Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Dangers of Other-Direction

OR

What Daycare and Prom Have in Common

Some of my co-workers have children in daycare.  At present, our son is not.  There are many sound arguments for placing children in such an arrangement, but I would instead like to address one fallacious argument.  Some people say they want to place their children in daycare to teach them good social skills, or - presented it its more striking opposite form - so that they don't turn out as unsocialized loner weirdos.

Sociability is a good thing so far as it goes, but as David Riesman points out in his 1950 classic The Lonely Crowd, sociability has its limits.  Riesman describes three, or rather, four, types of people.  Tradition-directed people live by the standards and customs of their culture, even if no other members of that group are around, or are even left alive.  Such people are virtually unknown in the modern industrialized experience.  The inner-directed person lives by the standards of a inner gyroscope spun up by his or her parents.  The other-directed person lives in accordance with the opinions of those around him or her.  As Riesman points out, a world of other-directed people can end up all trying to emulate one another, without anyone having a clear sense of purpose.  Hence the title.

I recently spoke with a social worker in the Federal City who said the young people she worked with precisely fit Riesman's description of contemporary other-direction.  They were utterly lacking in the drive and self-discipline which characterize the inner-directed person, instead constantly indulging their various whims.  However, these troubled youths were so other-directed that they could not even decide what it was they wanted, and thus frequently brought trouble on themselves in the course of seeking not their own desires, but the perceived desires of those around them.

Such a situation is not unique to difficult neighborhoods.  It should also be familiar to anyone who has considered the problem of high school proms.  As a student government faculty adviser once explained to me, no one wants to go to prom when no one is going to prom.  But once everyone is going to prom, everyone wants to go.  If one were to graph prom plans on the Y against time on the X, the result would be an inverted L: for a long time no one wants to go, then suddenly the zeitgeist shifts and interest soars.

This isn't really a post about daycare or prom; it's about that sudden shift in public attitudes.  The rapid turnover in fashions of all kinds - sartorial, dietary, technological - exhibits this phenomenon.  So too do American views on same-sex marriage.  As late as 2005, many polls showed that a majority of Americans - perhaps as much as two thirds - opposed same-sex marriage.  By 2012 a majority of Americans supported the recognition of such unions.  The pace of change has caught both supporters and opponents by surprise, prompting analysis among pundits and rapid position changes by politicians.  Let me suggest that this rapid change may be the result of our contemporary other-directed society.  Everyone now supports same-sex marriage because everyone supports same-sex marriage.

Opponents of same-sex marriage may rail against other-direction on this point, but other issues could be raised on which the left opposed the zeitgeist.  Rather than tallying partisan points, let me suggest that Americans of all political stripes should be concerned about this problem.

The answer is not to remove children from daycare or quit holding proms.  Rather, a solution begins first by recognizing the problem and then envisioning a solution.  I mentioned a few paragraphs ago that Riesman described four types of people.  Whereas the tradition-, inner-, and other-directed are all directed by other people, directly or indirectly, he posits a fourth kind who is not: the autonomous person.  Such a person makes decisions for him or herself.  If cultivating such autonomous reason is a difficult task - and surely it is - perhaps it can be tempered with a stern adherence to received values and a regard for traditional ways.  None of these are perfect guides which can guarantee a correct outcome, but at least they avoid the madness of the crowd.  It's something worth attempting.
Post a Comment