The Third Chimpanzee, by Jared Diamond, & The Ostensibly Weak Identity of Teenagers

I just finished this book this evening. Fascinating stuff… so much so that I put off starting grading just so I could finally actually finish it. Granted, there wasn’t a lot in the book that I didn’t sort of know, or suspect, and there are sections that are very clearly his later (and equally fascinating, though somewhat more flawed at the beginning and end) book Guns, Germs, and Steel in embryonic form, but still, it was an excellent read. I really quite enjoyed it.

One of the funny side effects of reading this book of Diamond’s is that I’m always looking at claims about human behaviour, or depictions of human social dynamics, and thinking about how this relates to other species, and to how those behaviours or that nature relate to (or fail to relate to) our ancestral habitat.

An example from this evening is the amazing tolerance of violence that characters in the TV series Lost seem to have. I just watched episode 4 of Season 3, and man, there were three or four characters pounding the crap out of someone in the course of that episode. The really scary people were the ones refraining from doing so when an opportunity posed itself. Looked at that way, the awfulness of high school looks like a window through which to see how power-assertions might have played out all life long for neolithic people.

Or haircuts. The time after midterm exams is an interesting one. Yesterday, in my first class post-exams, I complimented not one student on her new haircut, not two, but three: I handed out a “collective” compliment to everyone who had a new haircut. Most of the new haircuts are actually quite nice. But what’s funny is the very specific timing. I guess people want to freshen up their lives after a short burst of stress. But then, I have to wonder what those haircuts signify; isn’t it a signaling system advertising availability? (In normalspeak, a way of “looking prettier”, which among primates like humans is a way of saying, “Hey, look at me! I’m attractive! I’m a potential mate!)

Yes, I look at the people around me and think about how their behaviours compare to those of other primates. I see traces of our heritage everywhere, in places we seem to think of as just ours, uniquely ours.

And the implications are, in other areas, potentially quite world-shattering.

Here’s a question that helps illustrate why: Are teenagers so weak-minded and ill-formed of identity that they’re susceptible to media, likely to have their identities and behaviours significantly shaped by exposure to depictions of behaviour not innately of interest to them? Can media make people into killers, or push them into alternative sexualities, or turn them into drug addicts?

This question is one that was raised by a student essay I was reading earlier this evening. With most of my students, I’d let slide the assertion that teenagers indeed are this way, but this was coming from one of my top students, and she writes very well, so I decided to raise the question to her, saying, “It’s easy to say, but is it true?” Oh yeah, I used that Paul Parkism — that wonderful phrase said by my teacher Paul Park this past summer — while grading an essay.

The example my student raised was the case of an Internet novel that was widely popular in Korea, and involved lesbianism. She claimed that teenagers, from ages 14-18, are not very solidly grounded in their identities and may be susceptible to the suggestions in books, and might just follow the actions of protagonists in books without thinking deeply about the consequences. She said the result of this publication online was that large numbers of young women had taken to lesbian experimentation, and that they had no understanding of the potential consequences of this experimentation.

To which, I have to say, the response I kept to myself was, “Gee, that means a bunch of teenaged girls might actually understand female anatomy and sexuality a little better, and won’t get pregnant doing it!” I mean, seriously, does teenaged experimentation get any less threatening than this? Is teenaged pregnancy better? I’ll never forget the bit of Stephen Baxter’s novel Manifold: Origin where a woman watches some other hominids — Neanderthals, maybe, or Homo Habilis, perhaps — interacting. The sexual interaction between males and females is violent and brief, but the sexual interaction between females is comforting and more gentle. It’s quite possible, in a world lit only by moon and starlight, not divided by the kind of conceptual and linguistic barriers that demarcate normative sexual behaviours, that early humans might not have behaved the way we do — after all, this is observed in other species, including primates, and I seriously doubt the diversity of human sexualities today is less than we’d observe in hominids that, at the cusp of developing language, probably with some kind of intelligence, curiosity, and heavy sociality.

Okay, okay, anyway… aside from all of that, the thing I stopped and asked her in the essay — I scrawled it in red ink — was, “Is that true? Are teenagers that susceptible to suggestion? Because I don’t remember being that way.”

I mean, don’t get me wrong. I do remember being susceptible to peer pressure. I stole a couple of pieces of gum from 7-11 as a kid, by sticking them into the slurpee cup before I filled it with slush. I couldn’t bring myself to fill the cup up with candy, like the other boys did, but I did put a couple of pieces of Dubble Bubble gum into a slurpee once. So yeah, peer pressure existed even in my world. I laughed at homophobic jokes that would send me into rants now. I did other stupid things that boys do in middle school and high school.

But I don’t really remember my identity being anything like as indeterminate as people seem to think they are for teenagers. For example, I’ve never felt the urge to date boys, and I don’t think reading an internet novel about the subject would have made me consider trying it. I didn’t, in middle school or high school, drink or use drugs of any kind, nor did I strongly wish to try them, though both were available — maybe not in my direct social circle, but certainly in the school, and in the city.

