My thinking on taming actually began on a much more personal level, and I’d thought last week that I could lay, side by side, the public and private views, the macro and the micro. But as I chased my thoughts down the gutters of religion, my own behaviors seemed somehow meaningless or irrelevant by comparison—something that I could chalk up to simple human nature. But then, there it was—the side street of my thoughts, or maybe the highway—human nature. What is that, exactly? The way I’ve used and heard it used, it’s some naturally base element of human thought and behavior that exists from birth. And perhaps also implied, though less often included, are those characteristics that are naturally good. In either case, the assumption is that our human nature is entirely separate from culture. Hmm…
The story I’d been thinking about played out in a few moments sometime in the last days before my girlfriend told me she was moving out of state. I’d come home from work and asked about her day. She said she’d been to her chiropractor, to which I responded with all the sarcasm I could muster, “Did he sell you some of his magic pills?”
The pills I was referring to were some sort of treatment designed to rid the body of parasites—a treatment, I was sure, profited the chiropractor quite well in the selling. And it is like me to question just about anything that anyone is profiting by. It is like my girlfriend, on the other hand, to assume informed good will in most human beings until they or their institutions prove otherwise. But the problem, as I see it now, was not in my questioning, nor in her accepting. Had there been a discussion, at the very least, we might have landed in a chuckle of understanding at the internal workings and differences between us. But I didn’t ask for discussion; rather I tossed a little sarcasm in her face to make her feel small and to dissolve her opinion and her person into mine. Competition and its bestial sidekick of taming come to roost at home. And not just any home, but lesbian, feminist powerhouse, down-with-the-patriarch home.
And that’s where I get stuck: Is that story some small reflection of a tendency of human nature, or is it something more akin to our culture’s patriarchal obsession with competition and winning at any cost? An obsession that can ooze its sensibility into the places most wanting to spit on it.
Human nature? Or human conditioning?
I wrote before how after I’d begun reading Virginia Woolf I wanted to keep toys in our home androgynous until our son could choose what he wanted for his playthings—not what our culture dictated. Another of my take-aways from Virginia’s work was this notion of competition as a product of patriarchal systems and its interference with genuine, intimate relationships. So, again testing my new Virginia ideals on my children, I decided that I would try really hard to remove comparatives and superlatives like better and best from the vocabulary I used with them. No easy task; I learned quickly how conditioned I was to seeing human beings as better than or more than the next, on some vertically phallic continuum of value. But, for the most part, even as my parenting floundered in a gazillion other ways, I managed to keep those words out of our business until the day of our son’s graduation from high school last spring. Following the ceremony, all the proud mom, I went to him and said, “Honey, yours was the best speech up there.” He smiled, appreciatively, then said, “Mom, I think we all did great.”
Now, my son would admit to being somewhat competitive; eliminating a few words from my vocabulary couldn’t take down that beast. But it was worth noting to me that in this small way that I’d tried to re-condition myself and my language, this small way that my son never knew until today when I told him the story, there was some small effect. Language is culture, and if human nature is separate from it, then culture has to own, in part at least, the competitive conditioning of humanity.
To the taming of my girlfriend and the question of nature vs. conditioning, I’m still not sure, and even less sure that I could put it on a continuum with the competitive cruelty of the likes of James Dobson. But I’m going to attempt some re-conditioning. If I am successful, I think I’ll have a start to my answer.