Their heritage; not their doing

Reflecting on my book launch, I am reminded of the saying that it is better to have too much than not enough if you host an event. That may be so, but to be honest, I am looking forward to the day when I’ll be short of books.

After having sent at least thirty direct invitations to politicians and every organization I could find that has anything to do with children, health and education, as well as countless flyers and posters in book shops and other places around the city, and on the social networks and by informing the papers – and I thank the local paper for coming to talk to me and writing about my book and the launch – I believed that the topics of eating disorders and bullying (being as popular as they are) would have generated more interest.

Okay, I am not a marketer by nature and I am sure I could have done things better. One lady told me that, despite my efforts, she could not find some basic information, like the price of the book, anywhere. So, I will try to make such things more clear next time and that may have played, but I can’t help wondering whether the turn-out would have been greater if my book had been about zombies or super heroes.

One bookshop owner outright told me that he didn’t think my book was a children’s book “considering the topics” – not suitable for exactly those children who are living with it every day, who are acting like bullies or being victims of it; the same children who are starving themselves or over eating as a result of the judgmental environment.

This attitude is akin to schools, after finally acknowledging that bullying is a real problem and not something that has to do with “kids being kids”, now taking the problem out of the hands of the kids altogether and instead teaching about it – as if it is a lesson children have no clue about and the all-knowing adults will show them.

Nothing is further from the truth. The children do understand, possibly better than the adults. I compare this to film ratings, which were brought in to “protect the children”. So now we have films, for example those that are made to warn young girls against the sex slave trade, being kept away from those potential victims for “their protection”.

The school principal in my book refers to the school policies on more than one occasion with the message that  “we are doing everything we can to stop bullying”. I will discuss these policies later. For now, let’s debunk the basic idea: Who is “we”? She means the adults, but if adults were indeed capable of stopping bullying without involving the children, and they just need to “teach” it, then why wasn’t it stopped a long time ago?

Toward the end of the story, the children openly disagree and demand to be heard during a parent meeting, because “It’s about us, isn’t it?” To her credit, the principal then begins to realize that she made assumptions and she decides that her place is to be there for the children first – not the system – and she is willing to stand beside them against those who enforce the official policies.

Some issues came up during the presentation, namely the high rate of bullying in New Zealand when compared to other countries and the use of play-acting (role play) to teach victims of bullying to stand stronger.

I do want to address both these issues, but I cannot do that in this post or it would get too long, so I will just reflect back on the evening itself for now and return to both these issues and the discussion about the effect of the (in the previous post mentioned) discrepancy between what schools say and how they act, as well as on the problem with the above mentioned policies in the next posts, which I will write in quick succession.

I should start by thanking the representatives from the KIVA program for coming and for their initiative to starting this (in Europe highly successful) program in some Kiwi schools.

Briefly, the KIVA program, which was developed in Finland by the university if Turku, takes a new approach to bullying: instead of targeting the bullies or the victims, it targets the bystanders and the class environment and in doing so, it avoids blaming individual children; it makes all children together responsible for their collective behaviour, changing the norm of what is okay and introducing this to children from young onward. This helps create the atmosphere of tolerance most schools only teach in words, but are incapable of practicing. In KIVA schools, the topic is not kept away from children; it is discussed with them instead of treating them as if they are too young to talk about it.

This is exactly what Soup and Bread also promotes – and I wish I had known about the program earlier. The difference is that the KIVA program developed the idea from observing children in schools, while my view came from type psychology. But even the KIVA program, having the connection to the university and to the education department, has trouble getting support from those in government and the established schools.

Nevertheless, its success in Europe is evidence to the notion that things can get better if the environment changes; if the bystanders and the schools change their standards of normal and use positive reinforcement to establish the new norm.

Take the example of gender attitudes. In the past men/boys often reinforced violent behaviour; boys would show bravery by tormenting ‘dangerous’ animals and their friends would applaud this, which is similar to bullying. This sort of behaviour was considered a gender norm and boys who showed fear or kindness were called names, while those who tormented were “brave” – we still see this with soldiers.

