Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Anarchists, In The Best Sense Of That Word

In yesterday's post, I wrote about how a group of preschoolers opened my eyes to a "new" kind of fairness, one that in many way one-upped my adult notions of justice. I was expecting everyone to share in the task of tidying up equally while the kids, it turned out, were perfectly satisfied when everyone simply fulfilled a role, whether or not the labor was divided evenly.

Now, in all honesty, children can also take the point of view that something is "unfair" because things don't go their way. We've all heard kids complain, "It's not fair!" when they're told they must, for instance, wait their turn or share their cupcake with a sibling, but I would assert that the unfairness they perceive has more to do with the adults compelling them to wait or share than the actual waiting or sharing. It's our knee-jerk adult idea that selfishness is the default setting that prevents us from seeing that.

When I sit down at our play dough table, there are often a half dozen kids playing with this limited resource. One of them almost invariably has the lion's share. When subsequent children approach, they often say, "I need some play dough." If the adults don't intervene, I've noticed that nine times out of ten, the child with excess will pinch off a handful and hand it over, expecting neither praise nor thanks. They might not do it as quickly as the adult would like, but that's because they are not reacting to a command, but rather considering a request. Adults too often label that pause as selfish reluctance, when in reality it's time spent in the process of thinking: She wants some play dough. I have a lot of play dough. I could give her some of my play dough.

When a child is using the swing and another child says, "I want a turn," if the adults don't intervene with their ideas about fairness, like "setting a timer" or "counting," the child on the swing almost always gives way within a matter of minutes: He wants a turn on the swing. I have been swinging for awhile. I could give him a turn.

I often wonder how we adults got this way, lacking faith in our fellow humans to share, take turns, and generally behave fairly without commands or rules or systems. Indeed, we act as if selfishness is baked into humans, as if our natural condition is "every man for himself," each vying against the other for advantages. But we're wrong. Anthropologists tell us that there is little evidence that our hunter-gatherer ancestors (95 percent of human existence) viewed fairness as something that needed to be imposed and because of that there was no need for any sort of hierarchy to control the behavior of others. Indeed, their social contract with one another seems to have operated more along the lines of what we today would call "anarchy," in the best sense of that word.

It wasn't until we gave up our hunter-gatherer ways in favor of the settled agrarian life that we invented the notion of "ownership" and discovered the need for commands, rules, and systems. Ownership was something that must be protected and others must be made, one way or another, to labor for the benefit of the owner. In the process of inventing property, we also invented selfishness.

Young children are born as hunter-gatherer style anarchists which is why they have no problem with defining justness in ways other than we do as adults. They know in their genes that it's unjust when those with more do not share with those who have less. They know that it is unjust when one person enslaves another be it with chains or wages. They know that it is unjust when one person gets to "use" the labor of another. They know it is unjust when one person gets to tell another person what to do. Of course, they can't put this into words, but I've seen it time and again in how they treat one another when left to think for themselves.

We then teach them to be selfish, because it's only through selfishness that our commands, rules, and systems make any sense at all. Meanwhile, when left to their own devices, children play together as anarchists, in the best sense of that word.

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