Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Natural Tyranny

Today, as with most days, my work begins with my children. I clean up the younger's waste, dress him, get the older boy's stuff together or tell him to do so, prepare lunch, while my wife gets a few extra minutes of sleep. The significance of all this, long since become routine, is the subject of a future post, but it gets me thinking about something K. F. Ochstradt said yesterday about suicide.

understandable exception for dependent minor/child having parent/guardian trying to stop suicide, but otherwise, whence the right to control another?

At the time, I moved past it quickly, because I readily accepted his point.

Today I think about it again, not because I object to it but because it makes me think about how we decide the rights of the young.

I have long felt that hierarchy begins in the home. This is what separates me from a lot of family-and-village anti-statists that I've known on the rightwing, conservative side of things. I tend toward a thorough-going rebellion, and I've always feared the authoritarian tendency in myself and other parents. Like Mr. Crow, I also object to the use of possessives in English, such as "my wife," "my children," and so on... They do evoke the ancestry of family, however, as a situation of ownership, and I feel that it's the root of our mistreatment of the young.

Why do we not recognize the autonomy of children? I can think of three main arguments.
First, that they are born as a result of adults' physiology and action. But this doesn't satisfy--first it does not explain why this sense of ownership is important for a time and then, ideally, becomes less and less significant.
Second, that their brains are undeveloped and that therefore, they do not have proper control over themselves. More on this in a bit.
Third, that we must teach them to behave because of the generational nature of society and tradition and so on. And any person pretending to anarchism must balk at this, because it suggests that society must be inculcated, maintained by power, and so on. I would add the complaint that it is pointless; tradition is reinvented with every iteration. The Hasid is not replicating Herod's temple; the Baptist has less understanding of Jesus than a 1st century Zoroastrian. Tradition drifts. Words' meanings drift even as the same monkey sounds are used. "God" today is not nearly as powerful to the industrial Westerner as He was even a hundred years ago.

So back to the second. I hear this thrown out by many a technocrat, usually liberal, to legitimize voting age and driver's licenses and legal alcohol use and so on and so forth. I'm unsettled by the precedent--that we can judge capacity without regard to action--and also unsettled by the ignorance of ends. We bar the 15-year-old for voting and do not seem to care if a 25-year-old, or a 50-year-old, make any horrible decision they like in the voting booth or in other political and economic exercise. What is just about cheating a 40-year-old of "sound mind"? Is the assumption that judgment is based on biology? That due to their lobe development, they "should know better"?

There are many attempts to draw the line--based on biology, based on physical growth, based on averages, based on social custom, based on a good, round number, based on transfer of one's daughter to her new owner called "husband," based on recognition by elders, and so on. None of them satisfies and yet--is there a line at all?

I think there must be. I think a child is at some points nearly helpless. Yes, even though we downplay their intelligence and their prepubescent sexuality and their understanding of truth our social lies prevent us from seeing, they are nevertheless incapable, at some points, of making some decisions. I've used hard power and soft power. Restraint, and internalization of norms. It scares me, honestly, because I know how coercive parents can be, and how subtle they can be while doing it, publicly and behind closed doors. But it has been necessary for my children.

But it won't always be. And part of that, a decisive part, will be in their liberation of themselves, their insistence on their own rights. And that will be hard, but good. But another part of it is in how I behave as a dominator, and it's been that role that I dismiss in the social sphere because I see how few powerful are willing to relinquish their authority over others. Is it different? I don't know how the tyranny of families and the tyranny of society relate. I am a tyrant, at least in some way, and I try to plant seeds of dissent and rebellion in my sons. It is very difficult, and I think about it a lot.

Usually when we talk about the rights of children, it is to enhance our power, not theirs.


  1. muy interesante!

    my last job was to help in the counseling of troubled middle & high school students -- home & community, not school setting. some of them pondered suicide; of these, some were of "subnormal" IQ or, in modern lingo, developmentally delayed. totally thorny bramblepatch, the subject of child autonomy and capcity for it.

  2. Sounds familiar, Karl. Also, it's awesome when the kids are clearly more functional than the parents. Not an easy situation to solve. If I believed in bureaucracy, I'd say we have tests for early declaration of adulthood; it's by no means perfect and smacks of the tortured perversion of someone trying to fix a problem through adding new problems, but eh. I don't know what the fuck to do other than to help young people in the ways I can, legally and morally.

    And of course, keep reminding my own that I may be very, very wrong about damn near anything I say. It is adorable to hear my elder son, after voicing assent, add quickly: "That's at least how I feel now. I may change my mind." God, if he's ever certain about anything in his life, it won't be because of me.