Life in a Playpen

Our medical system with its War on Germs illustrates a general feature of control. Just as the unchallenged immune system fails to develop, yet also becomes oversensitive, and just as pain becomes more frightening in proportion to our efforts to numb and defer it, so also does our insulation from risk, challenge, and discomfort leave us weak and afraid of the world.

When we are deprived of the opportunity to explore our limitations, we become more fearful of them, more tightly bound to them, and less able to cope when, despite our strivings for control, reality presents us with a new challenge. This deprivation starts early in childhood with the playpen, the hovering parent, and more generally the regime of “safety first” that has infected modern society. Remember the latter part of Illich’s definition of good health: “. . . it means to cherish but also to risk survival.” Traditional societies allowed children productive, sanctioned ways of exploring their limits—real limits, not the phony freedom of the playpen’s contained safety. Moreover, the consequences of their mistakes were real. The parent might say, “Don’t poke that beehive or the bees will sting you,” but would not through physical or verbal coercion try to prevent the child from doing it anyway. The result was that the parental voice gained an authority far beyond the fear-based coercive power today’s parents exercise; at the same time, the child learned that consequences are real.

John Taylor Gatto has observed that one of the unspoken lessons of school is that actions have no real consequences. Children are essentially not permitted to fail, not at anything real. Teachers and parents too tend to praise shoddy work in order to “boost self-esteem”, not understanding that the child herself knows the difference—at least in the beginning. Eventually, though, the child confuses praise from authority with the genuine article of satisfaction in the creative process, preparing for a life of doing it for the grade, for the client, for the paycheck. In this way, we early on become strangers to what we really love; our passions are lost to us and so we lose our passion for living. On the flip side of the coin, the absence of real punishments teaches children that socially destructive behavior has no consequences. But even punishment is only a substitute for real consequences.

When my son Matthew was four or five, he wanted a pocket knife just like his big brother. I decided to give him one, explaining carefully, “This knife is sharp, Matthew, and if you are not careful you will cut yourself.” What happened? He was not careful, of course, and he cut himself. Not too seriously, but it hurt and there was blood. What did he learn from this? For one thing, he learned that knives are indeed dangerous—on their own merits, and not because one might get caught using one without permission. The second thing Matthew learned is that Dad is one smart dude. Dad was right about the knife. When Dad says something might happen, it’s a good idea to listen.

No matter how deeply and thoroughly we frighten children with our power to invoke their survival anxiety, their natural curiosity and compulsion to test limits will eventually provoke them to “try it anyway,” often in secret. When they find, as is often the case, that the consequences aren’t as bad as their parents said they were, then parental authority loses all credibility. They find that no one loses an eye when they throw a paper airplane indoors, that they can smoke marijuana and not wake up in a crack house, that reading Harry Potter does not lead to Satanic ritual sacrifice. Now the stage is set for tragedy. On the one hand, they have always been insulated from the real consequences of their actions. On the other hand, the imposed substitute consequences (punishments) are no longer effective, because the wily teenager easily evades them by deceiving authority, not by abstaining from the behavior. The result is that the teenager acts as if he were immortal or invulnerable, and lies to his parents about everything he does.

Because human beings have an inherent need to explore boundaries and challenge limitations, today’s obsession with safety forces teenagers into illicit, highly dangerous “risk behaviors”. A lifetime of pent-up desire to know their limits explodes outward at the first taste of freedom, for instance, when they go away to college. Tragically, these behaviors nonetheless fail to challenge and expand significant boundaries. The inescapable fact is that although the exploration of one’s boundaries is inherently unsafe, there is no other way to grow. When my five-year-old son says, “Daddy, watch how high I can climb this tree,” I restrain myself from stopping him. And as a matter of fact, Matthew turns out to be quite prudent. It is not my authority (“You can’t go higher than that branch!”) but rather his own caution that limits his ascent. Imagine the consequences when time and again, parental authority halts a child’s exploration before the limits of caution are reached. He will come to depend on external authority to define safety and danger on his behalf, while his own judgment atrophies. Never having had a chance to develop his own judgment, such a person is wont to take foolish risks. Yet paradoxically, because he is chronically dependent on authority to define danger, such a person is also easy to rule through fear. (I leave the political consequences to the imagination of the reader. Not much imagination is required though. Just read the newspaper.)

Of course I know that climbing trees is dangerous, and that scotch tape can’t hold together wood, and that it’s much too hot today for long sleeves, and scientific experts can tell you the most up-to-date optimum ways to eat, to exercise, to learn, to stay healthy, to be secure. But it is one thing to state my truth (“Matthew, you are going to be hot in that sweater”) and another to presume to force someone to abide by it. As Gatto says, “The plans true believers lay down for our lives may be ‘better’ than our own when tested against some official standard, but to deny anyone a personal struggle is to strip humanity from their lives; what are we left with after our struggles are taken away but some unspeakable Chautauqua, a liar’s world driven by the dishonest promise that if only all rules are followed, a good life will ensue?”[52]

I would like to add that I don’t let my two-year-old run out into a busy street. I protect children from dangers that are beyond the horizon of their understanding.

