Leaders, fear deference

I would not have written the laws and regulations about sexual harassment that control the American workplace in the 21st century. They over-reach.   They facilitate the false grievances that cluster around “political correctness” in all its forms.

But humans are corrupt, and so tend to abuse any power advantage.  And these laws are an understandable effort to protect the powerless.  When people won’t do justice voluntarily, the political electorate always steps in to fill the vacuum with the blunt, dumb instrument of a legislated solution.  Laws always over-reach.

Any human relationship that is not explicitly equal is therefore unequal.  One person has the ability to coerce the other, no matter if he would or not. One is Strong, the other is Weak. This much seems like stating the obvious but there are many people who don’t see the imbalance, especially when they are the Strong.

In heirarchical organizations these power imbalances are structural, not relational.  The lines on the org chart indicate them.  Smart stewards of the organization know the diagram of power relationships doesn’t become irrelevant as friendships grow.   Personal closeness does not reduce the danger of abuse.   Rather, as individuals grow in friendship over years of working together, their warmth can allow a laxity that the Strong can interpret wrongly.

I’m not just talking about the danger of two people having an affair.   Sexual or emotional attractions develop as co-workers spend time together.  Adults just recognize these attractions as an organic and distracting part of spending time together, and starve them as a matter of conscience.

But there is another, distinct danger: that the Strong will oppress the Weak unconsciously even as they paradoxically grow closer, on matters far short of something so explicit as sex.

One of the features of Weakness is wordlessness. The weak never protest oppression as soon or as loudly as they justly could.  The friendship can lull the stronger of a pair into taking silence as permission. But only permission is permission, and it is the moral obligation of the strong to give the weak space to deny permission.      “Is that ok with you?”  The wise leader asks this question, a hundred different ways, a hundred times a day, because he fears deference to his position.

Deference is not the same as the respect that leaders want and try to deserve.  Deference is when the follower suppresses disagreements in order to just go along.   Good leaders don’t want followers who just go along.  It’s dangerous.  Often, the followers have important opinions that can avert a disaster, and smart leaders work to create bold followers who don’t defer but rather, speak up.

“Socialization”

We homeschool, and so we hear occasionally the concern about the “socialization” of homeschoolers.  Homeschool families think this concern is silly, of course, and gladly take the debate every time another news story appears about some rotten event in a public school somewhere in America.  Which is every minute or so.  But I have to admit I’m an extremist in this debate.  The debate seems to be about whether children outside a government imposed group get “enough” socialization, which therefore must be a good thing, which good thing children apparently get from the physical presence of other children.  Given that premise, I think it’s a debate about a fiction.  There is no such thing as children, collected at random, socializing each other in any good sense.  It does not happen.

Oh, children certainly influence each other.  But I know very few parents of any persuasion who would actually argue that the influence of 15 children chosen at random in a room all day is a good influence.  Few humans would argue that those 15 children, left to themselves, will make each other better.  At anything.

Imagine for yourself what you’d put in the set of bad habits.  Bad social habits, speech habits, study habits, even as far as all those acts or thoughts you’d call a felony.  Let’s label the whole set of behaviors and traits we want in our children ” manners”.  It’s a useful, though archaic term.  But we understand it means much more than just not eating jello with the salad fork.   Manners form the wholistic impression of another person that you have after spending the day with them.

The truth is, most parents, believers and unbelievers of all stripes together, would agree on almost the whole set. Most parents have an instinct for the behaviors they want in children – in the abstract.

But that’s where the commonality ends.  In the concrete manners of actual children, there is the widest variation in whatever you’d call admirable or despicable, and the habits and demeanors of the actual children have little correlation with the claimed values of the actual parents.

Any one child, not previously known to you, will have a random distribution of manners (not formally random, but random as far as you can know in advance).  Would you consider it useful to lock your child in a room for 8 hours with one other child who you do not know, and whose parents you do not know?  This random child will not be evil, of course, and in fact may be assumed for the sake of our logic to be exactly as well-mannered as your own child.  Assume that then.  Assume that this unknown child is no more good and no more bad than your own child, however you define those values.

