You may remember those old bumper stickers that read “Question Everything”. Lately that imperative has been on my mind. It started with a discussion I had with a grad student when I was teaching a lab a few weeks ago. He mentioned how, a few years back, he had looked into the nature of advertising and learned, to his surprise, that the industry studies human behaviour and psychology with more resources and drive than the most well-funded of University departments. He was fascinated with the amount of science that went into the production of advertising and marketing in order to compell the most people to buy a product, or develop affinity for the brand. He said it made him angry to realize how much he was being deliberately manipulated by the marketing industry, government lobbyists, and mainstream media. Since that time, he has begun to question more things that he previously took for granted. Knowing me to be one who likes to “go against the grain” he asked me if I didn’t get overwhelmed sometimes. Yeah, I replied, I sure do.
When I was pregnant with my first child I assumed my baby would sleep in a crib and be fed from a bottle, that I would throw dirty diapers in the garbage, and that baby would divide its time between bouncy seats, exersaucers, strollers, and car seats. I assumed that I would use coercion and punishment to teach “good behaviour” and that my kids would be sent off to school as soon as possible so I could get back to my career. Thank goodness I stumbled across an anthropologist posting on an Internet forum for pregnant mothers who wrote a fascinating and thought-provoking post about the practice of babies being left to cry as a means of training them to be independent. Her post was based in solid science and referred to research that encompassed not just worldwide cultural practices and the natural history of parenting in general, but the evolutionary development of the human species as well as laboratory studies of the physiological effects of prolonged crying. The post was so eye-opening that I went off on my own to research the subject some more. I soon became convinced that leaving a baby to cry on purpose was cruel, did not in any way promote independence, was unhealthy (both psychologically and physically), and that the entire practice was based more on ideological and religious grounds rather than on any knowledge of natural human infant behaviour. From that point on I questioned everything about caring for and raising my babies and much of the time ended up choosing to do it differently than the mainstream.
Now I’m at the point where the idea of removing an entire generation from society and putting them in institutions for 6 hours a day, 10 months of the year, for 12 years seems bizarre to me. The standard quip homeschoolers get is “how will your children learn about life in the Real World?”. That’s when I realize just how duped and brainwashed we are as a culture, that we think school is Real Life.
But you know, it’s not even so much that we are brainwashed but that we just don’t seem to Question things. We Accept. Now, I have a little theory that this aspect of human behaviour has evolutionary advantages. After all, if a society comes up with a new way of doing something that brings benefits to its people, it woudln’t make sense if every member of that society were driven to reinvent the wheel, so to speak, before they would adopt the practice. Accepting cultural viewpoints as valid by virtue of the fact that “everybody is doing it” can certainly make cultures more adaptable and efficient. I see that.
But we live in a world where we are so disconnected from the source of our essentials (food, shelter, clothing) that it isn’t always apparent when we’re heading down the wrong path. Everything from sweatshop factories producing cheap clothes, to the dangers of toxic substances in consumer products, to the world domination of massive agribusiness corporations (and practices that damage the earth and lead to starvation for so many in the developing world) we seem to be constantly buying into things that turn out to be far different than we were originally led to believe.
And so my young friend asked me: what do you do to stop yourself from going crazy as you slowly realize that much of what you believed turns out to be far more complex (and different) when examined more closely? I told him that I felt his pain. It is tiring to question everything! Some days I just want to do what comes easiest, follow the crowd, and not think about the implications of what I’m doing. Ignorance can be bliss.
On top of that, it is really hard to make an informed decision that goes against the cultural norm because practically everybody who finds out what you have chosen to do gets defensive, as if you’re passing judgment on them. If you start breastfeeding your baby (or make any reference to having done so) you’ll become privy to all the reasons why breastfeeding just “didn’t work out” for them. If you tell them you don’t have cable TV you’ll hear about how their husbands would never let them cut it off, and how if they don’t let their kids watch the latest programs they’ll be social outcasts at school. If you tell them you homeschool you’ll get told how hard you must work, how dedicated you must be, and how they simply could not tolerate being around their children so much.
The solution, I told my learned young friend, is to surround yourself with like-minded people. Create community around you. Hang out with people who think nothing of you whipping out a boob to nurse your 2 year old, and with whom doing so does not bring conversation to a screeching halt. Hang out with those who assume your baby is sleeping with you and breastfeeding and who get a puzzled look when someone mentions having to “go check on the baby to see if he’s hungry” at night. Hang with the freaks, whatever your version of “freak” may be. It’s not about isolating yourself: the real world is all around you and like it or not you will have to move through it. But if you can surround yourself with like-minded friends there will be moments of peace where you are not the token weirdo whose very presence is making everybody else uncomfortable because you are doing things differently and therefore stand as irrefutable evidence that there are options they never knew existed and were never taught to seek out.
Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense. ~ Buddha