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What kills a culture

The other day the Courier Mail ran a story titled, "off the leash" [1]. It dealt with the topic of parental supervision and focused on a family who ran foul of the authorities in the UK because it was deemed against the law to let their eight-year-old daughter and five-year-old son cycle to school unsupervised. The case has sparked a debate from the US to Australia.

In terms of societal dynamics several points are pertinent. To what extent a child's life should be controlled by an adult is an issue that rouses governmental departments; other parents participate in the collection of information about a perceived transgressor; recurring themes are used to justify the degree of concern; and lastly, but most importantly, within a particular type of global demographic the debate, indeed the construction of the argument itself, seeks and relies on a form of weakness rather than strength.

Discussions on child rearing are as old as humanity and they occur in every culture - not surprisingly, since every culture has a substantial interest in what it means to sustain itself. Nor is that article the first of its kind and it would not be the last. What makes it relevant to these pages is its co-existence with other phenomena in Western society currently making their rounds that feature similar functional detail.

Under Otoom a culture represents a human activity system that exhibits the cognitive dynamics already identifiable in an individual's mind but at a much larger scale. Since we identify the dynamics in the form of functionalities the similarities can be compared, something more difficult to do had we concentrated on content. Those functionalities (ie, the dynamics' characteristics derived from the input which helped to create them in the first place) are ultimately responsible for the growth, modification and decay of their respective domains. In themselves they answer to the effects the dynamics have on one another - at that level of processing the wider issues of an individual's or society's or culture's eventual viability do not enter the picture. In extreme cases a person's mental imagery can even lead to suicide, and on the higher scale the ideas under which an entire culture operates can lead to that culture's demise. In neither case does the final prospect interfere with the operation of the dynamics per se (in fact psychiatry makes use of that relationship by sometimes destroying those parts of the brain that are responsible for the trauma, an extreme solution sometimes transposed into wider society when even entire groups are attacked by the host for their debilitating influence).

While attempts are always made to reorient perceptions towards what is considered more appropriate (an act which in itself relies mostly on perception), there nevertheless are certain dynamics which are more significant than others when it comes to the ultimate sustainability of an activity system.

At the centre of the mind lies its identity. What we think we are, how we see ourselves, and how we position 'the other' as a consequence - those ideations determine the kernel of our world view, and they directly influence our actions regardless of the temporary context.

This identity; projecting itself into common conversations, asserting a business plan, triggering a fight; and nurturing literature, establishing institutions, waging war; stands at the root of procreation in its widest sense, right up to the laying down of generation after generation within the framework of a culture.

Interrupt that process, that dynamic, at any point and procreation stops right there. Despite individuals having sex and arguing among each other and building their lives, if they do not bother to represent themselves as a cultural whole then someone else at that level will take over. If they won't or can't build their lives someone else will shape their lives for them. If they fail to assert their confidence from the very beginning then just about any adversary can and will make use of that vacuum.

Hence the quality of this kernel that determines how we carry ourselves matters a great deal. Attributes such as confidence (how secure we are in asserting ourselves), strength (how much energy we can muster to implement its tenets), and synchronicity (how much our picture of ourselves is in tune with the outward manifestations of ourselves), are the ones which decide the success of our kind. Its negative counterparts such as lack of confidence, weakness, and discrepancy between our image and how it is situated amongst our societal environment, are signs of danger.

It is not without reason that our planet contains only those organisms which were able to maintain their identity against the vagaries of competing interests. Failures have disappeared and if we are lucky we'll find some fossils here and there; traces of what once was but not anymore.

Considering trends and fashions in human society, the question of what constitutes a mere variance as opposed to a deleterious development can be answered by asking, "To what extent does that particular trend undermine the fundamental viability of its society". Should it require nothing more than an adjustment here or there (if at all) and provided that adjustment is well within the means of the system any fear is a waste of time. The more elementary the variation however is, the more crucial the question becomes.

No wonder then that debates surrounding the rearing of children can be so emotional. What happens now influences our future and no-one can jump back into the past in order to correct a mistake. Even then the considerations in the preceding paragraph do apply. However, combine the topic of children with a change that is both basic and far-reaching and we have a real problem.

Over the last few decades a change has overcome the West which has acquired a power all its own. Like a rope composed of many strands it is in the process of strangling what once was a vibrant and healthy system. Each strand has its source, and each has the power to manifest on specific occasions in line with that source. Such is the nature of those parts that they combine easily.

Due to the interdependency of their elements, in complex dynamic systems the issue of which particular strand came first is neither here nor there. Once it has become visible to the members of that society the change has already taken place. Should they be supported by others, and so being in the process of forming the rope, the dependencies are in place as well.

