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17 March, 2012

Poly Politics in the U.S. Public School System

Franklin Veaux apparently has a new article addressing polyamory and rules. (Since I started drafting this post in February, there's also been maymay's keynote address at Atlanta's Poly Weekend.) Many poly people like to craft a set of rules for themselves to make guidelines for relating in a style that may feel foreign. Says Veaux, "If a person loves you and cherishes you, and wants to do right by you, then it's not necessary to say ‘I forbid you to do thus-and-such’ or ‘I require you to do thus-and-such.’ All you really need to do is communicate what you need to feel taken care of, and your partner will choose to do things that take care of you, without being compelled to."1

I heard about this essay through this fantastic response at Modern Poly. The poster, Angi, picks up on Veaux's perhaps rhetorical conflation of anarchy with chaos, when the two are quite distinct, and follows through on his essay by pointing out that "we live in a society that organizes itself around the basic principle that human beings are only able to treat one another with kindness and respect if we are forced to do so. The structures of our criminal justice system, our work places, and even our schools are all predicated on the notion that people must have the threat of punishment in order to behave properly."

"For me," writes the author, "it feels inaccurate to label something as 'love' if it is not freely, enthusiastically, and consensually given. I choose freely to treat my partners with love and respect. And it matters a great deal to me to know that their love and respect for me are given freely, as well."

It's an awesome article, but for me, the keystone is a story about the author's child. "My eight-year-old daughter has recently begun attending a democratic free school. The kids determine their own behavioral guidelines, via consensus, at all-school meetings. ... What I find most striking, however, is their behavior. These kids have no threats of punishment. When a conflict arises, they can choose to talk it through with a peer mediator. Otherwise, they are governed only by their own mutual agreement to abide by community guidelines. And these children — given their autonomy and freedom — are kinder to and more respectful of one another than most people believe children are capable of being."

By contrast, note this list of 19 children unnecessarily arrested and brutalized by police officers in U.S. schools. Bonus points for counting how many of those kids -- among the subset of stories that aren't anonymous -- aren't white or are members of other frequently marginalized groups. Despite the article's title, this isn't "crazy" behavior: nominally sane, ordinary people are following their scripts, and the result is that our public schools are an apparatus of oppression. When one is young, oppression is in many ways normal: for a thoughtful introduction to the systemic nature of the problem, see John Bell's introduction to adultism.

I want to take this one step further and argue that this top-down, ageist, behavioral-control approach to rulemaking creates the situation we use to justify our rules. Angi characterizes the attitude in her piece: "If we took away a rigid legal system, common opinion says people would simply be running amok and committing heinous acts of violence against one another. If we gave factory workers any real autonomy, they would be sleeping on the job. If we gave children the ability to make their own decisions, they would sit and watch TV all day and never choose to learn anything at all." What I see as the critical difference between these situations and Angi's child's school is that the lazy or antisocial behaviors anticipated by legislative societies, even if they do exist, may be reactions to a system of imposed rules and emotionally invalidating social norms (exacerbated by situations in which, for example, the profit-motivated individuals in control of what's shown on TV choose to make cheap and uninspiring but gratifying material when, if people put enough thought and effort into their work rather than focusing on short-term profits, every show could be an Avatar).

Seeing the contrast between my experience and the behavior of these democratically raised children, who not only treat each other with the respect that I never saw from my school's bully culture but also, as Angi tells it, are conscientious about doing the work they've elected to assign themselves, I develop a hypothesis. If we, with the guidance of responsible, thoughtful mentors (including experienced fellow students), were the ones creating rules for our own behavior from childhood on, not only letting us practice the skills of negotiation, communication, and respect but also removing us from the situation of being forced to conform to a set of expectations imposed on us without justification, then a lack of a punishment apparatus would be less likely to result in harmful behavior. I argue that those behaviors are in large part, though not exclusively, a reaction against or a consequence of oppressive conditions in a society with high-profile narratives that place a high value, at least relative to some of the overtly oppressive regimes one might name, on individual expression and freedom.

There are counter-arguments. One has to account for findings suggesting that, for example, antisocial behaviors are correlated with unstructured leisure activities, while young people participating in highly structured activities tend to be in better harmony with their communities. Does this suggest that top-down control has the best social results? First, we need to ask whether that structure somehow causes or facilitates that more constructive behavior, or whether these teenagers -- who've already experienced years of education -- are already demonstrating a longterm deleterious effect of the top-down education model: an undernourished ability to self-impose structure. Remember also, if you're still concerned, that anarchy is not chaos: a reduction in top-down control is not synonymous with a reduction in structure. Instead, the structure becomes the fact of the communication-heavy, consent-based method itself.

I don't have experimental psychological or sociological data on anarchist/democratic schools, only the anecdotal case of the one Angi's daughter attends. All I have are a handful of articles arguing that education increases anti-authoritarian attitudes, but only with the right teachers; that a democratic education system may have been what enabled citizens of the USSR to resist the ruling regime; and that, in the United States, authoritarian attitudes are creeping into our public school system at a dangerous rate, which ought to reduce anti-authoritarian attitudes and increase complacency among coming generations, if the first paper is to be believed. None of these speak to the notion that externally imposed rule structures, as opposed to self-imposed rule structures, contribute to a disinclination or inability to self-impose structure (perhaps through making work extrinsically rewarding rather than encouraging people to do intrinsically rewarding work in class) or do less to discourage rulebreaking than would participation (as participation would enable students to try to change rules that don't work for them and to see the process through which they get created in the first place).

