Does Compulsion Still Work?

I am convinced that we are in an historic transition in our society and our entire world from patriarchy to partnership. From a model of organizing society’s institutions around hierarchy, top-down control and “power-over” towards a very different model where the “world is flat” and decisions are made collectively in a “power-with” arrangement. Like all profound transformations, besides the visible changes in how our institutions are organized, how we lead our lives and interact with each other, there are internal realignments in what we value and how we frame the world and our participation in it.

I see that more subtle side of this transition when I see a dad get down on his knees to be at eye level with and listen to his five-year-old complain about being bored. Or when I see a female teenager laugh heartily and put her hand on her boyfriend’s shoulder. The dynamics of adult-child and male-female relationships are changing, from those based on a superior-inferior to more of an egalitarian model, in line with the historic transition of much of the world from monarchies to republics. More and more we are expecting people, even little kids, to give some input into the decisions that affect them.

As we evolve out of the patriarchal “Do your duty” mindset that allowed us to operate relatively comfortably in this paradigm, certain methods associated with that paradigm I believe are losing their power to motivate us. I am thinking in particular about compulsion; that is, forcing, coercing, enticing, or otherwise providing people with external motivation to do things that we feel they would not otherwise freely choose to do if given that choice. Starting with Baby-Boomers (particularly those on the “hippie” side of the political spectrum) and growing with each succeeding generation according to studies, there is a declining willingness to do what you are supposed to do in favor of something akin to “Follow your heart” instead.

In a true indication that this move away from compulsion is not just a liberal vice, even Baby-Boomers on the right of that demographic (the core constituency of the “Tea Party” movement) are losing their sense of social discipline in favor of “challenging authority”. I would think their progeny are probably ever more inclined to chart their own course as well.

So given this scenario, some would say that hedonism and selfishness abounds and our society will begin to unravel. Will anyone be willing to take on the difficult tasks, master the appropriate disciplines, and stay the challenging courses that are necessary to maintain a free society functioning sustainably within its means in a world that in many parts is not (yet) aligned with that freedom? Hasn’t the idea of “doing one’s duty to God and country” lost sway except with the most conservative among us? Don’t we need to stay socially disciplined and dutiful to keep our society functioning in this world? If necessary, don’t we need to compel people to contribute their fair share (taxes), to treat each other fairly (non-discrimination), and to become sufficiently educated to benefit society (mandatory schooling)?

These are provocative questions I ask myself and hear from others. I certainly would acknowledge that our society has felt out of balance with our unsustainable lifestyle of profligate energy use and hyper materialism. Maybe this is a symptom of this trend away from compulsion. Fewer of us are inspired by that external call from some higher authority to curb our appetites or tow the line.

I look back on 55 years of my own life and see very little of positive significance that compulsion contributed to it. I had to go to school, like it or not, until I graduated from high school. (Much of that seat time in classrooms might better have been spent on the myriad of self-initiated projects I was always doing outside of school!) There were very few rules and constraints that my parents put on me, and I pursued my young life in the inspiring warmth of much freedom and liberty. My world rarely had authority figures (like coaches, religious leaders, etc). I was instead inspired by my own heart, the inspiration of heroic people (including famous folk like Martin Luther King but also my own very talented and thoughtful peers) and an egalitarian ethos of shared principles and goals.

If anything, our kids have been impacted even less by compulsion and authority, since neither their mom nor I attempted to wield much authority over or otherwise manage their lives, including no longer compelled them to go to school once they reached their high school years. I asked my son if he could think of anyone who was a mentor in his life… he thought about it but could come up with no one. (Obviously this was an opportunity to cite his parents as mentors, but he chose not to.)

Looking back to this time in my own life, I don’t recall my mom ever telling me I had to go to school, back then I understood and felt that compulsion myself, and had no idea there was any other option.

As our society invests in and is inspired by the egalitarian ethos, more and more of the rules we follow, at least as adults, are ones we discuss and agree to ourselves or do so through our elected representatives. Starting with no “taxation without representation” back in colonial times and permeating our politics and other societal institutions including work and worship, we are learning to expect we will have a voice of some sort (which we can choose to use or not). Compulsion is becoming a last resort, as in paying taxes, that at least at some level we (or our elected representatives) have agreed to. Even the ranks of our military are filled by volunteers.

In this society which at least in principle embodies liberty, that gives us the opportunity to participate in more and more decisions that impact us, or at least lets us make other choices, compulsion (at least “without representation”) seems to be losing its effectiveness as a tool to direct society. That said, there are still a plethora of regulations and mandates from various levels of government that individuals and businesses must follow, though there is also a constant countervailing effort to pare them down.

But seemingly standing as a great bulwark against this trend of choice and egalitarianism is how we compel our youth to attend school and compel our schools to cleave to one educational model (mandatory instruction) and give our youth no “representation” in shaping these institutions that require so much of their time, attention and psychic energy. I hear so many stories of classrooms where a significant proportion of the students in attendance are bored or otherwise don’t want to be there. The conventional wisdom is that teachers need to make the mandatory curriculum more compelling. Either that or the students need to decide to get with the program and make the best of it.

I don’t think either of these remedies will produce results. I believe instead that we have to acknowledge that we are living in a society where compulsion will continue to steadily lose its efficacy and our few remaining institutions that depend on it will become more and more out of touch with the people they are attempting to serve. As I said at the top of this piece I see this as a symptom of our transition from patriarchy to partnership, from external to shared authority, and even our kids are getting caught up in this transformation.

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