Thursday, March 24, 2011

Yes, Virginia: Children Left Alone on an Island Will Eat Each Other

Before I got the hang of book burning, I had only ever destroyed one piece of literature in my life: William Golding's Lord of the Flies. This wasn't because it was tedious (though it was), or pretentious (which is definitely was). It wasn't because I had no idea what "sucks to your asth-mar" meant. When I finished that book, I ripped its cover off, threw it across the room, and hid in a corner so I wouldn't have to look at it because it rang so true.

About a year and a half ago, we find out that William Golding was practically a child-rapist, and some people aren't surprised because who else would have such a malevolent view of children?

Um...anyone who actually remembers what being a child is like, maybe?

Playgrounds are every bit as brutal as Golding's island. Children love to dominate and terrorize others. They hate for anyone to be better than they are, and they are eager to exploit weakness in others. And they're good at it. Very, very good at it.

Were you "the smart kid" in class? Do you remember the reaction when you made a mistake that someone noticed? Any other kid's spelling error would be met with indifference, but yours ignites the entire classroom to frenzied shouts about your wrongness.

Were you "the athlete?" Do you remember the sly looks when you broke your arm and got your comeuppance for all those times you ran effortless circles around everyone else?

Were you "the goody two shoes?" Do you remember the visceral mockery directed at you by your peers the one time you forgot your homework, an error that would have gotten no attention at all had any other student committed it?

If you think you don't, I suggest you think harder. This is standard fare in schools, public or private, in cities or in the country, in rich areas or poor ones. It's your standard, run of the mill "hatred of the good for being good," only magnified about a billion times through the high-intensity emotions of childhood.

But wait, S. Misanthrope! Don't you subscribe to the benevolent universe premise? Aren't children fluffy kittens because one time Ayn Rand described them as fluffy kittens?

Yes, I am all about the BUP in my own cynical, jaded way, and yes, children raised in an idyllic valley that's basically one giant Montessori school probably would turn out to be fluffy kittens, but that's not what Golding was writing about. He was writing about children raised in our world. The world of involuntary socialization, sharing, punishment and reward. The world where right and wrong are handed down by adults and when the adults can't see you, anything goes.

And then you take away the adults, leaving you with cannibalism and a fat kid's brains scrambled on a rock.

I'm not here to defend Golding's book, and certainly not his deplorable actions during his life. As accurately as he identified and recorded the brutality children are capable of, he mistook its source. He believed we humans possess a violent and destructive nature by default, and children eating each other is the natural way of things. This is false generally, but true in the particular case of our culture and child-rearing practices.

Why does this happen?

From the time we enter school (age 3 for me), we are essentially thrown into combat. Not in a cool, Spartan way, but in a slimy, miserable way that produces not the best warrior, but the best thief. At an age where we are intent on exploring our environment and figuring out the world, other children are not sources of potential value but competitors for scarce resources.

Blocks. Finger paints. Tinker Toys. Animal Crackers. The only means to securing any of these delights is through force or fraud, and the better method is fraud. Force is too visible and makes it too easy for your victim to prove your wrongdoing to the authority figure. Fraud, on the other hand, is subtle, almost silent, and there's nothing the other kids can do about it.

Say you're in preschool, and you see another child start to play with an action figure. A moment ago, you had no interest in playing with that action figure, but now your little three-year-old brain realizes there's competition for this action figure. If you just wait around until you actually want to play with it, it will be too late. It's time to corner the market on action figures.

You casually make your way toward your classmate. He notices you. There's fear in his eyes, and misery. Almost immediately he goes on the defensive. It's a fatal mistake.

"Mine," he says. You simply stare in response.

"Mine!" he says, more loudly. You start to reach for the toy.

"MIIIINE!" he sobs, causing the teacher to appear.

"What's going on here?" she says. Your classmate is crying.

"Mine," he says, with just the faintest touch of hope in his voice.

"Now, now," Teacher says, "we have to share." The glimmer of hope disappears. Teacher turns to you now and says:

"Why don't you take a turn for a little while?"

Just like that, you've won. Your classmate, who by any rational standard had every right to undisturbed play with his toy, can cry and kick and scream all day, but it will only solidify the teacher's belief that what she dealt out was justice. You've won, and you can go on winning this way forever. Not just with communal property either; the same trick will allow you to gained control of other children's personal property, too. Anyone raised in a traditional American school remembers the dreaded phrase:

"Did you bring enough for everyone?"

 That one sentence alone doomed generations of children, myself included, to the Lord of the Flies existence Golding so vividly illustrates.

Luckily most of us do not end up in plane crashes on deserted islands. We grow up and join our capitalist-ish society and discover that other people can be downright pleasant when traded with under mutually agreeable terms to mutual benefit. Force and fraud no longer get you what you want, but hard work and honesty do. Unless, of course, we're talking about eminent domain, or government contracts, or government permission to provide cell phone service or internet or cable, or welfare, or "free" health care, or breadlines, or emissions standards, or any other mandated form of "equality" that really just means we're back on the god-damned playground again, where the best manipulator wins.

Now that I think on it, Lord of the Flies might be worth another look despite everything, but this time as a how-to guide for surviving in Golding's world. It's likely to be our world from cradle to grave before too long.

Passing the conch now,

S. Misanthrope


  1. Very thoughtful post. Did not know Golding's inexcusable history, though. Ick! But given his sense of life, I guess I'm not super surprised.

  2. Children aren't fluffy kittens: Children make terrible packing material.