Social Theory and Naughty Kids

As a social anthropologist and a parent, I’m constantly exploiting the backdrop of my domestic life as data for social theory and theorization. Here’s a recent example that involves disobedient children and exhausted parents.

The other day my two-year-old was, to put it simply, not doing what I asked her to. It was the end of a long day of double-duty parenting and research, as a full-time stay-at-home dad who is supposedly writing a dissertation. Which is to say that I had already overseen breakfast and school preparation by the older girls, made and cleaned up after lunch and dinner, done a load of laundry, maintained the inbox, and made several remarkable pages of progress in writing during nap time. By the evening, I was tired and observed from a chair the toddler’s destruction of my momentarily ordered apartment environs. Luckily for me, my child’s resistance to my commands quickly morphed into an opportune illustration of how power and authority work in the (read: my) real world.

After repeating my request several times to no avail, I reverted to an old disciplinary technique that I’m certain millennial parents across the board are familiar with: the countdown. Here’s how the strategy played out that night:

Parent: “If you don’t [do X or Y or Z] right now, I’m going to count to three.” [1]

Child: “No, Daddy, I cccaaaaaaaannnnnttt.” 

Parent: “You better do [do X or Y or Z] NOW.”

Child: “Nooooooooo, Daaaaaaadddddy.”

Parent: “OK, I’m counting. ONE . . .” [Child’s face flushes with worry.]

Parent: “TWO . . .” [Child scurries to {do X or Y or Z}.] 

That, dear readers, is the performance of authority, power, resistance, and legitimization on a very small and simple scale [2]. Here we have a parental authority, authorized by legal systems, kinship norms, sociocultural convention, and force of habit, making a demand of a subject, in this case, the child. The child resists. She stamps her feet. She flails on the floor. She whines. The authority leverages the situation with threat of force: the 1-2-3 Count. The threat of impending discipline, the specter of censure. The child, fearing imagined repercussions, responds in line with the parent’s demands. Her obedience thus legitimates the power and authority of the parent, regardless of how fragile, elusive, and fabricated it was in that moment of resistance. In other words, I had no clue how I would have disciplined her had I reached the dreaded “THREE.” In fact, I was in that moment of exhaustion dreading with all of my being the use of any sort of non-linguistic disciplinary technique (i.e., removal of the child to the designated time-out location) that would  have required me to leave the comfort of the chair. I was imagining, willing, calling forth, even hoping for her obedience. The parent’s obligations to the child. The child’s obligations to the parent. Fragile, fluid, multi-sited power, extended linguistically through a verbal command, at first challenged and resisted, but then under threat of action and censure legitimated and reified at the last moment by an act of resigned obedience.

Unfortunately, this is a theorization of an interchange with a two-year-old. My elementary school children no longer recognize my weakly constructed authoritative appeals to threat of censure. The 1-2-3 Count lost its authoritative weight, for children more cognizant of their ability to resist and strategize their own powers, a long time ago.

[1] X or Y or Z = picking up a toy off the floor, getting off the table, sharing a toy with a sibling, etc. Such configurations vary per day (and sometimes per hour). 

[2] For more systematic, larger scale, and empirically-based theories of power, authority, resistance, authorization, language, rhetoric, and legitimacy, please do consult James Scott’s Domination and the Arts of Resistance, Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, Bruce Lincoln’s Authority: Construction and Corrosion, Max Weber’s On Charisma and Institution Building, Seven Lukes’s Power: A Radical View, and Pierre Bourdieu’s Outline of a Theory of Practice and Language and Symbolic Power, among other important works. 

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On Nietzsche, Prosperity Gospel, and Suffering

Iconoclast philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (N), in his On the Genealogy of Morals, has it out for religion and religious. As the treatise progresses, he develops several critical concepts that bear the weight of his overall critique. In referring to Judaism and Christianity, in general, and what he calls the “priestly caste,” in particular, he proposes the concept of the priest. To this idea he ascribes a body of descriptions that are reiterated throughout the Genealogy. Priests, N says, reinforce what calls the opposites of “pure” and “impure.” But to be pure, he argues, means simply (and historically) to wash oneself, avoid certain foods said to bring about disease, avoid sleeping with prostitutes and coming into contact with blood. Famously, N classifies priests in terms of dietary prohibitions and prescriptions, sexual abstinence, and flight into the wilderness. Priests are anti-sensual. For them, “everything simply becomes more dangerous.” Everything is a possible contagion; everything is prohibited.

