from The Psychology of Liberty
by Wes Bertrand © 2000, copylefted 2007

How The Will Gets Weakened

Since ancient times, in exchange for living in the group, people regularly had to abide by the rules of the group. One rule, of course, was to show deference to powerful authority figures. If one disobeyed this rule, one was either punished or ostracized.

A similar situation exists in dictatorial family environments. Parents sometimes enact their substantial ability to foster authoritarian relationships. Many children in unhealthy families must show unwavering deference to their seemingly omnipotent, omniscient, and infallible parents. There are not many good alternatives for those of inferior rank who disagree with this living arrangement. Educational theorist and teacher Maria Montessori had a great deal to say about this kind of psychological milieu. She wrote about parental practices of ruling over the child:

Tyranny defies discussion. It surrounds the individual with the impenetrable walls of recognized authority. Adults dominate children by virtue of a recognized natural right. To question this right would be the same as attacking a kind of consecrated sovereignty. If in a primitive community a tyrant represents God, an adult to a child is divinity itself. He is simply beyond discussion. Rather than disobey, a child must keep silent and adjust himself to everything.

If he does show some resistance, this will rarely be a direct, or even intended reply to an adult’s action. It will rather be a vital defense of his own psychic integrity or an unconscious reaction to oppression....

Only with time does a child learn how to react directly against this tyranny. But by then an adult will have learned how to overcome a child by subtler means, convincing him that this tyranny is all for his own good.

A child owes respect to his elders, but adults claim the right to judge and even offend a child. At their own convenience they direct or even suppress a child’s needs, and his protests are regarded as a dangerous and intolerable lack of submission.

Adults here adopt the attitude of primitive rulers who exact tribute from their subjects without any right of appeal. Children who believe that they owe everything to adults are like those peoples who think that everything they possess is a gracious gift from their king. But are not adults responsible for this attitude? They have adopted the role of a creator and in their pride have maintained that they are responsible for everything that pertains to a child. They make him good, pious, and intelligent, and enable him to come into contact with his environment, with men, and with God. And to make the picture more complete, they refuse to admit that they are exercising any tyranny. And yet has there ever been a tyrant who has ever admitted that he has preyed upon his subjects?66(p.152)

Such a childhood situation can oftentimes be inescapable. Whether it occurs in blatant or in subtle ways, the general themes concerning misuse of power usually remain. Naturally, to realize the later societal manifestations of such practices requires no great psychological leap. The whole process is self-perpetuating: the child learns from parents’ behavior (as well as from others). Parents teach the child the specific ways of dealing with self and others. The child learns what is expected from others and then passes this on (i.e., if he or she fully accepts it).

Social demands on individuals to conform can be sizeable, both within the family and society in general. The inherent imbalances of power in adult/child as well as State/citizen relationships can both invite exploitation. The key distinction, however, is that the State/citizen relationship is always a corrupt one. Due to the aggressive policies of the State, it cannot be made right (a conclusion explored further in subsequent sections). The adult/child relationship, in contrast, simply requires fulfillment of certain obligations to maintain its appropriateness and health.

Nonetheless, people who accept the position of ruler—be it of the family, tribe, or State—are not commonly known for encouraging individuality and pursuit of one’s enlightened self-interest. Typically, they uphold the welfare of the group more than that of any particular person (except, of course, the person ruling the group). In this way individuals can easily come to view themselves, albeit falsely, as naturally dependent beings rather than independent beings.

An independent being must use its own faculties to live and maintain itself. A dependent being just has to follow others and rely on their offerings. Dependent minds encourage obedience and submission, and discourage self-assertion. The assertion of personal values in line with reason and reality is the opposite of the demand for obedience; it never entails destroying the autonomy of others with the threat of force. The tactics of force and intimidation are merely the irrational values of every tyrannical attitude that has ever existed.

Cast in authoritarian predicaments for many centuries, most people tended to overlook the con game of power-lust that was partly responsible for destroying their happiness, their self-esteem, and their lives. They told themselves (as children sometimes do with their parents) that leaders of the tribe or State really “mean well”—and that the welfare of the group should come first.

They concluded that their personal desires, values, and interests were just one person’s among many. To demand that they be treated with respect and dignity—to assert that their lives were at least as important as any in the group—would be terribly selfish.

But, in truth, what gives the group importance is the importance of the individuals within it. Rationalizations are not reasons, of course. They are ways for people to make the conditions around them, and the decisions they have made, seem tolerable; they make certain behavior seem appropriate. Because they are false justifications, they attempt to make the wrong seem right. Naturally, rationalizations gradually wreck one’s self-confidence and self-respect.

To say that the conditions of one’s life are intolerable puts one in a precarious position—a position that demands action. The outcome of such action may be unknown, and taking it may even be dangerous. To disobey the irrational rules of the group may actually jeopardize one’s life and well-being. Even though less and less benefit can be obtained from living in an environment that increasingly exercises coercion, the desired outcome must be worth the risk both physically and psychologically.

For those who lived (and are living) in very cruel social contexts, a life half-lived was thought to be better than no life at all. Historically, many citizens were faced with enormously antagonistic leaders and their compliant followers. Implementation of a better way of life was a colossal project that bordered on the impossible—considering the close-mindedness, disapproval, and hostile attitudes of the people involved. Autonomy can be viewed as a severe threat to those who do not advocate it. Often, nothing can persuade them to strive for a better way of living.

In the past, some tried vigorously and valiantly to change the outlook and behavior of the group. Some had a different vision of human relationships. Usually, only modest strides were made primarily because of the contextual nature of their efforts. The time for psychological steps forward was problematic. The current level of knowledge was minimal and the patterns of compliant behavior were solidified; the pressures to conform to the group were too massive to be altered. Early on, people unquestioningly submitted to their fears of independence.

No doubt, tolerating grave circumstances is a common way to deal with them. In the long run, however, such a practice sabotages the struggle for individuation as well as autonomy—two traits necessary for the mental health of volitional beings. Merely suffering through social injustices also keeps dormant the invaluable political concept of liberty. One can only guess, for example, what form the United States would have taken had the American colonists tolerated the “Injuries and Usurpations” inflicted by Great-Britain. Ultimately, the ideas people have about themselves and about others will establish their way of living, both psychologically and politically.

The tribal or collectivistic mentality has been rooted in the individual psyche for centuries. If context and level of knowledge mean anything, then we can at least understand—though not justify—this phenomenon. This mentality provides safety in exchange for conformity, security in exchange for obedience. In addition, it provides comfort in exchange for emotional denial. Finally, it seeks to make independent thought appear unnecessary. Again, there are near limitless rationalizations to defend such trade-offs, but none of them lead to self-esteem.

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