Pacifiers, Individualism & Enculturation

I was visiting my brother and his family up in Minnesota. My sister-in-law at one point brought up the topic of pacifiers. She had taken the pacifier away from her daughter a while back because there can be problems if pacifiers are used for too long. I commented that pacifiers aren’t even necessary since babies have been fine without them for millennia.

My sister-in-law gave a response that got me thinking. She said that it helps babies to learn self-soothing. It instantly hit me that the pacifier is a tool of enculturation. It is used to create self-independence and thus create the sense of individualism that is so highly prized here in the West, especially the US.

I’ve often thought that individualism, in particular hyper-individualism, isn’t the natural state of human nature. By this, I mean that it isn’t how human nature manifested for the hundreds of thosands of years prior to modern Western civilization. Julian Jaynes theorizes that, even in early Western civilization, humans didn’t have a clear sense of separate individuality. He points out that in the earliest literature humans were all the time hearing voices outside of themselves (giving them advice, telling them what to do, making declarations, chastising them, etc), maybe not unlike in the way we hear a voice in our head.

We moderns have internalized those external voices of collective culture. This seems normal to us. This is not just about pacifiers. It’s about technology in general. The most profound technology ever invented was written text (along with the binding of books and the printing press). All the time I see my little niece absorbed in a book, even though she can’t yet read. Like pacifiers, books are tools of enculturation that help create the individual self. Instead of mommy’s nipple, the baby soothes themselves. Instead of voices in the world, the child becomes focused on text. In both cases, it is a process of internalizing.

All modern civilization is built on this process of individualization. I don’t know if it is overall good or bad. I’m sure much of our destructive tendencies are caused by the relationship between individualization and objectification. Nature as a living world that could speak to us has become mere matter without mind or soul. So, the cost of this process has been high… but then again, the innovative creativeness has exploded as this individualizing process has increasingly taken hold in recent centuries.

17 thoughts on “Pacifiers, Individualism & Enculturation

  1. Maybe this is the “new” frontier that we’re being dragged kicking and screaming back into. All the evidence suggests that prior to western civilization early man had a much different understanding of his relationship to his environment and others, e.g., Native American culture. Carl Jung talked about the collective unconscious and Freud considered him a nut job because it wasn’t “science” (as though psychology itself is “science”). There’s a connection here between this and your last post on Democracy.

    • I wasn’t thinking about a connection, but I can see a connection with the issue of fear of democracy and hyper-individualism.

      There is an informal type of democracy that human societies manifest to varying degrees in tribal societies, sometimes including the typical aspects of democracy: voting, representation, division of power, etc. Democracy in all of its forms is a collective system, unlike the individualism of anarchism and the individualism of dictatorship. The fundamental nature of democracy is probably closer to social democracy.

      In contemplating such matters, I’m always brought back to the writings of Derrick Jensen. His analysis of the victimization cycle is very convincing. It occurred to me that this might apply to pacifiers.

      I see how the pacifier could be traumatizing to the developing psyche. Self-soothing is like empty calories causing you to eat more and more while never getting what you really need, the end result being obesity and disease. The baby isn’t seeking self-soothing. What the baby wants is nourishment along with maternal love and protection. The pacifier stunts human development by not allowing normal human bonding.

      We’ve based an entire global civilization on this maladaptive process. Such systems as capitalism are maladaptive because it is based on and necessitates maladaptation.

      I wonder if even the polarization of partisan politics might relate to this problem. Us vs them seems to be the inevitable result of the one-two-punch of individualization and objectification. In a traditional hunter-gatherer tribal culture, there probably isn’t separate categories equivalent to ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’. Instead, human nature under natural conditions is inherently more elastic and shifting, except when it gets stunted.

      This is the challenge of democracy as I see it (and as Thomas Paine saw it). Most of the problems of civilization were caused by civilization. They aren’t natural and so, contrary to the right-wing preference, we can’t ignore these problems as if they are just the way the world is and just the way humans are. As we are part of this civilization, we are all part of the problems of civilization which means we are all collectively responsible.

      Democracy is about becoming aware and growing in maturity, getting past that trauma of stunting and maladaptation. We need to find a new way to do civilization or else civilization will become a problem that solves itself through violent collapse.

      Derrick Jensen points out that there are two common responses to being victimized. The first response is easy in that it necessitates no awareness at all, just reaction. The victim becomes the victimizer. In fact, most victimizers were victimized as children which is the saddest part. The other possible response is to become a defender of victims or even a crusader in ending victimization itself. So far, civilization has been most strongly influenced by the first response. However, the Enlightenment thinkers and revolutionaries began a revolutionary dialogue on the possibility of another way.

