Monday, 10 June 2013

Childhood and Negotiating Power Structures

Over Christmas I read a western novel called North to the Rails by Louis L'amour. It is about Tom Chantry, a man from the East who comes to the Wild West to buy cattle and save his future father-in-law's business. His father was a sheriff in the West who was killed in a shoot-out, and the son who grows up fatherless in the East vows he will never use a gun. After encountering several scoundrels and almost getting killed a few times he decides to revisit his conviction about guns. "All earthly justice relies on violence," he realizes. "Back East it does too, but the violence is concealed by the well organized structure of a criminal and justice system. Here, where there is no structure but that which a man creates for himself, that violence just becomes more obvious." Tom decides to buy a rifle, and once he wounds a man in self-defence his conversion to "gun rights" is complete.

The book really operates as an aesthetic argument for gun rights. I could say a lot more interesting things about the process of this conversion, but for now I want to just examine the point he makes on justice and violence. Whether the violence to support justice is best obtained with gun rights or gun control is another debate which I will not address here.

We have been visiting my in-laws, and it has been interesting to watch the interactions between my 2 and a half year old daughter and my 3 year old nephew. When push comes to shove, he is the strongest, and so without the intercession of watchful parents he would set the rules by superior force. However, since that kind of system creates bullies and victims of bullying, we try to enforce systems of "justice" to teach our children certain civic virtues. It is interesting to see now from the other side the arbitrariness of the systems we adults try to get children to adhere to. Each of these systems have different values which they promote, but they also set the foundations for the arguments which can be made for "justice"

One version is the "first come first served" (FCFS) where a toy is owned by whoever picks it up first. The same system which worked for claims on land during the gold rushes or which operates now for Black Friday sales or airline tickets. A kind of "finder's keeper's" rule. We often take this for granted, yet there is no universal reason for why being fast should in any way give you a prerogative to claim a certain item. It makes moral sense because it rewards those who plan ahead and make special efforts to secure goods or services, and planning and focus are virtues which we have decided to reward in our society. It makes financial sense because it encourages early buying, which make profits more predictable, and companies value predictability. But it also puts at disadvantage people who are slower, less informed, or who do not have the resources or knowledge to plan ahead. My nephew can run faster than my daughter, and so even though they set out to get a toy at the same time, he will nearly always come first. The arguments about justice which naturally follow from such a system in property disputes are "I had it first," "I wanted it first and then she just took it to be spiteful." Also, any unfair advantage given one party in early planning or speed of acquisition are presented as unlawful manipulations of the principle. For example, one party comes early and buys all the land, tickets, or products to get a monopoly and be able to charge extortion-prices. These may seem like childish claims, but they are very frequent in disputes of property and services in systems based on this principle.

Another version is based on prior ownership, favoring current property structures. Each child has certain toys which belong to them exclusively and which only they can play with. This is a typical structure with stable values, with little to be renegotiated or shared. For example, land is probably the most stable value out there, and the traditions for writing deeds on lands and drawing up boundaries is one of the oldest legal traditions in the world. It teaches the values of ownership, responsibility, and respect for other people's property. Yet there is also a glaring problem with this model: It measures value as something set in stone, and as such excludes the possibilities of sharing and creating greater value. For example, in our case, of course my nephew owns more toys in his own house, and if my daughter was never to touch any of his toys she would have precious little to play with. In the end that would make both of them unhappy. My daughter, because she can't play with all the wonderful toys (which sit there full of unused happiness potential) and my nephew because my daughter cannot play with him whenever toys are involved. So far we have settled for a limited version of this were a few select toys are exclusively owned by the one or the other, which creates some safety of ownership in the midst of the very fluctuating ownership of everything else. Arguments with this system often center around the validity and ratification of documents which prove ownership (for example, if followed without pragmatism this system would give ownership of half of California to a Dutch captain and his family, and all of USA to several tribes of Native Americans). "But it's mine!" "I got it as a present," and "This was given to me" are common arguments in such a system.

A third system which tries to make the most active use of the available resources (toys) is one I would call Active Usage Possession. The principle is that toys are resources with capacity for fun which should be exploited to the fullest to avoid waste. This is achieved by linking ownership of a toy to active playing being done with it. "It is yours as long as you are still playing with it, but when you stop playing with it then someone else can use it." Here ownership is extremely variable, more of a stewardship, but the toys are used more and to greater benefit than they would be in the two former systems, so it is the one we use the most. It is also similar to the systems many governments use to grant usage of government land for extraction of minerals, oil, gas, and other resources. Usage of the land is linked to how well the company can make use of the resources contained on that land. It is also similar to the resource and power of leadership, which is bestowed on individuals as long as they can use their position for the profit of the larger group.