But today, the social networks are full of examples of guys who go out of their way to rescue animals and are kind to them, and there is a lot of positive reinforcement for such behaviour (not just from women). So the norm has changed. Men are allowed to push their baby in a pram today, without being laughed at.

The same attitude change is possible were it concerns bullying (and war), but it requires a norm change and this change, as explained in the last post, happens slowly.

Yet it can only happen if the issues are being discussed, not if people keep them secret.

Most people are like Vonnie is at the start of the story; if there is no personal interest they tend to stand by, stay out of the way, and not get involved with the problem on a grand scale. That, too, is a perfectly natural response, because we cannot get involved with everything, and every personality type has their own special interests.

Some people outright declare that their own children are brought up right and that is why they don’t have that problem. Since those who state this so boldly are usually parents of young children that have not yet gone through their teens, I tend to think to myself “Just wait”. But these are expressions of moral judgment about what the society considers right and wrong (norms), just like the idea that men have to be tough instead of kind, and this subliminal message about upbringing induces guilt in the parents whose child is having trouble. Such bold accusations are usually not expressed to hurt others; they are expressed to justify their own parenting, but it is exactly such judgment (whether intended or not) that reinforces the bullying behaviour.

Another issue addressed in the book is that kids don’t talk about it; they don’t tell the adults that they are being bullied. This happens for a similar reason as when sexual abuse victims are threatened not to tell (or else), yet with bullying there is less of an explicit threat and more another dose of moral judgment – they are told that it is weak, cowardly and wrong to tell on your classmates, because “we are all part of this community”.

So one of the first things that needs to happen on a grand scale, is that children are told that certain things simply should never be kept secret, no matter what anybody says and no matter whether that anybody has a whole series of important sounding letters behind their name.

That brings me to all those experts who did not come. No doubt, they had better things to do than come to a book launch of some unknown writer and each of those organizations has their own philosophy and agenda, which may be different than mine.

That is fine where it concerns institutions, but what about the politicians? Every one of them responded, all with an identical message, issued by their secretary, saying they were away on that day. Again, that is fine. Why would a politician come to the event of one person, after all?

I never expected them to come.

But politicians get paid for representing all the people, not just those at the top. They are supposed to listen to all voices – and I did invite them with the explanation of the current problems and a brief outline of the alternative. If it were me who was a politician for education, children or health, and I cared about those topics, I would want to know everything about the topic I would have to make decisions about. I would read every article I could find, especially those with alternative views – as I do for my philosophy book. I would worry that I’d miss something, because my decisions would affect people’s lives, so I’d have asked somebody else to go in my stead if I had other commitments. Failing that, I would at the very least have asked for more information when I received the invite.

But politicians, like most other people, only see what is directly in front of them and they are usually not aware of the long-term consequences of their decisions. The big picture gets ignored in favour of the immediate effect that can be seen.

Of course, every decision politicians make, they make for the future. Now, I don’t expect politicians to be able to understand every topic they have to deal with in detail, but if they ignore the voices that warn for the consequences they cannot see – not even acknowledge the possibility – then the negative results are on their shoulders. If it becomes accepted that the current approach to bullying was making things worse – and it will – then the current politicians can be held responsible for every child that is hurt between now and then as a result of this lack of interest. I never asked them to take my word for it, but I did ask them to listen.

Schools teach responsibility – they teach children the accepted meaning of the word – but take every responsibility away from them. At least one book shop owner thinks that books that want to involve children in thinking about consequences, are not appropriate books for kids. And politicians make decisions based on immediate voting results without taking responsibility for the long-term. So, despite everybody shouting “responsibility”, bullies do not have to take any responsibility for their actions, and those who are supposed to teach or inform children, do not have to take responsibility for telling the victims that this is so, and those who make decisions for the future of the nation can simply retire after four years without having to take responsibility for the consequences.

