Social Science Fiction

This weekend is the Armageddon convention in Wellington. I have managed to get a stall with two other Indie Writers and look forward to sharing my books and my interest in science fiction with so many other people.

So this post is here to help explain a little about my story.

Of a Note in a Cosmic Song is social science fiction – its main focus is on the topics of the social sciences, although it does feature some technology, ecology, geology and biology.

The story follows a group of 8000 colonists as they decide to leave their home planet (DJar) to embark on a four year journey on a most luxurious space ship (SJilai) to the nearest inhabitable planet (Kun DJar) to start a new life.

They are prepared for everything; they have relearned old trades, brought equipment to restart technology, supplies to restart growing and raising food (seeds, bee larvae and fish eggs) and their entire knowledge library on disk, ready to be transferred to paper in case the technology is slow to start. They know as much as they can know about their new home and it looks lush and stable. They are convinced that they have reached a level of technology to make this colony work and they have thought of everything…

Except that colonization IS about people.

That is the premise of the books, sparked by the notion that today’s scientists so easily refer to our technology to promise a better future without considering the human factor. If you load 8000 people on a space ship, they cannot all agree about the way the new society should function or how it should be ruled. And those who do not get a say will try and make their opinion heard another way. Or they get angry… and angry people can destroy technology and food supplies. Add some convicts the old planet wanted to get rid of, and you add more problems. And what if the winters are extremely long, the planet not as colony friendly as they’d hoped and nothing there is predictable by the scientific knowledge of the home planet… what if the native life forms have a mind of their own?

All those issues play throughout the books and in following eight point of view characters and getting to know many more of them, the reader is sure to feel close to some and unable to understand others.

And isn’t that what life is about? About getting along despite being different? About being people? Our western world has forgotten about the human factor in their drive for science and knowledge, technology and facts, just as many science fiction fans have forgotten that there is more to science than ideology, fancy technology and empirical data; that the danger to colonization does not come from aliens and cannot be solved by battle or quests, but from the colony itself.

Any colonization attempt should take the human factor under consideration. Those that do not are sure to fail.

 

Treyak - art.jpg

For more detail see www.nonentiti.com

 

 

Advertisements

To Die For

With the governments of Australia and New Zealand preparing for their centennial celebration of the First World War this April 25th (Anzac Day) for which they spent millions of dollars, others are preparing activities and exhibitions directed at achieving and maintaining peace.  And as always, these memorial day events come with debates about “war ethics”, ‘hero’ stories and official slogans and banners about those who “gave their lives for peace”.

I will be at some of those activities, attending vigils and a peace workshop organized by The Peace Movement Aotearoa, where I will once more promote my book In the Real World, which is set in modern day (peace time) Australia, and which is written for that exact age group that makes up those kids who are today being persuaded to join the military.

In the RealWorld

For the protagonists, sixteen year old cousins Jerome and Mariette, wars were events of long ago and faraway countries, until, during an Anzac Day family reunion,  their boys-against-girls pranks get totally out of hand. This sets off a series of emotions and revenge responses that mimic what happens to normal peace-loving people during wars. As the stand-off spreads to their school, more and more kids (and teachers) get involved until nobody quite knows what it was about anymore, which again mimics most wars. In the meantime, the cousins learn more about what really happened in the two world wars from the accounts of their grandparents and their history teacher, and slowly begin to understand that the ‘heroes’ from the school books were no more than scared young boys, who had no idea what they were getting into; that governments forced most of them and that those who protested faced imprisonment or death at the hands of their own armies.

In the process, the book addresses a number of other directly related issues, such as freedom, democracy, uniformity, obedience, moral duties, ethical values and the idea that we owe our freedom and peace to those who went to fight.

That people go to fight in a war to achieve peace is at the very least self-contradictory. Yet thousands of people accept that notion and repeat it to their students or children without standing still to think about it. The reason for this lack of critical assessment lies in the fact that children are told this when they first enter school and, like Santa Clause, if a message is merely repeated year after year, most people never question it.

The same applies for the idea that people are supposed to die for their country, which is ingrained in most people: that we have freedom and that we should interfere in other countries to achieve freedom for them, and that therefore, young boys have the duty to give up their own freedom and their own life to save the lives and freedom of others. This message generally goes hand in hand with messages about democracy, which claims equality. But what is equality if you are the one told that your life isn’t as important as the lives of those you are supposed to give it up for; that your life isn’t worth as much as that of the government members (and royals) you are supposed to defend.  If you say “die for your country”, you implicitly say that this abstract entity (a country) is worth more than life itself, worth more than the lives of innocent children.

