A decade ago, renowned linguist Steven Pinker wrote one of the most important popular science books of modern times. Entitled, THE BLANK SLATE, it outlined the all too common fallacy most humans operate under: namely that they are born as empty canvases on which experience and environment sketch their fates. The Nature vs. Nurture argument, it turns out, has been settled to the satisfaction of most scientists.* Meanwhile, laypersons and those in the social scientists persist in thinking we are what our surroundings make of us. This would be a trivial mistake were it not for all the heartache and confusion it wreaks.
The field of psychology is littered with poisonous examples. A client is made to believe (or this natural superstition is simply reinforced by a well-meaning but incorrect therapist) that the cause of their repeated habits have a primal cause (and blame). The reason a man beats his child is quite simple: his father beat him, and his grandfather beat his father, and it probably goes right back to Noah! A girl is made to feel insecure because of the way her first boyfriend humiliated her. Someone can’t form healthy relationships because of that falling out with their mother. Now every person in their life undergoes the same series of transformations: dearest friend, staunch ally, suspected traitor, blasted betrayer, fiercest enemy. If only their mother would have been more reasonable all those years ago, this cycle wouldn’t persist!
The more topical and defined case is the blame foisted on homosexuals by those who believe we have free will and are made blank by God. These people choose to be gay. And worse: if we allow them to marry or adopt, they’ll make others choose their heinous brand of evil as well! We are all prey to environmental cues. Who we are, fundamentally, can change with the slightest of encounters.
Take a rocking horse. I once worked with a very bright and lovely girl whose brother was fond of rocking. This equally bright and lovely lad would stand in front of you, conversing amiably, while moving his head back and forth with a good two feet of throw. You would feel like a carpet of seed, and he a famished hen, zooming in and out for morsel after morsel. It took nothing away from the kid’s charm (he was an exceptionally bright and friendly kid), but this was a tic one couldn’t help but notice.
“So,” one might say to my co-worker (as I did). “What’s up with your brother?”
“Whatever do you mean?”
She knew what I meant.
“The rocking.” Even knowing she knew, it was hard to say.
“Oh, that. He had a rocking horse when he was little. He loved that thing. Would spend entire days just rocking and rocking, and now he still does it.”
The first time it came up, I pretended to agree. But I knew better. I work in a bookstore, a giant geek and Asperger magnet for all the rocking kids on campus. They grab graphic novels and sci-fi works off the shelves and sit on benches, bending back and forth at the waist like softly chanting gurus. But I held my tongue.
“You know your brother is slightly autistic, don’t you?” I finally said.
My friend was genuinely horrified. “No. He. Is. Not.”
“Only slightly,” I stressed. “He’s very high functioning.” As in: on the Dean’s List and able to dress himself.
“My brother is not retarded!” (My friend could be politically un-correct like this.)
“No, not like that. More Aspergery. You do know that people with various forms of autism enjoy the feeling of rocking back and forth.”
To this, she told me about the rocking horse again. And here we have the root of this discussion:
“Did you ever think he enjoyed the rocking before he got on the horse, and that enjoyment is what caused him to stay on the horse, and he’s just doing what he’s always enjoyed doing?”
This took a while to percolate through my friend’s brain. And still, she didn’t believe me. Her brother was a blank slate peed on by a wooden horse. This, somehow, grants him more freedom and less culpability than simply being born with his unique (and awesome) qualities. She doubted me and wouldn’t buy that I too had Aspergery traits, and loved her brother all the more for his.
A week later, her brother was by our desk, his head zooming in and out, his wide infectious smile beaming bigger and smaller, bigger and smaller, nearer and farther.
“Hey, Rocky,” I said, using not his real name but the pejorative one my boss had given him, “how long have you loved moving back and forth like that?”
His sister, sitting beside me, puffed up in anticipation and full of confidence.
“For as long as I can remember,” he said.
“Ever since the rocking horse you rode as a kid, right?” his sister asked, contaminating my survey with precisely the sort of leading questions and ingrained biases that necessitate this blog post.
But Rocky did the impossible. He stopped moving his head in and out and shook it, instead.
“Nope. Way before that.”
“But you rode that horse,” his sister said, aghast at the possibility she might not know her beloved little brother as well as she had thought, all these many years. “You loved that horse, and so you kept rocking, right?” She wanted it to be true. Blame the horse, not his birth. Not him.
“No.” The same wide and likable smile. I really loved the boy in that instant. “I rode the horse because it felt good to rock. I used to rock in the car before that.”
I folded my arms. Nobody else was going to hug me for being right.
My friend remained shocked. She even lapsed back into her original assessment after a while. It was easier to maintain her blank slate worldview and doubt her brother’s memory (and all of science) than understand how people actually work. And this was an innocent misattribution of cause and effect. More sinister ones take place all the time. My brother went through school blaming his dislike of learning on a single teacher telling him he was dumb. How simple and easy! I’m sure the other 99.8% of kids who hate school also have some primal cause other than the obvious: school is made to suck. Abusers can blame those who abused them. The emotionally inept can blame the first person they had conflict with. How much easier to explain away than to struggle to improve oneself and break this cycle!