Yes, lots of other teenagers did these things — but, I think, they because they wanted to, or because they thought it’d be worth it to be cool and being cool was what they wanted — consciously for the social benefit of an action they may have felt interested in, or neutral about — but not, I thought, because their identities were so ill-defined in their own minds that they didn’t know who they were.

I don’t know. It seems to me that this whole, “Teenagers don’t really know who they are, so they might experiment in ways they will later regret” is much more of a coded way of saying, “Teenagers, as members of a younger generation than mine, may experiment in ways of which I don’t approve, and I need a way of criticizing this, using their age to cast their agency into question, and then use their lack of culpability and sense of self as an excuse to impose what I think is normative upon them.” I mean, yeah, it’d be nice if we could stop kids from hurting themselves, but… well, it’d be nice to stop adults from hurting themselves too.

Two problems, though, are that we have very odd ideas about what “self-harm” includes. Highly traditionalist moral codes make people think that teenaged girls fooling around together is “self-harm”, but I have trouble seeing, in any clear way, how it is. The simple fact is that polite society’s notions of sexuality and the evolutionary history of the human species don’t mesh well. Our social rules are, in part, unconsciously designed to maintain certain power structures, and I find myself always questioning why something is “forbidden” when, from a sociobiological perspective, it’s an inherent human behaviour.

Not that all inherent human behaviours are arguably value neutral. Diamond’s book argues clearly that drug abuse, genocide, rape, and murder are essentially natural behaviours among humans, but this doesn’t make them good or acceptable. Natural isn’t the same as good, though Rousseau’s muddled our heads about that so masterfully that it’ll take us a century or two to really understand that widely.

If you want to know how humans 30,000 years ago behaved, look at how they behave now, despite all the social strictures placed upon them. At 15 and 16, our prehistoric ancestors were very probably sexually active, but poor diet probably prevented menstruation and pregnancy until a fair bit later. It’s not at all surprising that teenagers, when they have the chance, are sexually experimentative and active. This is what humans have been like for ages. This is millions of years talking.

Another example from recent discussions in various venues is eating disorders. A great deal of discussion about the relative insanity of female body-images presented in the media suggests that not only general body issues (which it’s reasonably believable could come from media expsoure), but also potentially-fatal eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia, come from overexposure to media presenting excessivelt thin models.

There are problems with this notion, aren’t there? While eating disorders are primarily suffered by women, some men suffer from them too. And… well, I’ll be blunt. I know I could stand to lose some weight. I’ve known it for years. I’ve acted on it, too… and I have always had, you know, a kind of emotional/mental discomfort with being overweight.

But never, ever have I even considered binge-eating followed by vomiting to be a good idea. Anyone who is mentally healthy and has experienced vomiting knows it’s not fun, not cool, that it feels bad, and not in a way that exercise feels bad in short-term but good in the long-term. Puking is not fun, and repeatedly puking is really not fun, as I learned from several bouts of food-poisoning. If this is simply a case of experimentation, why do so many people with eating disorders hide their conditions, puking in private, embarrassed to tell anyone? Isn’t it similar to how people with other mental disorders — hearing voices, for example, or halucinating — hide their condition for as long as possible, until they simply can’t pull it off anymore?

Is the media really reaching its magical tendrils into the heads of (mostly) women who are otherwise mentally healthy and autonomous, and making them “try” behaviours that result in eating disorders? Or was there something wrong with them, mentally, from the get-go, and the presence of eating disorders is indicative of that? Are eating disorders symptoms of a disordered society, or of a disordered person? Are they really so prevalent that blaming the media makes sense? Can we really make a perfectly stable, sane person into an anorexic by pumping the right kind of TV content at them?

This may sound like I’m dismissing the effects of media. Certainly not. Media does influence how we think and feel. It can affect us in important ways.

However, it seems to me that people either are easily-manipulated monkey-automatons, or they aren’t. The notion that teenagers are somehow more susceptible to things, even that may have some credence — after all, it’s a tough time in life, especially with the insane experience of the modern middle school and high school, where many people are forced to build their identities in the emotional and social equivalent of a cross between a concentration camp and a pressure cooker — but isn’t it just a little ridiculous to imagine teenagers, or adults, or even children, as tabula rasa, given all we know about human beings? Isn’t it more sensible to consider that maybe, just maybe, mental instability and emotional problems are bigger triggers for behaviours like eating disorders, that it might be inborn instincts that make teenagers so interested in sex? (And this isn’t an argument for teenaged promiscuity — it’s just saying that teenagers are not monkey-see, monkey-do, they’re more like us adults: monkey-be, monkey-do.

Another example against the notion that violent media leads to a violent society is this: plenty of societies without modern media have been even more excessively violent than those watching CSI: Miami or whatever else is being criticized today. You want to see violent? Forget Diamond’s examples from New Guinea: try looking at all the shattered skulls we find among the remains of Cro-Magnon man. That’s violence, on a scale we rarely see in countries with widespread, easily-accessed, affordable mass media in place. It may well be that watching violence on TV makes us less violent, by getting it out of our primate systems.