Another element endemic to religious (Judeo-Christian) sensibilities, in N’s mind, is what he calls slave mentality and its resulting ressentiment: Essentially, this is all a turning-inward, a conniving self-introspection, self-denial, and suppression of animal instinct. Through the themes of priestly class, slave mentality, and ressentiment, all of these processes ultimately make the human weak and artificialized. The human rolls in his guilt—in his bad conscience—while he disavows the world and its pleasures. The ascetic priest, like the self-depreciating slave, internalizes one’s own drives and instincts. All of these issues, N argues, are part and parcel to religious sensibilities, and in particular, Jewish and Christian ones.

N published Genealogy in the late nineteenth century (1887), however, and global Christianity has continued to evolve and morph over more than a century and a quarter. Does N’s critique still hold? I study North American evangelicals, and among those evangelicals, am interested in one controversial form of thought and praxis: The Prosperity Gospel. Proponents of this economic- and theological-system are minor celebrities who run veritable media empires whose religio-discursive networks span the globe. One might spot these celebrities in the eclectically filled time-slots of programming owned by the Trinity Broadcasting Network and other Christian televising programs.

I’m at the early end of my research on televangelism, so I certainly run the risk of essentializing the issues and providing an oversimplistic reading of televangelistic ideologies. But for now, I can say with some certainty that Prosperity authorities invert N’s thesis, that is, they undermine his critique of Christianity-qua-asceticism, Christianity as ressentiment, and Christianity as embodied slave-mentality. Prosperity theologies are material theologies; they are theologies of the here-and-now. Prosperity Gospels underscore economic wealth and apotheosize the possession of material goods; they are quasi-hedonistic gospels that problematize Western Christianity’s widespread adoption of mind-body dualism by reinstating a theological justification of bodily enjoyment and pleasure.

Critics of the Prosperity Gospel, both in the news media and in Protestant theological circles, offer the following quote by itinerant evangelist and healer, Benny Hinn, as an example of excess, an instance of theological aberrancy:

I’m sick and tired about hearing about streets of gold [in heaven]. I don’t need gold in heaven. I got to have it now.

In the minds of the theologically “orthodox” (the term is a matter of perspective) such a statement is construed as bold, vulgar, un-biblical. But not the iconoclastic philosopher who died the opening year of the 1900s—not Friedrich Nietzsche, with his compromised digestion system and brilliant, sometime illegibly existential rants scrawled across the pages of his journals—N approves of Hinn’s gospel. The iconoclast condones such theological iconoclasm. For more on this comparison, see these new essays.

My question, for the curious reader, is: How do Hinn and company fit with N’s terminologies, especially concerning the beasts of prey and the empirically meek, but actually insidious, lambs? Concerning wealth, Hinn is given, and given, and given. (Or, does he take? Is there a difference?) Hinn rejects the ascetic ideal. He is, in Nietzschean parlance, active, moving, attaining. Might there be an aggressiveness to Hinn’s activity? Might there be a will to power?

“Man, the bravest animal and the one most accustomed to suffering,” writes N, “does not negate suffering in itself: he wants it, he even seeks it out.” Thus, I extrapolate: (i) Humans seek out suffering, but do so only if they can (ii) provide meaning for that suffering. (iii) The ascetic ideal offers that meaning. (iv) Prosperity Gospelers reject the ascetic ideal and (v) claim a way out of suffering to material and spiritual well-being. (vi) Suffering, for N, in some sort of (C. S.) Lewisian, “Pain is God’s megaphone” sort of way, is one sure part of human existence in the world of nature.

But it remains to be seen: If (or when?) prosperity fails in everyday life—if (when) promises of wealth and harvest fail to materialize for adherents who have bills to pay now—how will the proponents compensate, and will the masses accept and submit? Will prosperity authorities offer simple, critical explanations (i.e., you are not sowing enough; you have not faith enough)? Will they compromise, slightly, by validating suffering in limited ways (God will use pain to make you a better person), all the while continuing to uphold seed-harvest teachings? What is the future of the Prosperity Gospel in a post-capitalist, globalizing world?