The First Lessons in Violence
Perhaps no one since Mark Twain has been so effective in the intimate one-man show style as Bill Cosby. He sits alone on a bare stage and talks, gesticulating with an unlit cigar, occasionally walking about to exchange comments, or humorous insults with his audience, while hitching up his baggy, sagging sweat pants. Much of his material consists of first person observations about his childhood, and family, which he represents as very different from the Huxtable family of TV fame that introduced average Americans to civil and sophisticated middle class family blackness. The night I see him his audience is largely made up of older people who can identify with his stories of ‘Whuppins’ and his mother’s colorful threats of punishment in response to misbehavior; she promised some form extermination. Cosby’s performance is brilliant classic comedy in which a sensitive topic is dealt with obliquely through humor. It seems likely that both Cosby and some in the audience are relieved to escape into comedy when the subject matter is too serious to speak of; like corporeal punishment of children. We know a child should be treated with at least as much consideration as a pet dog! So we laugh in order not to cry over whupping.
I was raised when spanking of children was considered a parental duty or a virtue:
“Spare the rod and spoil the child!”
It was often administered with a dose of rather cynical regret:
“This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you!”
And cloaked in exaggeration and humor:
“Speak roughly to your little boy and spank him when he sneezes;
He only does it to annoy, because he knows it teases. Be quiet, Pig!”
Alice and the Duchess, John Piniel, 1865
Yet ‘spanking’ is a euphemism for striking a child, even though in an adult striking—or sometimes even touching– is considered an assault. Corporeal punishment is, somehow, acceptable in a child but not an adult, even though the child is relatively powerless. Spanking is nominally intended to discipline; to punish; to correct; to improve future unwanted behavior, or even to protect children from the danger.
We are well aware that a dog can be made aggressive by physically harsh treatment. Yet we, as a society, seem more offended by striking of a pet dog than a child. In fact, corporeal punishment is a child’s first lesson in the primordial value of physical violence. It teaches a lesson, the first of many, making clear that might is right.
During youth and adolescence, aggression becomes righteously Darwinian, directed at those who are different from the norm: weak, ugly, dull, foreign. It can take the form of hazing as a rite of passage for the newcomer or the outsider who hopes to prove worthy of acceptance: high school freshmen boys religiously ‘head flushed’ at the nearby gas station; joyous humiliation of college freshmen, or fraternity and military recruits. We tend to take such things as the norm; and, fortunately, serious consequences are rare. Yet hazing’s uglier form is mob violence, rioting, lynching, hate crime, and gang violence including rape.
While often nominally anxious about violence, we don’t act that way when we delight in violent movies, electronic games, TV shows, and degrading literature. We claim that our Constitution protects the right to act, dress, or speak in hostile ways. We tend to look the other way, to ignore or deny alleged, suspected or unproven violence that is hidden in the home. We hope not to get involved.
We remain a society that accepts, rewards and honors aggression. Certainly aggressive violence pays in our most honored and popular ‘contact’ sports. Pays Big Time! Perhaps one can justify that sort of violence. But not the violence that plays a part in many relationships, sexual and otherwise; or in the car chases and brawling characteristic of so many movies and TV shows. Ironically, even a woman’s liberation is often certified when she is aggressive, violent, and foul mouthed, or punches out anyone, especially an offensive man.
It is not automatic for children schooled in violence, to become civil, thoughtful, considerate adults.
I, like many people my age, learned aggression beginning in childhood. I accepted schoolyard violence, especially in males, as normal. Being young–happily normal, omnipotent and ignorant—I assumed my own life experience was identical to everyone’s. I never imagined behavior I thought was normal could be interpreted by another as extremely threatening or aggressive. Those greatest of all teachers, Time and Error, taught me the facts. And when the facts slapped me in the face I understood we are not all societal or behavioral clones, so that violence is best avoided altogether.
Much public debate today focuses on spousal abuse, sexual abuse of children, animal cruelty, sport violence, bullying, aggressive sexual talk or behavior, rape, hate crime or hate talk, racially or sexually insensitive speech, the death penalty, etc. While we, individually, can’t effectively address all of these societal ills, we each can relentlessly condemn corporeal punishment of children. In living our own lives, and in speaking with friends and family, we should insist a child be treated much more thoughtfully than a pet dog. At the very least that can do no harm. I am convinced it can do much good
An old friend is the manager of one of those repositories of arcane history and selective remembrance that used to be called ‘Rest Homes’. It is in a different universe than the Dorotea Puente model, and a long ways from the 200 bed megarest home. There are generally about 20 residents, who are able to walk, bathe, dress and feed themselves. They live in a cluster of four buildings, set on two acres in a wide expanse of lawn among old shade trees and gardens laced with wheelchair accessible walkways. Each cottage home has four single rooms, a shared living area, a small kitchen, and two bathrooms. Residents can cook for themselves or eat in a central dining room. There is often no family nearby, so the residents and the operators of the home become a prosthetic family. The home has a comfortable van, used for optional outings, for concerts, movies, or visits to local places of interest. This is a very high end well run rest home. Old people often have medical problems, and though the residents are limited to followers of Christian Science, they may require visits to physicians or other providers of health care. My friend explains that when a physician’s advice is sought, it is considered carefully, and prayerfully; a medical intervention is possible when it is consistent with those basic practical and ethical considerations.
