“From time immemorial man has been made in such a way that his vision of the world, so long as it has not been instilled under hypnosis, his motivations and scale of values, his actions and intentions are determined by his personal and group experience of life. [During] the long epochs when our world lay spread out in mystery and wilderness, before it became encroached by common lines of communication, before it was transformed into a single, convulsively pulsating lump – men, relying on experience, ruled without mishap within their limited areas, within their communities, within their societies, and finally on their national territories. At that time it was possible for individual human beings to perceive and accept a general scale of values, to distinguish between what is considered normal, what incredible; what is cruel and what lies beyond the boundaries of wickedness; what is honesty, what deceit. And although the scattered peoples led extremely different lives and their social values were often strikingly at odds, just as their systems of weights and measures did not agree, still these discrepancies surprised only occasional travellers, were reported in journals under the name of wonders, and bore no danger to mankind which was not yet one.”
— Alexander Sozhenitsyn, Nobel Lecture (1970)
The History of Socialization
When I say that youth culture is the culture of motherlessness, what I mean is that in a normal civilization, youths are socialized into the culture of their parents, and in the modern West mothers have stopped socializing their children.
Earlier eras might have had:
- distinct aristocratic, peasant and bourgeois “subcultures” inside the broader culture of an entire civilization
- special castes (like the soldiers or the bankers)
- esoteric religious cults
- persistent ethnic minorities with their own (sub)cultures
But the youth could not have their own distinct subculture, because in these eras children were undergoing initiation into the adult world. Each social order raises its children, first, as members of a common culture, and then secondarily as members of their own social order, so that the children grow up to be adult aristocrats, adult peasants, adult craftsmen, and so on.
(In other cases what makes the life of a group so distinctively a sub-culture is that is cut off from family life and reproduction, and the education/hazing of new members — for example, new recruits in an army or novices in an ascetic cult — is about forcing them to see the world with new eyes, to stimulate the rebirth of the initiate into a world alien to everyday life.)
It was not always a special duty of mothers to socialize their children. Historically, fathers played an important role — but then so too did neighbors, cousins, and the parish priest. Roughly speaking, mothers assume a monopoly over the socialization of an infant while it is breastfeeding which they do not fully lose until the child can walk and talk.
At that point the mother is no longer required to keep the baby with her at all times and the role of the father can become considerable. As the child gets closer to adolescence its mother can no longer manage it physically and the great strength and strength of character of the father may give him the predominate role. At approximately the same time, the child’s preoccupations shift from play towards some form of productive effort (whether actual work, training, or a combination of both).
The focus of socialization shifts at this age as well. Sociologists contrast the “primary socialization” which furnished us with the language, norms and other basic knowledge we need to live in society at all with the “secondary socialization” which teaches us how to serve our society in a certain way — as a doctor, for example, or as a mechanic. If a peasant girl needs a secondary socialization to prepare her to be a peasant’s wife, she will spend that time with her mother (a peasant’s wife), helping with the weaving, the cooking, and the gardening; her brother on the other hand needs to spend more time with his father, learning to plow straight furrows.
Thus both mothers and fathers played a large role in traditional socialization, with the father’s role growing as the child became more independent and robust, but the main responsibility for socializing each child fell on whichever adult already did the job the child needed to learn to do. Civilization disrupted this dynamic by prolonging childhood and intensifying the division of labor.
Strictly speaking, human neoteny began long before civilization. Human infants are unusually helpless and dependent on their mothers even by the relaxed standards of placental mammals. The abilities of newborns from different continents, at birth, as well as the ages at which they reach all their subsequent developmental milestones confirms that the unusual prolongation of human development (and especially cerebral development) is still under differential selection pressure across the globe.
Stone-age agriculture and then civilization itself may have increased the cognitive demands of human life and thus intensified selection for innate, biological neoteny. But as the process of civilization continues, the specialization of social roles contributes to neoteny in its own right.
The more difficult the performance of an adult social role, the less a child is able to contribute, even as an assistant, and the longer he has to wait before he is mature enough to attempt to master the performance himself. Indeed, as a certain kind of work changes — becoming more precise, more efficient, more organized — a team of workers will find the presence of clueless intruders increasingly annoying, even if the latter are only there to observe.
