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WIM 3: The Children of Rousseau

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I’ve never understood people who try to defend the world against censorship by saying things like “no girl was ever ruined by a book.”  That was Clarence Darrow,  I think, and his comment had the same problem then as similar ones do now:  it assumed that if  it was possible for a girl to be ruined by a book, then censorship would be justifiable.  It might even be mandatory.

The problem is that it is possible for a girl to be ruined by a book, and if it wasn’t, there’d be no point in protesting against censorship.  It’s precisely because ideas are powerful and have consequences that books are worth defending, and paintings, too, and comics, and television sitcoms.  Will and Grace was a silly little show, but it changed the public face of homosexuality for millions of people across the United States and made the possibility of government recognition of gay marriages much more likely.  There was a reason George Orwell chose to portray that Communist overlords of his Animal Farm as pigs, and it wasn’t because he was hoping people would imagine he’d written a children’t story.

Ideas have consequences, and books deal in ideas, all of them, even the ones that pretend they don’t.   That is why censorship is always wrong.  It does not kill the ideas.  It only distorts them.  And in distorting them, it always distorts human life in one aspect or another.  We don’t any of us really know what’s best for the world.  When we act as if we do, we wreck it.

Of course, lots of people think they really do know what’s best for the world, and they’re perfectly willing to do what they have to do to make it come about.  These people occupy all points on the political compass, and they all share the same delusion:  that it is possible to perfect human beings; that if we only provide the right environment and education and influences, we can eradicate whatever mortal sins they see as now being evident in the world.

Lately,  the people who write and talk about this sort of thing tend to locate the attempts to perfect the world, through censorship and otherwise, on the left, usually in breathtakingly boneheaded attempts to eliminate “racism” and “ethnocentrism” on college campuses.  And those people certainly do exist, and there are lots of them, but they’re hardly alone.  Complaints to the  FCC about expletives on cop shows and  Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction, organized attempts to get Catcher in the Rye out of eighth grade English class and Lord of the Flies out of the school library–the right has a mountain of censors at work, too, even as we speak.

And all these censors share two ideas, both of which are wrong.

The first of these ideas is that it is the one I mentioned above, usually attributed to Jean Jacques Rousseau, but actually going back all the way to Plato.  That is that it is possile to raise and educate human beings in such a way that they will be purely and unambiguously “good,” with “good” meaning whatever our class of censors has decided it should mean.

For al the howls of denial from the religious right wing in the US, all of us in Western democracies are children of the Enlightenment, and in being children of the Enlightenment, we are children of  Rousseau.

That’s true even though the real, historical Enlightenment had two branches, and the English branch specifically rejected the idea that man was  perfectible.  In fact, to put it the way my older son did when he first read Locke, the idea for the English in this period was that man was not only not perfectible, but that he “sucked,” and that the sucking was impervious to any influences at all.   For the English Enlightenment, progress resulted from accepting this fact and so ordering society that we could use it.  A few  thousand selfish jerks making selfish decisions for their own selfish best interests might, if the institutions of society were organized correctly, produce policies that worked to the common good in spite of themselves.

Rousseau, on the other hand, was the first Romantic as well as the intellectual cornerstone of the French Enlightenment.   He saw human evil as the product of human civilization.   Once upon a time, in Eden, we had all been good and generous and kind.  It was only with the coming of cities and laws that we were changed into evil, selfish, grubbing, brutal things.

What’s important is not that Rousseau invented the idea of the Noble Savage, but that he talked himself into believing it.  Then he talked most of Europe into believing it along with him.  It was civilization that had ruined us.  If we could smash civilization, if we could cast of the chains of erudition and sophistication and order and laws, we would find ourselves back in Eden again.

I think I  was about fourteen when  I first read Rousseau, and the question that occurred to me then is the one that has occurred to me over and over again ever since: if the state of nature was as blissful and  Edenic as Rousseau said it was, why had it ever changed?  What could have possessed people who were perfectly happy to give that up in favor of a social structure bound to make the vast majority of them miserable? 