I admire the Japanese idea that very old yet functioning people are national treasures, a library of the numinous; and the Nepali thought that any very old living thing is the home of a god. I try to find time to listen to my old people seeking to venerate them in my own way. So when my friend told me that Dorothy, an octogenarian woman in his boarding home had been a glider pilot during much of the 20th Century, I had to visit with her. She had lived in Northern California all her life; I had first soloed in an old Musketeer at Watts airport in Woodland in 1963. We had possibly been in the same patch of sky at the same time.
My interview with Dorothy reminded me that we, humankind, have probed the chemical, physiological, physical aspects of our existence, and have made our lives almost entirely artificial. Despite a commonly professed desire to live naturally, to protect, to honor nature, there is no longer any aspect of a human life that is natural. Our time on earth is entirely man made, from long before birth until long after death; now, not content with earth we strive to colonize the universe. The only thing that can be said to be natural about humanity is this: it is our nature to work our will on our environment, to probe it, to manipulate it, to reform, to control, to dominate it.
Yet we remain ignorant of the reasons of life; the why. We want to believe life, our own life, has meaning. Our ignorance about our existence, or non existence, remains as profound today as it did 3000 or 30,000 years ago. So we invent gods. Simple observation makes us aware that there is good and evil in each and all of us. But faith, many different faiths, can provide the power, the way, to deal with those aspects of our nature. Since the faithful are people too, both good and evil must exist in them and in their institutions.
Every powerful invention, including faith, can be used for good and for evil, and history makes clear the need to restrain the temporal power of faith. It is when government and faith are monolithic that the result is blood, genocide, and organized evil. Given that caveat, it seems clear that the elderly or poor, or conflicted, or suffering fare best at the hands of those NGOs called churches who are guided by faith. It was my friend’s church that built and supports his old folk’s home. It was a multitude of little churches that first and best responded to the tragedy of Katrina. Missionaries, so often excommunicated by modern secular dogma, change more lives, and are often more persistent, more effective, in that effort than the best intentioned government projects.
I was greeted by Jeanie, the receptionist-secretary. Yes, she was aware of my appointment with Dorothy, known to have been a glider pilot. Dorothy was alert, bright eyed, slender, well groomed, simply dressed. We spoke in the living room of her cottage within earshot of Jeanie. Dorothy had been married, raised her children, and lived mainly in the Livermore area. Her husband taught her to fly. At least on one occasion she had flown from Livermore to Los Angeles. My admiration was more than casual because I had been a passenger in a glider only once, rising on the updrafts of a hot summer day in Santiago, Chile, and do not want to do it again; it was hot, boring, surprisingly noisy and unsurprisingly nauseating. Give me a quiet paraglider or an honest ear splitting ultra-lite any time!
Often Dorothy towed her glider to Nevada for extended trips. Nonetheless, many details of her flying were lost to her mind, and I was unable to clarify what sort of glider she flew, or actually, the details of where and when. She seemed only slightly discomfited by her forgetfulness, simply saying with a smile that she didn’t remember. I asked her if she knew another acquaintance of mine, who was a wing walker during the ‘20s at Lind (Lodi) airport. She didn’t recall.
Our conversation shifted to subjects more clear to Dorothy’s memory, and more dear to her heart. She is a devout Christian Scientist, and began to speak in luxurious detail of having met Mary Baker Eddy. She had always wanted to do so, and one day discovered that Mary was visiting nearby. With conflicting trepidation and hope, she simply took a cab, knocked on the door, and was greeted by Mary herself. They talked for nearly half an hour, an eternity. Mary was warm, thoughtful, intelligent, and suffused with deep conviction. Mary left shortly and Dorothy has never seen Eddy again, though their conversation is among Dorothy’s fondest memories.
Unable to learn much more about gliding in the early part of the 20th Century, I was nonetheless intrigued to know a firsthand acquaintance with that fierce founder of a religious order, so scourged by Mark Twain. Yet I vaguely recalled that Eddy had died shortly after founding her famous newspaper, in about 1912. Dorothy would have been only a child then. On arriving home I googled Eddy and Twain. It was this Twain quote that made clear to me what had happened:
“When I was younger, I could remember anything, whether it was true or not; but my faculties are decaying now and soon I shall be so I cannot remember any but the things that never happened.”
Surely even Twain, so acidic in his disdain of religion, and as outraged by disillusionment with Mary Baker Eddy herself, would not deny to Dorothy the comfort of the personal history she remembers. And if anyone should try to revise those memories, they would, mercifully, fail. As Twain, Eddy, Dorothy and I could agree, it is a question of Mind over Matter and Memory over Mind.