Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Reversion Of Too Many Adults To The State Of Children - Appalling and Pathetic

Let us concede that any adult who spends many hours of the day coloring images (using colored pencils or crayons) in a coloring book is in some form regressed: either actually retarded, or less excusable, wasting time by deliberately reverting to childish pastimes to try to escape the psychological or other burdens of adulthood.  Thus, the latest pastime of too many elders spending time with coloring books like children is nothing to applaud and kind of embodies the regression of too many Americans to a proto-toddler state.

This occurred to me while reading a WSJ piece about early education expert Erika Christakis who many will recall as being at the center of a Halloween brouhaha at Yale last year. It began when Yale's Intercultural Affairs Committee advised students they ought not present themselves wearing feathered headdresses, turbans or war paint - or modifying skin tones (to appear as a minstrel performer) . The aim was to try to steer students into being more sensitive in their choice of costumes or apparel.

In response, Ms. Christakis dispatched her own email wondering whether such oversight and advice was really needed. She wrote:

"Whose business is it to control the forms of costumes of young people to get them to act responsibly?"


"Free speech and ability to tolerate offense are the hallmarks of a free and open society".

(Attributes one wishes were more in evidence last month at a Denver Art Exhibit when a HS student had to withdraw her painting under a hail of criticism - when it depicted a police officer in a KKK hood, pointing a gun at a small black kid with his hands raised high in the air, screaming "Don't shoot!". Avoiding the bane of 'political correctness' ought to apply to every group, in other words.)

Anyway, many Yalies  became enraged and called for Christakis and her husband to be removed from their positions as heads of undergraduate residence at Yale. Ms. Christakis then resigned from her teaching position.  In the WSJ piece, she admitted she stepped down not only because of the email kerfuffle but also she felt more broadly that "the campus climate didn't allow open dialogue"

In other words, it more or less treated staff and students as impudent and out of control barbarians who had to be directed toward more judicious actions and couldn't be depended on to act responsibly on their own.  This perhaps was simmering all the time as she delivered her honest opinions at the outset observing, "adults now act like children, reading Children's books, dressing like college students" and I might add, coloring inside the lines in assorted children's style coloring books (though the clever marketers call them 'adult coloring books' - yeah, right!)

This in turn evoked the book by Neil Postman entitled, 'The Disappearance of Childhood', which noted as far back as thirty odd years ago how adult Americans were apparently regressing in mentality toward childish pastimes and preoccupations.

In his Chapter Seven (‘The Adult Child’), for example, Postman lays out a summary of his thesis on the disappearance of childhood in tandem with defining the modern conception of “adult” and what it has evolved (devolved?) into after the emergence of video culture. As he puts it, the modern idea of the adult “is largely a product of the printing press.” Further, almost all the attributes we associate with adulthood “are those either generated or amplified by a literary culture”. These include:

- A capacity for self-restraint

- A tolerance for delayed gratification

- A sophisticated ability to think sequentially and conceptually

- A preoccupation with both historical continuity and the future

- A high valuation of reason and hierarchical order

Postman then goes on to warn that as electronic (visual) media assume center stage “different attitudes and character traits come to be valued and a new, diminished definition of adulthood begins to emerge”. This new stunted version of the adult reaches its apotheosis (nadir?) in the adult child having arrived with the television-video age - which primary characteristic flattens out all differences between ages. A typical observation by Postman (p. 101) serves to clarify and lead to a fuller exposition:

“Television redefines what is meant by ‘sound judgment’ by making it into an aesthetic rather than a logical matter. A barely literate ten year old can interpret and at least respond to the information “given off” by a (political) candidate as easily and quickly as a well-informed 50 year old."

In other words, one required literary heft and markers - say in ability to read weighty, dense books (like James Joyce's Ulysses , or Milton's Paradise Lost, or Jean -Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness) to finally separate adults from children, adult minds from childish imitators.  Thus, literary culture and mature works provided the truest litmus test to distinguish an adult from a child. Coloring books? Not so much because any kid of five or six could do that.