      Democracy is the best idea that has come out of this era of social awakening. But democracy is still mostly just a hypothesis, not entirely untested, although far from having yet been fully implemented. Some people are ready to give up on democracy before even giving it a chance. I’d prefer we at least try it first for the alternatives look much worse.

      • Well, you’ve hit the nail on the head here, and everything that you’re saying is right. The notion of collectivism is anathema to so many people because they associate it with communisum and fascism. And it can degenerate into both as we’ve seen. So they reject it in its entirety, not realizing that democracy is an on-going process and involves, as you say, becoming aware and growing in maturity. Yes, we have built an entire global civilization on a maladaptive process, but maybe ours is the first generation on a large scale to be able to understand that.
        I work with perpetrators and victims of sexual abuse, both adult and children, so I know a little about victimization. Someone said that if child abuse–in all its forms–were eliminated, the entire Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders (DSM) could be reduced to a pamphlet.
        In any case, I agree that the Enlightenment proposed a revolutionary alternative to the way things had been, but don’t forget there are economic interests at work too, which is the toughest nut to crack. When you boil down conservative philosophy, its all about money. Class and priveledge–and power–are all manifestations of that. I was going to mention the tribal societies and hunter-gatherers, thats the only place you can see any semblance of accepting the natural world as it is, and trying to live at one with nature. They–the ones that are left–don’t even understand the notion of private property, a concept that western civilization introduced.

  2. Hey Bob, are you familiar with Thomas Paine’s writings? I’m specifically thinking of Agrarian Justice. It’s too bad that so few people are familiar with this particular work or with Paine in general.

    As he inspired the American Revolution, at the same time he saw the problems and dangers inherent in American society and more generally in Western civilization. Relevant to the topic at hand, he understood the injustice upon which the entire ownership society was built. He saw the job of government was to solve the problems or at least lessen the results of the problems.

    Paine was America’s first progressive liberal. His writings directly inspired the Progressive era. Many centuries later and liberals are still fighting for the very idealistic vision that is the origins of this country. Also, like Paine, liberals are still trying to grasp their relationship to capitalism, not knowing how to tame the beast or even if the beast can be tamed.

    • Yes I am familiar with Thomas Paine, not as familiar as I should be probably. We read “Common Sense” in high school, and I drove by his house every day in undergraduate school in New Rochelle NY! Its interesting that you consider him one of the first progressive liberals, my understanding is that he’s a favorite of many of todays Libertarians, who tend to be more anti-government like Ron Paul, unless they read him selectively and take only what they agree with. Thanks for this tip, I have to do more research on Paine.

      • I figured you most likely at least had a general familiarity with Paine. I asked about him moreso just in terms of that particular work. I’ve been surprised by how few Americans know about it.

        Paine had some libertarian leanings, but it is a bit of a stretch to call him a libertarian in a limited sense. He certainly wasn’t a libertarian according to the right-wing definition of libertarianism. People who make this claim obviously haven’t read Agrarian Justice.

        Paine saw the privatization of public property as being the origin of modern society and of capitalism. He realized that this inevitably led to an unfair and undemocratic concentration of wealth and power.

        As this privatization was an act of redistribution, only an opposing act of redistribution could counterbalance it. He wasn’t in favor of government for the sake of government, but he was in favor of government protecting the rights and welfare of the majority of the population that was disenfranchized by privatization. The purpose of government is to compensate the public for what was taken away from the public.

        Private ownership is a necessary evil of civilization which required the necessary evil of democratic government. That is simply the price we have to pay for maintaining civilization, assuming we want to maintain it.

        I have written a number of posts that include discussion of Paine and Agrarian Justice, although not recently. My full appreciation of Paine came after I read the book Thomas Paine and the Promise of America by Harvey J. Kaye. That book led me to read other writings about and by Paine.

        • I have to find Agrarian Justice and the Kaye book as well. I had no idea he had this background, this is very interesting. The Libertarians portray Paine as an angry fellow railing against the evils of big government. Amazing.

          • Once again, I’d say that Libertarians are right in a way wile simultaneously missing the point. Paine was an angry fellow railing against the evils of big government. But…

            What this misses is that big government back then was different than big government today. He railed against the evils of big government not because it was big government but because it was acting evil. In this context, the evil of big governments back then was that they weren’t democratic and so there was no consent of the governed.

            It all comes down to democracy. Most right-wing libertarians are like most founding fathers. They don’t like or trust democracy. And this why they’ll never understand what motivated Paine’s radical idealism.

      • Paine has to be understood in context. He was a product of his place and times.