But these are precisely the tasks whose execution is most difficult to grasp only by watching! So the young one has no real reason to observe anyway, until it is finally time for him to learn to do the task properly; but if the task is sufficiently complex, this training may require elaborate preparation. The three “R’s” — reading, writing, and arithmetic — by themselves require five years of continuous, full-time education even for very bright children, during which time children cannot be socialized by joining their parents at work.
Even as the deepening division of labor was conspiring to prolong childhood indefinitely, it was dragging fathers further and further away from their children: from the homestead to the father’s workshop or study, and then on to the factory or the “bureau”. First the workplace had to be more and more separated out from the living space (to accommodate racks of specialized tools or shelves of carefully arranged records, for example), then the many workers engaged in different parts of a single task had to be colocated on-site, whether to collaborate as a team or to take advantage of some fixed capital investment (like a steam mill or a library).
The result: children needed to be looked after and socialized for a longer period of time, and fathers were less able to participate. This ushered in the brief golden age of motherhood.
I do not want to belabor the importance of child-rearing in unnecessary detail, so let me characterize maternal care with a metonym: one of the most important parts of primary socialization is learning to speak one’s mother tongue fluently, and most of the rest of primary socialization can be likened to learning a language. The mother coos to her toddler in baby-talk (“What does the ducky say?”), which gradually matures into a real language, but one stuffed full of helpful diminutives, repetitions, pleonasms, circumlocutions, nicknames, overemphases, and all the other simplifying tricks that help babies graduate from babble to sentences.
Group activities are structured around talking. The mother will constantly narrate what she is doing, what the baby is doing, what they can observe others doing; she will ask the baby how it is thinking or what it is feeling or what, in the baby’s opinion, the mother should do next; she will quiz the baby on the identities of various people, places, and animals they pass by. All of this chatter in unnatural: unnatural, that is, by the standards of normal conversation, where such questions would never come up, but perfectly natural as a way to bootstrap baby into mom’s language-community.
The mother creates conversations out of activities that could be easily be conducted in silence; conversely, she presents the elements of each activity in a ceremonial, dramatic fashion that creates a topic for conversation where none would have existed otherwise.
By the same logic, a mother can choose to make inherently captivating topics or areas of language vanish. You can witness this to this day when mothers explain pregnancy (or any other awkward or “adult” topic) to their children. Whether she opts for the naturalistic “there’s a baby growing inside her” or the traditional stork, a mother who routinely makes mountains out of molehills to coax her kid into parroting back her sentences will act as though it’s no big deal (of course babies grow in tummies); her child will lose all interest.
By the same trick, a particularly sheltered child can get nearly all the way to adulthood without knowing the exact sense of vulgar words for which his mother routinely substitutes a euphemism (or which she avoids entirely, and forbids him to use).
Obviously a mother cannot entirely control every sentence her child hears, but traditionally she could come pretty damn close. The baby could come to his mother’s book club and play in the background while her friends gossip, but he could not under any circumstances go to that gambling den his father frequents. He could go spend the night at Johnny’s house any time, but when it comes to Sammy’s sleepover, well, that is a different story. She could not control every word her neighbors said, but she could choose the neighborhood.
Moreover, if one of her children picked up syntax or vocabulary from the neighbors that she considered low-status or simply foreign, all she needed to do was mock or scold him until he stopped using it. Everyone in their speech conforms to the easiest means of expression available; if everyone around you reacts to your speech as though something unusual is going on, the path of least resistance is to talk like them.
When a mother gave her little darling more verbal feedback than anyone else, it would be easiest for him to speak like his mother, even if he does encounter the speech patterns of strangers. In fact, an occasional sociolinguistic stumble — a verbal blunder that makes a child sound like those people — could be valuable to the child’s socialization: it gives his mother an opportunity to subtly point out suitable targets for social contempt.
In all this we have been imagining successful primariy socialization — i.e. that the mother succeeds in teaching her child the language he must speak when he is grown. But now let us compare the plight of an immigrant mother who does not speak the language of her new country. How can she teach her children the language they must learn?
She can’t. She must leave their instruction (in the new language) in the hands of others. And because she is no longer responsible for the instruction she must give up all control over its content as well.