Another common phrase is that remembering war – by having such memorials – will prevent the next one. I don’t even have to discuss that, because as they prepare their memorials, most western governments are happily preparing to send the next batch of unaware boys to Iraq.

The hero stories that are in book shop windows, like the medals worn at the memorials, are messages for prospective soldiers that they can be heroes too and come back to be celebrated, while in fact, those who do come back are either traumatized or physically maimed and suffer all kinds of emotional problems, which makes them useless for the society they come back to. Most of those ‘heroes’ from the past wars get their once a year celebration and are ignored the rest of the year.

Then the idea that we should be grateful for having peace and freedom, as if the government handed this to us. As if it was theirs to give and if we didn’t have governments, we’d be living like wild animals. I am not saying that social groups do not need some form of organization, but only half the population actually believes that people cannot live without governments as we know them now.

I tend to take a global view of these issues: If governments (and I mean every single one, always and everywhere) did not claim pieces of the Earth as their own, they would not need to wage war with each other to dispute them; they would not need to feel obliged to control and order those who live on those bits of soil around.

Philosophers, especially, have a habit of talking about “just wars”, wars that somehow have a justification that makes them objectively right. But is what is right in the eyes of the soldiers, also right in the eyes of the mother who sees her children blown to bits? Is a “just war” also just for those who are used as pawns to do this blowing up? If soldiers did not exist (and I mean soldiers everywhere and always, including those Hitler used to carry out his wishes) then tyrants and wars could not exist. If people were not willing to blindly follow orders, we would never have this discussion.

But large amounts of people do follow orders and psychology can explain why this is and who those people are. However, just because this is a fact of human nature, does not mean that we cannot change our collective attitude towards war; but it has to be a collective effort.

We need to remember that, regardless of what words schools use to motivate children – words like “individuality” and “critical thinking” – these are mere fashionable slogans, while schools as social institutions are there to create obedient citizens; they need uniformity, they measure to one standard and they truly believe that moulding children to the expectations of the establishment (“fitting in”), which includes preparations to serve their country, to obey orders and “defend freedom and equality”,  will make those children happy, because they will feel useful. – In previous posts I have explained why this is not the case: that different psychological types have different needs and some children are born individuals who cannot be moulded to fit the norm without damaging them emotionally.

The key to remember is that from a psychological perspective, about half the population (in any culture) will naturally feel they have a duty to “the greater good”, that they ought to fight for their country or obey orders, while the other half feels that the country is there to serve the people it harbours: to  honour them as individuals. The first half naturally equates “moral values” with being ethical; they believe that doing right is being good. The other half does not equate those notions.

Only by understanding which natural inclination you have, and which your loved ones (or students or teachers) have, can you begin to understand their motivations with respect war ethics. Only if large amounts of people begin to understand these aspects of human nature, can we begin to make changes to our general attitude to war. Only by understanding that these differences are part of human nature and exist in the exact same amount in the people of other nations – the nations we may be at war with – can we begin to be more tolerant to each other.

In my view:  Either you value life or you discard it on command, but you can’t have it both ways. You cannot promise children that they will be heroes, while omitting the true facts of wars. You cannot glorify war with memorials, while claiming to want peace.

In my view: Soldiers don’t exist because there are wars; wars exist because there are soldiers.

In my view: If we are serious about wanting peace, we have to change the stories we tell our children.

Shown, Not Told, and Yet Too Real for Comfort

I have written a number of fiction books dealing with a variety of social issues, such as bullying, eating disorders, the emotions (not the heroics) of war, child abuse and parenting, global warming, education, and the redevelopment of a society after colonizing another planet.

Just as my non-fiction books concern our different inborn personality types and how those affect how we deal with each other and our environment, so the characters in my fiction books are human beings. Each character has a personality type, a history, as well as beliefs, emotions, sensitivities, experiences and prejudices, some of which are culturally influenced and learned. They interact with other characters who have different personality types, a different history, and different beliefs, emotions, sensitivities, experiences and prejudices.