There is the devil in the garden of Eden, slithering along on his belly, his tongue forked, offering the apple–and with it, the chance to be like Gods, the chance to know good and evil. 

The story of Eden at least offered some rational for the  Fall.  In Rousseau’s version of the  Fall, the reason for abandoning paradise is not clear.  The devil in Eden is a fallen angel whose history stretches back to a war in  Heaven.   In Rousseau’s Eden, some people just became warped and wanted to control and harm other people, except we can’t know how, because this being Eden, there was nothing to make them that way.

Actually, if  Rousseau had thought through the implications of that last bit–of what it meant that even in his own narrative some people just were warped–he might have saved the world, and himself, a lot of trouble.

Instead, he sent his ideas out into the world, and they had consequences.  It’s worth remembering what those consequences were.  The English Enlightenment, with its vision of man as essentially flaed, if not downright awful, gave us the  American Revolution.  The  French Enlightenment, with its vision of man as inherently good, gave us the Terror. 

And anybody who thinks that the Terror wasn’t the logical conclusion of that set of ideas, isn’t paying attention.

The other wrong idea that censors of the right and the left share is this:  that the presentation of bad ideas in literature causes bad behavior in human beings, and the presentation of good ideas in literature causes good behavior.

I know, I know.  Up there, I said that a girl could be ruined by a book.  But it’s more complicated than it seems on the surface.  A girl can only be ruined by a book if she’s inclined to be ruined to begin with.

There was that Eagles song, some years ago–okay, decades ago–about how a woman can’t “take you anywhere/you don’t already know how to go.”  Or something like that.

Some of what human beings are, some of what human nature is, is hardwired into us.   This does not mean that we can’t modify it, or–more likely–channel it in directions we like better than the ones it would have gone if we’d have left it on its own.  And it doesn’t mean that every individual human being is exactly like every other.   There seems to be a continuum in most traits, with some very few people having very little of it and some very few others have way too much and everybody else being in between.

The usual illustration of this is the phyiscal competitiveness of adolescent males.   Of course, some few adolescent males are not competitive at all, physically or otherwise, and some are so physically competitive that there’s no way to control them at all. 

Most adolescent males, though, are phsycially competitive to a degree, and they tend to interpret that physical competitiveness as proof of their “manhood.”  Absent any outside control at all,  they will form themselves into competitive groups that spend a lot of time fighting and chewing up the landscape, thereby making life hell on earth for the people around them.   Ask any inhabitant of any gang-infested neighborhood in Los Angeles.  

Most societies do things to control this behavior.  In older societies, that tended to mean the formation of armies.   The guys want to fight?  Fine, let them go fight to expand our territory and make use safe from predatores.

In more modern societies, the answer tends to be contact sports:  football, soccer, Rugby, ice hockey.  If they have to fight, let’s convince them it’s only okay out on a field someplace with a referee watching them and a bunch of rules.  And the guys who are not in good enough shape to play can be routed to cheering on the team, although we have to watch them.  When we don’t, we get soccer riots, a la Wembley. 

But the thing we can’t do, the thing that won’t work at all, is eliminate physical competitiveness in adolescent males entirely.  Even if we remove every single influence in their environment that even suggests the possibility of competing, even if we monitor what they read and see and hear and sing and say, their families and their school, everything, even if we punish even the smallest sign of competitiveness from day one, even if they’ve never seen or heard of a war or a fight or a football game–

When the testosterone kicks in at twelve or fourteen, they’ll just reinvent the wheel, all on their own.  

That was a left wing example of social engineering I gave you up there, so let’s try a right wing one:  teen-aged sex.

Remove all mention of sex from the environment, shut down MTV and every single sex ed course in the country (or the world), enforce “covenant marraiges,” restrict the reading list of every course in every school so that it has no more sexual content than Mary Poppins–and when the hormones kick in at puberty, trust me, they’ll figure it out for themselves.

“Children” aren’t “having children” because Britney Spears and their sex ed teachers are urging them to.  They’re doing it because they’ve just been hit by a tidal wave of hormones developed over hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution, all with one purpose–make babies!  make babies now!  continue the species!  make babies!

