Gustave Doré's The Children's Crusade

Let us jump straight into the subject with a somewhat ad hoc definition: a childish society is a society in which the bulk of adults do not live up to their intellectual and emotional potential as fully grown human beings. In other words, an observer might sense a lack or distortion of the kind of behavior expected from fully developed and well adjusted adults, along with the consequent negative effects that result from such a lack. We can debate the reasons for this and the direction of causality between condition and sign, but perhaps it is more profitable to directly state the signs. This might sound a little circular (i.e. the signs define the phenomenon in an apparently arbitrary and self-referrent fashion) but herein lies the meat of our idea. In any case, the following phenomenologial signs are bad news whenever and wherever their context.

  1. Bad driving starting with such a banal sign might seem surprising, but it is one of the most apparent outward symptoms of an immature society. Disregard for traffic rules leads to a state of chaos, and it also harms everyone involved, including the culpable scofflaws. Traffic misbehavior indicates a high degree of selfishness, an indifference to consequences (a common theme in a childish society), and an adolescent tendency for self-destruction. It’s also symptomatic of a “when the cat’s away, the mice will play” state-of-mind which is at odds with responsible, self-driven (no pun intended) adulthood. A particularly egregious example is careless driving  inside school areas, usually perpetrated by the parents themselves! This leads us to the next, more general sign:
  2. Disregard for rules especially when big brother isn’t around to enforce them. Fear of direct punishment is the worst reason for doing the right thing, way worse than shame or social sanction. Ideally, a sovereign adult should act appropriately out of conviction and an interest in the welfare of self and others. The childish mentality, however, rarely thinks this far. Unless Leviathian is there to beat them on the head with a stick, some adults will always flout the rules and treat other people’s rights with disdain. They will justify shameful behavior with simple-minded notions, such as: “everyone breaks the rules,” “everyone wants to get ahead.” Observe that weak queue etiquette is pathognomonic of a childish society. And rule breaking is intimately connected with:
  3. Fatalism and a cavalier attitude towards safety which affects everyone in society including children, who can often be seen sitting in the driver’s lap. The driver is apparently not concerned with the safety of their own progeny. They appear to have no mental image of the dire consequences that can occur in case of an accident. If misfortune should strike, God forbid, fatalism rears its ugly head. Fatalism has its psychological uses, but not as a general-purpose excuse for unconscionable behavior. Lackadaisical behavior can be seen on the road, in the work place, in transport, and in medical practice. All this is tied in with a weak sense of responsibility, a distorted relationship to causation and its mother, reality. In one country, untold thousands of people got hepatitis C because of the use and reuse of tainted needles; fatalism still pervades the place, as visitors often observe.
  4. A deficit of responsibility regarding the consequences of one’s decisions, including in finances, health, and the law. Everyone and everything is to blame but the supposedly independent adult decision-maker. The litany of culprits include the government, doctors, experts, teachers, parents, wives/husbands, and many others. God forbid a fully socialized adult should be expected to bear the results of their life choices. The neighborhood is dirty? Blame the municipality and its imported workers, not the slobby habits of the inhabitants, who are seemingly unfamiliar with the old adage “do not shit where you eat”. The youth are out of control? Blame the schools, the authorities, the media, videogames, anybody but the parents, or lack thereof. Once I was waiting for my turn outside a doctor’s office. Next to me sat an old man with swollen, reddish hands. I asked what ailed him. He said he had not been taking his (free-of-charge, readily available) medication for weeks, simply out of non-compliance, but was going to lie to the doctor. The man was in his 50s, with a family and job, apparently of sound mind, and yet was going to lie to the physician regarding his own well-being, with potentially fatal long-term consequences. How can one expect such an individual to make sound decisions?
  5. Spouting soundbites childish societies are rife with easily digestible assertions that people rattle off as an alternative to forming their own thought-out opinions. These include ludicrously false factoids regarding history, religion, origins, the economy, foreigners, and even language. They touch on imagined past greatness (“we had an empire”; the operative word here is ‘had’), supposed superiority to other groups, and allusions to wide-ranging conspiracies that explain everything from the distribution of natural resources to why certain ports are more successful than others. We hear constant appeals to past oppression by a ménagerie of evil-doers. Strangely, despite this cheap wisdom (akin to Bonhoeffer’s cheap grace), no one has figured out how to solve any of the chronic problems that plague these societies. The usual ‘explanation’ is that there are nefarious actors whose task it is to keep certain societies down for ever. Apparently they have been very successful at this task.
  6. Strong denial skills and for a high tolerance for cognitive dissonance despite the untenable contradictory positions that result from childish social behavior, some adults have a remarkable ability to deny problems and their causes. They also seem immune to cognitive dissonance. When presented with a fact or argument that contradicts their cherished notions, they will not engage in self-reflection but may blank out for a few seconds (reminds me of Nietzsche’s “we have invented happiness, say the last men, and they blink”), only to double down on their ridiculousness or invoke cheap pretexts like luck or mysterious men in smokey rooms (we might be tempted to wonder: if the existence of these men is so readily known, then they must suck at being mysterious). In one country, a man put all his retirement money into opening an internet café. It was inside a seedy building with dimly lit corridors, and the café itself was bare-bones with a slow connection and torturously uncomfortable chairs. When I pointed out these issues to him, he answered that it was only his rotten luck that was doing him in. In keeping with the random naming practices found in some countries, the internet café was called Nefertiti, although nothing about the place or its owner had anything to do with ancient Egypt or mummified royalty.
  7. Unearned self-confidence members of childish societies often walk around with enormous egos and inflated self-worth totally incommensurate with their achievements or understanding (again, I’m reminded of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra describing a person as “a big ear attached to pitifully small stalk, which was in fact a man”). They’re pushy and covet attention. I’m onboard with strengthening a child’s ego even when their achievements are primitive (“wow, I love you drawing!” even though the drawing sucks), but I will certainly not caress an immature adult’s vacuous ego.
  8. And the reverse of unwarranted self-confidence, the inability to speak up when necessary. When it’s truly time to take a stand and to defend their interests, many childishly minded individuals will simply cower and lose their power of speech, even within the safety of a group. The cat will get their otherwise glib tongues when faced with the smallest bit of authority. I was traveling by bus in a certain country. The bus driver was supposed to drop us off by an agreed landmark, but he stopped at a point considerably farther and less convenient. None of the self-satisfied, self-imagined tough guys on board made a peep about this dastardly move. Any one of these young men would have been willing to fight at the drop of a hat for the most trivial reasons, and yet in their collective smugness they were unable to face a lazy middle-aged bus driver. Even the fact that some had their girlfriends by their sides did not impel them to speak up.
  9. Extreme conformism which is often comically mind-numbing and affects everything from weddings to cuisine. Any deviation from the conformist standard is, naturally, seen as sacrilege. Often a whole street of shops will sell identical products. A cluster of restaurants will offer the exact same fare, and any request to modify a food item will be met with raised eyebrows followed by resentment.

A naïve point of view might state the above are simply variations of social practice and part of the immense diversity of human organization. However, it is enough to face the ordeal of dealing with a childish society or an aspect thereof (say, in an airport or bureaucracy) to feel the associated frustration and despair. Although all societies might have their immature weak links, not all societies are equally childish, and some have actually become more mature over time.  As always, culture matters.

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One Response to 9 Signs of a Childish Society

  1. Dominga says:

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