These variables are how real people in ‘real’ life get to their problems, their arguments, their joys, their love, their hate, their wars, their celebrations… their everything  and that is how the characters in my stories get them.

Human nature, after all, is not a question of simple equations or a few chemical elements that always respond the same way in the same circumstances. Human beings are not objects with static observable traits that give evidence of their inner nature. Apart from the variables that come from their different personal and cultural histories, human behaviour is largely motivated by unconscious influences and inborn tendencies.

“Human nature” as a concept is not something that can be described, because there is not one nature inherent to all humans. The type differences are not limited to humans and different types of people are so different that they can only conceptually know what may motivate other types, but they will never be able to experience it: We cannot crawl into each other’s personality type.

Our personality is what we are and it influences everything we encounter in the world and has done so from the day we were born. We cannot and never will be able to change our inborn personality type – the tendencies that make us experience life the way we do.

All too often, fictional characters are two dimensional. They encounter a problem and solve it according to some method that “always works”, presuming all people to be psychologically identical.

If a book has a victim of bullying – a child that has been on the receiving end their entire life – suddenly make a radical character change that stops them being victimized, then it creates an unrealistic psychological situation. People cannot change their personality at will, so that such stories implicitly blame the readers that are victims for not changing who they are, because, according to the story, that would make everything okay.

Don’t you think they would have changed if that was possible? More often than not, they have tried to do so their whole life, because they get the same message at school, from doctors, from counsellors, and from the media – and the more they are told, the harder they try until it becomes too much and they either start shooting or commit suicide.

The same goes for stories in which the bully suddenly has a revelation and changes his ways.

Now, I realize that writers are also human and they have different types (that unconsciously influence them) and therefore will deal with human nature differently in their stories. Hard science fiction tends to be written by Ts, who love technology and cannot deal very well with human emotions, which they tend to call irrational and try to analyze, so it makes sense for them to write cardboard tour guides who explain to the reader the technology that is the focus of the story – maybe a story like that has no need for the variables of human interaction.

Similarly, action stories are often written for those who are not very interested in psychology, so their heroes can be stereotypes, and fairy tale characters can be superficial when written to express a moral lesson.

But when the objective is to write about human interactions, human relationships, human development and society, presenting characters that have no human complexity – no ‘real’ life – is presenting the reader with a false picture.

Now, writers get told to “show not tell” what their characters are going through and that is what I try to do. For example, In the Real World has two point of view characters who are different types. Only by allowing the reader an insight in both their minds, can their different natural responses to the same situation be made understandable.

In The Happiness Inquisition, we need to get into the minds of five characters to understand the way they act if we don’t want to assign undue blame based on superficial behaviour. People do not act without a context – every action is a reaction.

And in Of a Note in a Cosmic Song there is a multitude of point of view characters, because each represents not only a different personality type, but also a different social background and a different belief system. You cannot build a colony without people and forgetting that they are people (by focusing on the technology only ) soon results in interpersonal quarrels and acts of sabotage that put the entire colony at risk.

Yet, it is often exactly those who repeat the popular slogan “show don’t tell”, who are now telling me that showing different behaviours and motivations makes things too complex.

In Soup and Bread, my latest novel, written from the viewpoint of an 11-year old girl, I show how some kids turn on themselves when confronted with adversaries, while others take revenge.

In order to show the complexities of everything that influences their responses to the bullies or to food, I introduce a number of different characters and situations – in this case all through the main character’s eyes – to show those natural differences in children that make them more or less likely to end up a victim of bullying or to have eating problems.

Not always in so many words, but I have been told that Soup and Bread is not suitable for kids with the suggestion that it is because of this variety of characters or because the story deals with two problems (bullying and eating disorders) instead of one.

I think it is more likely because I don’t assign blame or cause in the children (or their bodies or their upbringing) but look at the environment that accommodates this behaviour: the school. Not only is this not the accepted viewpoint, but it creates discomfort in adults, who suddenly feel the need to defend themselves.

But the thing is that I don’t write my books to confirm what is already generally believed. Doing that would make me obsolete as a writer. My aim is to show readers that people are not all psychological clones of each other and, therefore, that such conflicts are not one person’s fault – no matter how much easier it is to assign “right” and “wrong” based on superficial traits and ignore all the variables that influence a person over their lifetime. My goal is to show how we are different and how that can lead to problems without there having to be anybody to blame (including the school), and that these same differences are vital for our happiness and progress as well. My goal is to create acknowledgement for our diversity, not denial of it.

