Monday, 26 January 2009

Getting some perspective: (2) On teasing

From a New York Times article written In Defense [sic] of Teasing:
Today teasing has been all but banished from the lives of many children. In recent years, high-profile school shootings and teenage suicides have inspired a wave of “zero tolerance” movements in our schools... And we are phasing out teasing in many other corners of social life as well. Sexual-harassment courses advise work colleagues not to tease or joke... The reason teasing is viewed as inherently damaging is that it is too often confused with bullying. But bullying is something different; it’s aggression, pure and simple. By contrast, teasing is a mode of play, no doubt with a sharp edge, in which we provoke to negotiate life’s ambiguities and conflicts. And it is essential to making us fully human.

The centrality of teasing in our social evolution is suggested by just how pervasive teasing is in the animal world. Younger monkeys pull the tails of older monkeys. African hunting dogs jump all over one another, much like pad-slapping, joking football players moments before kickoff. In every corner of the world, human adults play peekaboo games to stir a sulking child, children (as early as age 1) mimic nearby adults and teenagers prod one another to gauge romantic interest. In rejecting teasing, we may be losing something vital and necessary to our identity as the most playful of species.
And, he might have said, the most social.

A very important point about human nature and wholeness is being made here. I was saddened to read the letter in response that the NYT published; a letter that, despite itself, rather proves the point of the article. Extreme and abusive, or merely dysfunctional forms of teasing, are indeed harmful and potentially crippling to their victims. OK. Yes. We get it. (Some of us already know this from experience ... although it would be unwise to enter into a contest on credentials here.) And to ask the victims to have a sense of humour about the wider phenomenon, may be to ask too much.

But that is not the question. The question is what the public policy should be. And I take the point of the article that it is improper, hubristic, and vain to try to bring annihilating force to bear against an entire dimension of human interaction; especially one so embedded in our nature, and so constitutive of positive and healthy development ... so constitutive of mature life.

Those of us who have suffered in this matter may find it hard to hear this argument: it reopens old wounds; and, more subtly, it torments us with a vision of functional relating which (we may feel) is inaccessible to us, and which others have achieved, in a way that excluded us. But this is a hurt that we should address in conversation with our counsellors, our friends, and our priests --- not with support for some utopian project.

The argument is still correct.

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