So, you are really tired of all the bad news, right?
So, here is some good news for once. Scientists have now clearly identified the root cause of most of the mayhem in the world.
Harvard professor and one of the editors of the tellingly named report “From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development,” Jack Shonkoff puts it explicitly:
“The foundations of a successful society rest on the health and competence of its population. It is just common sense to conclude that what happens early in life sets the foundation for everything that follows. What is exciting about the revolution that we are living through right now in biological science, is that we are beginning to understand at the molecular level why that is true.”
“The foundation for everything that follows”! If so, then we are really on to something here. Once we know the root cause of problems then we have the key to resolving them. Otherwise, all our efforts at dealing with the troubles of the world will be at best symptomatic and superficial.
Firstly, let’s be specific about what that “everything” might include?
Looking at our world, we can start with one of the most obvious issue we face: conflict.
The main sources of conflict, and the violence that it so often leads to, are based on the usual suspects: our attitudes to nation, religion, race, ethnicity, caste, gender, sexual orientation, age… to name but a few.
We only have to look at our own childhood to know where most of our own attitudes, beliefs and values about these matters come from. We were not born singing “God Save the Queen” or any other national anthem. Or born waving flags in support of this ideology or that.
We have to be conditioned to happily accept the roles of cannon fodder – and canon fodder. And today too many of those cannons are nukes. We have to be trained to be killers and rapists. We have to be trained to see skin color as more significant than eye color or shoe size, or even shoe color for that matter.
Who took all that trouble to train yesterday’s babies to be today’s contributors to this madness? We did. Who else?
And who is doing the same for today’s babies? We are. Who else?
How exactly does this work? Paul Harris, professor of education at Harvard, is doing groundbreaking research on precisely this. He has identified the brilliant heuristics that children use to try and figure out whom to believe, and what is real and what is nonsense. In “Trusting What You’re Told: How Children Learn from Others,” he describes how quite young children can quickly assess that germs or oxygen, which they cannot see, have a different level of reality from fairies, angels, ghosts, and gods, which they also cannot see. Even at six years old they notice that they never hear anyone say, “I am a true believer in germs.” Aha. All clear. Clever.
Sadly, by adolescence, as Paul Harris explains in the final third of his book, the intuitions of these smart kids are drowned out in favor of whatever their particular society insists is true. Hence a significant majority of Americans still believe in angels, ghosts, and gods. Not because these creatures exist, but because we have instilled these beliefs in their young heads.
If it is so easy to persuade these supersmart little kids into accepting such improbable beliefs, like the existence of these invisible entities, then anything is possible. Including brainwashing them into believing in the value of competition over cooperation, conflict over harmony, violence over peace. Then any “reason” will be simply a rationalization of the underlying conditioning – essentially, just an excuse
It is not only that we are indoctrinated with “reasons” to fight with others. We are also trained to fight with ourselves.
Babies arrive after enjoying 24/7 womb service for nine months. It is not like they are hesitant about expressing what they do and don’t want. They may not have many demands, but whatever they want, they want it now. You may feel like jumping out of the window trying to keep up with them, but they are not giving up till they get it – with powerful lungs to support their demands. So, how did so many of these wonderfully self-confident, assertive little customers get turned into self-hating, self-destructive, depressed, suicidal teenagers and adults wracked by unworthiness? Not without a lot of really unpleasant help from the rest of us, including of course, the ones that insist that they are acting out of love. As Osho explains, “The whole sickness of man’s mind is created by the family” and of course particularly the modern creation: the nuclear family.
The ones who actually kill themselves are the tip of a monumental iceberg of unhappiness, mostly unseen beneath the waves of hello and good-bye.
It is so clear that if we have been conditioned to fight against ourselves, to be at war with our own nature, how can we not also be against the nature of our neighbors, or against nature in general?
Unless this changes, we are bound to live in conflict with ourselves, with others, and with the natural world around us.
What could be more insane than failing to respond to this understanding that the whole direction of human society depends on how we take care of the “early life” of our children? Especially when we can see that the direction we are headed is endangering the only home we have here on Planet Earth.
As that famous adage, puts it: “Insanity is to continue doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting a different result.”