But, a quick additional factor:  few people would deny what so many have observed; bad influence is easier to imbibe than good.  This is a commonplace observation across cultures and centuries, common enough that is has entered the canon of common-sense.

We are more permeable to the bad than the good.  Christian anthropology, of course, accounts for this empirical observation with the doctrines of Original Sin and Total Depravity, which I’ll paraphrase: the primal bad lives inside each of us, and without outside help is stronger than our residual good.  You don’t have to have accepted Christian dogma to see this.  Let’s keep it simple: bad easier, good harder.

We further observe that as we mature, our permeability to unthinking influence reduces.  We become choosers, we become more discerning, we grow in courage, we become more sure of our values and less needy for peer approval.  (All this, hopefully.)  In fact, the very definition of adulthood might be rooted in this passage from unthinking conformity to discriminating moral agent.   But we never outgrow the universal ratio: bad easy, good hard.

So your child is in a room with a randomly chosen child who you do not know.  What you do know, with mathematical certainty, is that both of them have an inward bent that makes each other’s bad manners more likely to pollinate the other than their good.  Bad easy, good hard, at the stage of life when the discriminating powers are at their weakest.

I want to stop at this point and make sure the logic to this point is accepted, or rejected, because it is easy to glide over an uncomfortable truth by fuzzing it out.  It is not a speculation that these two children will make each other worse, however you define that word.    It is a mathematical certainty.  And it grows more certain the more time they spend with each as a closed system, with no counter-acting influences.  (We factoring out for our thought experiment all the counter-acting influences, in order to isolate the effect of the children on each other.)

This does not mean that they will have no good influences at all on each other.  Of course they will.  But that doesn’t help us; we’re concerned about the net affect, the goods minus the bads. Don’t console yourself or deny the line of reasoning by focusing your inner eye on some good influence and letting the bad ones drift to the peripheral vision.

Also, at this point you’ve imagined some actual child of your acquaintance who you think would actually be a good net affect on your own child.  Maybe your child has children in her classroom who you know to be a good net effect.   And it is easy to just extrapolate from that one connection to them all.  But remember: the number of connections between your child and other children are are many, and most or all of them are chosen by people you don’t know for reasons unconnected to the net effect on manners that you would use if you could control all the choices.  The good examples do not extrapolate.

Maybe you don’t find any of this to be true in real life.  Maybe you find that your child comes back home to you after time at school with better manners (however you define them) than when school is out.  Let’s stipulate that what you think is true, is true.   Since I’m making essentially a statistical argument here, your experience is only meaningful if more parents than not share it.  If you are in the minority, and if parents can’t control whether or not they will have your experience, then they must make the assumption that they will not.

Most parents do not, in fact, find their children made better by time spent with other children, and you’ll hear them admit in casual conversations where the topic is one other than education choices.

It’s the mindless assumption –  that random will turn out good – that I object to.  You’re a good parent; would you leave your 7 year old child in a room with a television set for hours and let him choose what to watch?  Of course you don’t, and I’m not talking about our pornography-soaked airwaves here; you wouldn’t have let him choose his own influences if you were parenting him in the Ozzie and Harriet years of the 1950’s.  In every other area of your young child’s sensorium, you move the data from random to filtered as carefully as you can.  You understand that good parenting means that you bring into your child’s life good influences and filter out bad ones, until he has the maturity to choose for himself.

Why, then, in this one area, do you reason that a random collection of influences is likely to net out good?   It is counter-intuitive.

You’ll notice I’ve left out of this whole discussion what influences might come from teachers or other adults at your school- they’re irrelevant, since you could presumably bring adult influences into your child’s life from a variety of     (My son’s teachers, in the two years he spent at public school, were good teachers and good people so far as we could know.)

