December 18, 2018

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Suffer Little Children

January 16, 2019

Religion is, at least in part, a product of child abuse. Notice that I don’t say that religion is child abuse, I say that religion is a product of child abuse. The abuse in question is the conventional authoritarian parenting that occurs the world over. I’ll take the western Christian case as that’s the one I’m most familiar with, although I think the case can be adapted to other religions, as long as they contain powerful spiritual authorities, whether they’re special human beings, gods, spirits or moral laws. In the Christian case things are made easy for me, as we encounter a ‘father’ God; ‘mother’ Mary; the perfect, obedient son, Jesus; and the bad, disobedient offspring, the Devil; and we are told that we are all God’s children and ought to be obedient to him.

Most of us when we are young children have the following types of experience of our parents:

1) They seem very powerful, very knowledgeable, they are often in our minds even when they’re not physically present, and they are able to find out things that happen when they’re not present.

2) They reward us when we obey them and punish us when we disobey them.

3) They are dissatisfied with us as we are and want us to change in order to please them.

4) They insist that all that they do is ‘for our own good’ even if it often doesn’t seem good to us, and if challenged they insist that we are ‘too young’ to understand the wisdom of their choices.

5) When we feel unhappy or there is disagreement within the family they often tell us that it’s our own fault and that we’ve caused the problem by not obeying their instructions.

6) They insist that they love us despite our alleged flaws, and despite the punishment that they sometimes inflict on us, and that they will forgive us if we change our ways.

Compare this with the standard western Christian idea of God:

1) He is said to be all-powerful, all-knowing, and to be always with us, whether we are aware of him or not.

2) He is said to reward us if we obey him and punish us if we disobey him, if not in this life, then in the next.

3) He is said to be dissatisfied with us as we are, since we are all sinners, and wants us to change in order to please him.

4) He is said to only do good, and if this seems incompatible with the evil in the world then we are told that we are simply incapable of understanding the wisdom of his choices, since he moves in mysterious ways.

5) When there is suffering and conflict in the world we are told that God is not responsible, that it is we sinners that bear the blame alone for not following God’s commands.

6) He is said to love us despite our alleged flaws, and despite the punishment that he sometimes inflicts on us, and will forgive us if we change our ways.

In each case there is a clear parallel between authoritarian parenting and the standard western Christian conception of God. Authoritarian parenting trains us to doubt our own experiences and intellectual capacities and to defer to authority figures. It trains us to believe that what we plainly see before us – such as the evil in the world or the cruelty and stupidity of authority figures – is either a product of our own failings or an illusion created by our ignorance; this in turn creates feelings of inadequacy, guilt and confusion, which make us more passive and obedient to authority.

Religion appeals to people, at least in part, because it offers some relief from the feelings of inadequacy, guilt and confusion that are created by authoritarian parenting. It encourages us to take comfort in the thought that we are all sinners but that God loves us anyway and will forgive us if we become more obedient to his will. Of course this approach eases the symptoms of distress without tackling the underlying cause. In fact religion tends to encourage authoritarian parenting, by providing a strong example of moral authoritarianism, and thus perpetuates the distress that causes people to turn to religion in the first place.

Both conventional parenting and conventional religion say to children, ‘You are not acceptable as you are. You must change to please us.’ This is an insult to our humanity, to our individuality and to the unique potential that we each bring into the world. In contrast, genuinely progressive parenting says to children, ‘You are perfect as you are. How can we help you become who you want to be?’ If children were allowed to be themselves, rather than being forced to please adults, then they would be spared the anger, fear and resentment that currently shapes human society.

Obnoxious Teens

January 11, 2019

Most children spend their childhoods being ordered around by adults, primarily their parents and teachers. They are told where to be, at what time, and what to do when they’re there; they’re told when to speak, when to be silent; when to sit, when to stand; when to eat; when to go to the toilet; when to go to bed; they’re told what to wear and how to have their hair cut. They’re told what moral, social, political and religious views they should have. Failure to obey adult commands, or to show sufficient enthusiasm for those commands, results in punishment, whether physical or psychological. In order to enforce their will adults subject children to shouting, criticism, threats, intimidation, ridicule, humiliation, and sometimes physical force. What the children really feel, need or want is largely ignored. All this is seen as perfectly normal when done to children, although it would be considered terrible abuse if done to adults.

