Sunday, June 24, 2012

Karen Klein And The Village

Karen Klein is the bus monitor who recently became a viral video sensation after video of her being horrifically berated by some kids on a bus became national news. Her fund-raiser (which had a target of $5,000) has broken $600,000 at the time of this writing. Many people are saying that this has as much to do with hatred of kids as it does support for Karen. I think that it's not simply child-hatred or a perception that children today are worse than children of yesterday. I think that it is merely a visible element of a complex social mix.

Even though conservatives responded very negatively to Hillary Clinton's book It Takes A Village, they actually agree with what it says. The only difference is that in the conservative formulation, they are allowed to be judgmental assholes since they blame the family for the failure of a child as opposed to the society in which the family lives.

What do I mean by them agreeing? Go out and talk to anyone who was of childbearing age fifty years ago, sixty years ago, and ask about the social pressure to have children. Those who didn't have kids were seen as selfish and strange — judgments that the religio-conservative right still fling around today. These ideals were still strongly felt in all social segments as little as twenty years ago. Understandably, this created a feeling of contempt among those who had no interest in having children, and the lingering judgments create further contempt now.

No, it's not as explicitly stated as it once was, but the act of marriage and children is still seen as the badge of adulthood by a large hunk of the population. And for the young people of today, this pressure comes from those who were raised in decades past where these expectations were explicitly stated: their parents, grandparents, and extended family. My own family (and the family of my partner) are not-so-quietly hoping that we will reproduce.

That is, I think, at least one of the primary roots of this amazing outpouring of support for this woman. Many of us hate children not just because children are pricks, which they sometimes are, but because we are seeing children as a symbol of social pressure that is stressful.

Oddly, I also argue that the wellspring of the behavior on the children's part is also of the same sort. We have the aforementioned renouncers of parenthood, but on the other end of the spectrum, we have those who happily engage in child-bearing. They are doing so in a society that today has two large, conflicting pressures: the pressure to be an individual and reject social expectations, and the pressure to be a "good person." This gives an opening for those to inject an enormous amount of self-importance and self-rigteousness into the act of having children. They still see themselves as part of the individualists, but enjoy a sensation of being traditional as well. They try to raise themselves above the individualist din by appealing to conservative values. This sort of activity was hilariously lampooned in the song Pregnant Women Are Smug.

In this rejection/acceptance of parenthood, we run the risk of highly entitled children being produced. People have injected such an enormous amount of importance into the child, because they are living vicariously through that child, that any assaults on the child are seen as unjust, even if the child is a complete jerk. This is because assaults on the child are interpreted as assaults on the parent.

This is not new behavior, obviously. Parents have lived vicariously through their kids for generations. I suspect that the problem is growing because of the loss of reverence of authority.

I think here we are seeing a pendulum swing. Sixty years ago, authority was automatically assumed to be correct in any conflict with a child. Look at the unprecedented child abuse cases from decades past that are only being revealed now. How many of these cases could have been uncovered if children had been listened to. For further evidence, look the trope in television and movies of the child who knows the truth, but is ignored as a liar, fabricator, or storyteller. Sixty years ago, teachers were allowed to hit children, today, teachers can't even hug children.

Compounding the problem is Internet access. Kids today can more easily learn than ever before that adults are just as stupid, immature, and dickish as other kids are. The separation of "child" and "adult" is becoming harder to maintain. And even if kids aren't thinking too deeply about the concept, they can use the Internet to simply enact experimental actions against authority. The AP covered this in only slightly-alarmist tones here.
In Maryland, students posed as their vice principal's twin 9-year-old daughters on pedophile websites, saying they had been having sex with their father and were looking for a new partner. Elsewhere, students have logged on to neo-Nazi and white supremacist sites claiming to be a Jewish or minority teacher and inciting the groups' anger. Others have stolen photographs from teachers' cellphones and posted them online.
These are the kinds of behaviors that we should be regulating. Instead, we try to take cell phones away, expel kids for legitimate criticism of teachers, and have inane zero-tolerance policies that causes kids to be expelled for bringing plastic flatware into school. The pendulum has not only swung too far, it is downright broken.

Obviously, in any discussion like this, alarmism must be carefully avoided. Kids today are not fundamentally worse than kids from a generation ago. I think that observable behavior is increasing because the environment is both allowing or amplifying the behavior. Likewise, since the generation isn't fundamentally worse, they will likely turn out just the same as previous generations — afflicted by the same problems and resulting in the same demographic groups.

This is a long way from my original subject, Karen Klein. I think that the support shown her is a historical fluke. The event of her exposure happened at the right place, in the right time, to the right population. The remnants of an old social order are in their death throes, and are mixing with the emerging social order to create specific psychosocial anxieties and issues. Once the old way dies, so goes our contemporary specific problems with children; so goes the wellspring of our reaction to this event; and so goes the wellspring of the event itself. In another time, no element of this series of events would have ever happened.

But for now, for all of the incidental elements of the process, it did happen. So send the women a couple bucks. Because, man, kids suck.

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