Political Child Abuse
Brian Leiter asks, regarding the children's book, Help! Mom! There Are Liberals Under My Bed: A Small Lesson in Conservatism,
The implication being that only ignorant, emotionally unstable parents would teach their children: (modern) liberals bad, conservatives good.
I wonder, though: As an outspoken Marxist, what would Leiter think of this? Would he agree with Nadezhada K. Krupskaya, who said that "The children's book is one of the most powerful weapons of the socialist character-education of the growing generation"?
Would Leiter object to the presence of 12-year-old Ilana Wexler at the Democratic convention? Wexler founded Kids for Kerry, skipped summer camp to work for the Kerry campaign full time, and turned her own birthday party into a Kerry fund raiser. Do these sound like the independently-chosen activities of a normal 12-year-old girl? Or are they signs of a child under the influence of her parents and teachers? Indeed, what must the intellectual and emotional condition of parents be like who would do this to their kids?
On the other hand, one could make this same criticism of nearly all the decisions parents make about their children. All of the choices parents make -- how to educate their children, whether to teach them to believe in God (and which God?), whether to stress individualistic or communal values, what moral values in general should be adopted -- all of these can be described as a form of brainwashing. Young children do not yet have the critical faculties to make these kinds of decisions for themselves. Indeed, the ability to think critically is itself a value that must be conditioned and learned.
Richard Dawkins, in his widely cited article, Is Science a Religion?, argues,
What is not sweet and touching is that these children were all four years old. How can you possibly describe a child of four as a Muslim or a Christian or a Hindu or a Jew? Would you talk about a four-year-old economic monetarist? Would you talk about a four-year-old neo-isolationist or a four-year-old liberal Republican? There are opinions about the cosmos and the world that children, once grown, will presumably be in a position to evaluate for themselves. Religion is the one field in our culture about which it is absolutely accepted, without question -- without even noticing how bizarre it is -- that parents have a total and absolute say in what their children are going to be, how their children are going to be raised, what opinions their children are going to have about the cosmos, about life, about existence. Do you see what I mean about mental child abuse?
Dawkins has a point. When young children are raised in a deeply religious environment, this can have profound effects on their future developement. To give a personal anecdote, the vast majority of my friends who grew up in the same Orthodox Jewish community with me and went to the same schools are all following a similar life-plan: spend five to ten years in yeshiva (theological seminary), do the absolute bare minimum to get a college degree (and many don't even bother with this step), get married between the ages of 22-25, quickly start building a large family, and eventually move to Israel. Whenever they are not at work or at home with their family, their are studying the Talmud and other religious texts.
I'm not trying to disparage this lifestyle; my point is only that a particular kind of upbringing largely determines a particular kind of outcome. Few people who are not raised in a deeply religious environment choose a deeply religious lifestyle as adults, and few people who are brought up this way choose an alternative lifestyle.
So parents must make a choice of which values to instill -- some would say brainwash -- into their children. And often these choices are binary: either parents raise their children with strong religious beliefs or they don't. If they do, many athiests and agnostics will criticize them for intellectual child abuse - perhaps condemning them to a life of pointless devotion to a non-existent deity. If they don't, many theists will criticize them for spiritual child abuse. After all, if the theists are right, not only are these parents depriving their children of true knowledge about the world, but they are also exposing their children to the risk of eternal condemnation. There are no rational means for resolving the conflict between these two views. Every educational choice is based on the parent's/teacher's own values, and every disagreement over what to teach children is fundamentally a disagreement over which values are correct/preferable.
One cannot get out of this problem by adopting complete neutrality. One must teach children something about values at some point in their development, even if this education comes solely in the form of children mimicking their parents' behavior. In order to develop their own critical thinking skills, or function as normal members of civil society, children need to know what is and is not considered socially acceptable, what epistemological standards to use when exposed to new phenomena, and so on. Not teaching children any values can be just as harmful as teaching them the wrong values.
So what are to do? We live in an incredibly diverse society. Multiple social groups have strong conceptions of the good life which are in radical and violent conflict with other groups' views. Athiests and thiests, cultural liberals and cultural conservatives, capitalists and socialists, individualists and communitarians, and so on.
One possibility is democracy. Put the choice of values up for a vote and may the largest group win. That is essentially what we do now. Hence the ongoing conflicts surrounding abortion, religion in public schools, gay marriage, levels of welfare spending, and the legitimacy of pre-emptive war, to name just a few examples. All of these conflicts, and the solutions suggested by democratic means, can be characterized as zero-sum games. In order for one social group to win, another must lose. The only thing that satisfices the losing minority is the hope that their side will enjoy majority power at some time in the future.
The alternative is a system of market federalism in which incompatible groups keep to themselves as much as possible. Such a system would solve most -- if not all -- of the above mentioned conflicts, by giving members of these groups the ability to exit from unwanted societal arrangements and create their own arrangements with like-minded people. Vouchers as an intermediate measure, increasing individual state power in relation to federal power, a movement towards free markets and away from government-controlled monopolies -- all of these policy changes, by weakening the power of electoral voice, in turn strengthen the power of exit.
That is a reason why those who are currently minority losers might support these proposals. But why should the victorious majorities want to change? The important thing to realize here is that almost all of us are members of some minority group. And even those lucky few whose entire set of preferences is already represented by the political majority should still realize that political power is tenuous and the winners today can quickly become the losers tomorrow. By giving the government the power to impose your values on the rest of the population, you are also giving the government the power to impose your enemy's values on you and your children.