey they can expect punishment. Even when they do obey they can be punished on the mere suspicion of teachers; they can also receive collective punishment due to the disobedience of other children. Threats and intimidation are standard means of control in schools.

This situation creates anger, fear, frustration and resentment among children. The fear is a deliberate product of the system, as fearful children are easier to control than self-confident children. Creating such unpleasant emotional states in children is a form of psychological abuse, and this abuse is the responsibility of all the adults who support and operate the education system, not just teachers but parents and wider society as well. Sometimes this abuse leads children to rebel against their teachers, other times they turn on each other in order to find some outlet for their painful emotions. Children are then considered to be ‘naturally’ aggressive and undisciplined, as if their emotions had no relation to the environment in which they occur, and this is used to justify even more of the adult oppression that created the problem in the first place.

In schools large numbers of children of similar age are crammed into a small area and subjected to oppressive control by adults during lessons. This control is periodically relaxed at break and lunch, and on the way to and from school. During these times it’s inevitable that some children will subject other children to verbal abuse and physical attacks, as they release the anger and frustration that has built up during the day, and which they are afraid to direct at adults. The adults who support and operate the education system know that this happens, they do little or nothing to prevent it, so they are utterly complicit in this abuse and violence. Adults may congratulate themselves on abolishing corporal punishment in schools, but they continue to create the environment in which violence occurs outside their direct supervision.

It’s no wonder that bullying occurs among groups of children as they are taught by their parents and teachers that anger, criticism, threats, intimidation, even violence, are acceptable ways of interacting with other human beings, as this is how adults often interact with children. Adults are happy to take out their anger and frustration on children, and tell themselves smugly that the children deserve it and that it’s ‘for their own good’, but they are furious if children follow their example. This is one of the key hypocrisies of so-called ‘child rearing’, an example of the old commandment beloved by all authority figures: ‘Do as I say, not as I do’.

Children are right to rebel against the tyranny they endure at the hands of adults, and their spontaneous rebellion demonstrates that they possess both self-respect and a sense of fairness, however shaky and fragile these qualities may be. These qualities display the true nature of children, and indicate what they might be if they weren’t corrupted by adults. If there’s disorder in schools it’s not because children are ‘difficult’ or ‘immature’ it’s because they’re desperately trying to hang on to their individuality in the face of the adult tyranny that wishes to bend them to its will.

Sadly children lack knowledge and organisation, so their rebellion is usually misdirected, futile and destructive, and simply brings down greater punishment, as it always does in a dictatorship. By the time they leave school most children have lost the fight; they are psychologically broken and conformist, and ready for a lifetime of exploitation in the capitalist workplace. If society is ever to be liberated it must involve the liberation of children, not by adults imposing a new and supposedly better form of education on them, but by allowing them as far as possible to determine the course of their own lives. To reform society without reforming childhood is futile, as by the time we reach adulthood the damage has already been done.

Violence for Beginners

May 31, 2018

Violence was a compulsory part of the curriculum at the high school I attended. To give one example, the boys were required to play full-contact rugby. It was played in the dark depths of winter on a muddy pitch at the side of the school. The weather was as cold and pitiless as the teachers’ eyes. The boys were expected to ‘get stuck in’, which meant throwing themselves into tackles, regardless of potential injury. As a result of this boys got cuts, bruises and teeth knocked out. The ability to give and receive pain was considered to be a good sign of their developing masculinity. Boys who didn’t show sufficient effort and enthusiasm were considered by the other boys to be ‘fucking gay bastards’. These rugby lessons involved the unquestioning obedience, organised violence and indifference to pain that is admired in every army and dictatorship around the world.

At the end of these so-called ‘physical education’ lessons the boys were required to strip naked in front of the teachers and go into communal showers. The teachers would insist that the boys must shower in front of them so that they could be sure that they were clean. Fully clothed, sexually mature adults would scrutinise naked children in order to ensure their obedience. If a child were considered to have come out of the shower too quickly they would be ordered back in. The water was often freezing cold, producing cries of dismay from the children, but this was simply part of the game for the teachers; they clearly enjoyed the power and the spectacle. This whole process was painful, degrading and humiliating. In this way physical and sexual abuse were made routine parts of school discipline and the ‘education’ of children.

The Nazis never shocked or surprised me. The kind of people who can send children into the showers to cause them pain and humiliation in a time of peace and prosperity are the same kind of people who can send children into the showers to be gassed in a time of war and dictatorship. Scratch the surface of any authority figure and there’s a black uniform with a swastika underneath. The brutal treatment of children ensures that there will always be a supply of these loathsome individuals, as people who are treated brutally in childhood tend to become brutal themselves.