Young children are very dependent on adults for their survival, and have very little knowledge of the world, so it’s fairly easy to control their behaviour, by threats and intimidation, and to make them obey, but this obedience comes at a cost. Children don’t forget what’s been done to them. As they grow up they may not remember the details of their past experiences, but they do remember the feelings. As a result of their harsh treatment many children are filled with anger, fear, frustration and resentment. They are very good at hiding these feelings, since they must hide them in order to retain the approval and support of adults, but the feelings don’t go away. Sometimes they emerge in episodes of bullying, lying, stealing, self-harm or general disobedience, which adults think are ‘inexplicable’ or ‘out of character’ or ‘just a phase they’re going through’, when in fact they are a revelation of what’s going on below the surface in children’s minds.

When children reach adolescence they are more knowledgeable about the world, they feel more capable of surviving without constant support from their parents, and they have a growing sense of themselves as independent human beings, so they are much less inclined to accept harsh treatment and to obey their parents. When they do disobey they are likely to be described as ‘obnoxious’. This is a routine phrase in our culture, and lots of jokes and wry comments are made about teenagers’ supposedly ‘difficult’ and ‘demanding’ behaviour, and how terrible it is for their ‘poor’ parents. What this so-called ‘obnoxious’ behaviour actually means is that teenagers are starting to criticise the tyrannical treatment that they receive from adults and to insist on expressing their own views and taking their own path through life. In a sane world this would be a cause for celebration; teenagers are thinking for themselves and becoming independent human beings. But in our tyrannical culture, which worships obedience and conformity above all else, this is seen as a bad thing.

There’s nothing inevitable about teenage rebellion – it’s not a product of their hormones, or a phase they’re going through – it’s a predictable and understandable reaction to the long years of adult tyranny that most children endure in early childhood. The phrase ‘obnoxious teens’ is an appalling piece of adultism, the prejudice of adults against children. This prejudice is just as bad as racism or sexism, and calling teenagers obnoxious is just as bigoted as saying that black people have a good sense of rhythm or that women are ruled by their emotions.

If a husband treated his wife the way that most parents treat their children – if he exercised the same degree of control and surveillance, if he used threats and punishment to enforce his will – he would be committing serious domestic abuse. If an entire society were organised like a conventional school – with all the power in the hands of a small elite and absolute obedience required of the people they rule – it would be an extreme form of dictatorship. The way that most parents and teachers treat children is a mixture of domestic abuse and dictatorship, but as a culture we simply don’t care, and we’re shocked when children object to their treatment or resist what’s done to them.

And so we continue to produce generations of traumatised adults who don’t even realise they’ve been traumatised, as they know nothing different, and think that abusive behaviour is the normal way for human beings to interact with each other. Trauma doesn’t go away on its own, and it shapes the behaviour of those who have been traumatised. The victims of abusive childhoods are likely to take out their lingering anger and frustration on their own children or partners, or on other vulnerable individuals and groups within society, or to become prey to further abuse and exploitation as adults.

The Cardboard Monkey

December 14, 2018

Supermarkets are good places to see human personality being formed, but you have to look below waist height, which is easy enough, and with sympathetic eyes, which is not so easy. I saw a little girl of about three holding on to the side of a shopping trolley, crying her eyes out, with her face red and twisted. Her mother was pushing the trolley and browsing the shelves. She said to her daughter, ‘Oh dear, you are upset!’ and went on browsing. I don’t know what had caused the little girl’s distress, but it seemed that there would be no relief.

In a flash the girl stopped crying and ran across the aisle. She had spotted a friendly face – the monkey on the Coco Pops cereal packet. She grabbed the box from the shelf and hugged it to her chest, with her little arms barely reaching around the box. Because in this world we can’t rely on other human beings to comfort us in times of distress, but there will always be cardboard monkeys and sugary foods to make us feel better.

Black Triangles

December 7, 2018

Along with the infamous Star of David badge for Jews, the Nazis also had a pink triangle for gay people, a red triangle for communists, and a black triangle badge for people who were considered ‘asocial’. This category included people who were long-term unemployed (the ‘arbeitsscheu’ or ‘work shy’), homeless people, drug users, alcoholics, sex workers, pacifists, nonconformists, and people with mental health problems or mild disabilities. In other words, the sort of people who are regularly attacked by right wing politicians and media outlets in the present day.

