In one of those delightful articles to which one is referred, often and to the most unlikely places—if one has bookmarked Arts and Letters Daily on one’s laptop—I found recently a fine defence of teasing.
The piece in question appeared in the New York Times, a fortnight ago, and was by Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at Berkeley. It was provided with the mandatory scientific veneer: references to teasing and playfulness in the animal kingdom, to say nothing of feints towards linguistic and cognitive anthropology. And also, the mandatory anecdotal filling: a description of children playing and teasing each other on a beach. Less commonly, it quoted, with scintillating aptness, a teasing flirtatious exchange between Beatrice and Benedick in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.
But most breathtaking, the article made a sound “philosophical” distinction. It stated that there is a difference between teasing and bullying, and began to draw a boundary between them. And then it drew the inference: that various “zero tolerance” policies in our schools and society, which banish both teasing and bullying as if they were the same thing, are inimical to the development of children as human beings.
One item of observation from the seashore may stand for the rest. A girl was witnessed sneaking up on a boy and trying to shove a dead crab down his trousers. The author’s rather insulated daughter asked him why the girl had done that. “Because she likes him,” was his knowing adult reply. I would comment that we have adults today, teaching in our schools, who are just as insulated as Mr. Keltner’s daughter, and perhaps even more puzzled about the behaviour of their charges. I know this because I have met a number, both male and female—the products of grim feminist indoctrination.
The room for children to play is already sadly docked in modern urban environments, for obvious reasons. There is great danger in leaving a child of the city unsupervised. We fear, reasonably, the kid may go under a bus, or be sexually molested, or in some neighbourhoods, step on a used syringe, or be caught in an exchange of gunfire between rival gangs.
Some apartment buildings ban children, although they allow dogs. Children who do live in them are raised like bats in a cliff-side cavern, except the prohibition on foraging at night; and the two-income contemporary family commits them to professional child-minding services all day, in policy-rich, regimented environments.
They return to their bat caves in the evening, to exhausted, frustrated parents, offering microwaved food. (If they have two parents.)
The modern city is not designed for children—even the parks are dangerous—part of the reason why so many are aborted. I have often seen young mothers struggling heroically with small children, along city streets, in and out of shops and buses, getting little encouragement and many icy stares.
Compare the farm, where the majority of our ancestors were raised. (This is true of all countries.) It was a paradise for children.
On the main theme, there is a book by Johan Huizinga, entitled Homo Ludens (1938; literally, “man the player,” but really untranslatable from Latin), greater I think even than his acknowledged masterpiece, The Waning of the Middle Ages.
In this book, the magnificent Dutch historian and linguist shows that play is not merely an element in human societies, but essential to them; that human cultures are themselves largely products of many forms of play. “Civilization is, in its earliest phases, played. It does not come from play like a babe detaching itself from the womb: it arises in and as play, and never leaves it.”
It follows that the enemies of play—which includes so many kinds of teasing, and the ambiguities associated with each—are enemies of the human. The “politically correct,” with their tyrannical policies in everything from the schoolyard to courtship, to the regulation of speech, are the enemies of everything that is human. They make no distinctions, they banish bad with good.
As Christmas approaches, we have been taught to think of the poor and the disabled, the old who are shut in, the dying in our hospitals, the prisoners in our jails—and at our best we visit them.
But we must remember that the largest disadvantaged group in our society—often deprived alike of love and of their freedom—is our children. Christmas means nothing if it is not for them.