I must confess at the outset that the first part of the title-Absent Eyes and Idle Hands-is not my creation but that of a University of California anthropologist by the name of Walter Goldschmidt who, in 1975, published a study bearing this portion of the title in the journal Ethos. In it, he describes his observations of child rearing practices among the Ugandan tribal group called the Sebei. The Sebei, he observed, reveal “a generally low level of affect,” or emotional tone, in their interpersonal relationships.
This was especially noteworthy among the parents of the very young children and infants; the parents rarely looked at or touched their offspring in any emotionally meaningful way, even when the requirements of nursing and attending to the infant would have made this seemingly inevitable. Thus, a mother's eyes seemed “absent”; while carrying or nursing her child she would “gaz(e) abstractly in the middle distance, supporting the child with the minimum of body contact” (Goldschmidt, 1974). As for the mother's hands, they seemed “idle” or “inattentive”. “The only ones I remember,” he continues, “seen fondling their infants were unmarried or childless ones holding babies belonging to another woman.” About the role of the Sebei fathers, the anthropologist reported: “I never saw a father dandle or hold a baby” and, as it happens, later in life “the father's role is that of chief (and harsh) disciplinarian in the early years he typically has no role; he is an emotionally absent father.”
Goldschmidt concluded that the expression of these “weak affectivities”, corroborated by observations of other social scientists (e.g., Levine, 1974), was a salient feature of Sebei personality. Thus, their eye and hand gestures communicated a personality tone or mood, characterized as a lack of psychological involvement (an emotional absence) in their interactions with one another. This quality of remoteness, or lack of interpersonal engagement is, according to Goldschmidt, a conspicuous aspect of Sebei socialization. He concludes with: “ this low level of affect, transmitted to the next generation at infancy, (is) reinforced in subsequent institutionalized behaviour.” Thus the child, through its own socialization, becomes the bearer of this mode of interaction, perpetuating this interpersonal style in its own subsequent social behavior. The child truly becomes “father to the man,” through the “inattentive” manner of the parent!
At the time I read this study, in the early 1980s, I was teaching a course in the psychology of social relations, and I was interested in styles of interaction. I happened upon the title: “Absent Eyes and Idle Hands: Socialization for Low Affect among the Sebei” as I was browsing through a textbook's reference section. I couldn't resist searching out Goldschmidt's paper; what might it reveal with such an intriguing title! Its significance, as I will explain below, did not become evident until very recently.
Combining Goldschmidt's title with Where Are the Adults? is my way of asking if our present conduct toward our own children, and adolescents in particular, is in some way similar to what Goldschmidt suggested in his observations of the Sebei. Are we offering little to them by way of a meaningful emotional engagement? Are we, as a society, socially and psychologically absent and idle in relation to our own youth?
Let me say that my thinking about the Goldschmidt paper of long ago, and the raising of these questions at present, derive from a review I read recently of a new book, The Sibling Society, authored by Robert Bly (1996), an American poet and essayist. I am not familiar with Bly's work, although I recognize the title of a previous work of his, Iron John. Having come upon the intriguing title, The Sibling Society, I decided to find Bly's book and see what it might reveal. In the course of my search, I came upon a review of it in the Toronto Star this past spring. The substance of this review, entitled “Absent Dads Syndrome Haunting Society” was suggestive of the Goldschmidt article I had read many years before. I then searched for this obscure anthropological work, securing a copy of it along with The Sibling Society.
Goldschmidt's observations on and interpretations of Sebei conduct, especially with regard to adult Sebei social interaction with the children, may have some bearing on issues raised in Bly's “sibling society”. Guided by the anthropologist Margaret Mead's view (1958), that “by a comparative study of different cultures we see our own socially transmitted customary behavior set beside that of (the) other,” I was drawn to the possibility of juxtaposing the observations of the anthropologist Goldschmidt, with those of the social critic Bly. Might there be some connection between Bly's observations that we, as a society, seem to be psychologically absent in our relations to our own youth, and the observations of Goldschmidt of adult Sebei conduct toward their children?
But, first, what does Bly's title, “sibling society”, actually mean. According to Bly, the title reflects his view that functioning as an adult in contemporary society is neither valued nor regarded as a desired personal goal. The result is a generational slide, he says: “Adults regress toward adolescence, and adolescents-seeing that-have no desire to become adults.”
Thus, Bly sees a “society of half-adults” being spawned “built on technology and affluence.” One result of this shift to “siblingism” is the absence of responsible adults to help adolescents cross over the “line to adulthood”. We are fast becoming, he fears, a society made up of children, all of us acting like siblings with non-existent parents. He suggests that we must turn to face adolescents and assist them in negotiating the rites of passage to adulthood lest their development remain arrested, both psychologically and socially, for another 20 or 30 years.
The responsibility on the part of adults to guide and support adolescent social and psychological growth is what the noted psychoanalyst Erik Erikson (1950) identified as an important developmental task of middle-adulthood. He called it the challenge of “generativity versus stagnation.” By generativity, Erikson meant giving to the next generation through child rearing, caring for others, and productive work. The adult who fails in these ways feels an absence of meaningful accomplishment, resorting to self-absorption and staleness. In an Eriksonian sense, this seems to be what Bly is suggesting: that, as a society, we are failing to live up to the challenges, tasks and responsibilities of adulthood. And in doing so, we are not only failing our young, but ourselves as well.
