Sunday, March 29, 2015

Not Someone Else's Bonsai

The attitudes of a culture toward the people it touches are seen in the impact that culture has on the people and things it touches. Sometimes a culture can turn those it touches into works of art. Sometimes a culture succeeds only in turning everything it touches into garbage. Not infrequently, the culture in question can become confused as to which category its works belong to, and as to whether or not its modifications of the “wild” are actually an improvement.

Consider the practice of bonsai, an Asian art which is over 1,400 years old. The word bonsai is a Japanese modification of the Chinese word penzai. Both words can be rendered as “tray plantings” and penzai is related to penjing, which literally means “tray scenery.”  The object of bonsai is to recreate a large-scale, wild landscape in miniature, using the same living elements which comprise the large landscape, yet at a scale which can be as intimate as a tray in the living room of a house. The living elements of bonsai are trees such as fir, maple, alder and elm – trees which in the wild grow to many times the height of a man. Yet the bonsai sculptor trains these trees from the seedling stage – using wires, bands, pruning and other techniques – to shape the tree into a living sculpture which is usually no taller than a man when mature, and which often grows to less than half as tall.

Imagine for a minute that you are a child in a locale where a large population must inhabit a limited living space. Now suppose that this population comprises a culture which loves greenery and cultivation of living things, yet which is forced to adapt its love of cultivation to limited spaces. Thus they become practitioners of bonsai. Throughout your youth, therefore, the only landscapes you see are miniature, planned down to the centimeter, carefully crafted. Then a day comes when you must travel to another place far away, and you must pass through a wild forest – full of maple, fir, alder, and elm trees, big and tall. Would the sight make you uncomfortable? Would you say, “A tree that is left growing in its natural state is a crude thing...”? 

I mention bonsai, not as a criticism of the art form, nor of Asian culture (for which I have the highest respect), but to use bonsai as a metaphor.

Each of us is a sculptor of others at some point in our lives. But how the sculpture turns out is often highly dependent on the intent of the sculptor. If the sculptor complains that his finished sculpture looks like garbage, maybe we should look at the motives of the sculptor rather than blaming the material which has been sculpted. When sculpting human beings, what material do we start with?

Here I look to the Good Book for answers. Acts 17:26 says that “[God] made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the surface of the earth...” That is, according to biblical Christianity, every one of us has the same origin. Therefore, every one of us is fully human. There is only one race within the human race, and that is the human race. We have the same basic genetic makeup, and therefore the same basic potential. This assertion is backed by science, which has determined that the concept of individual “races” within the human race has no factual validity. In other words, the human race has no subspecies.  The abundant proof of this is seen in such things as the success of “colorblind” organ transplants and blood transfusions.  It is also seen in the similarity of outcomes in those children across all “racial” and ethnic classifications who are exposed to the same “sculpting” process – also known as nurture.

That nurture has been scientifically examined in recent years, and the relative weight of nurture versus nature in producing specific outcomes has been examined as well. In 1993, a team of cognitive psychologists led by K. Anders Ericsson published a paper titled, “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance.”  That paper asserted that innate talent is vastly overrated in the making of an expert in a particular field of endeavor. Rather, the key to the making of an expert is regular, consistent, “deliberate” practice. (Ericsson's definition of “deliberate” is itself deliberate.)

This research turned out to be rather controversial, and it deeply offended a number of people who had come to believe that they and their offspring are innately “all that and a bag of chips.” But there are several examples, both historical and modern, which justify Ericsson's assertions. One example cited in Ericsson's paper is that of Laszlo and Klara Polgar, a Hungarian couple who set out to train their three daughters to become chess masters. As a result, two of them became the best and second best women chess players in the world, and the third is ranked sixth in the world. Ericsson's research is also confirmed by the documented experiences of Shinichi Suzuki, originator of the Suzuki method of music instruction.

