Magazine article New Internationalist

Paternal Deceits

Magazine article New Internationalist

Paternal Deceits

Article excerpt

Infantilization dates from the 19th century, a response to two developments: the consolidation of the Atlantic slave trade and modern colonialism. These were, arguably, the first serious attempts at globalization. If a cross-continental trade in live human beings, and a political economy touching four continents - on which the sun reportedly never set - are not global, then what is? Fittingly, it required a global war to bring an end to colonialism and remove the blatant institutionalized racism that was the bequest of slavery in North America.

Lest we forget, slavery and colonialism became global systems after the Enlightenment had made deep inroads into European society. Republicanism and the ideas of scientific rationality and progress had become part of the everyday language of politics. Indeed, it was the Enlightenment connection that distinguished modern colonialism from its older cousins who specialized in blatant exploitation and pillage and seeking legitimacy in religion. The new colonialism talked of civilizing mission' and 'the white man's burden' and saw itself as an agent of progress based on the principle of rationality.

In a secularizing world, infantilization quickly became a moral posture and a theological necessity. It allowed the main actors in slavery and colonialism to make peace with their own consciences, and the intelligentsia and the Church to produce a powerful mix of justifications for the new world order. It allowed glib talk of the historical necessity to care for the retrogressive, irrational, ignorant savages and the Christian responsibility to guide them towards a better future.

However, another form of legitimacy for these brandnew institutional arrangements came from a scientized language of the body, with a new politics of the human lifecycle riding piggyback on it. This language supplemented the metaphor of gender with a metaphor of the prerogatives of maturity and age. First, childhood lost part of its shine as intrinsically valuable; it was redefined as incomplete, imperfect adulthood. In that imperfect stage, 'childlikeness' continued to be valued as a symbol of Biblical innocence, purity and authenticity; but childishness' needed strict discipline and ruthless, authoritarian control. Once the metaphors became common currency, the likes of Cecil Rhodes could speak of the African as 'half-savage, half-child' who needed close supervision and re-socialization, so that one day in the distant future they, the Africans, would grow up to bear the responsibility for their own lives. That process of growth was later to be given many attractive names - modernization, development and progress being the best-known of them.

Second, the older societies like China and India, brought under the dominance of the emerging global order, were reclassified as ancient civilizations that had seen better days but were now decrepit, decadent and disposable. Naturally, they had to be run by youthful nation-states that had become the carriers of the ideology of productive, masculine adulthood. Their obsolete, yet occasionally lovable cultures were now museumized, to be viewed and marvelled at during the weekends.

The dominance that the masculinity principle established in the public sphere in the 19th century is well known. Less known are the authoritarian upbringing, exploitation and sheer cruelty towards children in the Victorian age. Phillip Aries in his Centuries of Childhood and Lloyd de Mause in his explanations of psychohistory have told the story in lurid detail.

No-one emerges from large-scale violence and oppression unscathed; certainly not the perpetrators. Victimhood and infantilization are indivisible. Once you turn institutionalized violence into a system and run it, your self-definition begins to adjust to the systems you have set up. Predictably, the hierarchies based on gender and lifecycle not merely became metaphors of inescapable stages of history and a new language of triutnphalism for European civilization, but also shrank the role of women, children and the elderly in Europe and the Americas. …

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