Friday, October 30, 2009

Something Really Ought To Be Said

Something Really Ought To Be Said
30 October 2009

On the 28th of November, I took my 8-year-old Bear Cub to his Pack Meeting. It's held in a multi-purpose room at a nearby school. We arrived about the same time we always arrive - a few minutes late due to soccer practice getting out a scant 15 minutes before the start of the Pack meeting. Since I make him change into his scout uniform before going in to the meeting, we arrive just at the close of the opening activities and the beginning of the meeting itself.

This particular Pack meeting had a special guest. The email announcement said:

"This month's theme is Jungle Safari! We have exciting guests this night.

* Master So and So, 6th Degree Black Belt
* Boy Scout Troop ###
* Mrs. So and So to help prepare for Holiday Caroling"

Hey! Neat! A 6th degree black belt! This was going to be interesting. Maybe he would talk about martial arts, culture, and history. Maybe he would demonstrate a form, or break boards with his bare hands, and talk about the power of the individual to rise above limitations with hard work and diligent practice.

Mr. So and So and his able student assistant did indeed demonstrate martial arts techniques. And, he did speak about discipline. However, something unexpected happened. He linked discipline and martial arts training to material success and made fun of people living in Aguanga and El Cajon, which are two nearby towns here in California. The focus of the entire presentation was fighting back against "predators". This was, in essence, a paranoia-drenched safety seminar about what to do if you, the cub scout, are kidnapped by a pedophile.

But, first, let's analyze the message about materialism. The reasoning went something like this. People that live in Carmel Valley, San Diego (where the Pack is located) are successful. Not everyone can live in Carmel Valley. Discipline allows your parents, and therefore you, to be successful enough to live in Carmel Valley. Not like those people in Aguanga, or El Cajon. They aren't successful enough to live in Carmel Valley.

Aguanga was described by the martial arts speaker as having a population of 25. That's off by two orders of magnitude. As of 1990, it had a population of 2,309. It's an unincorporated small town in Riverside County.

Drawing the obvious conclusion, people in Aguanga and El Cajon don't have discipline. People in "those other places" are not successful. It's ok to make fun of people that are less-advantaged than you.

As of the 2000 census, there were 94,869 people, 34,199 households, and 23,152 families residing in the city of El Cajon. According to estimates by the San Diego Association of Governments, the median household income of El Cajon in 2005 was $47,885.

According to the San Diego County Assessor's Office's 2006 estimates, there were 42,047 people residing in Carmel Valley, which is an increase of 49.2% from 2000. The median household income was $120,886. 17.8% of the households made $200,000 or more and 12.3% made $30,000 or less.

While the median household incomes are different, with Carmel Valley being higher, this really should not be held up as proof that people living in Carmel Valley are "more disciplined" or even "more successful" than people living in El Cajon. At least, not without an awful lot of careful definitions of terms and a recognition that different people value different things.

Importantly, El Cajon isn't impoverished. The median household income for El Cajon is right about at the median household income for the entire state of California. Therefore, El Cajon is a very good representative of material success in the state of California. Poking fun of El Cajon, as if they were a bunch of backwards, lazy, hayseed, no-accounts, doesn't make much sense, since it's equivalent to making fun of the entire state of California.

Carmel Valley, by comparison, isn't even a city. El Cajon was incorporated in 1912. Carmel Valley, being a master-planned neighborhood, mooches off San Diego for services and other expensive things that El Cajon has the discipline and focus to provide the citizens that live there.

I wonder who Rancho Santa Fe cub scouts make fun of at their Pack meetings? Could they possibly be making fun of phony, high-maintenance, new-money Carmel Valley set?

Where does a scouting organization get off promoting the idea that the most important things in life are material success? Is this a core value of scouting? I wonder if the organizations that help fund scouting, say, United Way or other agencies, would be happy about scouts talking down to disadvantaged persons at their meetings?

Is this the only time this year that this sort of thing has happened? No, it is not.

Several months ago, when each scout at the Pack meeting had to stand up and answer the question "What do you want to be when you grow up," nearly every older cub scout, the two groups of Webelos, answered "I want to make a lot of money" or "I want to be rich". My own Bear Cub later admitted he felt kind of silly saying he wanted to be a Lego Designer, but first work at Souplantation (his favorite restaurant). This made me feel sad. Here we were, confronting the corrosion of a natural desire to grow up and do productive things that made him feel good about himself and others, and it happened at a Pack meeting - the sort of place where I'd hoped we could find the opposite environment. In the face of a series of smarmy "I wanna be RICH", the simple statement of serving food to others at his favorite restaurant became something to be emabarrassed of.

There is nothing inherently wrong with having money, earning money, or spending money. Much of the time, things worth doing are paid well enough to make a good living. If you are lucky, prepared, willing to sacrifice and work hard, then you might be paid more than the average. However, there are plenty of cases where wealth came from being in the right place at the right time, or from being the children of wealth, or from giving up happiness, or from stealing wealth from others, or from taking advantage of a loophole in the law or a fad or a shortage.

There is no guarantee that discipline and grace will make you wealthy. Ask any priest.

The lessons on how to handle a predator and the message of paranoia are controversial, and I have no good answer. An 8-year-old is no match for a full-grown adult. Putting the idea in their minds that they can resist or win a physical confrontation may or may not be a good idea.

The demonstrations consisted of the martial artist pretending to be a stranger kidnapping a boy from Toys R Us. The message that strangers are the real danger is categorically wrong. "There are a number of commonly held misconceptions regarding child sexual abuse in the United States. [such as] ...the perpetrator of the sexual abuse is always a stranger" ("Sexual Abuse of Children" Renee Z. Dominguez, Ph.D., Connie F. Nelke, Ph.D., Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D.)

Children are far more likely to be abused by a family member or someone already known to them. By emphasizing the danger of strangers, we both erode civil society and we also set up a false expectation of where the danger really lies.

Why do I care so much about the message of materialism?

About 20 years ago in Arkansas, I earned a black belt in Tae Kwon Do from the exact same organization that the speaker represented. In no way, shape, or form, was the message presented back then that discipline would make me financially successful. It doesn't hurt, but it wasn't presented that way. Those that were less-advantaged were actively respected, especially if they made what was quite often a larger sacrifice to come to class and work hard on developing their skill, self-confidence, and poise. It was dishertening to see the difference that 20 years and living in a different part of the country can make in the presentation of the meaning of martial arts to youth.