Since the Courier Mail article is about the supervision of children, let's start there. And let's begin by saying that there is no organism within the class of Animalia which arrives on the scene completely fitted to enter life in full. Yet it is equally true that adulthood won't be reached unless and until a series of mistakes have been made, all adding to the overall experience so necessary for survival. Exclude the opportunity for mistakes (by rearing an animal in a cage for example) and survival in the wild becomes precarious.

Through science and technology our lives have become so secure that the sheer existence of danger, so self-evident in the previous era, has vanished to the periphery of our social horizon; it might as well have disappeared altogether. Instead of life, or nature if you will, providing a random exposure to its whims we have substituted the real for imaginary constructs to the point where even those constructs can be switched on or off at will - an illusory power on our behalf which generates a false sense of security in the eyes of its viewer. Yet at the same time those spectres stand in place of their actual counterparts and are treated with the same emotion and instincts that should have been reserved for reality.

We have trained ourselves, and especially our children, to respond to a phantom world of trickery to be exchanged for some other version at the mere press on the remote control. Our progeny is reared on movies where entire armies are slashed to pieces in surround sound and 3D, but when the kid takes his scooter outdoors he is encased in a helmet and leg armour to ward off evil. How long does it take for the instincts to adjust and program their owner to regard scooters as a definite safety hazard - and how much different is this from another form of brainwashing where women are forced to wrap themselves in a burqa just to feel 'safe' in the open? Not to mention the trauma should either have to do without for some reason!

Another strand is the ideological side of feminism with its celebration, nay veneration, of the Child. With studious officiousness every little sound and gesture is observed, analysed and agonised over lest the minutiae herald the unthinkable. Veneration and protectionism have gelled into a perfect flight-or-fight response, forever careening between extremes. Deeds that used to be respected for the necessary mix of courage, discipline and yes, a certain dose of adventurism in an adult have morphed into a virtual playground with hyperventilating parents hovering in the background after they made sure every single eventuality had been covered. The youngster, thus cocooned, is led to believe they are on par with earlier generations. Although their feats did represent an accomplishment they are unable to recognise them for the watered-down version they are.

Another threat besides the odd rock or kink in the pavement (which body armour keeps at bay) is stranger danger, that blatant euphemism standing for the dark mists of human eroticism, a sure conversation stopper unless the media need another boost by placing the words 'child' and 'sex' in the same sentence. There is danger when taken to extremes, but no thought is given to the possibility of gradually educating the growing child to spot the signs which, if naively unheeded, can lead to trauma. It is another example of flirting with extremes without fully understanding either end of the range. Pre-teen girls are experts in fashion, but let the response set in and all hell breaks loose - reinforcing their skewed perceptions already rendered fragile by a plethora of conflicting messages.

No wonder then that Australian children are so stressed out a simple exam to test their current knowledge is pushing them over the edge making them physically sick and wet their beds [2].

What really puts the stamp of decay on such attitudes is the direction from which they are defended. Responding to criticism of having stepped away from the narrow path of current correctness by saying, "But my child can handle this" invites fury - whereas succumbing to the nanny state by reiterating the assumed vulnerability is welcomed. In other words, to assert confidence is attacked, but to succumb to weakness is applauded. Doesn't any of our experts recognise the sheer madness of it all?

The manifestation of a society relies on the sumtotal qualities of its members, all positives and all negatives included; their functional average is reflected in the overall achievement. With this in mind, here are two historical snapshots of Britain, one from the 1880s and the other from this century.

In 1880 the extent of the then British Empire can be gleaned from this chart (albeit dated 1897 but the differences are minor, as can be seen from a table of colonies, protectorates etc and their respective entries and exits). The population of the British Isles stood at approximately 30 million. The infamous gin palaces were in vogue and drug laws were virtually non-existent. The age of consent had recently been raised to 13. Still, those unregulated and unsupervised masses managed to run an empire.

By 2004 the population in the UK was just under 60 million, controls abound and parents are threatened by the government if they let their children go to school by themselves. And by the way, in 2005 prison officers were banned from wearing tie-pins showing the British flag because "Muslim or Arab prisoners could take umbrage if staff wore a red cross badge".

From world power to laughing stock in a few decades - and all it took was some minor adjustment to one's identity.

PS [added 11 August 2015]: On the BBC's Antiques Roadshow (in Australia screened on ABC 1, 10 August 2015) someone had brought a very well preserved example of a Victorian hobby horse for evaluation. To the question of whether the toy might still be fun to use today the woman said perhaps but it is not possible because Health and Safety regulations deem it unsafe for children. QED.

Further references:

1. M. Driscoll, off the leash, Courier Mail, qweekend, Brisbane, 7 August 2010.
2. T. Chilcott, Children worried sick by testing, Courier Mail, Brisbane, 9 July 2010.

11 Aug 2010

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