I was just reading a headline announcing the winners of the 2022 Screen Actors Guild (SAG) awards,
and it struck me how ludicrous it is to compare movies and television shows to each other and try to
ascertain the “winner”. I’ve felt this before with other award shows, whether they be the Academy
Awards (Oscars), Grammy Awards or the Tony Awards (for stage performance and very significant
where I grew up in New York).
For me, there is deeper meaning in the incessant way we set up competitions for everything.
Competition is the cornerstone of capitalism. In some other economic systems, if we come across
$10 the enquiry becomes how to share it, or how to use it for the common good. In capitalism, the
only enquiry is who can get the $10; who can “win”.
As I thought more about this, I thought of how “winning” is so deeply ingrained in our psyches from
the time we are children. Traditional education, even preschool, is based on a system of
comparison and competition: who was the “best” at drawing, or at math, or at cleaning up. Young
children are given awards for winning at games, activities and sports. And of course we are a
culture obsessed with professional sports, where everything is about “winning”.
So who benefits from everything being a competition? Our capitalist society. As long as we
embrace the ridiculous fiction that some movies (or songs or theatre performances) can “win” over
others, we sustain the idea that winning is everything. And by inculcating this value in our children,
we grow perfect cogs for the capitalist wheel. Children grow up looking to “win” and equating
success in life with acquiring wealth and possessions. A spectacular system to sustain Telstra, and
Amazon, and Toyota. Not so great for living happy, peaceful lives where we are in the moment.
Not so great for developing humans who value the collective good over their own individual
achievement and acquisitions.
Of course, this provides awesome opportunities for parents to consciously pursue a different path
with their children. We can actively teach children they are infinitely valuable just because they are
themselves and that they are not “better” if they win, or “worse” if they lose.
My favourite podcast tells stories of lesser known or forgotten events in history. Today I was listening to it and it really got me thinking about the power of perspective.The following is not a political commentary; it is about the psychological power we have to create narratives that work for us regardless of the particular set of facts.The podcast comes from America, and the couple who host it were describing an Allied plan in World War II to destroy a Norwegian plant where the Allies thought the Nazis might be developing an atomic bomb. The hosts talked intensely about how horrific it would have been if the Nazis ever got their hands on nuclear weapons.
What would the Nazis have done with nuclear weapons that was so terrifying? Drop them on big cities? Kill hundreds of thousands of civilians? Cause genetic defects in future generations from radioactive contamination? Of course, these things DID happen, but they weren’t perpetrated by the Nazis. They were perpetrated by America. And somehow that seemed MUCH less horrific to these hosts, who of course, are Americans.
Listening to the podcast, I started thinking about how a German podcast might have talked about the dangers of America developing nuclear weapons in Germany had won the war. The reality is that both sides tried to kill as many of the “enemy” as possible. That’s how it is in war, and that’s how it’s always been. Wealthy and powerful leaders tell young people to put on outfits and slaughter young people with different outfits, and for some inexplicable reason, young people (on all sides) agree and go do it.
But the point is perspective. One person’s “horrific” event is another person’s “heroic triumph”.
This example is about countries, but the same thing is true with individuals. We embrace a narrative that works for us, and then reject or ignore anything that doesn’t fit in our narrative. Whether it’s a country that dropped nuclear weapons condemning another country for even thinking of developing them, or a separated parent condemning their ex for even thinking of the ex’s own best interests, we seem to be so easily stuck in our own perspective and our own narrative.
Of course, the exciting opportunity exists to recognize our narrative is only one way of “spinning” a story, which gives us the power to change our own narratives, and thereby change our lives.
In the early 1970’s, a Stanford University psychologist named David Rosenhan was introduced to the “anti-psychiatry” movement and was inspired to devise a study. He got together a group of 8 “pseudo-patients”, including three psychologists, a psychiatrist and a pediatrician, to present themselves at a total of 12 psychiatric hospitals complaining of auditory hallucinations. They were told to say they heard words associated with existential dread, such as “thud” , “empty” and “hollow”. All 12 hospitals admitted the pseudo-patients and gave them diagnoses of major psychiatric disorders (11 categorized them as “schizophrenic”). Although they all acted normally once admitted and told the staff the voices had stopped, all 12 were discharged with diagnoses. Rosenhan contended that this was evidence that psychiatry is not scientific or objective.