Of course, there are many obvious problems with this model. It is a nightmare to enforce it. When exactly has one party stopped using a toy? As soon as it touches the ground? When the party has moved on to another toy? When the child has left to another room? Can a child own more than one toy like this at once? My daughter one moment claims she was still playing with it just to prevent losing possession of it, and the next moment she clearly does not care about it as soon as my nephew no longer is wanting to play with it. Also, in an economy when a resource only has value as long as the other person wants it, it creates the foundation for endless contention and perpetual dissatisfaction. The lack of stability can also be very confusing, and a natural reaction is the obsessive "hoarding" which we have seen many examples of. One child continually walks around holding his or her three favourite toys, limiting mobility and the usage of their hands for other things, such as eating properly. Of course, arguments in this system circle about the quality of usage and whether usage has ceased or not.

All of these are systems which only work because they are backed by the superior force of parental supervision. They are not yet ingrained enough in our children to prevent a regular violent free-for-all as soon as this force disappears for long enough. Yet, at some point, children start regulating affairs between themselves in these same terms. The rules, arbitrarily but consistently applied by parents and teachers seem to get a life of their own, and are elevated to the status of natural laws such as gravity. However, one soon learns that they are not. I'd like to illustrate this by using a childhood memory.

"We were all really excited as we waited for the bus. This was the day we were going to tip the scales. This was the day we were going to change the world. Our school bus started its journey at the junior high school in town where all the cool and older kids came on. They would always occupy the very back of the bus, from which position of safety they would coalesce as a group and hurl insults and abuse on us small fry entering the bus later at the primary school. Of course they always had those seats. They came on the bus first, and so they had the first choice. Today, that was going to change. We had come up as a class to use the gym and swimming pool at their school for our PE lessons, and we had finished in time to catch the bus home.  The bell had not yet rung at the junior high school, and the school buses were arriving one by one. There was ours! As soon as it opened its doors we piled in. Six of us courageously walked to occupy the bench at the very back of the bus. We looked excitedly at each other, enjoying the privileged position we had obtained. First come, first served.

The bell rang, and the junior high students filed out in the schoolyard and into the buses. The voice of the largest boy of the cool gang boomed through the bus as he walked past the driver. He looked at us. At first with surprise, then with a scowl, then with a cold smirk which made us all swallow. The rest of the gang entered. Five boys and three girls in all. They descended on the seats in front of us. The doors closed, the bus started driving. Nowhere to go. The driver was blind to anything but the road. The largest guy sized us up. "Move!" he commanded. We froze. Feebly, I protested, "W-we were here first." My voice was like a little frog, and it elicited mocking laughter from the group. He thrust his hand to my neck and pushed me up against my seat, "You think you're so tough, don't you?" I shrank. We adults often forget what it is like to live in a world full of giants. Most people around us now measure roughly about the same size as we do. This guy was twice my weight and twice my height. If he wanted to, he could kill me. What followed was a 20 minute drive which seemed to last for an eternity. Threats, verbal abuse, shoves, and small punches to the stomach broke up the constant fear we felt for these giants with regular intervals of panic. One by one my classmates exited the bus as their stops came up. Mine was at the very end of the route. Soon I was all alone. I had to get out. The primary school stop came up. I decided to get out. As I walked past the largest guy he tripped me. I fell forward and hit my head against a seat. Dazed, I could make out laughing and someone smearing chewing gum into my hair. It was one of the girls in the gang. Crying, I stumbled off the bus and collapsed in the schoolyard. Someone called my mother and asked her to pick me up. I still remember weeping uncontrollably as my mother tried to get the chewing gum out of my hair. The principal told my mother what had happened, and concluded, "There's no point even trying something like that." My mind burned with the injustice of it all. So it was really all my fault?

I had played according to the rules they had given me, but they never told me what rules govern when the referee isn't looking. I had believed that rules such as "first come first served" were universal and powerful enough that even bullies had to respect them. I learned bitterly that day that sometimes rules are only as good as the threat of force which enforces them. Even a guardian of these rules will often blame the victim when enforcement is not possible. "Don't go looking for trouble" becomes the creed, and any claim for "justice" is seen as a naive belief in abstract rules which do not apply in a pragmatic reality. I often make the same mistake myself. When I can't tell who is right, or if it is too complicated to change things, I often ask my daughter or nephew to just accept the new status quo, disregarding the bitter tears they cry for the stings of injustice suffered. Just about any system of justice/injustice is better than that of brute force, yet any system of justice needs to be supported by a system of force to have any defense against brute force. Violence is the shadow-system of justice, the foundation and necessary criteria for it, and that becomes evident when society descends into periods of anarchy and lawlessness. Words can gather or disband armies, but even the best words cannot stop bullets.