Tuesday, September 16, 2003

On "Poisonous Pedagogy" and Politics

When I see articles like this, I find them fascinating but ultimately not very helpful in understanding the larger picture, that being the "resistance" of the general public to acknowledge the MO of Bush and his many minions. Of course, aside from the progressive blogging sphere, the few notable politicians, some members of the media and others, I wonder what the deal is with the rest of us. I wonder about the absence of collective public outcry. I wonder what happened to the media. Each day, it seems as though more absurdities are put out by this administration such that it becomes difficult to comprehend the enormously ugly situation we have here: Iraq, the environment, the constitutional attacks, the budget deficit, and onwards.

Alice Miller, the psychoanalyst who broke from her ranks to publish her then groundbreaking theories, offers some interesting psychological insights, which she developed in her quest to understand how Hitler to come into power. The Truth Will Set you Free, published by Perseus Books in 2001, is the most recent of her books and probably the most accessible. Here, Miller discusses again how the traditional methods of upbringing involve “a vicious circle of violence and ignorance”, resulting in a child who develops as a survival tool a strong sense of denial. This incredible denial results in a powerful “emotional blindness” that makes it difficult for the adult to be open to other possibilities and belief systems because doing so would bring up those old traumas hidden in the past. The denial is perpetuated into the next generation unconsciously. The barriers to these old childhood beliefs can only be taken down only when the (socially unacceptable) journey is undertaken to reflect and revisit childhood memories honestly.

Miller describes this type of parenting ”poisonous pedagogy”. It is:
    “…the kind of parenting and education aimed at breaking a child’s will and making that child into an obedient subject by means of overt and covert coercion, manipulation, and emotional blackmail”.
(p. ix in the preface of The Truth Will Set You Free).

Not coincidentally, I believe Miller’s poisonous pedagogy accurately describes the dark side of the more recently developed Strict Father family parenting model by George Lakoff in his book Moral Politics. (For an online summary of Lakoff’s work: see here but I challenge you to read his book, especially the chapters towards the end.) Since Lakoff is a cognitive scientist, he does not really discuss in depth the dynamics of how psychological damage is inflicted in order to maintain the Strict Father family system. But he does do a better job than psychology in describing the larger system.

Of note: Miller’s choice of words, while potent, may be an issue. Lakoff, in a recent editorial, for example, uses the much more effective reframe “betrayal of trust” to describe the larger system, the smaller part being the “lies”. Certainly “betrayal of trust” is much easier to stomach (and more socially acceptable) than the terms poisonous pedagogy.

And as I write this, I wonder if the current obedience and denial of the general American public and popular media may have reached some kind of nadir. I was surprised to see an LA Times editorial with criticism of Mr. Cheney’s presentation on Meet The Press. However, I do think that a denial mindset is quite refractive to change. (Miriam Greenspan recently wrote a wonderful book Healing through the dark emotions : the wisdom of grief, fear, and despair (Shambala, 2003) detailing the importance and difficulty of examining those dark and painful emotions).

Online, a brief example of Miller’s work is here. Her other books are psychoanalytically minded and may be difficult to slog through if that is not your style. However, for the willing, the trio of Drama of the Gifted Child, Thou Shalt Not Be Aware, and For Your Own Good provide plenty of night time reflection.