"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Groupthink–How An Ethos Of Tolerance Promotes Fiction Over Fact

Barbary Fleming’s mother worded her issue carefully.  “My daughter is a smart, intuitive, and talented girl”, she began.  “And yet….”. This was the troublesome part, admitting some failing in her wonderful, beautiful daughter. “And yet, she seems, how shall I put it, distracted.  She starts one thing, then another but without…” Again Mrs. Fleming hesitated. “….Without completion”.  She knew this was not the right word, too corporate and administrative for a doctor’s office; but it more than accurately described little Barbary’s flightiness and indiscipline.  By this time – the girl had gone eight – any child should be applying himself, preparing, if only in a childlike way, to the ways of the world.  Lord knows, the world is still not an easy place for a woman, and without those…Again she hesitated.  This process of admission was more difficult than she imagined…Without those male characteristics of logic, pursuit, intent, and the kind of mentality that leaves no room for frills, no girl could succeed. 

Of course Mrs.  Fleming was feminist enough never to have undervalued her sex and never once had underestimated her own will and intelligence; yet it was hard to dismiss the fact that the many prerequisites for success in capitalist, driven America were those that men had been gifted thanks to Darwin, XY chromosomes, and testosterone.  Women, never slouches and always canny, manipulative, brilliant operators in a patriarchal world – never made real strides until they realized that to exist in a man’s world, they had to act like them.  This male-centeredness did not neuter, dismiss, or even marginalize women’s sensitivity, intuition, and caring, but such femininity needed to be restrained, expressed only in congenial venues.   Mrs. Fleming was a perfect example of this traditional male confidence coupled with intelligence and natural aggressiveness.

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All of which was why Mrs. Fleming was in the doctor’s office hoping for a solution to what she saw was a growing problem.  Unless little Barbary matured and matured quickly, she would be left far behind.

The doctor was kindly and patient – he had obviously had scores of women sit before him in the same comfortable chair, nervous and apprehensive, but needy – and he listened to Mrs. Fleming explain exactly what she meant by ‘lack of completion’, ‘indiscipline’, and ‘distraction’.  He knew that there would come a point in the conversation when he would have to bring up ADHD  - Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder – a diagnosis which, depending on the family, would either be embraced or resisted.  There were many mothers who were begging for a medical diagnosis to relieve them of the responsibility of having a disruptive, impatient child; but as many who were afraid of the stigma of medicalization, who hung on to ‘There’s nothing wrong with my child’, and much more commonly, blamed their absent, uninvolved husbands.   The doctor knew that Mrs. Fleming was one of the former.  Nothing would please her more than to know that Barbary would be under professional care, that her battles with the willful child would be over, and that the girl could finally get on to a fluid track.

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Mrs. Fleming found that once the diagnosis of ADHD had been confirmed, the prescription in hand, and registry in the school’s log completed, the way forward was even smoother than she had ever thought.  Barbary was given extra time to complete her schoolwork, was forgiven rather than criticized for her mistakes in long division and grammar.  Although both teachers and administrators were aware of her diagnosis, they were obliged by law to ignore it and to treat her no differently from any other child.  They were to consider her differently talented, not deficient; and, more importantly, they knew that the drugs she was taking would soon kick in, and Barbary would be as well-behaved and docile as the other children.  Problem solved for Barbary, her classmates, and especially for her teachers. So Barbary was off Mrs. Fleming’s hands, for better or worse.  The confusions and inconsistencies in the current paradigm being what they are, Barbary was alternatively calm and settled and jumpy and a nuisance.  She colored within the lines  for a while, but then, stabbed at the coloring book, creating sharp, frightening shards of color.  She stumbled her way through long division, had her ups and downs with participles and gerundives, liked Marie Antoinette, her courtiers, and stable of horses but could never manage to grasp cause and effect.

In an earlier, less tolerant and permissive age, she would have been considered slow – not a slow learner in the lexicon of disability – but simply not as quick to get the point.  She would have been considered able, but not overly; interested but only marginally; and less than eager to perform.  She would have been thought educable but never educated.   She would have been happy as a homemaker, mother, and wife.  Had she shown any promise, she would have been placed in high-performing classes, challenged, and given high expectations. 

As it was this girl of modest ability and achievement, an indifferent student  because she found learning difficult and irrelevant to her more simply configured world, was diagnosed as chemically imbalanced.  Her lackadaisical efforts, her meanderings, and her lack of concentration had nothing to do either with innate deficiencies or indifferent parenting, but something organic.   

She had gotten caught in groupthink – an ethos which promoted tolerance, diversity, and and inclusivity; but which ignored human nature and its individual uniqueness.  There had never been before today anything wrong with being slow.  There would always be a place for those below the mark.   Today there is no mark.  No above-the-line or below it.   The line has ceased to exist; and because it has disappeared, an industry has grown up and thrived.  The industry of permissive tolerance has room for social advisors, child psychologists, pharmaceutical companies, special education teachers, motivational therapists, community activists, politicians, charities, and academicians.   The goal is not to winnow the most promising and give them the educational, social, and psychological support to help them on their way; but to encourage the below-the-line students, to give them the impression they are equal to everyone else, to compensate for their lack of innate abilities by creating a self-validating image.  Theatrics.  Smoke and mirrors.

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Mrs. Fleming, a normally intelligent, persuasive, and competent woman had been taken in by progressive groupthink.  Remediability was the principle; investment the means; adjustment the goal; and performance an anticipated but never guaranteed by-product.  Her father was right.  Cato the Elder, Cotton Mather, and The Three R’s did indeed have a place in upbringing and education.  Yet he ignored nature.  His granddaughter could be taught regardless of innate ability.  His prescriptions were intended only for the talented, not for the likes of Barbary.  The schools were right to identify those who fell below the mark but wrong to encourage integration rather than opportunity.  Doctors were right to focus on certain, bio-chemical, physiological issues in children, but wrong to expand diagnostic categories so much that they became meaningless.  Parents are right to worry about disruptive, impatient, distracted children; but wrong to assume organic failure when the environmental causes are clear.

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Most women in Mrs. Fleming’s shoes would have acted the same way.  Out of concern for their children, ashamed at their inability to raise and control them as their own parents had done, and taken in by a culture which assumes both that progress towards an ideal is possible,  and that the instruments to effect change are available and ready; most parents are likely to be taken in.  Despite the clamor for ‘the truth’ and ‘the facts’ we want nothing of the kind. 

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