The first step in my equation, then, is this:  the average child, coupled with another average child, and all other factors held steady, will degrade in manners, however the average parent defines manners.

If this is true, then the second step is easy and devastating:  the process grows exponentially as you add children at random to the group.

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If this entire argument has left you cold, then approach it in a laboratory setting.   In a roomful of those who extol “socialization”, do this little thought-experiment (don’t tell them what it is about):

1. Ask them to write down 3 traits they like about themselves, and the people who, in each case, they most learned that trait from.

2. Ask them to write down a moment in their lives when they started down a path they now regard as a wrong path. Then, ask them to name the one person who was most influencing them at that point in their lives.

If they are sufficiently unaware of your agenda as to not bias the answers, the overwhelming majority (perhaps all) of the answers to #1 will NOT be friends from school, and the overwhelming majority (perhaps all) of #2’s answers WILL be friends from school.

Case closed. THEY don’t believe the “socialization” in public schools is positive. It is simply a religious dogma they have required themselves to believe.

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Or maybe you doubt the validity of that laboratory.  Use yourself, your total experience at school, as an experiment of one, and ask yourself what social formation did you get at school that has been determinative for your adult life?

“To work in teams.”   I deny that public school teaches children to work in teams better than they would if they were raised by wolves.  This is simply not demonstrated.    If this is true, then the children who come out of public schools would be more team-oriented than others…has anybody, anywhere, claimed to have actually observed this?

“To tolerate differences.”   Honestly?  Was it your experience in school that you learned from the other children around you to tolerate differences?  This is a confusion of two things: you do see and experience  more different types of people at a school of hundreds of kids, but you don’t learn to tolerate them.   The first is simple numbers, the second is a personal virtue.  The first is of little value, in and of itself — the second is valuable, and comes from parents.  The truth is, children are notoriously intolerant of differences.  In crowds, they are positively fascist.

“To negotiate.”  This is an argument that has come late, at least in my hearing, and is frankly the oddest.  Children learn to “negotiate” by being around a wider variety of children?  I negotiate for a living; I’ve never seen this learning process in any children, nor have I observed the skill especially in the those parents who value it.  I suspect it is another fiction.

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I am not arguing that all parents should homeschool (not all should), nor that public school is bad (of course they aren’t), nor that all children are made worse by public school (not all are.)   And most parents simply can’t school at home because they need both incomes.   They should not feel guilty about that.  I’m not even saying that public school is terrible for children.  It isn’t.  I’m just trying to get past a fiction so that parents of all kinds can have a slightly more honest conversation.

I’m simply arguing that the term socialization, which means, in most speakers’ mouths something like “a process wherein children make each other better”  –  does not exist.   Children, by definition, do not make each other better as a net effect.  There is no debate, then, about how to make up for the socialization the child misses by being at home.

Missing it, for us, is the point.

To Isaac, On Your Baptism Day, October 7, 2012.

To Isaac, on your baptism day, October 7, 2012.

Isaac, Hear the words of your father.

All these dear ones, your mother and I – we can never be prouder of you, since today you said, to all the world, that Jesus is your King.

Baptism doesn’t forgive your sins. Jesus did that when you trusted Him. But He gave us baptism as a picture of His death and resurrection, and all pictures connect mysteriously to what they picture. We don’t know how this works, but we know it is true. So in this picture, somehow, you were buried with Jesus and raised with Him in new life. Hallelujah. The stone table is cracked, the law worked backward and killed the witch, the one ring is dropped into the fire of Doom. The sword is pulled from the stone and the grail is found. The princess has been kissed and the dragon has been tamed. The labrador retriever has turned sane. The corpse of the Lion is missing, for He is not here, He has risen.

And you, Isaac, are in Him, like a tender branch in a great tree.

There will be dark days. Long in the future, I hope, when most of these dear ones have gone into that silent cloud of witnesses, you may feel alone. You may even feel like Jesus is far away. It may not always feel like you are in Him, but you always will be.

