By Alan Watts
The child is tricked into the ego-feeling by the attitudes, words, and actions of the society which surrounds him—his parents, relatives, teachers, and, above all, his similarly hoodwinked peers. Other people teach us who we are. Their attitudes to us are the mirror in which we learn to see ourselves, but the mirror is distorted. We are, perhaps, rather dimly aware of the immense power of our social environment.
We seldom realize, for example, that our most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own. For we think in terms of languages and images which we did not invent, but which were given to us by our society. We copy emotional reactions from our parents, learning from them for example that excrement is supposed to have a disgusting smell and that vomiting is supposed to be an unpleasant sensation.
The dread of death is also learned from their anxieties about sickness and from their attitudes to funerals and corpses. Our social environment has this power just because we do not exist apart from a society. Society is our extended mind and body. Yet the very society from which the individual is inseparable is using its whole irresistible force to persuade the individual that he is indeed separate! Society as we now know it is therefore playing a game with self-contradictory rules. Just because we do not exist apart from the community, the community is able to convince us that we do—that each one of us is an independent source of action with a mind of its own.
The more successfully the community implants this feeling, the more trouble it has in getting the individual to cooperate, with the result that children raised in such an environment are almost permanently confused.
This state of affairs is known technically as the “double-bind.” A person is put in a double-bind by a command or request which contains a concealed contradiction “Stop being self-conscious!” “Try to relax.” Or the famous prosecuting attorney’s question to the man accused of cruelty to his wife “Have you stopped beating your wife yet? Answer yes or no.” This is a damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t situation which arises constantly in human (and especially family) relations.
A wife complains to her husband, ‘Do you realize that since we were married two years ago you haven’t once taken me to the movies? It wasn’t that way when you were courting. I think you’re beginning to take me for granted.” When the penitent husband returns from work the following evening he says, “Darling, what about going to the movies after dinner?” And she replies, “You’re only suggesting it because I complained!”
Society, as we now have it, pulls this trick on every child from earliest infancy. In the first place, the child is taught that he is responsible, that he is a free agent, an independent origin of thoughts and actions—a sort of miniature First Cause. He accepts this make believe for the very reason that it is not true. He can’t help accepting it, just as he can’t help accepting membership in the community where he was born. He has no way of resisting this kind of social indoctrination.
It is constantly reinforced with rewards and punishments. It is built into the basic structure of the language he is learning. It is rubbed in repeatedly with such remarks as, “It isn’t like you to do a thing like that.” Or, “Don’t be a copy-cat; be yourself!” Or when one child imitates the mannerisms of another child whom he admires we say “Johnny, that’s not you. That’s Peter!”
The innocent victim of this indoctrination cannot understand the paradox. He is being told that he must be free. An irresistible pressure is being put on him to make him believe that no such pressure exists. The community of which he is necessarily a dependent member defines him as an independent member.
In the second place, he is thereupon commanded, as a free agent, to do things which will be acceptable only if done voluntarily! “You really ought to love us,” say parents, aunts, uncles, brother, and sisters. “All nice children love their families, and do things for them without having to be asked.” In other words “We demand that you love us because you want to, and not because we say you ought to.” Part of this nonsense is due to the fact that we confuse the “must” expressing a condition (“To be human you must have a head”) with the “must” expressing a command (“You must put away your toys”). No one makes an effort tohave a head, and yet parents insist that, to be healthy, a child “must” have regular bowel movements, or that he must try to go to sleep, or that he must make an effort to pay attention—as if these goals were simply to be achieved by muscular exertion.
Children are in no position to see the contradictions in these demands, and even if some prodigy were to point them out, he would be told summarily not to “answer back,” and that he lacked respect for his “elders and betters.” Instead of giving our children clear and explicit explanations of the game-rules of the community, we befuddle them hopelessly because we—as adults—were once so befuddled, and, remaining so, do not understand the game we are playing.
A double-bind game is a game with self-contradictory rules, a game doomed to perpetual self-frustration—like trying to invent a perpetual motion machine in terms of Newtonian mechanics, or trying to trisect any given angle with a straightedge and compass.