There’s a particular scene in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix where Dolores Umbridge takes over as High Inquisitor at Hogwarts. In a flurry of images depicting rules and restrictions being created and enforced, Argus Filch stands atop an old, rickety ladder and pounds proclamation statements into the school’s storied walls. Most noted in this montage are Educational Decrees 24 (“No music is to be played during study hall”), 30 (“All Weasley products will be banned immediately”), and 45 (“Proper dress and decorum to be maintained at all times”). The climax in this relatively short scene is when Umbridge is dismissing Professor Trelawney from Hogwarts, and Dumbledore challenges her on the dismissal.
Prof. Trelawney: For sixteen years I’ve lived and taught here. Hogwarts is my home. You can’t do this.
Umbridge: Actually, I can.
(Professor McGonagall enters to comfort Prof. Trelawney, and after a brief exchange with Umbridge, they are all joined by Dumbledore.)
Dumbledore: Professor McGonagall, might I ask you to escort Sybil back inside?
Umbridge: Dumbledore, may I remind you that under the terms of Educational Decree no. 23, as enacted by the Minister–
Dumbledore: You have the right to dismiss my teachers. You do not, however, have the authority to banish them from the grounds. That power remains with the Headmaster.
Umbridge (after a long pause): For now.
As much as this scene in the movie represents the ridiculous power that Umbridge has been given (and misuses) at Hogwarts, Umbridge herself is a strong representation of the equally ridiculous misuse of power right in our own communities.
Don’t see it? It’s everywhere, and once you begin to notice it happening in one part of your life, you suddenly recognize it in nearly every other aspect, too.
Not that this is anything new. It’s not. These demonstrations of the misuse of power accompanied by subtle-to-blatant intimidation (fought aggressively in our schools today and labeled as bullying) can be traced back (even just in the United States) to the days of colonization. Even 150 years ago, Native Americans were bullied into acculturation as we stripped them of their customs, rights, and freedoms. We forbade them to speak their native language, and families were separated as children were put in “civilization” schools. We created rules, regulations, and proclamations to steer them in a specific direction, solely for the purposes of our own benefits and desires.
It makes me wonder if this is in our blood, in our nature, in our internal drive to dominate, manipulate, and control any situation that we possibly can. It’s as if all common sense, all sensitivity toward other human beings, is shelved until a more selfish pursuit is fulfilled.
Why is this such an issue today? The dangerous mixture of this desire for power and a post-9/11 society hell-bent on creating controlled, positive experiences is threatening the mental wellness of every child in our society.
A Rule Is A Rule
Long before terrorists crashed airplanes into buildings and changed our lives forever, my terminally ill father-in-law was given 30 days to move out of the house he had been renting for over a decade. My wife and I were moving bags of trash to the curb for pick-up, and a woman in her mid-twenties, well into her third trimester of pregnancy, stopped her car and approached us. As we had put out a few lamps, I thought she was interested in taking them. When I greeted her and explained what had happened, she pulled out a camera and started taking pictures.
“I’m not interested in that. I’m the president of the Community Association, and I am documenting this direct violation of the Association’s contract with your father-in-law regarding trash disposal before 6 p.m.”
Any assistance offered, at least in the kindness of others because of her pregnancy? Any question about why the landlord would do this? Any effort to understand? None. In many small organizations like Community Associations, where people act more like dictatorial mayors than helpful and supportive neighbors, the entire purpose of the organization is lost in battles that border the ridiculous. Tell me, why does it really matter if the color I want to paint my front door is two shades lighter than your Association-approved chartreuse? Can’t we just say the paint faded years ago and move on to other, bigger issues? You know, like how many swings to place in the community playground? (Oh wait– I forgot. The Association deemed them too harmful in all ways to include in the playground blueprints.)
I remember thinking how detached from reality the whole experience seemed. I was glad that I was not part of that Association, and I vowed on that day to steer clear of such groups. I did not want my life dictated by such power-hungry individuals who had lost sight of what it meant to be human, to be bigger than a bunch of black-white rules that blocked all conventions of common sense.
I Don’t Like Your Tone
I failed in my attempts to steer clear. It becomes inevitable, I guess, when you have kids. Most recently, I have found myself in the middle of an organization that is more Umbridge-like than any other I have experienced. Within this organization, I am supposed to sign a contract that notes, among other things, zero tolerance toward personal expression. In the section titled, “Contract Termination,” I must agree to a statement (written in first person, oddly enough) that I have paraphrased here:
We understand that if there is ever a time that we cannot be a positive force to this organization, we will forfeit our place in this group immediately.
This clause was exercised earlier this year when one community family expressed concern about the organization’s direction. Because they did not exude a “positive force” in the community, they were blackballed in unprecedented fashion from all end-of-the-year festivities.
In other words, if you express anything but positivity about the organization, you will be punished severely. And that’s a proclamation you can bet on, ladies and gentlemen.
Is the Pursuit of Positivity Pushing Us Over the Edge?
In the July/August ’11 issue of The Atlantic, Lori Gottlieb explores the dangers of enveloping our younger generations with purely positive and supportive comments and opportunities (the front-cover headline, “How the Cult of Self-Esteem Is Ruining Our Kids,” is just as attractive as the article’s title, “How To Land Your Kid In Therapy”). She interviews a Swarthmore College professor of social theory, Barry Schwartz, who takes a big risk in proclaiming that creating an insulated, 24/7 Happy World for our children can lead to a very unhappy adult life. “Happiness as a byproduct of living your life is a great thing. But happiness as a goal is a recipe for disaster.” Gottlieb then poses the ultimate question: “Could it be that by protecting our kids from unhappiness as children, we’re depriving them of happiness as adults?”
I’ve said this for years now. The Post-9/11 mentality of most parents is, understandably so, one grounded in protection and security. We can no longer push our kids out the front door and tell them dinner will be ready when the porch light goes on (You better be back in this house 5 minutes later with hands washed and at the dinner table, mister!). We’ve felt guilty about this, as our childhoods were filled with adventures in exploration, experience, success, and failure. We took risks that our parents never even knew about (nor would they ever, we swore up and down). Our kids don’t have that necessarily, and we fill this need to fill that time with controlled experiences. We choose events and activities where our children will succeed, where they will experience happiness (or so we believe), and we will sacrifice nearly anything and everything to provide them with such opportunities.
In essence, we’re doing the very thing that I absolutely loathe about the above-mentioned Associations and Organizations. We are constructing guilt-freeing Truman Shows for our kids, controlling the outcome of every “risk” they might take.
I can’t do this. I can’t hold my tongue in fear of popping this happiness bubble that we’ve created with sharp words that might offend in this fragile time. Thoreau wrote many years ago, “Let us spend one day as deliberately as Nature, and not be thrown off the track by every nutshell and mosquito’s wing that falls on the rails.” We need to return to this toughness. We need to stop worrying about our kids’ happiness being derailed by anything that’s missing a soaring rainbow or happy heart.
Those of you who know me might see this as a deviation from my positive approach to living life. Please don’t misunderstand me. I believe in living your life fully and authentically. Thoreau also said that we must corner life and experience it fully–it’s greatness as much as its meanness. We, as parents, cannot remove that truth from a life lived authentically. As Schwartz said in The Atlantic article, happiness should be a byproduct of living genuinely, and not the ultimate goal.