Tuesday, March 9, 2010

What I Have to Say About the Day

Yesterday, as you may or may not be aware, was International Women's Day. On Twitter, fellow Toronto mayoral candidate Sarah Thomson - who, incidentally, has a pretty kickin' logo on her Twitter page - put forward the question of how readers would recognize the day. It didn't take me all that long to figure out how I would. The most appropriate way for me, I think, is a recognition of everything my mother did for me; she's certainly the most influential woman in my life, and most likely the reason I tend to favor strong female protagonists in my writing and reading. Female Shepard is just the latest in a long list.

Andrew Barton, rockin' it in 1983

Take a look at that kid. What do you see? Aside from all the obvious aspects, what I see is potential - a life still at the starting line, capable of going in any direction, opportunity without limits. Depending on how things turned out and how events had shaped him, that kid could have been dead by now, or a millionaire, or in jail, or a man on the front lines - or even a rabid Montreal Expos fan until 2004, at which point he may have become a dispirited Nationals fan or just switched to the Blue Jays. That he ended up becoming a candidate for municipal office was likely one of the lower-probability results, but like I said, to me that photo represents opportunity without limits. But it's one's parents that can wield a disproportionate influence in the development of their children's outlook, and given the nature of my family life, my mother's influence was especially significant.

It's a difficult and stressful period in anyone's life. My parents were both younger than I am now when I was born - I have no idea how they managed it, and I doubt I would have been up to the same task at the equivalent point in my own life. My mother managed, and while I've always agreed that she raised me well, it wasn't until very recently that I figured out how to articulate the whys of it. Now I do.

Over this past weekend, I came across and read The Authoritarians by Robert Altemeyer, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Manitoba. The Authoritarians, freely accessible online, is a study of the nature of the right-wing authoritarian personality; a personality characterized by the combination of a submission to established authorities, a willingness to aggress against groups that are considered "enemies" of the established authorities, and a highly conventional outlook of society and social norms - this generally manifests in a desire to force everyone to conform with the same conventionalist viewpoint. Repent Amarillo, the "Texas Taliban" you may have heard about in the news recently, represents this well, and in fact is how I heard about The Authoritarians in the first place.

One of the aspects Altemeyer discusses is a theory of why people develop strongly right-wing authoritarian personalities in the first place. Not surprisingly, the manner in which parents raise their children figures prominently into the theory - particularly considering that, as Altemeyer tells us, "we do know that [high-scoring right-wing authoritarians] were raised by their parents to be afraid of others, because both the parents and their children tell us so... authoritarians' parents taught fear of homosexuals, radicals, atheists, and pornographers... about kidnappers, reckless drivers, bullies and drunks."

People who have these kind of personalities, according to the research that's been done so far, tend to have far deeper and nevertheless-overflowing reservoirs of fear in them than people like, say, me, who scored very low on the scale. "Anger... fear... aggression. The dark side of the Force are they," Yoda said, and he's right. Fear can make people commit desperate and negative acts, and someone raised in a climate of fear would understandably be more willing to commit acts of aggression in the service of the authorities that keep the objects of fear at bay. I can understand it intellectually. Nevertheless, when it really comes down to it that kind of upbringing is foreign to me... completely outside my experience, and thankfully so.

So, in the spirit of this International Women's Day, I want to thank my mother for raising me right, however she did it. For not looping a leash around my neck and yanking it back whenever I went off to explore or wonder. For not presenting a situation where the world consisted of a few good people ("Us") and a great, seething mass of others ("Them"). For letting me be with both eyes open, for letting me ask my questions and find my own solutions.

For letting me grow up, no matter how hard it must have been under the long shadows of fifty thousand nuclear weapons, in a world without monsters.

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