The regime of safety is a facet of the “world under control” directly traceable to underlying assumptions about life, self, world, and purpose. It is an outgrowth of the survival anxiety implicit in our understanding of who we are (discrete subjects) and why we are here (no reason, just the random outgrowth of the struggle to survive and reproduce). As is well known, the safe is very rarely fun. What is safe is almost by definition predictable—free from the random variables that engender “risk”. By the same token safety is inimical to creativity, which is about novelty, and therefore inimical to play. Hence the demise of unstructured, unsupervised play in favor of the contained, the controlled, and the programmed that has infiltrated younger and younger age groups.

The regime of safety, like the rest of the world under control, requires constant maintenance in order to quell the inborn human compulsion to transcend old boundaries, that is, to grow. The control starts out external and overtly coercive, then gradually becomes subtler and more deeply internalized. Usually the last visible hurrah of this drive to transcend is expressed in adolescence, and goes by the name of immaturity, teen rebellion, or youthful idealism. By the early twenties most of us have learned enough “self-control” to be trusted outside the confines of overtly coercive institutions such as schools and prisons. We are then dead in spirit, a condition which goes by the name of “maturity”. Or if not dead, at least beaten, broken, subdued. Yet the fundamental energy to grow, frustrated though it is, is still latent and still a potential threat to a society built upon the diminishment of human creative energy. Society therefore channels this energy into various illicit or out-of-the-way outlets that do not threaten the status quo. This is life in the playpen, a contained environment where we can’t make too much of a mess.

Three examples are especially illuminating. First is the self-destructive behavior of “getting wasted”—i.e. the abuse of drugs and alcohol—along with high-risk activities such as sky-diving and speeding, and the imitation of such activities in amusement parks. When all other avenues for the transcending of limitations are denied, whether in fact or in perception, then self-destructive behavior is a logical result. If not any other way, I shall transcend my boundaries by dying.

Related in origin to violence against the self is violence toward the world. It is the desire to smash, to smash the world that seems to conspire to hold us stagnant. An enormous anger lies latent just underneath the veneer of our civility, an urge to break, to smash, to burn that manifests at the first sign of breakdown in the controlling authority. Ordinarily, society channels this violence toward victims who are insignificant to the preservation of the status quo: anything, essentially, that falls into the social classification of “other”, which could be minorities, foreigners, other species, or the land itself. Previously I defined violence as “longing denied”; thinking along the same lines, Joseph Chilton Pearce traces it to frustrated transcendence.[53] Violence is what happens when we can see no possibility of ever realizing that more beautiful world and more beautiful life our hearts tell us is possible.

The third example of channeled desire for the expansion of boundaries is identification with sports teams, movie stars, and TV characters, which provide us with a second-hand counterfeit of the experience of striving after great things and pushing our limits. Of course, actual participation in sports (and in drama) provides genuine opportunities to test the limits of who we are and what we can do, and as such can be part of the unfolding of human potential, but most of the time we settle for watching other people do it. Another channel is the ersatz rebelliousness of impudent hairstyles, rebellious clothing, rude music, outrageous sneakers, and other statements of individuality via shopping.[54]

While these outlets or diversions might pacify us temporarily, the human spirit eventually recognizes the fraud and begins to seek the authentic article of transcendence. The untapped rage that results from the frustration of the natural desire to explore our limits and grow can only be contained by elaborate systems of control, both external and internal. And of course, the control only worsens the frustration, which aggravates the rage, which necessitates the intensification of the control in a never-ending vicious circle. As I have described, in childhood the control is established by the threat to survival implicit in parental rejection. Internalized early on, it requires constant reinforcement, for the human spirit is strong. Because we cannot discern the object of the rage (because it immerses us), we channel it toward sanctioned targets and through sanctioned means. When we do, by chance, hit upon the real target and threaten the status quo, the punishment is swift and sure. The lesson we learn when we lash out against the forms, institutions, and functionaries of authority is that resistance is futile, as when the high school student sets off a smoke bomb in the bathroom. Any challenge to their authority sends school administrations into paroxysms of panic—an independent student newspaper, a senior prank, a spontaneous symbolic rebellion where every student wears black one day. One of my students related a typical image: the principal pacing in front of students waving an underground student newspaper, livid, screaming, “Who is responsible for this? I want names!”

