Wednesday, December 05, 2007

From the Times Style supplement, Dec. 2, 2007:

Age of innocence?

Shane Watson

Babies, according to new research, can tell good people from bad at the tender age of six months. In tests, the babies unanimously preferred a “positive” doll over both a “negative” or “neutral” doll. In other words, before we can speak, we can distinguish the people who have our best interests at heart. This is pretty amazing when you think about it: not that babies are programmed from birth, but that we all start out with a foolproof people-radar that is then systematically dismantled.

It starts with your parents making you play with their friends’ dysfunctional children. That’s when you learn that you must get on with everyone, even the ones who hit you over the head continuously, for the sake of avoiding awkwardness. The same way you have to put up with your grandparents’ lethal driving and the au pair taking you to the park with her friend and then abandoning you while they smoke. You are too young to point out that these people are not acting in your best interests. But you are learning that in the grown-up world nobody listens to their instincts because they have other more pressing concerns (saving time, saving face, getting through).

Then there’s school. You are a sneak if you tell anyone that the girl in your class is torturing you at break. You are dead if you don’t pick the pretty but unsporty girls first for the rounders team. You must quickly bury your instinctive grasp of who is decent and who is not because the only issue is fitting in.

This distorted perspective becomes normal and, once you hit puberty, the thoughtful boys and girls are toast: both sexes are now only interested in destructive types. Your mother, who has spent the past 15 or so years bludgeoning your instincts into a socially acceptable compromise, starts saying, “Can’t you see he’s no good for you?” Too late! Meanwhile, your brother is definitely a negative doll in your life, as is your mother’s shopaholic best friend, your youth-envying aunt and the neighbour who always gets your dad drunk - all natural enemies. But nobody does anything about it; instead everybody blames you for being too “black and white”.

It gets worse, obviously. All around you there are examples of people who are either negative or nimby or both: so-called friends who moan that you are horrible since you got a boyfriend/lost weight, and so-called colleagues who advertise all the great ideas you have missed during meetings. Gradually your “negative influence” radar gets furred up, because it’s hardly ever appropriate to act on it. When accepting a proposal of marriage, yes. When going into business with someone, yes. But, for some reason, you are not able to say, “I will not have dinner with them because I sense they would use me for a float in a tsunami.” You must throw your inner baby out with the bath water, and just get over yourself.

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