Malleable Human Nature: The Black Hole of Culture
A most remarkable essay has just been released, Three Necessary Societies by Russell Hittinger of the University of Tulsa. It will likely be referred to repeatedly in years to come as people unwrap its implications. Among many other issues, Hittinger draws attention to the frightening prospect of the simultaneous serious weakening of all three of the necessary societies needed by man: the family, the church and the polity (civil society, including government).
Hittinger underlines the cause of this simultaneous weakening in the now-deep-seated anthropological assumption that man’s nature is malleable. This assumption shapes the ethos of our day. It is no wonder then that culture should evaporate. If culture is a people’s way of acting together to help each other through life, particularly through the important tasks and through the tough periods, the wise practice of those who came before us make little sense if we can shape our nature and our trials and tasks into whatever form we like. If we can remake marriage, the sacraments, our sexuality, our obligations, our most sacred relationships, even our God who needs guidance on how to do these well.
The implication for families is that cultural support will become very small, and very local. It will exist only where others we associate with hold to a view of human nature as a given, a nature with potential strengths that need to be cultivated and predicable fault-lines to be guarded against.
In the anthropology of malleable human nature taboos make no sense. There is no “massively forbidden” act, there are no fundamentally destructive practices, such as abortion or sexual perversions. Of course if the child is not the ultimate purpose of sexual intercourse anything is permissible.
Set against this is the fact that family life is fragile, as our age has taught us. There are attitudes and acts to be guarded against if one is to have a strong family. It was a great comfort for our great grand-parents when the culture did a lot of the guarding and said a lot of the “no”s. It is the burden of modern parents that they have to do all the explaining, repeatedly, to teenage children tempted by the license of modernity.
One fall-out of the evaporation of culture is that parents are left, more and more, to their own devices in raising children. They have less support around them. Culture operates on many different levels in supporting parents: it contains deliberate overt acts, and others that are “just the way it is always done”, still others that are preconscious and subconscious. Taboos are powerful unconscious cognitive mechanisms that forbid, normally something people are unaware of and beyond consciousness.
Given the erosion of taboos, one of the first tasks of young newly married families is to find other young families with whom they want their children to grow up and the schools likely to have the children they would not mind their own children marrying. Once married, how quickly the child becomes the center of action for the young married couple and that child’s own remote, future romance and marriage begins to shape the parents’ thinking.
In the absence of an operating guiding culture the newborn child forces parents to begin the construction of culture for themselves. The child is at the heart of culture, the purpose of culture. All eyes are on the child for he and she are the future, even the everlasting future, “For of such (little children) is the kingdom of heaven.”
Pat Fagan, PhD
Director of MARRI at The Catholic University of America