Not surprisingly, there was some pushback from the psychiatric establishment and efforts as recently as 2019 to discredit him (long after Rosenhan’s death in 2012). This happens to most professionals who dare to question the “big lie” of psychiatry.
For me, the most shocking part of this is that almost 50 years later mainstream society still accepts psychiatry as “real”. Obviously, there are huge corporate and political entities who are propped up by psychiatry. It allows drug companies to make billions of dollars of profit, and it allows the mainstream to marginalize people who are different or are perceived as a threat. But where is common sense, and how many other things do we accept without question that would not stand up to objective scrutiny?
This strange era of human history is a great time for us to recognize that things often are not as they seem, and we don’t “have” to believe what we are being told unless we independently decide it resonates with us.
In the 1950’s, there was an American politician named Joseph McCarthy who was accusing virtually everyone of being a Communist. His vicious attacks provoked an ethos in American society of paranoia, including people turning in friends and relatives to save themselves, and many people losing their careers and even committing suicide. The legacy of this is the word “McCarthyism” to describe tactics of attacking people, turning them against one another, and provoking paranoia.
In 1954 a lawyer named Joseph Welsh was being questioned viciously about an innocent young lawyer in his firm. Welsh famously refused to answer, and said to McCarthy: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
A few weeks ago I was sitting in my dentist’s office waiting to be seen. While I waited, three different older women came into the office.
Each one had their temperature taken with the “forehead gun” (as did I) and then each of them was asked a series of questions about their general medical condition, including whether they had the Covid vaccination and if so, which one. All of the women seemed uncomfortable to various degrees (one refused to answer) but I don’t think they were as uncomfortable as me. Here I was, a total stranger, and these women were being asked to divulge personal medical information in front of me (and after the first one, in front of each other). It brought the Welsh quote to mind.
Regardless of anyone’s position on Covid, the vaccination and the mandates, where did we lose our sense of civility, our sense of decency? Couldn’t we all agree, from any perspective, that human beings are entitled to be treated with dignity? Couldn’t we all agree, from any perspective, that human beings are entitled to a right to privacy?
So many things have changed in society over these past two crazy years, and I hope when/if we “get to the other side” there will still be a society where we respect each other’s boundaries, autonomy and privacy. As individuals, and as parents being role models for our children, we can dedicate ourselves right now, in the midst of this, to treat others with dignity and respect. At the end of the day, all any of us can control is how we behave.
DISCLAIMER: This reflection is about understanding the historical roots of judgment in our society and in parenting. It is NOT a criticism of anyone’s religion, or of religion in general.
A brilliant 9 year old boy recently reflected to his Mum that “organized religion is like traditional parenting for adults”. I’m consistently amazed at the wisdom of young people, and this observation really got me thinking about where our values originate.
Having grown up in America, and now having lived many years in Australia, I am most familiar with the Judeo-Christian framework, but I suspect it is true of many (most?) religions that they provide a structure of what people should or should not do. In our western traditions, we are essentially provided a list of rules to follow, and the general theme is that we are blessed if we follow these rules, and damned if we do not.
It is not difficult to see how this sort of structure translates to parenting. As adults, our religious dogma (eg – the Bible) tells us what the rules are, and we learn that someone way more powerful than us will reward us if we follow those rules, and punish us if we don’t. As children, the rules are laid down by our parents, and they dish out the rewards or punishment.
Having externally imposed rules, in some ways, is comforting. We don’t have to decide what is the right thing to do – we can just follow someone else’s rules. Unfortunately, it inevitably happens at some point that those values don’t comport with our own wishes/impulses, and while it is our choice to be “true to ourselves” and accept the consequences, we more often make the choice of capitulating to the powerful and silencing our inner voice.
What is the result for society? We have a world of adults who are mostly compliant, but not very happy. People are “outer-directed” (listening to external norms) rather than “inner-directed” (listening to themselves), and it manifests in a (mostly) orderly world, but one where there is a gigantic international market in psychotropic drugs, because SO many millions of people are depressed and anxious.
What is the result for children? We have a world of children who are also mostly compliant, but are many (most) of them are “on track” for being tomorrow’s market for those psychotropic (not to mention illegal) drugs?
Our Judeo-Christian traditions have taught us that someone more powerful than us makes rules and we either obey, or we are punished. Our traditional style of parenting is that parents make rules and children either obey, or are punished. I thought that 9 year old was brilliant the first time I heard what he said, but upon reflection it feels more and more ‘spot on”.