The best example I can come up with to demonstrate the ignorance of this philosophy is a bouncing ball. If we were to inspect a rubber ball with all the illogic and silliness we use for people, the observation would go much like this:
“Harry, come look at this.”
Harry comes over. I show him, resting in my palm, a pink ball.
“Watch,” I say.
I tilt my hand and release the ball. It strikes the tile at our feet and leaps up, almost as if by magic, nearly to the height from which is was dropped.
“Holy shit!” says Harry. “How the fuck did that happen?”
“Well,” I say, “I dropped it yesterday by accident — no warning, you see — and it had a negative effect when impacting the ground. I believe it was startled, or perhaps traumatized, and so it leapt up like it was trying to get back to the safety of my hand.”
“But not quite all the way back,” Harry points out. He’s fascinated. My theory makes sense.
“Quite right. I think, when a ball is startled or traumatized, it is sapped of some of its energy or will. I have to reach down a little and grab it out of the air, help it back, you see. If I don’t, it jumps less and less, gets more and more abused, until it finally gives up.”
“Fascinating,” Harry says. “And you say all this happened yesterday? You dropped it and the ball got terrified?”
“Yeah. I probably shouldn’t do it anymore, right?”
“Oh, I’d say for sure. Bad idea.” Harry gazes at the ball and shakes his head sadly.
And this is how discussions on human behavior sound to geneticists and neurologists who are daily discovering myriad ways in which we are products of our genes. It’s pure craziness! The ball bounces because of inherent tendencies and physical properties. There always has to be a “first time” that it bounces. Thinking this generated the tendency to bounce is precisely what we do with ourselves and each other. Please read these last few sentences again.
If you can’t get along with people, and you have always had a hard time getting along with people, there will have to have been a first time when you didn’t get along with someone. Most likely, since your early years are spent with your family, who usually share your DNA, that person will be someone much like you. It will be a mother, father, brother, sister, aunt, or uncle. Maybe a grandparent. You will see in yourself an undesirable trait, learn they have it as well, remember the first time you exhibited it, and bingo-bang0, they are to blame. You can repeat this offense a thousand times with a hundred different people, but it all stems from that first time. You bounce because they bounced you, not because of your innate bounciness.
And also, how tragic to assign blame where it does not belong, to throw ones hands up to a permanent problem rather than learning to mediate it through practice and the application of truth. How demeaning and unempowering.
The same goes for sentences that start with “Americans…”
“Americans are such consumers.” “Americans are wasteful.” “Americans are obsessed with sex.”
In almost every case, “Americans” can be substituted with “Humans.” This is the rocking horse and the bouncing ball all over again (even if the link seems obscure at first glance). The United States, for all its various foibles and flaws, was the first large-scale, modern experiment with human liberty. Yeah, it was built on slavery and misogyny, but it was a huge step from previous systems and has been an ongoing experiment ever since. The country was also fertile and full of natural resources (stolen, granted), giving it ready wealth. The result was an unleashing of human potential and behavior unlike any seen since those hedonist Romans. All it means to be human came gushing out, the good along with the bad. The ball had bounced for the first (not really, but to modern eyes, perhaps) time.
Every subsequent bounce is blamed on that one. Consumerism in Japan, where gadgets and robots mesmerize the masses? An American invasion. The success of fast food in other cultures? America’s poisoning influence.
Americans build houses that are much too big. (Forget Versailles, the Forbidden Palace, and the Great Pyramids).
Americans are driven toward mindless entertainment. (Forget Aztec games, Roman Coliseums, Peking Operas, fireworks, cat burnings, etc…)
We are the parent because we came, nominally, first. We are the rocking horse. The primal bounce. But all we were was what would have happened anywhere. Does anyone really believe that human history wasn’t destined for more equality and greater freedom? That every latent habit expressed in this country, and more and more expressed in others, wouldn’t have shown itself no matter what? The way people speak to one another, this would seem to be the case. And it’s bunk. We are the way we are, as humans and as individuals. That doesn’t mean we have to stay this way (many of us improve over time, just as the human race has improved, collectively, over time). But operating on false principles will not hasten this change: it will only frustrate and delay it.
So open your eyes to this possibility. Look at the cycles you wish you could change. See if they weren’t always there, and you are just choosing a first reveal as the source of your blame. I think you’ll find this more accurate view of the world quite liberating. You’ll let go of so much unneeded and misguided hate. You’ll see flaws as inherent barbs just waiting to be filed smooth, rather than scars gouged into you by callous others. And even better: you’ll be operating on principles of truth, borne out by decades of scientific research, rather than the armchair theories of well-meaning quacks who have nothing to show us but their balls.
*Even the staunchest of old-time nature advocates have now retreated to the enfilade of: Nature “via” Nurture. To which, I argue, the mechanism by which organisms respond to their environments (and the glaring ways they don’t) are also encoded in our DNA.