Some eight years before Postman's book was published Dr. Pat Bannister was also doing theory of mind research wherein childish, regressed tendencies could be separated from more mature ones. I already noted her theory that conspiracy awareness evolved to neutralize the penchant for precocious lying, or more mature conspiracy planning.  Thus, it afforded a mechanism by which surreptitious activity might be neutralized or at least outed ex post facto.

While Bannister's work didn't receive much prominence at the time (and still hasn't, having never been codified in electronic formats like so much else) she did do a lot of research into theory of mind before there was such.  One aspect involved identifying a childish "conspiracy subculture"  which obsessed over things like alien autopsies and Roswell aliens being stashed away at Area 51.  Tragically, those enmeshed in this subculture were also more likely to be driven into paranoid ideation as a result of strong religious stimuli (much like what befell the forlorn folk at Jonestown, Guyana in November, 1978).

By contrast, those with genuine theory of mind grounding as embodied in the investigation of real world conspiracies (like the JFK assassination, Iran-Contra, BCCI) were more likely to be thoroughly familiar and comfortable with an extensive literary culture. They possessed truly adult intellects, in other words, and not childish substitutes.  JFK was a real President, after all, unlike the supposed aliens in Area 51. His assassins from the CIA and Staff D operation were also quite real, unlike the supposed ne'er do wells at Area 51 hiding the aliens from scrutiny.

To her credit, Bannister never bought the narrative circulating at the time that acceptance of a conspiracy, as in the JFK case, provided a "pacifier" to those faced with an otherwise random, senseless act of violence. On the contrary, she saw JFK conspiracy analysts as the real adults for their willingness to pierce the veil of secrecy of a shadow state - and exposing the horrors of what that actually meant. It was rather the lone nut purveyors who wished to keep American citizens at the level of malleable infants: "Look! It's one crazy guy, one off! Nothing to fret over! Nothing happening there! Now go back to sleep!"

Lastly, actual files and documents have helped unearth the warp and woof  - as well as plausible participants -  in the Kennedy assassination (e.g. George Johannides, David Atlee Phillips, disaffected Cubans like Sergio Archacha Smith etc.) while no similar files or document trail have unearthed any alien artifacts or records from Area 51.  Does this mean that no such artifacts or aliens exist? No, only that there is as yet no factual basis to suppose so. This is why Bannister coined the term "conspiracy culture" to distinguish it from "conspiracy research community". The latter she envisaged as the province of mature, rational adults. The former was the realm of adult children who fancied themselves adults but who really weren't. The very nature of their conspiracy hunches often exposed the na├»ve, incomplete, and woefully unsophisticated knowledge base. (For example, the present day Raelians who see the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) as a devilish means to destroy tiny life forms contained within particles. Not appreciating that the size of such particles precludes the existence of life forms existing on them.)

If she were alive today, I am certain Bannister would also include a mathematical facility along with literary mastery as attributes needed by genuine conspiracy researchers. Thus, Richard Charnin's work on the Poisson statistical analyses leading to identification of suspicious witness deaths in the JFK case would have been applauded as totally adult. I am sure Neil Postman, if alive, would also have given that work his wholesale backing as representing the product of an adult mind- and an appreciation of it as a test of rational adulthood.

  As for the adults engrossed in their coloring books, Bannister would have despaired and likely thought: "Good god, anyone would be able to pull off even a basic conspiracy on these people!"

Like Postman and Christakis, she feared the mass regression of adults to the state of de facto children, especially with the oncoming emphasis on the visual by way of TV. Like Christakis, she believed true adults needed to be able to make their own decisions and also have the maturity to live with them, come what may. When I last saw Pat Bannister in January, 1974 (at the Barbados Psychiatric Hospital in Black Rock, St. Michael, while visiting a friend's daughter) she asked about my future plans.  I told her I planned to go into space and solar physics research. She applauded that and responded: "Good for you! If I hadn't chosen psychiatry that's likely something I would have done!"

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