The left isn’t going to stop adolscent males from being physically competitive, and the right isn’t going to stop teen-agers from having sex.  Neither phenomenon is fundamentally a result of what the culture “teaches” us.  Both would exist with no culture at all.

Censorhip is not only wrong, it’s stupid.  It doesn’t save us from human nature, because it can’t.  It does prevent us from envisioning effect ways of dealing with that nature.

Sometimes, it so distorts the conversation, it sends us down a rabbit hole of harm we can’t even think straight enough to face.

Written by janeh

October 13th, 2008 at 10:20 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'WIM 3: The Children of Rousseau'

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  1. Clear, to the point and reasonably succinct. And of course, history. No one has banned the printing, shipment or sale of subversive texts since WWII, nor of salacious texts since about the time miscegenation laws went away. Outside of universities and the odd workplace, free speech really is protected. Now let me tell you why our current disputes won’t go away.

    First, because we’re discussing tax money. If Mr. Smithson wishes to buy some property in DC and establish a museum with his private funds, that’s his choice, and if anything, we’re in his debt. When the Smithsonian Museum wants—and gets—Federal funding, it comes with a taxpayer’s right to object to exhibitions said taxpayer feels are inaccurate or slanderous. If Mr. Mapplethorpe wishes to take some rather strange pictures, that’s between him and his models. If the state of Ohio spends taxpayer money to exhibit them, the taxpayers are well within their rights to ask if that was a suitable use of their money—just as the taxpayers of South Carolina get a say on whether flying the Confederate Battle Flag is appropriate on state property. My library is mine. My neighbor’s is his, and neither of us has any right to add or subtract a book from the other’s. But the Herndon VA Public Library belongs to both of us. Welcome to the culture wars. All those who feel that such matters are the exclusive concern of the “experts”—curators, librarians and whoever—can please explain to me why the Chiefs of Staff don’t have exclusive say over the defense budget—or over strategy, come to that. So long as the arts expect and get tax money, expect the cries of “censorship” from librarians and curators to continue.

    Second, because we’re discussing public spaces. Those who whine about Ms Jackson & Co being fined for running a striptease on broadcast channels would call the police fast enough if they saw someone flashing a five year old, and no one calls on the FCC to stop the raunchy going-on in pay-per-view. Nudist beaches exist, but not all beaches are nudist. There seems very little dispute that public nudity is not always appropriate, and the government should enforce some limits. There seems to be a LOT of dispute about what those limits are.

    Third, because we’re all censors: you, me, everyone. Since ideas DO have consequences, we do not raise our children in an ethical vacuum. We all raise them to believe and do certain things, and not to believe or do others, and we would be at fault not to do so. We none of us expect or want our schools to promote certain ideas, and we do expect them to promote others. If our 12 year olds came home from school with THE PROTOCOLS OF THE ELDERS OF ZION, having been told in class about the worldwide Jewish conspiracy, and full of enthusiasm for next week’s Krystalnacht, there’d be a new school board and faculty PDQ. If the schools were neutral on cheating on tests—“some people learn the material. Others prefer to hide crib sheets. It’s a matter of what you feel comfortable with” there’d be some harsh words at the next PTA meeting.

    As for “natural” behavior, I think I can make an excellent case for assault, theft, vandalism, sexual harassment and rape as natural behaviors. They are, after all, all things that some young men will do regardless of our lectures or punishments, but which many of them will cease doing as they grow older. Nonetheless, we expect our schools not just to be neutral, but to actively discourage these natural activities. But some of us feel about competitive sports or junior ROTC about the way others of us feel about their daughters being encouraged to have threesomes in back seats.

    The schools cannot avoid teaching morality. As a nation—and even sometimes as school districts—we cannot agree on what morality ought to be taught. And so next year and the year after there will be argument over different text and library books, and different curricula, and the cries of “censorship” will continue. We should be grateful. Because one thing worse than our present mess might well be having a clear-cut winner.

    robert_piepenbrink

    14 Oct 08 at 5:24 am

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