Batman in Diapers

Why we don't stand up for what we believe in? Think neoteny.

Posted Aug 30, 2012

You hear the complaint from all sides: people are fed up with abuses and injustice—why won’t they do anything about it? The complaints label concerned but inert folks "sheeple." Social scientists such as Lawrence Kohlberg might see the sheepish inaction as an expression of fears that open demonstrations against abusive institutions such as Wall Street or Washington are a threat to law and order. It's OK to think protest, but to act on it rouses fears of blood in the streets.

That argument's reasonable.  But it's an adult explanation. Let's expand on that:

The basic problem is that we're children. As a species, we're the neotenates: we start as helpless infants and grow up slowly, retaining childlike characteristics to the end.1 As children we're submissive, care-soliciting animals, curious, playfully exploratory.  It takes years before we realize that we kill and eat Piggy, Chickie, and the Moocow. Our emergency demands often come out as tantrums, which signal loss of control and may frighten us as much as they do parents. We're socialized to fear and hate tantrums. No surprise. More than most species, we're frighteningly helpless for ages before we can stand on our own two feet. No wonder parent and child harmonize unusual dependency with love. We're built that way. Even then, we grow into "adults."

That's "adults" in scare quotes.

"Adults" carefully control tantrums. The most vicious outburst is war, which of course is highly ritualized and rationalized with lots of submissive saluting and obeying orders. It's takes place in the "theater of war." Theatricality makes the tantrum adult. Hitler famously rehearsed his. Rant talkshows stage the climactic outburst that "knocks em dead." The invective, the humiliated opponent—it's predictable and exciting to see social death inflicted. And carefully arranged to have no consequences. You can lie, you can fume, you can feel ten feet tall with righteous wrath. But as in a Hollywood shootout, nobody gets killed and the avenged hero and his girl ride off into the sunset.

If you silently agree with protesters such as scruffy Occupy Wall Street folks, you're an adult in your living room. If you join them, you may feel you have safety pins holding up your underpants. Lose your adult status and you lose self-esteem. You lose yourself. You yourself face social death.

If you stay an "adult," you can agree with Occupy themes such as the need to reform predatory financial and corporate behavior and make the rich pay their fair share, and remain supremely right. Nobody's going to drag you off or pepper spray you. Your boss won't sack you. Your self-esteem is intact. Contrast this with the Occupy protesters. They're a crowd, but you're not bodily in it, so you don’t share that crowd energy that Canetti describes in Crowds and Power. Worse, like any open protest, their behavior raises the specter of punishment.  The stern parental police and the adversarial super-rich One Percent make it clear that they're always on the edge of cracking down on the kids and the Kid in you. The warnings include the Supreme Court's "Citizens United" decision, that twists jurisprudence to allow a global corporate elite to intimidate, mislead you, and sway your vote, with unlimited political advertising

This is a parent-system that threatens you by, as it were, changing the psychological climate around your ears. The threat isn't just police violence. It's also shame. The protesters are mostly young. And they're acting young. They're not used to the world's hypocrisy. For them, horsesh*t is, well, horsesh*t. They're trying to humorous in some of their signs and get-ups.  

The crackdown on the "kids" threatens not to break bones so much as self-esteem.  Pepper spray leaves you helpless and crying--like a squalling infant.  Mass arrests don't threaten years in the gulag; rather they harass the unruly children, like being made to write "I won't protest" 100 times on the blackboard. The law takes your money and time and mixes you in the holding tank with lowlife miscreants. It's not a negotiation among citizens; it's a spanking.

And then there's the basic problem. If you act on your protest, you're no longer practically apart and neutral. On the contrary, you've taken a position and any impasse that follows reminds you how helpless and insignificant you are. In effect, you put yourself outside the community of everyday habit and now your exposed helplessness can feel like social death. You say you're part of the 99 percent but you feel like zero as the limousines leave you in the dust.

This is why protest movements such as the Tea Party have been so easily co-opted. Early exponents demanded finance sector reforms as well as taming of "big government." In no time politically aggressive billionaires began shepherding the group, and extracting the reformers' teeth.

And the final turn of the screw is that it's all visceral. The tamed behavior isn't the outcome of a strategic plan or a syllogism. It's a gut feeling that you've stood up to be counted and somebody's making you uncomfortable. Let's face it, futility feels like death.

 In this electoral season the air is blistering with toxic money, disinformation, and outright lies.  "As James Fallows has notedThe New York Times, in a front-page story, flatly stated that a Romney ad was "falsely charging that Mr. Obama has 'quietly announced' plans to eliminate work and job training requirements for welfare beneficiaries."  Then comes the shock:

"But what if it turns out that when the press calls a lie a lie, nobody cares?

Here in Tampa, the new assertiveness is getting its first test on a big stage, and so far the results are not encouraging. As Ben Smith of BuzzFeed has pointed out,2 the Romney campaign is simply swatting aside the media's objections to its welfare ad: 'We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers,' said Neil Newhouse, a Romney pollster."

Doesn't this sound exactly like schoolyard bullies scoffing at your helpless indignation over your stolen lunch money while your schoolmates stare at their shoelaces?  It's the child demanding justice from the wannabe faux-parent who rules over lunch money, the jungle gym, and maybe in time the whole jungle.

Note that the false ad smears welfare: the social safety net that rescues children as well as parents teetering at the edge of social death.  With obvious racial coloring, the ad scorns welfare parents for being, really, "takers"—dependents, parasites, despised children.  This is sibling rivalry with a vengeance.  And since demographic data shows that the poor suffer illness and die younger than the rich, it's potentially  lethal vengeance.

A cultural psychologist might draw an analogy to the fantasy that led to the Aurora Colorado movie theater massacre recently in which a disturbed young man killed "children" and "family members" during a screening of "Batman," about the child who solves his helplessness and rage by transforming himself into a vigilante faux adult.  The all-powerful hero onscreen acts out survival rage, but in spite of his sportsmanship, he's euphemistically an exterminator.  The gunman in the theater carried out the fantasy mission.4

So like it or not, we're in history. This is not simply a problem of one electoral season soon to go away.  The good news is that neoteny is what makes is so unusually adaptable.  Instead of being primarily hard-wired, culture provides us an extra-somatic—outside the body—sort of DNA to shape us.  Where the behavior of other adult animals becomes more rigidly patterned, we're capable of more lifelong flexibility.  After all, we're that marvellously conflicted mix of biological and symbolic creature.  If we can adapt, we can recreate our environment, perhaps even improve it.

What the historical moment needs is courage and principle and the hide of a rhino. Sorry, pal. No guns aboard this dhow as we tack up da Nile. And please, no wading here. The crocodiles are hungry. Reason with them from the bow. Protest.  What's that? Yes. Of course.  Go for it. Louder.

1.  For awareness of neoteny I owe a tip of the hat to my friend and colleague Charles K. Smith.

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4. To follow up on rampage killing, corporate, political, and corporate-military criminal behavior as expressions of a historically particular cutural style, see my Berserk Style in American Culture (2011), also "The New Rampage Mentality," at <<<<

A different version of some of this essay's material appeared at the Ernest Becker Foundation's Denial File blog, <<