Monday, March 7, 2016

They! (Run! Giant Ants on the Way!)

When I was a kid I watched an old B level horror film on TV called Them! Some of you older folks (ahem) might remember the giant mutated ants crawling through the barren desert, terrorizing  people I can't remember - I only remember the ants. Although I'm sure that by today's standards the special effects were pretty schlocky and the actors completely forgettable, the one thing that does pop into my consciousness periodically is the title -- Them!  Not very imaginative, I agree. But the title stuck in my head, and I think of it whenever I hear people use the word "they" in a specific way.  I'll explain.

In my role of teacher educator I get to talk about theories that try to explain how young children and adolescents think, and how that thinking influences their actions. Theorists have been saying for a long time that young children are egocentric in their thinking; i.e., they mostly see the world from only their own perspective. If you've ever played checkers with a three year old you probably found that he or she was more interested in lining the checkers up or stacking them in a pile than in using the strategy needed to actually win the game. Others express this differently - they say that young children aren't able to think about thinking - they have no "theory of mind" that explains how people's actions are based on what they believe to be true. So, kids may not understand how people's thinking affects what they do. Example - "Max put his candy in the cupboard and went out to play. While he was gone, Max's mom took the candy out of the cupboard and put it in the kitchen drawer. When Max comes in, where will he look for his candy?" You and I would say in the cupboard, right? That's where Max left it, so that's where Max will expect it to be. But children three and under will say that Max will look for the candy in the drawer, because they know it's in the drawer. Most kids won't get that people act on what they believe to be true, not on what the child knows is actually true. It's almost as if young kids assume that everyone knows what they know, feels what they feel, and has experienced what they have experienced. That's what egocentric thinking, a hallmark of early childhood, is all about.

By the time kids hit four or five this egocentricity starts to subside, and most are no longer fooled by the "false belief" test I've explained above. However, egocentric thinking can continue in adolescence in two different forms. The first is called "the imaginary audience" -- this is where adolescents believe that "everyone is watching me" and probably judging everything I do. What will "they" think if I don't wear the right clothes, talk the right way, do the right stuff? The second form of adolescent egocentrism is called "the personal fable" -- again, "they" are watching me, but it's because I'm so special and unique. This makes me invulnerable. Sure, I'll jump off the roof into that snow bank - what a great idea! I know I won't get hurt because nothing bad can ever happen to me (after all, everyone is watching - I'm too important to get hurt).

One of the great things about getting older is that adolescent forms of egocentric thinking subside, and you no longer care what "they" think. You think I'm fat? Tough noogies, pass me a cannoli.  My hair's too big? Cry me a river, I like it that way. You're embarrassed when I burst into song in public? Get over it - the world needs more singing. For some, though, the egocentric thinking of childhood and youth persists and informs their political opinions. Instead of fading, egocentric thinking takes the form of what I call "the imaginary enemy"-- clearly, they are out to get us.

You've heard it, I'm sure -- "Build a wall, because they are criminals and rapists." "Check religion before you let them in the country, because they are terrorists." "They want entitlements because they are lazy." "They know how to work the system." "They are taking away our religious freedom." "They don't really care about their children" and on and on and on. Eeek, it's Them! Run! The imaginary they is out to get you, and if they have their way our great country will crumble as sure as those fake Hollywood boulders under the weight of the giant ants that consumed helpless Americans like you and me back in the 1954 movie.

Now I'm not saying that America doesn't have enemies. But focusing on the imaginary enemy, the vague fear and resentment of they that thrives on misconceptions, stereotypes, and unexamined racist attitudes is not going to help us defeat our enemies, whether philosophical or physical. And what scares me most is not the bombast I hear from politicians because, let's face it, most politicians will say anything to get elected whether they actually believe what they are saying or not. What scares me is when I hear the they language being used by regular people, some of them friends, and some of them folks who are in professions dedicated to serving people from poor communities, many of whom, due to past and present institutional racism, are people of color. How do you work with people every day, supposedly dedicated to helping them through education, religion, and social services, and come away convinced that they don't actually deserve the help you are providing?

I'm tired of hearing the they language tossed about so lightly in this presidential election cycle. Egocentric thinking is understandable in young children and even in adolescents, but people, it's time to grow up.

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