Right-wing political ideology champions a certain claim about what is natural for the human species. It is very much Thomas Hobbes’ vision of the state of nature, a primal competition of all against all, unfettered individual freedom where the luckiest displace, destroy, or enslave the rest. Such is the right-wing utopia. (That characterization needs to be expanded at some point to account for the contradictory right-wing enthusiasm for interfering in private judgements about such matters as patriotism and sexual orientation. On those issues right-wing ideology demands conformity.) The right-wing utopia is a caricature of masculinity projecting a wish-fulfillment day-dream. It is not difficult to spot the fatal flaw: There are no children to be nurtured in that utopia. It would survive for precisely one nasty, brutish, and short generation. When the value of nurturing children enters the picture then what is natural is co-operation, play, sharing, and love.
The Conversation with Children
People continue to have children not because children are cute, or from brute instinct to continue the species, but because children are contributers to collective experience, essential interlocutors for adults. The innocent love of honest attachment and discovery characteristic of children is valuable in itself and not just as a stage to be rushed through on the way to adult mentality. Children are crucial contributers to the vitality of the human conversation. The realm of child-nurture, managed and cultivated by women, was effectively unknown, ignored, and despised by men from time out of mind. Due to that prejudice there is general lack of recognition for the female managed, child-care focused, culture in which all humans learn our first language and most other profound culture. It is not an unlikely, scarce, or exotic community. It is as universal for humans generally as first-language acquisition itself. There is no place for a contract because social attachment is an innocent accomplishment for ordinary people.
It isn’t just that children bring innocence to their conversation with adults, but also that children are the smartest people on the planet. Their brains are growing so fast that they learn a language from scratch ‘spontaneously’. The Suzuki music teaching method attempts to mimic first language acquisition with parental engagement, positive feedback, and playful repetition. With only these simple declarations of mutual attachment, children learn. Generation after generation of mothers have worked out how to sustain this work with some co-operation and mutual support. First language acquisition is inseparable from the domestic nexus of attachment, co-operation, and play, inseparable from the innocent love of attachment and discovery characteristic of children. Since the general underlying intent and purpose of language is to declare a distinctive voice in mutual play (rocks & bushes do not imitate), language is not as strictly rule-governed and game structured as Wittgenstein and others judged. Proto-linguistic play is fun and done casually all the time.
Hobbes and Schopenhauer represent philosophers who were childless and single privileged men immersed in a special minority culture of alpha-male competition, class, gender, and political dominance. It is not surprising that they grasped human nature as little more than egoism and a war of all against all. In ancient times Plato and, much later, Augustine also were embedded in privileged male culture-pods. Those philosophers believed human attachment is difficult and possible only under special circumstances as a gift from awe-inspiring power. They glorified the state as the greatest human achievement. (Check out Hegel.) The modern state was conceived and put into practice in the cultural matrix accumulated around the strategy for radical inequality which made life interesting and fun for competitive alphas.
A standard criticism of modernity is that secularism, democracy, and commercialism have destroyed meaning in people’s lives. Hegel claimed that meaning is bestowed on people by a hierarchical social order in which everyone has his or her place. (Something like: “It’s not much, but it’s home.”) In a variation of that view, Hitler observed that his best experience of meaning and purpose in life was as a soldier in the Great War of 1914-18. The war provided an overriding need in which everyone was willing to accept regimentation and personal sacrifice for a great cause. Hitler’s gift to his people was their nation at war, gloriously meaningful suffering and death. Leaders of all kinds are influenced by Hitler’s doctrine, often in more moderate forms.
It could be claimed that the ultimate Medieval narrative, the meaning of Medieval life, was the Roman Christian narrative of transcendence. Matching that claim would be that in modernity the ultimate narrative, the meaning of modern life, is competition in the market economy. However, it is just as plausible that the conversation with children and the family life which surrounds it have been more rewarding and meaningful all along. It looks like another instance of a cultured contempt for the female-managed and child-centered value matrix. Children still count as the focus of meaning for all classes. The imperative to nurture children ties people to stability in production and consumption, but not to any particular system. Many things have a presence in a person’s sense of meaning in life, with some being taken as more important if others are reduced. Individuals are fountains of meaning, and creatively confer meaning on their surroundings. A living legacy of classical heroism is the dignity and sanctity of individual self-invention, heroism turned inward. Anyway, mystery and uncertainty are not always problems. There is never a total absence of mystery and people are generally happy with that.
Copyright © 2011 Sandy MacDonald. The moral right of the author is asserted.