Or as Osho originally explained:
“The mind is always asking you to do something over again, something you have already done so many times before. And every time you see that by doing it nothing is achieved. What else can madness be?”
So, put simply, whether we are concerned about climate change, or the destruction of our natural habitat, or nuclear war, or the rise of fascism…. Or that “black lives matter,” or mass killings in US schools, or that there are now no less than nine ethnic, sectarian or separatist civil wars being waged in the area between Pakistan and Nigeria – or the resultant refugee crisis – or that in the US alone a woman is raped every few minutes…. Whatever it is we are concerned about, the seeds are sown in childhood.
The reason this is such a tricky issue for us to grasp is that we are trapped in an existential dilemma. In order to deal with this situation, we use our already conditioned minds – to unravel the problems created by our already conditioned minds. It is like the fish asking what the ocean is.
The work of Felicia Pratto, professor of psychology at the University of Connecticut, on social dominance, social hierarchy, prejudice and oppression, clarifies what is happening. She identifies exactly the causative beliefs and values, that we only learn after birth, and which lie at the root of these phenomena.
These beliefs are almost invisibly, and deeply, entwined in each of us individually and pollute every collective entity that we create.
We will never manage to extract all those pernicious tendrils unless we deal with their roots. All of which is confirmed by the work being done on unconscious bias: showing that we tend to see ourselves as nice, color-blind, gender-sensitive, unprejudiced people – until we do the tests and check what is really under the hood. It is pretty obvious that as we are brought up in societies full of prejudices about gender, skin color, physical appearance… really everything… we inevitably grow up with racist, misogynist... beliefs.
A perfect example of the way these unconscious biases affect every aspect of our lives is the recent research from Wharton and Columbia business schools. We all know that males are better at math than females. Just look at the number of women professors of mathematics. Don’t even ask about black-skinned female professors.
This study – of a quarter of a million teenagers across 40 countries – shows that this discrepancy in math skills has almost nothing to do with either gender or math. It is dependent on what the authors call “the power gap” between the genders in each particular society – the social dominance that Pratto describes. They note:
“In countries with the highest levels of gender equality, the gap in math performance between males and females disappeared. “
In fact, in Iceland, which has one of the highest levels of gender equality, females actually outperformed males in math. The female students had lower math scores only in societies where they lacked power.”
Another example comes from the prestigious postgraduate school Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris. Each year about 60% of the successful candidates for the literature section are women. The written tests don’t reveal the identities of the candidates, and because of Covid-19, the oral exams were canceled. For the first time, the examination was free of gender bias. The result? Suddenly this year the percentage of successful female candidates jumble from 60% to 77%!
Where did we first learn to internalize and accept the values and beliefs that underlie social dominance? In childhood of course.
Unless we deal with the reality of childhood conditioning, we are going to continue putting Band-Aids on cancers and wonder why nothing changes.
Once we understand this, a whole new doorway opens.
Look at the endless, painful debate provoked by the gun deaths in the USA. One side keeps repeating that guns have to be controlled because guns kill. The other side keeps repeating that guns don’t kill, people do. So, control the people, not the guns. People keep dying and the divide between the two points of view is never resolved. Each side is both right and wrong: of course, guns kill only with the help of people – people conditioned, from childhood, to use guns to kill. Which is why the USA is one of just six countries, with just 10% of the world’s population, but where 50% of the world’s 250,000 firearm deaths occur each year.
It is the conditioning that is the killer.
Hence all the confusion about “why is this such an American phenomenon?” It is because of the specific qualities of US conditioning. Simple. Then the whole debate changes. The second amendment’s “right to keep and bear arms” is not the problem. The Swiss have a ton of guns too, but they don’t kill each other with the frenzy of US-Americans. The problem lies elsewhere.
The solution? In the next article, “The Childcare Revolution That Changes Everything,” we will examine how this understanding of the crucial role of childhood conditioning in determining the direction of our societies, is the basis of an emerging childcare revolution that can change everything. Yes, everything. And there is no better, or more timely, good news than that.
By John Andrews M.B.,B.S. M.R.C.P
This article was previously published in the HuffPost, India