So what then are we teaching the children but not to take the idea of responsibility too seriously?

If we cannot even hold the current decision makers responsible for their decisions, then each new generation will keep suffering for what is their heritage, not their doing.

Changing Beliefs

Group psychology looks at how the psyche (mind) of people is influenced by or influences the behaviour of the group and most theories rest on a few very basic and very old ideas:

  • true determinism: the idea that people’s lives are predetermined (usually by a deity or the stars) and that they have no self-determination
  • behaviourism: the idea that children are born blank slates and they are moulded into certain habitual behaviours by their environment ; the parents and teachers (the culture) forms the person
  • physical determinism: the idea that people’s inherited physical body (their DNA, their race, their gender or their brain) determines their behaviour, so that the nature of the parents predetermines a child’s development
  • complete free will: the idea that people are free to determine the cause of their lives, that every action is a choice, and that they can overcome learned behaviour, instincts, habits and emotions by will
  • combinations of any of the above:
  1. the most common current belief – which I have labelled “the brainstory theory” – is that people inherit their genes from their parents and that those determine how the brain works and the brain causes people to think and behave the way they do (their personality traits), but the environment can influence that brain with food, exercise, drugs (hormones) or lessons and so change the personality
  2. type theory; the idea that there are a limited number of psychological types of people (personalities). These type difference are inborn, a bit like gender differences, and they influence how people experience their environment (from the day they are born), but as these are tendencies and not specific traits we still have free will within our psychological limits – just like we can have free will within our physical limits: we have no wings, so we can’t fly, but that doesn’t stop us walking where we want

So the difference between the latter two is that the second believes that outward behaviour is not equivalent to the personality inside and that these inborn personality differences are not changeable by forces from outside.

So how does this relate to group psychology?

Well, these theories and beliefs are influenced by other beliefs. There was a time when everybody believed they were created by an omnipotent deity, so it was natural to accept determinism. The experts were trained by the church and they looked for (and consequently found) evidence of their belief in the people around them. But with The Enlightenment came the belief in a rational mind and free will, and as a result the belief about the cause of our behaviour changed to giving more power to the environment.

Thus, metaphysical beliefs – beliefs about existence itself, which give the members of a culture their reason to be alive and will therefore be defended at any cost – directly influence beliefs about what is considered true. This happens in all fields of knowledge, but the added problem with psychology is that those who make the theories about how people come to believe what they believe, are themselves immersed in the going metaphysical beliefs of their time – like how the determinists found evidence of God’s influence in what they observed, because that is what they expected.

Until the mid twentieth century, parents and teachers often had one acceptable standard of behaviour – schoolchildren wore uniforms, did not speak out of turn or get up from their seat unless told to – and if they didn’t abide by those rules they’d get chastised (in public). Pretty straight forward: the expectation was that people did not behave as individuals and that was enforced with moral rules, since moral rules are group rules about behaviour. The underlying belief may have been that such treatment would make them all identical on the inside as well – this was the time during which “behaviourism” as a theory was highly regarded – but nobody bothered to look; the focus was on what could be observed and not on inner personalities.

Things have changed in the last fifty years. There has been a social shift from behaviourism to believing in inner nature, a shift that resulted from the increasing popularity of evolution theories and DNA discoveries. The more science developed ways of looking inside a person, using brain scans and genetic research, the more everything a person did was attributed to their inherited genes.

This flourished with late twentieth century pshysicalism, but is today modified with the belief that the brain is pliable and that changing the external behaviour by will or the brain through hormones can change the personality inside – and this idea is spreading rapidly via mass media.

Today’s notion is that “we are all unique”, because we all inherit our special genetic make-up from our parents and we are all raised in different environments. Today  “individuality” is considered something to strive for instead of be ashamed of.

