Ghosties and ghoulies, three-leggedy beasties, and things that go bump in the night.
– From old Scottish poem
For almost my entire life, my favorite holiday has been Halloween, a preference having nothing to do with “trick-or-treating” nor dressing up in costumes. What has long attracted me to the All Saints’ Eve festivities is the fact that my participation was without parental supervision. Kids trick-or-treated with their friends or, as seen in the 1944 film Meet Me in St. Louis, older siblings escorted the younger ones. Any self-respecting child would have been humiliated to have his or her parents accompany them. Such a presence would have been contrary to the nature and purpose of that most sacred eve: to provide children with the experience of acting alone in the world, guided principally by their own judgments and sense of responsibility for their conduct. Youngsters disguised as hobgoblins or monsters were pretty much free to do as they wished short of committing acts of murder or burning down the schoolhouse. Otherwise, pranks, making nuisances of themselves, or even engaging in minor acts of destruction, were all tolerated by the adult world.
What made such an environment important to my childhood was our being allowed to engage in mischief without parental guidance, albeit from the sidewalk. Ideas and actions have consequences. It is essential that we learn how to live responsible lives by exercising real-world control over our conduct. Our world is in such destructive disorder because our lives lack integrity. Whether our thinking and conduct are integrated into patterns that foster peace and liberty, or by those that generate conflict and coercion, tend to produce fairly predictable outcomes. The choices – both of which are greatly influenced by parents – find expression in the underlying premises of our learning. In my childhood years, Halloween “trickery” was pretty much confined to mischievous acts that were annoying to property owners, but not injurious. I recall one group of pranksters who were about a half-block ahead of ours who had sacksful of fresh eggs that they threw at houses or, in one instance, forced into the mailboxes at an apartment house. At the time, I regarded this as too “messy” for me to be involved in, and confined myself to lesser acts of irritation. Meanwhile, the back-gate at my home was usually dismantled and placed on our front porch; while the soaping of windows, or the jamming of our doorbell, were other kids’ contributions to what my parents would have to deal with the next day.
Part of the learning in which my childhood associates and I were involved included the social question: what behavior is appropriate for us to engage in? This is part of the most important question we rarely ask ourselves; the epistemological inquiry how do we know what we know? Early on in our youth, we began to seek out the boundaries of our actions. In doing so, we found ourselves faced with a mix of legal standards, parental expectations, religious doctrines, other moral and ethical guidelines, peer pressures, as well as our individual sense of “propriety.” If our parents, or a policeman, or other authority were around to supervise our choices, their judgments – not ours – were in control of our actions. If a man is locked in a cage, and a million dollars is placed on a table outside his cage, are we justified in praising him for his “honesty” because he did not take the money?
It is how we behave when the only person observing us is ourself that most challenges us. The Stoic, Epictetus, observed that “It is impossible for that which is free by nature to be disturbed by anything but itself. It is a man’s own judgments which disturb him.” Halloween provided one setting in which we were free to play out the possible outcomes of the varied choices before us.
Most of the adults in our young lives were allowing us to play the Halloween game with them; those that did not choose to play with us turned off their lights and we passed them by. But for those who did play, a transaction between kids and adults began with the call: “trick or treat.” If the adults responded with an appropriate “treat,” the kids regarded the homeowner as having performed his “obligation.” In my youth, contracts were still respected. Had the adults not performed, the customs and usages of Halloween jurisprudence permitted the kids to impose a trick upon the party in breach, it being within the judgment of the youngsters as to the remedy. From the aforesaid categories by which we were learning to evaluate the propriety of our actions, we might regard the soaping of windows a fitting remedy for the breaching party.
There were many kids, of course, who did not bother with the transaction costs of negotiating with property owners. Such youngsters went directly to the imposition of costs upon adults. But like those trick-or-treaters who insisted upon following “due process” standards, these other kids also knew that they could get away with doing whatever they chose to do, provided they kept within the boundaries of accepted Halloween civility. These non-negotiators were part of what the adult world expected, and their unilateral annoyances were accepted along with those who bargained with homeowners. This was totally unlike this year’s report of Baltimore street-gang Halloween-impostors clubbing and robbing people out on the streets.
With all of the legal, moral, ethical, religious, and social principles competing for our acceptance, how do we identify the boundaries of how we act? The principles that might provide us with answers – or just insights – do not necessarily coalesce: the “legal” and “moral” criteria extant in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, would not produce harmonious decision-making. Nor need we have to go back into history to illustrate the point: do the principles of “individual liberty” allow a pregnant woman to choose to abort her unborn child? If the child is a “person” by virtue of its unique DNA, does it enjoy the claim of “self-ownership” that would enjoin being aborted? And if the woman is also a “self-owning” person, would state intervention to prevent her from having an abortion violate her claim to immunity from coercion?