Take this golden cross, placed around your neck now with your mother’s kiss, as a picture of your baptism. Let it be a picture to you that you were baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

It’s real gold, it’s not just a trinket. Your mother and I wanted to give you something worth treasuring the rest of your life, because this day is as important to us as any of your birthdays.

Let this be a picture to you when days are dark that He bought you with His blood, that He, the Great King, said He would be with you till the end. Touch this cross, and remind yourself that you belong to Him.

There will be dark days. Soon, I fear, you’ll feel that you’ve failed Him. Touch this cross, turn away from yourself. Tell Him freely how you failed, take His forgiveness in, and be at peace.

There will be dark days when you’ll be tempted to betray Him, like Edmund betrayed Aslan, and your mother and I will not always be here to encourage you. But your baptism will stay with you forever and will whisper to you that in Christ an old Isaac died, and in Christ the real Isaac lives. Timothy Isaac Smith, Jesus is your King, and He is stronger than Aragorn the heir, nobler than Theoden of the horse-lords, braver than Peter of Narnia.

You are baptized into this King of kings. Live in Him forever.

The word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God.)

To Turn, And Toddle: More On Love And Power

“…whoever does not turn and become like a toddler…”

When Jesus enjoins childlikeness it has nothing to do with their “innocence”. Modern exegetes just insert “innocence” into this passage in an unthinking reflex. Jesus is indeed talking about “humility”, for sure, but from the context here and other passages (see Paul in Romans 12, for one) the point of biblical humility is to know your place. (“Humility” is another word we’ve simply replaced with a proxy. We insert something like “feel like a wretch”. There is a place and time to feel like a wretch, but it has nothing to do with humility.)

Back to childlikeness…children are clear about one thing, and that is that they know they are not adults, and are content in that. Humility, here, is to be happily in a parent’s control. The essence of childhood is to be controlled by someone else; when you begin to control yourself, you are an adult.

Jesus is attacking power here. And by “power” I mean the desire to control. Biblically, this desire to control is the primal Satanic infraction, and it runs like a black thread through human history, to me, you, and now. The desire for rank, the love of money — all attitudes condemned in the NT are arguably forms of one passion, the wish to control, rather than be controlled. Money, for example, is meaningless outside its function as the ability to control your life. “Freedom” is accurate too — money gives freedom, and to be free from some things is good (freedom from hunger, for one), but the bible has no sympathy for the accomplishment of freedom from childlike dependance on God.

So, turn and become a child. That is, gladly take God’s control like a child gladly reposes within the parent’s control.

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Beyond this immediate point: the desire for control is always bad, and is opposed to love, and control and love are irreconcilable, like night and day. That which you love you will seek to not control.

A parent does need to control the child he loves, but the entire point of parental work is to work yourself out of a job by ceding control to the adult child, in love’s fufillment. Even in parenting, love seeks to not control. “Love” that does not work to cede control is pathological, and pathogenic.

It is deceptively hard to give up the desire to control and not clutch. The clutch is our instinct. But not only is it difficult simply to do, it skews cognition. The person you clutch you will not know. Love is the mode of knowledge between persons; clutching both closes the subject’s spiritual eye and forces the object to veil itself. The ostensible lovers, when one clutches, do not, in the most literal sense, see each other. They recede.

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The purpose of political speech is to get or hold power — control of the money, control of the sex, control of the guns, control of the lightbulbs. The desire to get power corrupts absolutely. No, deeper than that; it issues from the primal corruption, and corrupts further in an endless spiral of the moral equivalent of bloodshed. The person so desiring has already lusted in his heart and has rendered himself incapable of loving any object in the same field of vision.

Politics does some good, just like the parent does good by forcing the child away from the fire or toward the altar. But force is such a limited and transitory good that a child that did not graduate from it would eventually be labeled a freak. The political activist is content to treat citizens like his own unwilling children, forever, and is morally stunted enough to feel accomplished doing it.

