The Daily Beast reports another bout of silliness by the religious right in the reaction to a statement by Melissa Harris-Perry that “Your kids don’t belong to you-but the whole community”?
Now, I can see someone not liking the statement, but the silliness is where they go with it. They trot out the old 20th Century foes of “communism” and “Leninism” to make it sound like the goal of the “left” is to confiscate children and make them loyal to the “state” because they “belong” to the whole community.
Do you belong to a community? Of course! You belong to many communities; we all do. I belong to the Farmington community, the Mallett PTA community, the University community, the community of faculty who lead travel courses, etc. Belonging to a community is not communistic, it is natural.
Children belong to the whole community, not just the school community or the community of parents. They will work to support the retiring generation, they will keep society going and enhance the life of the community. Her point was not to say that the community should control children, but that we should invest in education and programs to help make sure our children have the best possible future.
So why the wild reaction? One word: property. Some groups on the religious right have a notion that children can be seen as the property of the parents. The parents can raise them as they want, educate them or not educate them, indoctrinate them, control them, and sometimes even abuse them. To these people the parent owns the child, just as a master might own a slave.
Such thinking is inhumane. Children are humans with all the rights of any human. Beyond that if you look at human history we are by nature a collectivist species. We form families and villages. Villages look at the good of the whole, including not just all the people but the traditions and values of the community, as being more important than the individual. This is true world wide, and throughout history.
Erich Fromm notes that what changed in the West was the process of individuation, whereby people started to separate from the community and think in terms of their own self-interest. This is not a bad thing. It is a particular part of our culture. That individuation is why we strive, compete and progress – why we reject traditions and embrace change ranging from giving women equal rights to allowing gay marriage.
Yet this capacity for progress rests on a potential contradiction with our collective nature. We still yearn to form communities. Look at the popularity of social media, Facebook and blogger communities. People have psychological difficulties with the demands of trying to be an individual responsible for their own happiness and choices, ranging from depression to anxiety and eating disorders. People try to escape the pressure of the modern world through alcohol, drugs and other addictions. We seek the comfort of tradition and a supportive village in a world that finds us disconnected and on our own. Life for us has become materially easy and psychologically/spiritually difficult.
Which brings us back to the children. The greatest gift we can give the next generation is the capacity to exercise their cultural individualism with a proper respect for community. Respect means to recognize I do belong to my community. I am part of it, I should act to support it and others who are in it. Individualism requires that people be strong enough to be themselves rather than conform to the expectations of others, secure enough to look inside and learn who they are without feeling like their real self is weird or inadequate, and tolerant enough to accept the choices others make in expressing their individualism.
We have to give children the tools to navigate a world that can be daunting and intimidating. Only if they learn to be strong, secure and tolerant individuals with respect for their community can they live awake, not giving in to the cultural hypnosis aided by marketers trying to define what one needs to be happy, normal or ‘acceptable.’ They will rejoice in who they are, rather than fear that others will see beneath the facade. They will accept others for who they are, making real friendship and love, both personal and within the community, possible.
Unfortunately, the lack of funding for education, the removal of the arts from so many school districts (while competitive sports remain hot), the lack of respect for teachers, and our fetish with an individualism devoid of community with children seen as akin property, makes it difficult to give children the life skills they need to remain strong, secure and tolerant. I take that as Melissa Harris-Perry’s point, and agree.