On telling parents to f*** themselves
I have received many emails from readers which exemplify or reject one or more of the six moral foundations. I recently received the text below, which is the most forceful rejection of the Authority foundation that I have ever read. I post it here, with the author’s permission, and without comment, as an example of an anti-authority ethos. I have edited it only to preserve the author’s anonymity.
Dear Mr. Haidt:
I am currently reading your book, The Righteous Mind, and this is my response to what I have read so far.
I am living proof that conservatives’ and liberals’ values are worlds apart.
In your anecdote [on p. 142] about the Jordanian taxi driver who planned to return to Jordan to rear his child because he never wanted to hear the child tell him to fuck himself, you said that few American kids would actually say something so “awful” to their parents, even though they might communicate the sentiment obliquely. I don’t think it would be “awful” for them to do so at all. I think that any adolescent who does not on occasion tell his parents to fuck themselves (whether explicitly or obliquely) is in need of assertiveness training. I have been chatting with a man who grew up in the Bible Belt. He said that his father had still whipped him when he was in his late teens. I said, “Why did you let him?” He said, “What else was I supposed to do?” I said, “Tell him to fuck off.” He said that he would never have thought of of doing that. I found his attitude incomprehensible. I don’t believe that the Ten Commandments were delivered to Moses on tablets of stone, and I never cease to wonder what made the ancient Jews believe that God wanted them to “honor” their fathers and mothers. If I were trying to make up a precept that made no sense, I would be hard pressed to think of a better one. Although I was good to my mother in her declining years, I would have hit the ceiling if anyone had ever suggested that I was obliged to do anything for her.
When I was a child, and someone said to me, “Respect your elders,” I always asked, “Why?” The question was not rhetorical. By what logic does youth owe deference to age? The reverse is true. Older people ought to be able to bear discomfort and inconvenience better than kids or teenagers. While I usually offer my seat on a train or subway to a child or teenager, I would not dream of offering it to an older person. I once offered my seat to a toddler. His mother took it, and I demanded that she give it back. I let her know what a pig I thought she was, too. In my view, a mother who would sit and let her child stand deserves to be spat upon. On one occasion, when I gave up my seat to a kid, I scolded a nun for not giving him hers. “What kind of miserable excuse for a religious are you,” I asked, “that you wouldn’t give your seat to this boy? Aren’t you supposed to be the servant of all?” (She said nothing. What could she have said?)
Authority in the classroom? Teachers are hired help. They are in no way entitled to deference. We give them authority to maintain order. Doing so is a service to students, because no one can learn if order is not maintained. Teachers, however, have no right to exercise authority for any other purpose. In the 1960s, when I was an undergraduate, a professor whose class I frequently cut said to me, “Mr. ____, I expect you to be in class.” I said, “Mr. Smith, you forget who’s working for whom.” I left his classroom and did not return until the final exam. He gave me a D for the course, but I valued my self-respect much more than my grade. (It was, of course, unethical for him to have graded me on the basis of anything other than my mastery of the course content; but I did not choose to do battle.)
For over a decade I have been teaching a class (part-time) to graduate students in library and information science. I am appalled by the deference that some of them accord me. A few refuse to call me by my first name, even though I call them by theirs. They say things like, “Do you mind if I miss class next week?” and “Do you mind if I turn this assignment in late?” I always say, “First, I don’t mind; and second, I don’t know why you would care whether I minded or didn’t. You pay me.” What is the origin of the idea that a teacher is an authority figure?
In 1960, when I was a teenager,, I was listening to JFK’s inaugural address and heard him say, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” I became so enraged that I ran out of the house into a snowstorm and walked around for an hour, trying to cool myself off. For years thereafter I felt a visceral hatred for Kennedy. “Why should I give a damn about what I can do for my country?” I thought to myself. “Governments exist for the benefit of their constituents.” I always snicker when I hear someone use the expression “Our country.” (I prefer to say, “This country”). I live in the United States for the same reasons that I live in [my state]– because I was born here, I’m used to living here, I have friends nearby, and–so far–I have not had any compelling reason to leave. (Rick Santorum’s election to the presidency might constitute such a reason.) I have no emotional attachment to the United States as a political entity. I think such an attachment would be irrational. By strictly rational criteria Canada would be a better country in which to live.
If I were to send copies of this message to some of my conservative relatives, however, our relationship would be damaged severely. So I won’t. We shall go on simply agreeing not to discuss politics. Therein lies the problem that you define, but a realistic solution eludes me. How can I give respectful attention to positions based on values that I find abhorrent?