This all usually prompts some objection that it is too absolutist. But, ask yourself: did Jesus assign any value above zero to political activity? No. Love and power have nothing to say to each other. Where one grows the other dies.

(None of this is to argue that it is always good to be controlled, or always bad to control something or someone. Really, don’t be that simplistic.)

Why we write memoirs

It’s not just that I want you to hear my memories.   We’ve all had that experience when we were young, that boredom as the old ones tell us the same stories for the hundredth time.   I felt it with my father.   At some point you will cross the tipping point, where you will realize one day you are actually interested in the old stories.   You may be decades from that moment.   That’s ok.

It’s not exactly a need to transmit memories.  It’s not a cognitive or didactic task the old one feels, though most of them interpret it that way.  No;  I don’t want to teach you any lessons from my childhood; there are none.   I don’t want you to appreciate how much easier you have things than I did, or my father did.   That’s actually seldom true; most people have great struggles.   You are, you will.

It’s not dying memories, it’s a dying vision.   When I slow the car down on Miller’s Fork road to peer back under the sumac, I really do see less than my father saw.

To a discouraged leader

You walked into the meeting so upbeat at the opportunity to share your vision. But even as you talked, you could see the lists of objections forming behind the eyes of several listeners — the usual suspects, whose first reaction to most new ideas is to throw up a smokescreen of reasons why we can’t do it. Before you finished your first presentation, you could feel the wind leaving your sails. As you walked out of the meeting, you were as much dejected as you had been excited earlier that morning.  Then, you go through the stages of grief, inwardly and privately, telling yourself that you are never going to cast another pearl of vision before these swines of negativity. You’ll just live in the dull world they apparently inhabit, checking off duties, punching the mental clock, letting the workplace just drift and collecting your paycheck.

And of course, despite your best effort to kill your own soul, it miraculously persists. It catches you unawares. Before long, you have a new, exciting idea about how things can be better for everyone, and you find yourself almost against your will sharing your passion out loud to the swineherd again. (Isn’t it encouraging how those healthiest parts of you can’t actually be killed? What you like most about yourself just erupts in spite of everything. )  The truth is, no-one can suppress their own vision.  So forget that.  It can be exhilarating, in an ironic way, when the leader is forced to admit and embrace her own health. To admit to herself that what causes her pain among the swine is never going to stop, and she would never want it to, really.  No, there are only two choices: succeed in getting these pigs to see what you see, or go find better pigs. (That’s quite enough with the swine metaphor, I agree.) Continue reading “To a discouraged leader”

Searching For Bobby Fischer: “Don’t move until you see it”

In the movie “Searching for Bobby Fischer”, the child chess prodigy Josh has two teachers: the Fun Teacher and the Real Teacher.   (Am I revealing my bias yet?)   The Fun Teacher is the guy in the park who makes chess fast, freewheeling, aggressive, carefree – fun.   Under him, Josh gets to exploit his natural talent against less talented opponents.  It’s fun to bring your queen out early, to slash and burn, to make decisions in an instant and see them yield victory.  (Presumably, it is not fun to consistently lose at speed chess.   This part was not covered in the movie.)

The Real Teacher has a different set of values and a different agenda for Josh.   He wants Josh to be able see far ahead in the game.  He sets up an empty board and makes Josh play out positions in his mind.

These two teachers are in conflict with each other, and they pull Josh in two different directions.   The Real Teacher, in particular, wants Josh to stay away from the Fun Teacher, who he says is teaching Josh the bad habit of moving without thinking and taking stupid risks.    He’ll be ruined, says the Real Teacher; he wants to play like this, says the Fun Teacher.  Structure versus flow.   Discipline versus spontaneity.   Josh’s mom sides with the Fun teacher, while Josh’s dad sides with the Real teacher.

Continue reading “Searching For Bobby Fischer: “Don’t move until you see it””