And yet, despite promoting this idea, there is the expectation that all people are identical in this need for individuality and that by looking into the brain of a person and comparing it to the brain of some others, the reason for different behaviour can be found and corrected.  Thus, there is discrepancy between the popular belief and the way the society expresses that, because it expects that all people are (or should be) identical; they still measure to one standard.

In the next post I will come back to the effect of this discrepancy on the children. The key here is to understand the reason for it: What is believed to be true changes all the time; knowledge isn’t permanent, ideas change and people look for evidence of what they already believe – science finds what it is looking for – and that happens unconsciously.

Of course, many viewpoints overlap at any one time – there are still plenty of people who believe in determinism (astrology is very popular) and most people will not yet accept that evolution isn’t as simple as survival of the fittest, which is becoming more evident with the study of epigenetics.

Every new idea takes time to grow. Most people won’t change their opinion until the public at large accepts an idea, which is usually brought about when the popular media keep repeating the messages, which reinforce each other and slowly more and more people accept them.

Because of this, popular ideas may seep into everyday life and education (which tells the children “what is true”) before being totally accepted, like when schools started teaching evolution theory instead of creationism in biology, but also held classes called “religious education”.

There are always going to be some people who are inclined to hold on what is and others who will jump on every new idea, so that what schools teach may be outdated in some aspects and the message they are sending in words (lessons) may not be congruent with the way the individual teachers behave (the subliminal expression of their moral beliefs and culture).

In short, moral and cultural beliefs are about people’s reason to be alive, so there is a tendency to try and make others accept those beliefs, because the alternative is doubt (about their very existence). This is why religions are so often the cause of war; they represent the need to defend an existential belief. At times, cultures totally isolate themselves and leave very little room for doubt in the individual members and at other times, cultures mix and there is more tolerance for different religions and rituals.

In Soup and Bread, the school is a public school in a time of cultural mixing (our current society), so it must teach evolution in its curriculum, but it has once a week classes called RE, during which those children who are not Christian (whether they are atheist or not) are allowed to stay out of class.

However, children are not allowed to skip physical education classes, because, as one character says, “Today everybody believes in physical exercise instead of in God.” – Our society has no tolerance for different beliefs about health, because the expectation is that what is good for one person is good for all of them, and sport is very much revered in western culture.

So despite using “individuality” and “tolerance” in its lesson about what values people should have, the school is selective in what it is tolerant about.

And this plays on a different scale in every group, because a group (a society, a culture, a club, a school) cannot exist unless its members have some things in common. Moral rules are one way of enforcing these common beliefs on the members of a group.

So, despite this slow changing of the “mass mind” being a good thing – it prevents eternal chaos or dogmatic inertia – it is where all social friction rests and this is why we have bullying. Some people will always believe that the individual should be subordinate to the group (despite fashions about individuality) and others will believe that any community that makes individuals subordinate, is dictatorial.

That, of course, brings me back to the theories about people’s behaviour and the currently popular “brainstory theory”, which claims on the one hand that every single person is unique and yet seeks all answers in the brain or hormones, comparing those to one ideal standard.

In my view, people are not psychological clones of each other – all the same in how we experience the world – but neither are we completely unique, because our inborn psychological processes are a result of how we deal with information, and there are only so many ways we can do that – the amount of information may be limitless, but the number of ways we can relate to it is not – which is why some people believe the individual should be subordinate and why some people are more traditional than others.

Sure, all people are unique in the sense of having had different experiences and a different upbringing. But fundamentally, way deeper than simple parental DNA, there are 16 different sorts of people –not 4, not 8, not 32 – different ways of relating to these experiences and that upbringing, and these differences are vital for a species as complex as ours to prevent psychological cloning with physical determinism or environmental behaviourism, both of which would have stagnated intellectual progress long ago.

So, our inborn differences are vital for our survival as a group and simultaneously, our collective actions and interactions are responsible for the social problems we experience today, including bullying and eating disorders, and we can only change those if we understand the problem at this deeper level.