In order to avoid the asocial label people were required to participate in approved social activities. The Strength Through Joy organisation (Kraft durch Freude or KdF) arranged activities for German workers such as package holidays, hiking, sports, dancing and trips to the cinema. All these activities could include elements of Nazi propaganda and even state-approved uniforms. Anyone who failed to engage in these activities could potentially be considered ‘asocial’, which could lead to them being sent to a concentration camp.

The Nazis and other political extremists don’t come out of nowhere. What happens on the political level is a more extreme form of what happens on the personal level, in families, schools and workplaces. People don’t have happy childhoods, with safe, loving homes and the opportunity to learn and realise their potential, and go on to do fulfilling work, and then suddenly become cruel for no reason. The personal level plants the seeds of the political; the cruelties and injustices that occur on the personal level are repeated and magnified on the political level. There is death and injury in both cases: bullying and suicide on the personal level, war and persecution on the political level.

While I have obviously faced nothing as terrible as life under the Nazi dictatorship there is something horribly familiar to me about the black triangles. Early in life I was identified as an ‘asocial’, and condemned and brutalised for being different. When I was a child I liked reading, writing and drawing, while most of the other boys preferred football and fighting, which were the socially expected activities for working class boys where I grew up and went to school. My chosen activities were considered insufficiently masculine and so the other boys called me a ‘fucking gay bastard’. My punishment was to be regularly punched, kicked and pushed around. Of course the other children didn’t invent homophobic bigotry and punishment violence; they learned these things from the adult world, from their parents and teachers, who told them not to be ‘puffs’ or ‘sissies’, and who shouted at them and hit them if they disobeyed adult commands.

At high school I faced regular verbal abuse and physical attacks; as a result of this I was unable to concentrate in lessons and my grades fell, and I avoided all extracurricular activities, such as sports and trips to the countryside, as they simply exposed me to more abuse. This made the teachers very angry. They complained that I showed no enthusiasm for school activities, that I had a ‘bad attitude’, and that I was ‘sullen’ and ‘withdrawn’. When I was sixteen a teacher told me that I wouldn’t get into a university because they only take sociable people who engage in extracurricular activities and they wouldn’t want an ‘unsociable’ person like me. I was dehumanised to the point where verbally and physically abusing me, and denying me opportunities, was not a crime but a just punishment for my nonconformity.

When I left school it came as no surprise to me that managers in the workplace are as keen on conformity as teachers are at school. The authorities are fundamentally the same everywhere; they exist in order to crush freedom and individuality and enforce obedience and conformity. In one place where I worked the managers arranged a trip to a bowling alley for the workers. I didn’t go because I didn’t like the people I worked with – I found them boring, petty, and conformist – and I have no interest in bowling. The managers sent out an email saying that although attendance wasn’t compulsory it was ‘expected’ as an important part of ‘team building’. I overheard one worker remarking that there were too many ‘unsociable’ people in the workplace and that they should be ‘made’ to go. In every society there are plenty of people who are ready for what they consider to be ‘strong’ leaders who will take on a parental role, relieve them of the responsibility of thinking for themselves, and make the asocials conform to social expectations.

Why are people like this? Childhood, of course. Parents and teachers arrange various activities for children, which the adults consider to be ‘fun’, ‘educational’ or ‘character building’, and the children are expected to participate and show enthusiasm or the adults will be disappointed at best, angry at worst. How the children really feel and what they’d really like to do is largely irrelevant. In order to retain the approval and protection of adults children must adapt themselves to the preferences of the adults. According to adults obedience is good and disobedience is bad; this is the fundamental moral principle that is imposed on children. Unless people are self-aware this principle is likely to stay with them for life and the obedience that they learned in childhood will be transferred in adulthood to other authority figures, such as managers in the workplace and political leaders on the national level. Authoritarian parenting and schooling leads to authoritarian societies. The cruelty, injustice and silent suffering that this entails is horrific.

But the obedience training doesn’t work with all of us. Some of us aren’t offered sufficient reward to make obedience seem worthwhile, and some of us are deliberately socially excluded in order to serve as a warning to others. Personally I have a black triangle in my heart and I wear it with pride.

Parents Being Shit

November 26, 2018

At the local train station I saw a young boy and his father come to meet the boy’s grandfather. I could tell their relations from their ages and appearance; they looked strikingly similar and they were the right spread of ages, from early childhood to adulthood to grey hair. The boy looked about 4. When he saw his grandfather at the far end of the platform he ran to meet him with a big smile on his face. I smiled at the scene myself as it looked as though the boy was going to run straight into a hug from his grandfather. But at the last moment the boy stopped abruptly. He looked like the Road Runner coming to a halt in a Looney Tunes cartoon. Instead of hugging his grandfather he reached out for a handshake. When his father caught up with them he also shook hands with the older man. Because real men don’t hug, of course, they shake hands!