As it is, though, I can speak from my own experience growing up in an elementary school environment where I often struggled with authorities who either followed rules blindly or saw no reason to inform me of their decision-making process; certainly, students were directly involved in neither disciplinary decisions nor the initial rulemaking. Now as then, I strive to meet the demands of my situation, but the moment that I've met those demands, I often collapse: a moment of precious freedom! My chance to be myself! Such moments are rare and to be savored; I'm thus unlikely to do much work in that free time. And, in contrast to the external demands of productivity, "being myself" means not working. (I have noticed this changing for the better since I've entered graduate school.) My experience in high school was similar. We students had a direct hand in the school's Honor Code, its community and ethical framework (although seniors had a clearly privileged role in that process), but we did not have a hand in the curriculum or in discipline.

Let's not forget another problem: that having discipline externally imposed leaves people without a reason to learn self-discipline. I mentioned above that top-down imposition of rules and of assigned labor may damage the experience of learning as intrinsically valuable, instead making learning an extrinsic reward system and thus discouraging both self-education and self-directed work later in life. The most direct contrast I can offer is the badass self-motivated work ethic I see in many homeschooled friends. These friends of mine, who have always had a more individualized education and who have been personally involved in their own curricula, never stop astonishing me with both their drive and their can-do attitudes. They don't work for other people, either, or out of a socially imposed sense of productivity -- they do what they love, because they love it. Perhaps confounding variables exist and are to blame; also, my sample is absurdly small and biased toward people I like in the first place. One might use Google Scholar (or a paywalled article aggregator, if you're on a campus or can walk into a local university library) to investigate for oneself, unless one is too used to having information spoon-fed to one by teachers.2

Having been encouraged and involved instead of stifled and invalidated, these children have grown to rise and follow their own paths, setting a high standard and inspiring others along the way. One possible consequence of authoritarian schooling, in other words, is to severely undermine children's potential as self-motivated (and thus fulfilled and successful) individuals -- which, in an overpopulated and authoritarian world where leveraging collective power requires moving highly motivated groups against powerfully entrenched systems of control, undermines the freedom of future generations and our ability to know, care, and believe in our own agency enough to work against oppression on a global scale. If so, who knows how many potentially proactive people have been warped by this system?

Of course, one thing that most poly people have probably noticed is that a negotiation process takes time. If one is interested in a move toward a more consent-oriented, negotiation-based system that balances individual agency (and safety! -- anarchic democracy, not representative government or majority voting, would HAVE to be the rule to avoid perpetuation of any normative cruelties or ignorances the children bring with them from home) with community cohesion, one will have to contend with arguments about efficiency, productivity, economy -- one will have to contend with the idea that a person's value is related to their material and economic contributions, and that learning or personal growth are only justified by being in service of some productive end goal. (Citizenship doesn't show up in standardized test scores.) If one wants to engage in that conversation, one important place to start might be to listen to the experiences of (biomechanically or mentally) disabled individuals who've been marginalized based on, among other things, the difficulty of fitting such a person into existing apparatus of labor. One will also have to contend with the agricultural reality of our economy: y'all gotta work if y'all wanna eat, and if y'all want to support continued advances in medical science via both public funding and, on a more systemic level, societal division of labor ... and so on. In such an economy, it can be hard to make time for all of this interpersonal communication, as one is trying to earn a living. Perhaps this is among the reasons why consensus decision making isn't already prevalent in industrial societies, while government by consensus can be found in, for example, the Haudenosaunee (and scroll down for an essay an Onondaga/Mohawk law student). The amount of time and effort required for these negotiations also relates to my argument that we need to start when children are young: invite teenagers to the table in this model, and half of the people from my (highly selective, highly participatory, Honor Code based) high school will slouch through negotiations without saying a word, then go back to creating a culture in which casual bullying and teasing are so prevalent as to be make speaking out an act that feels like breaking a social contract. They may not have been a majority, but they just didn't care. Getting people involved when they're young fosters the sense that participation and political self-education are simply what one does.

As it becomes harder to justify our current top-down standardized education system and easier for nonsensical views to propagate, thus making it important for young people to be discerning, patient, and shrewd, I hope that people will realize that anti-authoritarian attitudes aren't just good for the rebels: they're good for society as a whole, because they produce responsible self-educators and thus better, more proactive global citizens. Moreover, self-motivated and autonomy-oriented attitudes are, of course, good for individuals (as long as we are careful to -- as a consensus model pushes us to do -- educate ourselves about the needs, perspectives, and experiences of others, which should lead to better empathy and more frequent freely made prosocial, anti-oppressive choices.) In a country where the individual is supposed to be the locus of civil rights and the easily forgotten civil responsibilities that go hand in hand with those freedoms, it's about time we started preparing people to live that way.

1: Veaux continues, "On the other hand, if your partner doesn't love and cherish you, and doesn't want to do right by you...well, no rule will save you.” I would add: or, they might love and cherish you but NOT choose to fulfill your every wish, in which case you get to make your own choices about whether that relationship still meets your needs, priorities, and boundaries. Love doesn't mean doing right by someone you love at your own expense, and I'm sure Franklin Veaux didn't mean to imply that love and wanting to do right give people the magical power to fulfill everyone's needs all the time. Sometimes, honest love means having the strength to say, "I can't".

2: See what I did there?

1 comment:

  1. So, this is way too big for me to be confident in my proofreading. Please forgive and point out any errors, including errors of fact or of reasoning.