Why Soup and Bread

With only a week left before the presentation (or book launch) of Soup and Bread, I want to write a series of posts to explain some of the happenings in the book as well as discuss its social and psychological background. This is the first of these posts.

Soup and Bread, a novel for teens to adults, deals with two of the most pressing problems our children are faced with today: bullying and eating disorders. The book respects the idea that young teens are equally capable of understanding these complex issues and it also addresses the emotions of the involved adults, because neither adults nor kids can solve these problems alone. In that respect, the book is about children growing up, not in the “coming of age” sense – which, in books or movies today, is invariably about young teens having sex for the first time – but in the sense of taking on adult issues and taking responsibility for their own behaviour. That is what growing up means.

At the start of the book, Vonnie, in her final year of primary school, is a happy girl with a “lucky body”, a best friend and a tolerant family. Sure, there are some things she doesn’t like, such as Mum complaining about what she eats at every meal  and the teacher always scolding the whole class for what only the bullies do – but she’s very good at ignoring them. Vonnie is a bystander to the bullying. She doesn’t think it is right, but the bullies are a group of popular kids, and Vonnie doesn’t believe there is anything she can do about it; bullies simply belong to school, like PE, and just like Mum complaining belongs to dinnertime.

But then two things happen that upset her happy routine: Mum’s had enough of fussy eaters and starts making soup and bread for every meal, and a new boy, Frank, comes to Vonnie’s class and he starts to confront her about being a bystander. Suddenly Vonnie finds that she has no choice but to respond, so she rebels at home – she goes on hunger strike – and through Frank she meets a number of other children with health and food problems, which makes her wonder whether it is right to call herself “lucky” and look the other way: Is doing nothing the same as supporting the bullies?

During a climactic weekend outing with a group of kids, Vonnie learns that she doesn’t need to be a bystander; that she is strong enough to make a difference, not only by standing up for those who cannot stand up for themselves, but also by standing up to the adults and initiating a change at school.

I should start by saying that, although the book is critical of the current approach to these problems and the way the education system handles them, the book does not put blame with any individual children, parents or teachers. In each of these three groups, there are some negative characters and some who are (sometimes after consideration) more tolerant. The main premise of the book is that every person wants what is best, that nobody is to blame and that the way people respond is a result of their experiences, which, in turn, are a result of their inborn personality type. The problems therefore, are problems that come from the way people live together; they concern all of us and can only be understood (and solved) in the light of group psychology – which I will discuss in the next post.

Now, psychology is highly abstract and the unconscious processes that influence the way people respond to each other or feel about each other, are invisible. So, how to explain to readers as young as eleven that these unconscious differences in people exist and that they form the underlying causes of bullying, eating disorders and all of today’s ‘mental’ problems?

I hope to have done that with the use of metaphor and analogy. As Vonnie puts it: “Looks don’t matter, but there’s something inside people that can’t be seen, but it’s why people feel attracted to each other or not – like falling in love, I guess, only with bullies it’s about hate.”

Soup and Bread is not just the title, referring to the object of Vonnie’s rebellion, but it is also a metaphor. “Soup” is not one specific sort of food. Depending on the ingredients you put in it, the soup will taste differently and have a different nutritional value. So with people; we each have different ingredients, our inborn psychological tendencies, and those make for the variety we see in people. And just like once you put something in the soup, you cannot take it out again – that particular soup will have that taste – so every person is born with their ingredients and those cannot be changed by will or on advice of teachers or counsellors. But soup and bread together make for a wholesome meal and so all people together make up the variety of skills and insights needed for humanity as a whole to progress.

A third metaphor I use is the idea of soap bubbles. I also use this in my other books, but in this case, the children literally play with bubble blowers and so learn to ‘see’ that concrete objects and words resemble the soap of a bubble – they are more or less identical to any observer – but abstract words and inner senses are like the air inside the bubbles and cannot be taught or understood exactly the same by different people.