Despite his young age the boy’s natural exuberance, spontaneity and affection had already been dampened by the example of his family members and of wider society. He almost forgot himself, but at the last moment he remembered not to hug when a handshake was expected, and so he was well on his way to fitting in with the emotionally repressed masculinity that society demands of boys and men. This is an example of how restrictive patterns of behaviour are passed from generation to generation. Due to their social conditioning boys and men face a lifetime of struggling in silence with their emotional problems, of feeling ashamed of their emotions, and having difficulty relating to others, particularly women. But they do make obedient workers and soldiers.

In the street I saw a little girl, about 3 years old. She looked bored and was trailing along behind two adults who were engrossed in conversation. This seems to be the standard position for children when going places with adults in this society. She was wearing a T-shirt that said ‘My middle name is trouble’. I don’t imagine that she chose it herself; probably her parents picked it out for her or at least suggested it to her. No child spontaneously thinks of themselves as ‘trouble’; it’s adults who use such words. When adults speak of children being ‘trouble’ what they mean is that children express their feelings naturally and spontaneously, that they have their own individual needs and preferences, and that they act on their needs and preferences without waiting for adult permission or instruction. The T-shirt should really have said ‘I have a mind of my own and my parents don’t like it’. To object to children being individuals and expressing themselves naturally, to object to their energy and spontaneity, to stigmatise them as ‘trouble’ and make a joke of their feelings, is emotionally abusive.

Making a child wear a T-shirt that says ‘I’m trouble’ is an example of adultism, the prejudice of adults against children. It’s as bad as making a black person wear a T-shirt that says ‘I’ve got a good sense of rhythm’ or making a woman wear a T-shirt that says ‘I’m ruled by my emotions’. Prejudices against black people and women are sadly common and devastating in their effects, but they are also recognised as serious problems and do get challenged. Prejudice against children is generally encouraged and seen as good parenting, and rather amusing as well. It would be more accurate if the little girl had worn a T-shirt that said ‘My middle name is emotionally abused’ or ‘My parents enjoy publicly ridiculing and humiliating me’. Of course the little girl may actually like the T-shirt, because children quickly learn to adopt attitudes that please their parents. In order to survive the oppressed are often forced to please their oppressors. When authority figures regularly tell us that we are a certain kind of thing we may come to believe that it’s true, at the expense of our genuine potential and individuality. (As an aside, this particular T-shirt might have been made by children working in a sweatshop, such is the world that we live in.)

In the supermarket I saw a mother shopping with her two daughters, who looked about 6 and 8. She sent them off to find some item and they came back smiling and excited because they’d found the right thing. The smiles soon faded because their mother was angry about the length of time they’d taken. She said ‘Your time management is driving me insane!’ Clearly in her opinion the girls shouldn’t have been enjoying their trip to the supermarket, they should have been concentrating on their designated task. It’s interesting that the mother used the phrase ‘time management’, which is the sort of phrase that managers use in the workplace to pressurise workers in to working harder and faster. Modern ‘performance management’ requires workers to give an account of how they have ‘managed’ their time in order to justify their continued employment. Simply following their natural rhythms and doing what they can in the time available is not acceptable.

Under this regime of social control – which operates in the family, schools and the workplace – we are led to believe that time is not simply a natural feature of the world in which our actions occur; it’s a problem that must be managed. The idea that time is a problem is a key source of stress, which can lead to physical and mental health problems. Rather than challenging this twisted view of reality adults impose it on their children. The fact that the two girls were enjoying finding things and feeling pleased with their success, and completely oblivious to time, was not important to their mother; what mattered was their ‘management’ of time. In this mother’s view, as in the view of most adults, life is not about being spontaneous, about enjoying yourself and making a game out of necessary tasks, it’s about ‘managing’ your time, so that you can give an account of yourself to authority figures, such as parents, teachers and managers.

