What is wrong, and why we can’t seem to fix it

Throughout most of my life I have been living under conservative governments, and the nicest way I can find to describe political conservatism is to say that it embodies the popular phrase ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. However, as we all know there are many things wrong at present, and they need fixing. No amount of ignoring them will make them go away. This blog is about those awkward facts of world that won’t go away and which political conservatism won’t make go away either.

What I’m going to aim to do is post a blog once a week, on a Friday, so you can digest it over the weekend. The next week’s blog will either be the next in my series, or a discussion of issues that have arisen from the comments.

I’m going to have a very strict comments policy, comment will only be accepted if they are intelligent and polite contributions to discussion around the topic of the post. Everything else will be moderated.

If you find a blog here sympathetic, you might consider reading the blogs from the beginning, as they are supposed to be a more or less continuous argument.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Impediments 11: Children

I expect you’re all thinking that with a blog post title like that this misanthropic green is going to starting inveighing about there being too many children around.

In fact I have already explained in this series of blogs how I believe there should be fewer people on the planet at any one time in order that humanity should have a long existence and that many more people should live in the long-term than is likely to be the case if our present overcrowded ecology is to continue.

Instead the theme of this post is how we are failing posterity by not bringing children up properly.

On the first level of this we can note the statistics of children abuse and neglect in Australia. This report (Child protection Australia 2009-10, published by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare) shows that 6 in 1,000 Australian children were subject to a substantiation of a notification of child abuse or neglect in 2009-10. (Sorry about the official terminology).

This in itself is worrying (even though, as the report points out, the trends for notifications and substantiations have declined from previous years)—you would like there to be no child abuse or neglect at all. Also, this report, like many official reports, quotes a lot of figures but doesn’t really provide the information it seems that it should. It seems mainly to be reporting on official statistics of notifications and substantiations for one financial year, whereas you’d think that the important information would be the total experience of children who are victims of abuse or neglect: for example, does a child typically have one notification in their childhood and live happily after this (in their family or out of it)? [I doubt it], what percentage of children will ever be subject to a substantiation of a notification during their childhood? &c &c.

If we leave these sad statistics and questions, however, we should also think that many children that don’t fall into the official categories of child abuse or neglect, and do not come to the notice of authorities, still have pretty miserable childhoods. As anyone who has had anything to do with abusive or inadequate parents will know, the family situation has to get pretty dire before child protection services will take any interest, and beyond this there are children who could not be categorised as suffering the mildest form of abuse (‘emotional abuse’) or neglect, and yet are not brought up in a happy context.

Beyond the simple moral issue of child abuse, we should think how we bring our children up to follow our thinking and way of life. Recently I was watching an episode of Season Three of the TV series The Sopranos, where the mafia boss Tony Soprano has a flash-back to an incident in his childhood when he witnessed his father, another mafioso, chopping off a man’s little finger with a meat cleaver because the man had failed to make a payment to him. In this case it’s easy to see how Tony’s father, who, like all the other mafia operatives, uses psychopathic (or at least sociopathic) violence to terrify people and maintain his authority, then exposes his son to his violence and conditions him into developing the same attributes and following his career.

It would be my argument that in the main our parenting of children follows this pattern—the exposure of children to common existential problems and their common consumerist palliatives—although the result isn’t (fortunately) a society of violent sociopaths. However, the common pattern of childhood care, a quite disengaged and talking-down-to style of parenting, with lavish use of the TV as a child-minder, accompanied by child-care in a similar style, and then great alienating experience of the education-industry (as I described in a previous post about education), does lead, in my view, to a society of people who are alienated, lonely and by default accept as valid Liberalism’s values of ‘personal freedom’ because they can’t consider an alternative (what would you call it? ‘grounded freedom’, or something similar, a sense of freedom with responsibilities, to other people, to the world).

Unfortunately it is a characteristic of people who were abused or neglected or unhappy as children that when they come adulthood they seem to want to repeat their experiences with their children. It never ceases to amaze me the number of people that you meet that you can tell at a glance don’t like their children, and don’t want to be parents. What the poet Robert Graves called ‘the huge tug of procreation’, can’t be that huge in an era of relatively inexpensive and accessible contraceptive methods, can it? (Certainly this is a good argument for public campaigns along the lines of ‘Are you sure you really want to have children?’ and the ending the Baby Bonus and any child support measures beyond a simple flat-rate child support payment (as previously argued in these blogs), just so that people are under no illusions about the responsibilities involved in raising children and do not have any grounds for believing that having children will lead to financial benefits).

This is where many contemporary social problems have their origin: mental illness, crime (it’s thought that most mental health conditions, and criminal propensities, are a result of child abuse or neglect, or unsatisfactory childhood experiences), loneliness, angst, anomie, an inability to raise children better in the next generation, fear of death, and voting for right-wing political parties and policies.

Ending the cycle of child abuse and further perpetuation of abuse in turn has to be a social policy imperative, and I don’t think that it can be done in our present system. I believe instead that we have to make the changes I mentioned to our welfare system and to our official ideology, so that not having children is seen as an entirely valid and meritorious way of life. I also believe, as with so many other problems of society, that once our population is seen to be declining, people will become much more relaxed and contented and therefore less worried about having no children, or, if they do, are much better parents than the standard at the moment.

Above all, people who have not had a good childhood in modernity suffer from a inability to appreciate the Great Transformation. This is a Chinese Daoist term (ta-hua) for immersion in the natural processes. David Hinton, translator of the Chinese poet T’ao Chien (365-427 CE) writes of T’ao famous decision to return to farming from official service ‘He settled on his secluded farm because Earth’s Great Transformation was perfectly immediate there, because there he could live life as it comes of itself, as it ends of itself’.*

The great difficulty for us is to live life ‘of itself’ (tzu-jan), because before doing so we have to see that all of life, not just the parts that are convenient for us, must flourish if we are to flourish. Most of us are not able to do this because most of us never experience a grounding in the fullness of human love and the natural world as children, and this flows through into our partial, bounded and apparently pointless lives.

Next week: Summary of the blogs so far

*Selected Poems of T’ao Chien. Port Townsend WA, Copper Canyon Press, 1993 (p 5).

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