Understanding the unconscious is usually a question of an intuitive grasping and not of intellect and therefore much less dependent on age or education than on personality type. This means that some children and some adults will “get it” and some will not (yet). Some people will not accept any of this until an authority agrees with it. This authority can be the popular opinion or the academic experts, neither of which acknowledge personality types at the moment.

But as Carl Sagan so famously said, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”. Just because there is no scientific proof, does not mean it doesn’t exist. Scientists cannot find what they are not looking for, and, currently, they dismiss inborn personality types in favour of observable superficial behaviour, hormones and neurology, because those are simpler.

Let me draw a comparison to medical science. Most people today accept the “holistic approach”. The vast majority of people are agreed that we can no longer treat people as a collection of detachable organs in order to heal them, which was the twentieth century reductionist approach; we need to treat the whole person.

Yet in psychology, the trend is going in the other direction: the study of psychology is becoming more and more a ‘hard’ science, focusing single-mindedly on the brain or the neural networks and with very little regard for the whole person, which would mean dealing with the uncountable variables that make us human. The reasons for that are explained in The Music of Life and are too complex to repeat here. Suffice it to say that everything people do is a result of their personality type and that includes the jobs they choose and the way they go about these jobs. This applies to those studying human behaviour as much as to any other field and as long as they dismiss their own personality influences, these scientists are unconsciously judging the people they observe from their own inborn biases, and medicating or labelling them accordingly.

And as a result of this general attitude and our blind trust in “scientists”, virtually every book that has been published about bullying in the last ten years has focused either on the bully or the victim – blaming upbringing, bodies or superficial behaviour. The same causes are assigned to eating disorders, suicide and other acts of self-harm, the incidence of which are expressed in younger and younger children. Clearly, the current approach is not working and we desperately need to wake up to the reason for that or we’ll lose even more children – that is why Soup and Bread is written.

The book provides as many as possible examples of the different responses (both positive and negative) to the individual “being different” and shows that this difference is not related to external traits. The children in the book talk about “insides and outsides” – the things you say, do, or choose versus those that are part of you; what you are.

There is nothing in this book in the way of actions or words expressed by teachers, that I have not personally either heard or observed a teacher do or say – I am not saying all in the same school, or even in the same country – and similarly, the behaviour of the bullies comes from first-hand accounts of those who were witness to such behaviour, either as a victim or a bystander.

The messages of Soup and Bread:

  • that bullying is based in natural (instinctive) behaviour, but it is not okay
  • that bullying is not a problem of individual kids; it’s a problem of a judgemental society
  • that no external features, race, religion, behaviours or physical traits are either the reason or an acceptable excuse
  • that other problems (such as eating disorders) are rooted in the same core differences and therefore immediately related, but not the cause
  • that nobody is to blame, but that we can nonetheless change our collective attitude and reduce the problem
  • that values education and advice such as “get tough” or lessons to that effect, cannot work and have made the problem worse, because it introduces double bind situations that leave the victim no way out
  •  that trying to deal with the symptoms is missing the bigger picture and the underlying causes
  • that most schools are bystanders and in some cases even accommodators and that “good advice” is covert bullying
  • that teaching the right and wrong of behaviour is ineffective unless accompanied by actions that demonstrate it
  • that teaching adults or children to deal with the problem can only work if they also have an understanding of the depth psychology that lies at the core of interpersonal relationships

In light of that, the book asks

  • schools to take responsibility and not point the finger at brain chemistry, disorders or other easy excuses that make the child feel ‘faulty’; we need to attack the behaviour instead of the person
  • children and parents to stand up for their rights, to get honest about the real issues and not accept patches, blame or being dismissed for not being experts
  • bystanders to get actively involved and collectively stand up for the victims
  • those types of personalities that naturally end up on the receiving end of bullying to connect together and support each other
  • politicians to listen to the voice of all people and not hide behind votes or bureaucracy

It is simply not good enough that in countries that are not at war, thousands of children have to be afraid for their life, harbour thoughts of suicide and self-harm, or feel not worthy enough to eat.