Even if she has some control over who her children talk to, she does not know what they are saying or what differences in dialect and tone separate one group from the next. Even if she knows the rudiments of the language and has a few abstract ideas about how her children “ought to” speak it, she cannot provide constant, consistent feedback and she cannot provide models to demonstrate her rule in action. If she is able to arrange the syntax of a sentence according to the model she was taught, her child will still hear that her accent is obviously “wrong” and so therefore her sentence cannot be “correct”, and he will cling to the paradigm he hears his friends use. A language belongs to the people who speak it. The child will speak “their” language the way “those people” tell him to.
Remember that we are discussing language as a metonym for culture.
Learning cultural rules resembles learning linguistic rules, but the stakes are much higher. Language is the (nearly-)neutral substrate in which all other cultural rules are communicated. Thus a child who ignores his parents’ linguistic advice but grows into a fluent adult is a case of “no harm no foul”. Perhaps without any authoritative verbal feedback from his mother he will learn the language more slowly; perhaps when he is finally fluent, he will have settled on a slightly barbaric accent. The damage will be minimal.
But if he ignores his parents’ opinions, not only about the right way to speak and the wrong way, but also the right and wrong way: to dress, to eat, to clean to play, to work, to socialize… for these cultural rules, a child who “speaks the wrong language” is actually abandoning his family’s way of life for that of another group. In so doing, he also changes his allegiances, leaving the one group for the other. Tensions between incompatible cultural rules are tensions between the groups that obey them.
A child cannot become a member of the out-group just because his clumsy speech reminds his peers of the out-group; when they tease him, the mockery is only symbolic of group tensions. If he speaks incorrectly, his peers know the mistake is inadvertent. But this certainty is premised on the assumption he does want to remain in the community which dictates the standard he must meet.
A speaker wants his speech to be intelligible to a community because he dwells within it. Clarity and meaning are always relative to some group: clear to whom, intelligible to whom? Learning the right way to speak is, as a matter of fluency, about clear and meaningful communication. Other cultural rules are not about whether communication is intelligible, but about the substance of what is communicated.
I hope this extended analogy has not been too hard to follow. Linguistic rules are, despite their “neutrality”, introduced to children in the same way as more “substantive” cultural rules during socialization, so by using language as a metonym for culture as a whole we can use the confusion of tongues as a model for the degeneration of cultures.
In the case of learning to speak, I used the immigrant mother to illustrate the plight of a mother who has no input in the rules her child learns; but of course this example tacitly assumes that there are thousands of other families in the community who are native speakers. While our hypothetical immigrant mother may not be able to control exactly who speaks English to her child, she can be certain that almost all of them learned to speak English from their parents, so her child is learning English as somebody’s parents taught it to them.
When more and more immigrants flood an area, this assumption collapses. It becomes possible that her child is mostly talking to other children of immigrants who are mostly talking to other children of immigrants and who mostly learned to speak English from other children of immigrants. When a community becomes so fractured among multiple languages that the children do not even converge on any common language, a pidgin develops.
Likewise, when one mother loses control over what her children consider normal behavior she has at most lost control over whose culture her children adopt. She can still be confident her children will assimilate to some way of life that some family has passed on to its children.
But if many mothers simultaneously lose control, what then?
This is the cycle that ended the “golden age of motherhood”:
- Some labor-saving commodity replaced maternal care with a more efficient industrial solution.
- With her children (and her household) taken care of but her bills for labor-saving commodities high, the mother finds herself with plenty of time but short on cash, and begins to feel pressure to find paying work.
- Having entered the labor force, the mother is now cash-rich but time-poor and begins to look for ways to make running a household and in particular caring for a child more time-efficient, including buying more labor-saving tools and paying for professional childcare.
And iterate. Mothers care for children less and less. Modern technology — whether in the home or in the childcare industry — pacifies children more and more. What does this replacement of maternal care by commodities accomplish?
First of all, standardization: the socialization of children is delivered in standard packaging and the mother has very little influence over its content.
A mother who buys a comic book for her child or plops him down in from the television for quiet time is in much the same position as an immigrant mother who buys ESL material for her children. She can read the comic book, she can watch the show; she can, at length, decide to return the book or forbid him from watching the show; but she has no ability to object to the content and tailor it to her tastes. To do that she would have to actually tell her child a story herself, and forego labor-saving technology entirely.