It’s also interesting that the mother accused her daughters of driving her insane. Parents often like to imply that their children are responsible for their parents’ health. In addition to saying that their children drive them ‘crazy’ or ‘insane’ I’ve also heard parents say that their children’s behaviour ‘makes them sick’ and that they’ll ‘be the death of them’. An adult may think that this obviously isn’t meant literally, but children have much less experience of the world, and it’s hard for them to know what to believe, particularly when adults speak with such vehemence and also tend to conceal information about illness and death from their children. And if it’s not meant literally, how is it meant? Clearly it’s supposed to create some sort of anxiety in children, to plant a seed of doubt in their minds, in order to make them obey. For most of the human race, now and throughout history, childhood has been built on threats and fear.

Without Consent

November 23, 2018

Domestic abuse and child abuse have a lot in common, but while the first is usually condemned, the second is often considered to be good parenting. It’s common for parents to tell their children how to behave, how to talk, what to wear, what to eat, when to go to the toilet, when to go to bed, what questions they can and can’t ask, what feelings they can and can’t express, which friends they can and can’t have, what activities they can and can’t engage in, and where they should be and what they should be doing at every moment of the day. Failure to obey parental commands usually results in punishment, which can include personal criticism, harsh looks, shouting, threats, withdrawal of affection, denial of opportunities, pushing, pulling, slapping and smacking, among other things. The child’s feelings and preferences are subordinated to the feelings and preferences of their parents. The threat of punishment, and the fear this creates, is used to control the child’s behaviour.

Imagine that a husband treated his wife this way. It would be a serious case of domestic abuse. And yet most people consider this kind of treatment to be perfectly acceptable when aimed at children, who are the smallest, weakest, most vulnerable members of society, and whose personalities are shaped by the treatment they receive. We’re told quite rightly that ‘no means no’ in adult relationships, but this doesn’t apply if you’re a child, as saying ‘no’ is considered to be ‘defiance’ and ‘wilfulness’ and leads to punishment. Children ‘consent’ to adult control in the sense that they go along with it, but this isn’t informed consent as they seldom have a genuine choice. The main lesson that adults teach children is that it’s all right to ignore the wishes of others and force your preferences on them as long as you’re bigger and stronger than them, thus training the child abusers and domestic abusers of the future. We won’t have a decent society until the ‘no’ of a child receives the same respect as the ‘no’ of an adult.

When parents gather together I have noticed certain tendencies in the way they talk. They often give each other wry smiles and remark that although they love their children they find them very difficult and demanding at times. Sometimes they proceed to discuss methods of discipline and control that they have used to adjust their children’s behaviour, such as offering rewards or threatening punishment, or concealing the truth from them, or telling outright lies, in order to deceive the children about their options in life. These methods are used to impose the parents’ preferences on the children, and this is considered by parents to be ‘for the children’s own good’.

Imagine that instead of this being a group of parents talking about their children it was a group of husbands talking about their wives. Imagine the husbands smiling wryly as they explain that they love their wives but find them difficult and demanding at times, and then proceeding to discuss ways of adjusting their wives’ behaviour through threats, lies, discipline and control. These men would be domestic abusers. In the past husbands did, in fact, behave this way toward their wives, at the time when women couldn’t vote, own property or instigate divorce proceedings. Children, of course, still lack these rights. Just as women have organised and fought against their mistreatment and demanded to be treated with respect, people of good conscience must organise and fight to end the mistreatment of children and ensure that they are treated with respect.

We will be told, of course, that children need the firm guidance of their parents, just as we were once told that women need the firm guidance of their husbands. Children certainly need love, support, encouragement and advice, in order to be healthy and happy, but they certainly don’t need to have every aspect of their lives and behaviour controlled, and to be disciplined and punished if they fail to satisfy their parents’ desires. Authoritarian parenting may produce obedience in the short-term but in the long-term it fills children with anger, fear and resentment, and the social consequences are catastrophic.

It may be objected that children are different to adults and that treatment which is not appropriate for adults may still be appropriate for children. Personally I find it deeply depressing that anyone could wish to treat children so cruelly once the cruelty of their actions has been made clear to them. But if people are not persuaded by simple compassion then I would ask them to look at the world that we human beings have created for ourselves. Is it really a good and happy place? This is a world full of violence, poverty, inequality, oppression, exploitation, bigotry, stress, greed and selfishness. People are quick to make judgements and advocate punishments, often aimed at vulnerable groups of people, but understanding and compassion are in short supply. Given that most parents are quick to judge and punish their children, and often lacking in understanding and compassion, I suggest that we can find the origin of most social problems in the harsh treatment of children. Children learn how to behave from the examples that adults set them. When children are treated harshly they become harsh themselves. And all the horrors of the world follow.

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.