Monday, April 7, 2014

Pitfalls of Duality

Our ancestors noted the difference between day and night, life and death, cold and heat, male and female, and probably assumed that all things, whether by nature or deity, were made in pairs.

It's no wonder we're susceptible to extremes. We've been thinking in terms of opposites, of this or that, for much of our existence. Our behavior is but a reflection of this effective but limited way of perceiving the world.

There's a good reason Frans de Waal calls us bipolar apes. We switch back and forth between kindness and prejudice, compassion and carelessness, generosity and greed, without ever noting our own internal inconsistencies.

The way we perceive reality in pairs manifests itself in our personal and public ideologies as well. Everything from nutrition and entertainment to spirituality and politics is subject to our extremist tendencies. Think about it. Low calories vs. low carbs. Team Edward vs. Team Jacob. Atheism vs. theism. Capitalism vs. socialism.

Take parenting, for example. 

Your task as a parent is monumental. Nature provides the raw material, a unique compilation of physical and psychological traits passed down from generations past, which parents must shape, mould, and arrange into a balanced, functional person.

Despite what many parents and parenting books claim, there is no right or wrong way to raise a child. Everyone is unique. What works for you may not work for another.It's your job to figure out how best to instill in your child the skills, values, and behavior you believe are most important.

A rigid, dogmatic, one-size-fits-all approach to parenting stifles your child's individuality. You cannot hope to raise a balanced, well-adjusted child by employing an extremist method.

In my experience, extremist parents fall into one of two categories: authoritarian or egalitarian.

The authoritarian parent believes that children should respect parental authority unquestioningly and without exception. She refuses to reason with a disobedient child and believes that bartering or negotiating is a sign of weakness soon to be exploited. The authoritarian parent may also believe that physical punishment is an acceptable or even natural part of parenting. She may proclaim that she was spanked as a child and turned out fine, though such a statement always makes me shudder. I've heard too many irrational, dysfunctional, and ignorant people claim that they "turned out fine" to take it seriously.

But I digress.

The egalitarian parent believes that children and parents stand on equal footing. He believes in a hands-off approach to parenting, allowing his child the freedom to figure things out on her own. Even when the child is misbehaving the egalitarian parent abstains from resorting to discipline and strives to keep his child happy at all costs. If supper isn't to the child's liking he will prepare some alternative. If a gift doesn't meet the child's standards, he will exchange it for something else.

If humans are bipolar apes, capable simultaneously of noble and savage deeds, it stands to reason that the ideologies we produce, whether religious, political, behavioral, or personal, reflect our bipolar nature. For this reason I regard all ideologies as mirrors: if we study them carefully, we catch a glimpse of ourselves in their pages. And just as one would expect, this glimpse reveals nobility and wisdom shoulder to shoulder with savagery and ignorance.

Extremist ideologies rarely provide a functional solution to the problems we face; in fact, they create more problems than they solve. They overemphasize one aspect of the issue while completely ignoring (or worse, slandering) another equally important aspect.

Extremist ideologies are divisive. They reinforce illusory distinctions and blind people to reality. They only represent a select few, never the greater good, and as a result are doomed to fail.

Think of the child who learns to obey his authoritarian parents unquestioningly. How will he fair when faced with authority figures who, unlike his parents, may not have his best interests in mind? How will the child learn to understand and employ reason or to question dubious information, regardless of its source? Much of our adult lives are spent compromising, negotiating, coaxing; if the child learns only that he must do what he is told, how will he react when others do not follow his orders?

The child who never experiences discipline finds herself in a different but no less harmful predicament. Made the center of the universe by her parents, she will never learn to consider others, to think of the consequences of her actions, or to cope with rejection, adversity, or tragedy. She will come to expect from others what her parents provided: everything she wants, immediately. Dangerously self-centered and short-sighted, the child of egalitarian parents is woefully unprepared for the realities of adult life.

It is clear to me that extremes are necessary if only in order to tell the full story. Each model contributes important principles and ideas to the whole; by subscribing to one and ignoring/hating the other, we miss out on an important piece of the puzzle.

Reason with your child calmly; explain things in terms she will understand, drawing comparisons to things she is familiar with; allow the child to explain her side of things; reach an agreement and explain to your child what has just taken place and why.

If this fails--if the child refuses to listen, ignores your attempts to reason, is rude, belligerent, or throws himself to the ground in a fit--it is time to teach the child an important lesson about cause and effect. Discipline the child in accordance to the severity of his misbehavior; when the child is calm, explain why you have resorted to punishment; remind the child that you attempted to solve the issue amicably but that, due to his actions, you had no choice but to dole out punishment.

By blending elements from the egalitarian and authoritarian schools of thought, you solve most of the problems that come with one or the other. You get the best of both worlds, the full story, a balanced approach.

Don't hate.
Do not let yourself be fooled: no one religion, philosophy, or ideology has all the answers. Like the people who dreamed them up, ideologies are mixed bags of noble and savage ideas. It is your duty to sift through the rubbish-heap of human thought in search of the noble ideas--universal ideas that speak to us across the ages and make sense regardless of the era that birthed you--and employ them in your life.

Do this and you will never be mislead by your inner-bipolar ape again.

/rant over