And so, exemplifying the vicious circle outlined above, the regime of control tightens inexorably in our schools, many of which now have video cameras, police patrols, chain-link fences, random unannounced locker searches, metal detectors, drug-sniffing dogs, networks of informants, undercover police posing as students, and a comprehensive system of passes so that there is a record of each student’s authorized whereabouts at all times. What a perfect preparation for life in a prison or a totalitarian society! The result is much what we should expect from any series of technological fixes: more control has made the situation far more explosive and not any safer, justifying yet more control. It parallels the results of the Technological Program: life is not actually any more secure, leisurely, or comfortable, and the entire edifice teeters on the brink of catastrophe.

Totalitarianism is the inevitable destination of a society based on the Technological Program of achieving complete control over reality. As a practical matter, the engineering, managerial mindset naturally applies its methods—the methods of the factory—to governance as well as to manufacturing, promoting the complete inventorying, tracking, numbering, and classification of the population. Its technologies as well lend themselves to control: witness the Orwellian possibilities of biometrics and continuous automated surveillance in the computer age. On a more theoretical level, the falsity of the self-other distinction means that control over the world—the other—will result in the subjugation of ourselves as well. As Martin Prechtel puts it, “When the entire world is fenced and farmed, we will all be in prison.”[55] Or as Derrick Jensen says, “When we imprison another we must also place one of our own in prison as a guard. Likewise, when we imprison a part of ourselves, other parts must move into that same dungeon.”[56] Complete control over the world inevitably leads to complete control over ourselves as well, both on the collective, political level and on the personal, moral level. With each intensification of control, the individual and collective human spirit seeks new outlets, new doors to freedom which, when they are slammed shut, intensify the longing even more. The world under control is like a leaky pressure cooker: as each leak is filled, the pressure builds up to cause other, previously invisible seams to burst. The program of complete control aspires to seal off all possible leaks once and for all. I leave it to the reader to imagine what happens then.

Control of the world inherently involves separation from nature, just as the very idea of technology requires an objectification of the reality it seeks to manipulate. Control implies the circumvention or alteration of what would otherwise naturally happen. Of course, as I observed in Chapter Two, each part of nature exercises purposeful effects on its environment all the time—control is not the exclusive domain of human beings—so we might consider control and separation to be, in a sense, themselves “natural”. As many an armchair philosopher has observed, human beings are a part of nature, so everything we do could be considered natural. The damage comes from the mistaken belief that we are separate from nature, and not from actual separateness. It is this misperception of separateness that allows us to suppose that we might be exempt from nature’s laws. The very word “nature” as ordinarily used is a symptom of the problem, as if there were some other realm, non-natural, that were exempt. So when I speak of our separation from nature, what I really mean is a forgetting, a detachment, a delusion. It is everything that make us think that nature’s laws and processes do not apply to us.

To say that all organisms exercise control over their environment smuggles in insidious biases about the nature of self and world. Control implies a reduction of uncertainty, a reduction of deleterious possibilities in favor of beneficial ones. It implies as well an imposition of power over the environment. But when self and environment are not so rigidly demarcated, and when an organism is seen not just as a discrete unit competing for resources but also as an integral organ in the functioning of the whole, then the whole concept of control loses its coherency. We could equally view the environment as inviting the effects that a particular organism has by offering a corresponding niche. The behaviors of all living creatures make a contribution to the functioning of the planetary ecosystem. There is no waste in nature. Nothing (except thermal radiation) is ever thrown “away”—there is no away. The error of separation is that we have convinced ourselves otherwise, not that we have actually succeeded in separating ourselves from nature.

If human behavior and technology were informed by such a non-dualistic view of self and environment, then our goal as conscious, self-aware beings would not be the supersession of nature implicit in the Olympian ideals of technotopia, but the discovery and fulfillment of our proper role. We would seek to conform technology to the rules and patterns that govern the rest of nature. There would be no waste or externalities. In the later chapters of this book I will advocate going “back to nature,” not in the sense of abandoning technology, but rather to reconceive all activities of technological society in terms of natural laws and processes. To do anything else is folly—if our dualistic separation of self and environment is indeed a delusion. The next chapter, then, will return to the scientific issues raised in “The Way of the World,” to describe the crumbling of the scientific underpinnings of the discrete and separate self in an objective universe.


[52] Gatto, p. 129. Chautauqua refers to an ideal of social engineering that you can read about in his book.


[53] See Pearce’s The Biology of Transcendence for a remarkable exposition of the necessity and means of transcendence and the consequences of its frustration.


[54] For an eloquent and ardent overview of this phenomenon read Commodify your Dissent: Salvos from The Baffler, by Thomas Frank and Matt Weiland eds. W. W. Norton & Company, 1997


[55] Prechtel, Martin, speech to the Green Nations Gathering, September 2003


[56] Jensen, p. 320