The focus of Ericsson and his colleagues, as well as Suzuki, was the outcome of healthy nurturing by mentors with good intentions. But mentors with evil intentions can be just as effective in producing the outcomes they want to see in their protégées. This is why adult children of alcoholics (ACOA's) and adult children of narcissists (ACON's) suffer such damage. Benevolent mentors lovingly encourage those in their care to develop their full potential, but personality-disordered and evil mentors seek to destroy those in their care – through constant put-downs, negativity, and active sabotage.

And when a society is itself narcissistic and dysfunctional, it destructively mentors those populations within it who are targeted as scapegoats. This was the motivation for laws in the antebellum South which made it illegal to teach African slaves to read and write. (See this and this.)  This was the motivation for segregated schools in the American South, and schools in the North which were de facto weapons of mass destruction.  This was the motivation for the first counterattacks against the minority education victories won during the civil rights struggles of the 1960's.  This is the motivation for the continued disparity in expectations, discipline and outcomes between white and minority children in American mass education, whether public or private. This is also seen in the portrayals of minority culture which are deemed to be acceptable to mainstream media (see this and this), media whose owners tend to look for the most dysfunctional elements of minority culture (especially Black American culture) in order to make sweeping generalizations about an entire people from one small element of what is after all a heterogeneous culture. Then they endlessly rebroadcast this elements to a defenseless and clueless public, saying thus that “THIS is what minorities are, and THIS is all they will ever be.” And they turn around and attempt to use the school system again as a weapon of mass destruction as the Oakland school district tried to do in the 1990's when it tried to force all Black children to be taught in the language of “Ebonics.”  One of the crowning successes of American mass media has been its ability to convince broad American society that Black Americans constitute a “criminal race” even though the facts contradict this. (See this and this for instance. Did you know that there are studies which indicate that actual rates of drug use among Black American youth are far lower than among White American youth, and that there is a higher percentage of White youth selling drugs than Black youth?)

The experience of minorities of color therefore continues to be similar to that of trees “sculpted” with fire, chain saws, battery acid and Roundup by a sadistic bonsai gardener who likes bare dirt better than soil “contaminated” by living matter. Yet seedlings manage to escape and turn into something much healthier than their sculptors planned. Some examples of plants which turned out differently than their sculptors intended include Junot Diaz, a writer from the Dominican Republic who made a name for himself by publishing gritty stories about life in inner-city ghettos in the American Northeast. Now he is working on a passion which for a long time was secret, namely, his desire to become an author of science fiction.  There is also Lloyd Ferguson, PhD, an emeritus electrical engineering professor who is also part of the Affordable Learning Initiative at Cal Poly Pomona. For many years Dr. Ferguson taught electromagnetics using a textbook written by another notable Black academic, namely Dr. Matthew N.O. Sadiku.  And there is veteran astronaut Robert Curbeam, and Vladymir Lamadieu, an information technology professional with a law degree who is also a good guitarist.  And there is Candace Makeda Moore, a Black American doctor now practicing medicine in South Africa.  I haven't even begun to scratch the surface of other female Black academics, professionals, or intellectuals, nor the vast number of Hispanics in the United States who are turning out differently than the masters of our predatory society had hoped. These all turned out as they did because they were not sculpted by American culture, or they learned to sculpt themselves in spite of American culture. In daring to be different, they risked the wrath of those who would accuse them of not “keepin' it real.” Not a few of the accusers are white!

Although high achievers in a scapegoated group can arise even in the midst of a culture which seeks to destroy them, the fact is that the scapegoating is almost always damaging. Dysfunction almost always results in the targeted group. This is seen across cultures and in many nations. The example of the Burakumin of Japan is illustrative, showing that the sort of dysfunction which arises from cultural scapegoating is very similar to that experienced by many members of the Black American population. It is also the same sort of dysfunction produced in Irish and Welsh populations by British occupiers from the 1700's to the early 20th century.

What scapegoated groups must therefore do is to disconnect from their abusers as much as is humanly possible. You're not somebody else's bonsai. Stop letting abusers treat you as if you were their plant to be ruined by them. There is also a need to heal the damage done by sadistic sculpting. And those who have been damaged will have to take charge of their own healing. That will be the topic of my next post.

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