Keeping in mind now both Bly's views and those of Erikson, I am suggesting that we too, in the larger social sense, may be demonstrating an “absence” toward our own young similar to that which Goldschmidt noted among the Sebei. We too may be psychologically “idle” and “inattentive” in relations with our own youth.
What does Bly suggest to remedy the siblingism within our society? He urges that adults “stop going forward to retirement, to Costa Rica, to fortune” and turn and face the young. “Our hope,” he continues, “lies in our longing to be adults, and the longing for the young ones, if they know what an honorable adulthood is, to become adults as well.” Adults must imagine what it is to be an elder, what an elder's responsibilities are, and what it takes to be a genuine adult. Bly believes that when attention is given to young people who “aren't in their family, teachers and mentors feel more adult, and help children see adulthood as a desirable state.” Going through the rites of passage as adults and taking on the responsibility (generativity) of being an adult by “giving attention” to the young constitutes a way of having one's “own feeling of being adult augmented and adulthood might again appear to be a desirable state” for adults and adolescents alike.
Thus, the crux of the matter is adults' responsibilities to the younger generation. In Sebei society, the adults were physically present, but not psychologically involved. As Goldschmidt described it, they were remote in their relations to one another, and this was notable in their relations to the children: mothers and fathers were “emotionally absent.” In a similar vein, Bly suggests that as a society we are absent and as such, we are not providing the young with what they need: “stability, presence, attention, advice, good psychic food”, and this is “exactly what the sibling society,” he observes, “won't give them.”
It is not my intention at this time to account for the “weak affectivities” among the Sebei as reported by Goldschmidt, nor to account for the emergence of a “sibling society” as Bly sees North America (and other industrialized countries, closely followed by the developing countries) becoming. I am merely drawing on the commentaries of two very different individuals, noting phenomena of interest to each derived through their observations of very different societies and cultures. It is I who am drawing from these disparate sets of observations what I believe to be parallel patterns in the role of the adult in the responsible socialization of children and youth, and the faltering in this responsibility of psychological involvement with young people on the part of both the Sebei within their own society, and North American adults within theirs.
I must say at this point that the Sebei are socializing their children; however, the Sebei adults' manner of being psychologically absent reproduces in the childrens' personality and social interaction style the “weakened affectivities” noted by Goldschmidt, and the consequent lack of psychological presence when interacting with other adults and their own children. Children and adults alike identify with the prevailing style of social interaction, this style being woven into their own personalities and behavior. The social character of Sebei society is reproduced across the generation. It should be noted that I am not here to justify nor condemn the social ethos of the Sebei nor, by implication, the characteristics of our own North American manner. What I am attempting to do is to draw upon the “field notes” of a North American anthropologist (Goldschmidt) and, in doing so, gain some insight into our social styles by comparing them with those of Bly's comments and observations.
Returning now to the consequences of this social character, Goldschmidt reports that this may be seen in the “tendency of the Sebei to use one another instrumentally, the regular demand for pay for acts performed, including ritual acts even when performed by relatives, and the low concern for the deceased in their funerary rites.”
In a parallel fashion, what Bly observes in a sibling society is not only the absence of responsible adults, but a society “haunted by fatherlessness.” On the rise, fatherlessness “now stands at 60% and rising in the black neighborhoods, and 35% and rising in the white neighborhoods.” The phenomenon of large numbers of absent fathers, either physically or emotionally unavailable, may be transforming as well, the social character of North American youth. The absence of responsible parenting and mentoring may be contributing, Bly suggests, to the rise of “aggression of fatherless gangs among the disadvantaged, and the presence of depressed and passive youngsters among the advantaged.”
On the basis of the foregoing, I present the following proposition: that the theme of psychological absence and “inattentiveness” that Goldschmidt noted in a remote tribal culture has its parallel in Bly's observations of what he calls a North American society without adults: a sibling society.
This is not to say that the Sebei will eventually produce a society with the undesirable outcomes that Bly sees happening in a “sibling society.” Instead, I suggest that comparing the product of research which looks at societies outside of our own milieu (Goldschmidt) with observations made by a North American social critic (Bly) may help to conceptualize social processes which we otherwise may not immediately recognize and which, as I have noted above, only reveal themselves as meaningful when such parallels are drawn. As Spinoza said, “Whenever I have studied human affairs, I have labored not to mock, lament, nor condemn, but only to understand.”
Bly, R. (1996). The Sibling Society. Reading MA: Addison-Wesley.
Erikson, E. (1950). Childhood and Society. New York: W. W. Norton.
Goldschmidt, W. (1974). “Absent eyes and idle hands: Socialization for low affect among the Sebei”. Ethos, 3, 157-163.
Levine, R. (1974) “Parental goals: A cross-cultural view”. Teacher's College Record, 76, 226-239.
Mead, M. (1959). “A New Preface” in R. Benedict, Patterns of Culture. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Frank Marchese teaches psychology in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College.