If this makes things complex then that is because human nature isn’t as simple as chemical elements or the workings of the neurones in the brain– and that is a good thing or we would all be puppets to the whims of a dictator – and simplifying these complex issues has so far made things worse.

Only by showing the differences can I show the different types and so explain the different behaviours of the children. Some readers will ‘get’ one character and others readers will ‘get’ another and if they start talking to each other, they may start to see that there are more than one way to be human.

And my book is not too complex for children. If my book is too complex, it is so for those types of people who prefer to deal with human nature in a simple way.

And just for the record: that has nothing to do with being smart, but only with how each type perceives the world. Some people naturally deal with complexities and variables and others try to limit them. Referring to “Ockham’s Razor”, many philosophers and scientists dismiss entire aspects of humanity because it isn’t the simplest answer, and so they make characters out of cardboard and set impossible standards for real people. That is because such types are naturally better at dealing with the hard sciences – with facts and objects – than human beings; each type has their special strengths.

And children meet many different characters at school every day and they are confronted with both bullying and eating disorders (which are related), so why would meeting them in a story suddenly make things too complex?

So should I stop writing complex characters and stories – because the media, the publishers, some teachers and some book sellers believe that good books appeal to the masses?

I cannot do that, because I would deceiving exactly those readers (including kids) who are currently blamed and given medical labels for being “different” on the basis of simplified ideals and stereotyped popular icons.

Positive and Negative Discrimination

In this post – and I apologize for its length – I want to return to the psychology behind Soup and Bread.

During the launch, two issues were raised that I’d like to respond to. The first was a criticism to my view that using role play to teach the victims to learn how to behave differently, is victim blaming.  The second was the question why New Zealand, being a wealthy country that is not overpopulated, has such a high rate of bullying if compared to similar countries. In discussing these points, I will also address school policies and the effect of the in Changing Beliefs mentioned discrepancy between what we say and what we do.

Let me first respond to the criticism. The lady who mentioned it had been part of an acting group that went around schools to act out social issues – doing role play with children and discussing the results with them – which I think is wonderful idea. She did not agree with me, because from experience she knew that teaching children to take a different attitude does make a difference in how they react and how the bullies treat them.

In the story, Vonnie (the point of view character) observes Claire (the target of the bullies) cringing every time the bullies pay attention to her. Cringing is one of the natural responses people take when they sense danger and from experience Claire knows she is in danger every time the bullies come near her.  The school counselor, who believes that Claire is picked on because she cringes, takes her out of class every week to practice standing up to the bullies – doing role play to learn to take a different physical pose and so prevent being picked on.

Although I agree that taking a different physical attitude makes a difference in how the other party perceives you and thus the way they react, as well as making the victim stand a bit stronger, that was not really the point I was making.

Just as a reminder: every person has a personality (their inner self that remains the same; the person they refer to as “I”) and also many personas. A  persona is the social mask we wear; in different situations we put on a different mask (just like our clothes) – we do not behave at a fun fair as we would at a funeral; we do not behave at work as we would at home.

So, although Claire can act differently (put on a different persona) in a role play put up for that purpose, that does not mean she will still act that way when she is alone and the bullies appear, because the situation is different. During a role play she is not in real danger.

And sure, if she were to go to a totally new school, and on her first day put on that acted persona, it is possible that new bullies would not pick on her, because of it. But it is unlikely that changing her stance in an environment that already knows her will make such a difference.

But even if it did. Why should Claire have to put on an act every time she is at school? Why is it okay for those who naturally bond together to act themselves in the place where they spend almost a third of their days, but not for Claire? After all, the bullies do NOT get sent to the counselor to learn how to behave differently. Why does the counselor not ask the bullies to play-act being nice?

Or why does she not ask the class to reverse the roles to ‘teach’ the children not to bully? – They actually did an experiment in a school in the US once, in response to racial discrimination. The racist kids were given an armband to signify their being different, and the rest of the class was told to ignore them or laugh at them; they fell apart in no time.

Victims of bullying put up with being alone and being picked on for years, so why do counselors try and “teach” them how to get tough?