We trick-or-treaters didn’t have to deal with questions of such enormity, but we did have to engage in the same processes of thinking as this woman, or by soldiers being sent off to war, or by anyone who acts in social settings that may result in costs being imposed upon others. We learned the fine art of “discrimination,” the means by which we could make distinctions among the varied choices available to us. In my youth, it was a compliment to be told one had a “discriminating” mind. Today, it is an accusation, a convenient slander for the unthinking to use against others. Might it ever be proper for someone to discriminate against a “black” or a “woman” in employment decisions? Of course it would: I doubt that Spike Lee, assembling the cast for his film Malcolm X, entertained the thought of casting Bette Midler as Malcolm X!
As I joined with my Halloween conspirators to harvest homeowners of treats, each of us was learning to discriminate in our actions and reactions. We had no one to supervise us, but had to rely on our own judgments informed by many sources that were with us long before we hit the streets. I am of the view that children need to spend significant amounts of time by themselves, engaging in introspection. Halloween was just one such occasion in my life. Though I was in the company of friends, I often had to retreat into my mind to ask “do I really want to do that?”
In so many ways have adults stolen the independence and spontaneity from childhood, leaving children as participants in the planned games, explorations, and social learning they used to conduct on their own. The idea of parent-managed “play-dates” for their youngsters is one of the more egregious intrusions upon the independence necessary for learning the art of living well. When are children permitted to direct their own thinking?
The institutionalization of the mind – begun in schools and reinforced in the mainstream media, academia, corporate advertising, and other outlets – has relieved many of the task of clear thinking in a complex world. Independent thinking has always been troublesome to the institutional order, which depends upon the uniformity of thought and behavior to maintain its collective authority. Speech codes, political-correctness, and name-calling, are sufficient to keep conditioned minds anesthetized. When college voices condemn the search for “truth” and “science” as “racist”; when speakers are condemned or attacked for saying things that hurt the feelings of the overly-sensitive; and when responses to mass killings rise no higher than playground levels of name-calling and political demands to further control the inanimate objects used in the slaughter (e.g., guns, trucks), it is time to recognize the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of our culture.
If others prepare the standards by which we are to conduct our lives, how do we apply those standards in a given fact situation? Even though we know what a given rule of law is, that rule cannot apply itself. A human mind must evaluate, analyze, and judge whether the rule should govern in a specific case at hand. Politically-correct mantras, like their Animal Farm counterpart “four legs ‘good,’ two legs ‘bad’”, will invariably reveal their destructive contradictions. This is made all the more troublesome when the norms inflicted upon others arise from the mobilization of “dark side” forces within the unconscious minds of those desirous of projecting their own feared shortcomings onto others?
How do we learn to judge the propriety of our behavior in a complex and uncertain world? It should be evident that, if our world is complicated, our thinking had better not be. Rather than taking the default position by doing what others tell us, how do we make the kinds of decisions that we, and others, can live with? Whether on Halloween, or in school, or in work situations, or in a family, or a bowling league, or in church, upon what principles do we choose to act?
How do we confront that “dark side” forces within ourselves? One way is to subconsciously reject their presence and project their unwanted traits onto others, an approach one sees in so many mass-killers who seem to believe that killing innocent churchgoers or concert-goers will silence the troublesome voices within. Another approach may be taken by those internalizing their conflicts. It is a matter of record that an average of twenty–two former soldiers will, on a given day, commit suicide. How many of these suicides were at the hands of men or women who, having spent so many months or years participating in the most insane ritualistic butchery of innocent strangers, found they could no longer live with what they had made of themselves? How much externalized and internalized pain might have been prevented by men and women beginning to learn at a very young age how to judge the propriety of their thinking and actions?
The Halloween day killing of pedestrians in New York City was allegedly carried out by a Muslim who shouted “Allah Akbar” as he mowed down his victims. How did his words differ from the mad babblings of American soldiers machine-gunning civilians, journalists, and children from a helicopter in Iraq? Is there any moral principle by which this Muslim can be condemned while, at the same time, allowing heroic praise to be accorded an American soldier who, from the safety of his facility in Nevada, uses his joy-stick to conduct drone-bombings of other innocent Iraqi victims? How will we decide?