        He was raised by a Quaker father. This gave him a basic democratic sensibility. Besides Benjamin Franklin, Paine was the only other founding father who was from a working class background. And, unlike even Franklin, Paine was the only founding father to know firsthand the oppression the lower classes regularly experienced in England.

        Paine came of age during a major shift in English society. Feudalism was coming to its end. This involved the enclosure of the commons as part of earliest beginnings of industrialization. The lower classes were dependent on the commons for hunting, gathering and subsistnce farming.

        The peasants at least had basic Lockean land rights in using the commons, but with the enclosures they were thrown into worst poverty than existed under feudalism. This caused starvation among the poor and food riots. The former peasants were forced to look for work in the cities where factories were being built. This gathering of the working class led to organizing. Paine was in London when the first labor union formed and that labor union was in the area of work that was his training. These were people just like Paine.

        While still living in England, Paine often lived in poverty and unemployment. As a young boy, he could see the poor being hung from the nearby gallows on a regular basis. As a young man, one of his friends met this fate. It was in impoverished desperation that he first met Benjamin Franklin. Going to America was a second chance for him. And like today, it is immigrants such as Paine who truly understand what the American Dream means.

        The problem with the oppressed in England was that oppression was all they knew. The problem with those who thought they were being oppressed in America is that they didn’t know what real oppression was like. Paine sought to bridge the two societies and that is why he was so radical.

          • I was surprised as you when I learned what Paine was about. From my public education, I never suspected that any of the founding fathers were particularly radical by today’s standards.

            I don’t think the libertarians are entirely wrong about Paine. It’s just they are focused on one small part of his writings.

            Sure, Paine was wary of and critical toward power. He knew the oppression that could come frm government. He knew of how tyranny could form. He knew the danger of a mob with a charismatic leader. No founding father knew all of this better than he did.

            He was constantly putting his life on the line and barely escaping to do it all over again. But he never lost faith in democracy whereas many of the founding fathers never had faith in democracy to begin with. He even would use the word ‘democracy’ in his writings, even though the word was unpopular among the American elite at tha time.

            That is something many right-wingers latch onto. Most of the founding fathers didn’t like democracy. They didn’t know much about democracy. All they knew of it was from their readings of ancient Greece. So, their lense of interpretation was Socrates the learned aristocrat being sent to his death by way of democracy.

            If anyone should have identified with Socrates criticisms of democracy, it should have been Paine. Like socrates, he was a learned fellow who had faced down the French version of ‘mobocracy’. However, Paine’s response wasn’t to blame democracy. Paine instead thought the problem was not enough democracy, specifically a lack of a democratic constitution. More cowbell! LOL

          • You know this is really interesting, and puts something I just recently heard into context. Apparently the Constitution only applied to 8% of the population of the 13 original colonies. It (and the Declaration of Independence) didn’t apply to women, blacks, anyone who didn’t own land, or the native-american population, it only applied to white male landowners. So apparently the founding fathers didnt trust democracy as you have said. This would mean that their vision for America was to replace the King with an elite group of white male landowners, a Plutocracy, which is what we have today essentially. Most of the “elected” representatives are part of that elite group or become part of it.

          • Yeah. When you study the original intent of the founding fathers, it puts a diffeent context to the right-wing argument for constitutional originalism.

            Paine may have inspired the formation of the United States, but Paine otherwise played no direct or fomal part in the actual founding of the country, although there is an interesting argument for Paine having influenced the more radical parts of Jefferson’s writing of the constitution. The problem with our present government is that later reformers attempted to build a modern democracy on foundations that weren’t particularly democratic.

            I have a book that even presents the case that the average American had less freedom in many ways directly after the revolution than before it. The ruling elite were at times violently oppressive to populist protests that were a continuation of the populist movement that led to the revolution.

          • This doesn’t surprise me and it helps this whole question make more sense. So essentially the US was founded under the guise of democratic populism but in fact was always intended to be a Plutocracy. But this could not be done–or maintained–without some form of deception. Going back to the original documents, when they talk about “consent of the governed” they don’t mean the average Joe, but that’s what they wanted people to believe. I suspect that when conservatives today rail about returning to what the founding fathers intended most people don’t really understand what they’re saying. This would explain why so many conservatives have a problem with FDR, the New Deal, the Great Society, the Voting Rights Act, and all of the other progressive legislation that was passed in the 20th C. Their goal is not to expand rights and privledges but to restrict them.

          • And that deception persists to this day. I heard within the past year that the Tea Party, which purports to be a grass roots populist movement, was in fact the brainchild of Dick Armey, former Conservative congressman, in order to advance corporate interests. So they use ordinary people to advance their agenda, essentially lie to them that what they’re saying will be in their best interest. I guess it was always that way from the beginning.

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