So why do people still use this argument? Why the move to erase the agency of teenagers, for their “protection”? Well, on one level, perhaps there is a sensible concern of the effect on people who are, after all, searching for a clearer sense of self. There is a level on which susceptibility does exist in such a situation. But it seems to me that the real motive for such an argument is that by removing another’s agency, fitness to judge things, one can put oneself in the position of arbiter. this is a thorny question, of course, because the teenager is the human being who is moving between the world mediated by parents — which children do want and need for various reasons — to the world mediated by experience, by others and the self. Media does mediate, but it does not do so absolutely. While I do think that change of a kind comparable to water-erosion may occur in people because of what they see in media, I’m uncomfortable with the idea that from exposure to one text, or one image, or one film, that people can be suddenly brainwashed, or made to go against their nature. Isn’t their nature what guided them to be interested in the thing? Isn’t their nature what led them away from the rules put down by parents or society?

It’s the difficulty of admitting that people are unique, and different from one another. Every parent has to accept that, but since there is, realistically, such a thing as too-different, it’s scary. No wonder so many parents get a little too controlling during those years.

What am I saying? I’m saying that if your kid becomes anorexic, it probably wasn’t the supermodels that did it… your kid maybe had a chemical imbalance in her head, and the media– at most, and with the collusion of your culture — probably mostly just guided the form in which the kid’s mental illness manifested. If your kid is doing crack, I doubt it’s because of the glamorizing of drugs in rap music. I mean, people do hard drugs for all kinds of reasons. Maybe your kid was stupid. Maybe you didn’t talk enough about drugs. Maybe your kid had some emotional issues he was trying to escape. (And I’m not saying crack isn’t an awful drug; it is, and should be stamped off the face of the earth. But I suspect that most people don’t start using it without some reason.) If your child is experimenting with sexual orientation, do you really think a book triggered it? Could it have triggered that in you, at that age? Did it? And if so, do you really, truly, deep-down believe there wasn’t an interest in experimenting that way before you read the book?

Guilt, I think, can make parents do it. I knew a guy who, after he committed suicide, his family started a crusade against the thing they blamed his suicide on: his gambling addiction. It was a very sad case, and members of my family were close to him, but I have to say — for all his suffering, he was addicted. Aside from the leap to the conclusion that he’d killed himself over his addiction (and not some other issue, like say a continuous depression), his addiction was his personal problem, and he could have sought help. Maybe he would have, if we had less of a taboo on seeing mental health professionals.

But his addiction and sad death don’t imply the natural conclusion that gambling machines need to go, anymore than internet addiction suggests the internet should be shut down. It’s important that as a society, we console these people, but we don’t give in to them when they seek to pin blame on things in the public sphere, instead of acknowledging what’s really quite obvious — a lot of people are messed up, and do messed-up things to themselves, and suffer. We can’t blame books, gambling machines, TV, or the internet for what is just part of human nature. And we shouldn’t give in when people tell us that some people are susceptible in ways we don’t remember ourselves having been at some time or other.

Or am I unusual in having a relatively clear sense of who I was and what I was interested in when I was teenager?

Was your sense of self so unstable or fuzzy as a teenager that you,would have had some sex you’d never before considered or naturally been interested in because of one book? Would you have tried shooting people at high school after watching a gangster movie or two, or playing Doom?

My suspicion is that most people will answer that question, No, I basically had some sense of who I was and what I was into, though uncertainties about specifics remained (and continued to remain into young adulthood). But I am curious to see what people have to say.

2 thoughts on “The Third Chimpanzee, by Jared Diamond, & The Ostensibly Weak Identity of Teenagers

  1. Some kids are followers. Some kids are leaders. Some are neither. I was neither. I wasn’t going to follow the leaders into stupidity. I suffered some socially from that, but came out more intact than a lot of my peers.

    As for the drugs & stuff, I know a mother who lives in a very good school district who will NOT send any of her children to the absolutely incredibly good high school in the district, because while it’s ranked very high statewide on a lot of things, if you don’t have the talent to be the BEST in football, or debate, or basketball, or chess, you are SOL as far as extracurricular activities go, and there’s a decent chance both your parents are working anyway, and you’ve got way too much time on your hands without supervision, and you end up doing drugs out of boredom. Or so she’s seen in enough of the neighbors to be driving her older kids into the city to a private school affiliated with a mainstream Protestant denomination.

    And part of it may be that some parents just don’t want their kids to be who they are, and that leads to all sorts of crap (drug use, psychiatric conditions, not screening the media they’re viewing and talking with them about some of the bad stuff and how it’s bad, etc.) right there.

    Fuzzy-headed this evening. Sorry if this doesn’t make much sense.

  2. Inborn traits, huh?

    I’m not sure that I was ever a follower or a leader. I did go flexible on those roles in some contexts… like eventually, I was the badass in the jazz band, because I was the only guy who could really solo. But I didn’t lead in other areas, at all. I couldn’t be bothered to lead other people, or to follow them. It seemed leaders always got stuck making decisions for the group, and followers all ended up playing the lemming game.

    Wow, the mom who’s taking her kids to the private school… wow.

    I think what you say about parents not wanting their kids to be who the are possible leading to the stuff that parents worry about makes sense.

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