So she can reject book A for book B and show C for show D, but ultimately she must accept some of the options the publishing industry and the broadcasting industry have seen fit to provide, or simply reject TV and comic books.
This standardization promotes disintermediation: rather than going through socialization in the presence of his mother and, primarily, through the agency of his mother or some other authority-figure, the child consumes media alone and unsupervised, communing with the glowing screen like a heathen with some hellish idol. The main advantage of labor-saving childcare technology is, of course, that the parent need not be involved, and given that the parents cannot affect the standard there is very little reason for them to waste time reviewing it.
Third, the cycle of motherlessness promotes anonymization. The labor-saving childcare tools present themselves (to the child) as about all people and addressed to all people. Mass-market products need to be non-specific to draw in potential customers; there is no way to tell a buyer that the perspective presented in the work is irrelevant to his life and should not be taken seriously without losing the sale. Thus the child draws the inferences that whatever he learns to be normal or correct in the work is normal and correct, full stop.
I have framed standardization, disintermediation, and anonymization as though they mostly concerned the content of books, television programs, and other media, because in these cases the content of the “standards” is very easy to understand. Other commodities transmit and travesty cultural rules in other ways. A mother who sews her daughter’s skirts herself has editorial control over what variation in hem-length her daughter is familiar with, and what is “too long” or “too short”: off-the-rack clothing presents mother and daughter with a whole set of contrasts that set the standard for what styles of clothing are desirable.
The Failure of Socialization
I don’t mean to take my account too far, or to sound too hysterical about youth culture. Obviously you cannot turn a basically risk-averse kid into a robber by forcing him to listen to rap music. You cannot turn a basically shy kid into a Don Juan by forcing him to watch racy Hollywood trash. But socialization is a real phenomenon and it can fail to happen — or happen in a perverted form.
In particular, I want to call attention to the oft-repeated claim that children “can tell reality from fantasy”. In certain contexts the claim makes sense: for example, playing Doom does not turn you into a mass shooter. Children really can tell reality from fantasy: of course they can. The problem is that they cannot tell reality from irreality; they cannot tell a smooth, plausible lie about reality from the honest truth.
No quantity of books about people who ride around on dragons will make a kid believe that dragons are real. And when the “bad guys” are marked by their repetitive, obnoxious behavior and low-status speech patterns, it will be clear that their villainous activities are also abnormal and part of the exciting melodrama of the fictional world. But if the hero and heroine fornicate between dragon-jousts… who is to tell the young reader whether this is a fantastical element of the plot that is as normal as dragon-jousts in dragon-worlds but abnormal in our own, or it part of the bedrock of everyday reality that the author draws on to fill out the details of his fictional creation?
Conversely: if the hero and heroine remain entirely chaste for the entire series, who is say whether this is a reflection of the norms of our culture or is merely part of the special convention of bowdlerizing books aimed at a young audience?
The problem is not that media has violent or obscene or otherwise inappropriate content per se: it is that media is disintermediated and anonymized with the explicit goal of making it impossible for anyone consuming to find any reason to stop consuming, and thus the implicit effect of making it impossible for any consumer to see the boundaries between the reality of his own people and the reality of outsiders.
Skeptics about the actual impact of cultural degeneration typically assume that if pop culture did affect the behavior of its consumers, its effect would be to reproduce media fantasies in reality: so rap about drug-dealers would engender drug-dealing, books about dragon-riders would engender dragon-riding, and so on. Such skepticism overlooks the possibility that these fantasies can give rise to a new culture simply by preventing the social reproduction of the old culture.
The result is that the difference between reality and fantasy, which the children grasp perfectly well in the media they consume, is suspended in their reality. They have lost — no! They never acquire the ability “to distinguish between what is considered normal, what incredible”. They live in a Peter-Pan world, where wishing makes it true and adults figure only as enemies and obstacles.
“[At] an age when [the young] have not yet any experience other than sexual, when they do not yet have years of personal suffering and personal understanding behind them… In shallow lack of understanding of the age-old essence of mankind, in the naive confidence of inexperienced hearts they cry: let us drive away THOSE cruel, greedy oppressors, governments, and the new ones (we!), having laid aside grenades and rifles, will be just and understanding.”
— Solzhenitsyn, op. cit.