So the point I am making is that Claire cringes out of self-protection; she has a perfectly healthy and natural reaction to danger, no differently than turtles who pull into their shell, and this reaction is not the cause of the bullying; it is the effect of it. Yet, she gets told that she must not do that, because it is “not being tough”. The bullies do not get told to act differently, so implicitly, the message is that it’s Claire’s own fault that she’s bullied, because she cringes.

This constitutes a double bind. A double bind is a situation in which a person is stuck between two negatives. For example, if an adult tells a child to do something (or get scolded), but if the child does what it is told, it is never good enough, so they get scolded anyway. Whatever they do, the outcome is negative for them.

In this case, Claire is told that changing her posture will stop the bullying – but people cannot change their instinctive reactions at will or their inner personality by changing their outward behaviour, so it cannot work consistently, which results in the implication that it is her own fault, because the school “taught her”. Not only does Claire now get bullied by her classmates, but the adults make it worse.

Towards the end of the story, Claire slowly gets more self-secure and she does not cringe when she is in the company of those who do not bully her. So, she never needed to be taught to stand up straight or to stop cringing. She merely needed a tolerant and safe environment to make that change naturally. And that is why during a role play, the observers do see a change in attitude, but that does not take away from the point I was making: that telling Claire that things will change if she puts on an act, is victim blaming.

Some people may object to my comparison to racial discrimination, but that comparison is very accurate – the kids refer to an “inner skin colour” – except that (for the moment) being picked on for one’s psychological make-up is done unconsciously, because most people are not aware of the healthy inborn personality type differences.

When Michael Jackson bleached his skin and had a nose job, he more or less literally put on a mask (a persona), but that did not mean that his genetic make-up had become white. The mask does not change the inside person – neither does a man become a woman, simply by putting on a dress.

Schools only deal with superficial traits; they observe what people look like and how they act, and they expect all kids to be able to behave in the same manner, because they think that it is a result of learning.

But, as I said before, if people could change who they are inside at will or simply by changing superficial traits, we would have behaviourism and no individuality would be possible at all.

“Discrimination” is a buzz word of modern democracy, because it is supposedly the opposite of equality, so it is used in relation to gender and racial differences, and lately also to cultural or sexual orientation differences.

But what exactly is discrimination?

There are two definitions:

Discrimination in a negative sense, which refers to putting people at a disadvantage because of a personal difference (race, gender or personality type), such as not hiring a person for a job because of their skin colour or gender, or teachers not calling on a child in class, because they believe the child is dumb due to their personality or race.

Discrimination in a positive sense refers to the ability to notice and distinguish differences between objects – sensory discrimination, for example, like chefs who can distinguish minute variations in tastes.

Today, there is a tendency to deny that people have different skin colours by those who are paranoid about being politically wrong – which in turn is a result of everything being seen through a lens of negative discrimination. But denying that the differences exist is denying something special about people – denying their heritage. We need equal respect, not everybody identical.

In that light, negative discrimination is an inability to discriminate (positively) – to know what aspects are part of the context, which are connected – and an inability to individualize: stereotyping.

If you deny positive discrimination in an attempt to avoid negative discrimination, you achieve the exact opposite.

The answer to negative discrimination is to acknowledge the differences between people and to value them all equally (true equality) – to celebrate them, even.
Tolerance is the first step in that; to acknowledge and accept that not everybody is the same as you are.

The other issue, that of the terrible reputation New Zealand has when it comes to bullying, is closely related to this. Why does New Zealand have such a high incidence?

The first thing that came to my mind was the uniforms. School uniforms are very common here and they openly state that being an individual is not appreciated – all kids have to dress the same.

But what schools “teach” in words does not match the ‘lesson’ they teach in action: The children are told that being an individual is something to strive for, but if a child dares to dress like an individual, they get in trouble – the child gets stuck in a double bind.

If they protest this contradiction, they get told that “If everybody else can behave, then so can you” – another common expression that outright dismisses individuality.

We must not forget that if a person is by nature individualistic, then having to dress like everybody else is an insult to their person. Those who naturally want to belong to the group – be alike, which even without official decrees results in the fashion trends we see – cannot possibly imagine what that feels like, so they dismiss it.

School may have the best of intentions, thinking that putting all children in the same outfit makes for equality, but do they really think that the obese child in the tight skirt looks the same as their slender classmate? The children certainly don’t think so.

But I want to modify my position about uniforms a little, since some other countries, like Great Britain and South Africa, are also very keen on stiff uniforms, so that alone would not give New Zealand its bad reputation.

Somebody mentioned poverty, because New Zealand also has a high ratio of childhood poverty, but in my view, bullying is certainly not a problem of poverty; on the contrary, bullying is very prominent in private schools.

Uniforms do send another message: they reinforce strict “group” belonging. Every school has their own uniform; boys wear different clothes than girls – girls in New Zealand schools wear skirts (not track pants or shorts) and in some cases those skirts almost reach their ankles and are culturally biased (Scottish kilts).

Thus, the us versus them, the concept of in-groups, is openly encouraged with such displays and bullying is about in-groups.

As said in Changing Beliefs, groups need a certain amount of congruence between members in order to exist, and thus “the group” will try and enforce any behaviour (like dress) that emphasizes its own existence. Some people, by their very nature, will accept and adapt to outward displays of defining the group. But others do not feel it that way and they will resist. Some do that by rebelling or standing out and setting trends (so they create new groups and get followers), but others cannot make that adaptation, so they end up standing alone.

Bullying is therefore a result of “the group” defending itself against that what feels different, because individuality threatens the integrity of “the group”. As a result, bullying happens most in places where there is no greater adversary to stand up against together (such as a war, a tyrant, a hurricane, poverty). So the higher incidence of peer-directed bullying is seen in times of wealth and peace, because the natural instincts are still there.

But, because the inner need to either belong or stand out (the personality) cannot be seen, this need is expressed in clothing, behaviour, rituals and language and the more specific the group already is, the more the smaller in-groups need to find symbols to use against those they do not want.

The more pride for their club, the more inclined a group is to keep others out. Uniforms certainly enforce that, but even without uniforms, there will be in-groups – In Soup and Bread, both public and private schools are shown to have similar problems.

The other aspect of schools that reinforce bullying is that of competition. Vonnie’s school teacher says that “competition makes us perform the best we can”. This is a common assumption, and simultaneously contradicted with the message that “there are no winners or losers”.

But, of course, the naturally competitive children do think in winning and losing and they look for blame if they lose; the blame befalls the odd child out, the one who was already different (very often a child that is not naturally competitive or athletic), so that encouraging competition encourages bullying.

Neither is it true that competition makes “us” perform the best we can. That is a slogan used by those who need to be one-up. In team sports, sure, it is about winning and losing, but there are plenty of people who prefer personal improvement sports and have no desire to win over others and some need harmony instead of competition. Those differences are personality type differences and cannot be changed at will or by lessons.

I have nothing against healthy competition, such as in sports, but only if it involves those people who are by nature competitive or have a need for it. By forcing all children into competition, you put those who are not so inclined at a disadvantage.

In Australia, where I have seen a lot of negative intolerance and bullying at schools, there is a very strong “tall poppy” focus. They pride themselves on not tolerating “tall poppies”, which, they will tell you, are people who think they are better than others. After all, the Aussies pride themselves of their convict background and have a proud national interest in competitive sports.

As a consequence, in one primary school, this message was literally translated to putting down the kids with an interest in science (like Donny in the book). At eight and nine years old, these kids were told they were tall poppies and deserved to be “put in their place” by the group, who were footy fans. In short, they confused snotty attitudes (thinking you are better) with being different by nature (having different natural interests and talents), and used “tall poppies” as an excuse to oust individuality. As a result, “tall poppies grow best in those gardens that claim to have eradicated them”.

Like uniforms, such attitudes legitimize the notion that being different is being bad, and if this difference is something a person cannot change (like their gender, their race or their personality type) then it is no longer about the behaviour, but about the person, which makes it negative discrimination.

So, if a school claims “policies”, that constitute teaching kids to change their behaviour with the message that it will change who they are, then those policies are creating double bind situations and are in essence covert bullying. For more examples, see https://judgmenthurts.wordpress.com/2012/10/15/is-your-childs-school-passing-negative-moral-judgment-on-your-child/ 

And saying “we are doing all we can”, while only focusing on strategies directed at changing the victim, is selectively picking somebody to blame.

The solution: to actively make the diversity, the natural differences between people (including psychological differences) a source of pride; to change the collective attitude so that “the group” identifies itself by its diversity of members and its tolerance becomes a trait that signifies the group. That is why focusing on the environment itself and on the bystanders – as the KIVA program does – can work.

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.

Previous Older Entries