The author thanks Jane Pfefferle and Erik Mansager for their editorial assistance in transcribing recorded segments of an original lecture from the Alfred Adler Institute of Northwestern Washington Distance Training Course DT304 - Child and Family Therapy, and adding their notes from our conversations, during their distance training in Classical Adlerian Psychotherapy. New material has also been added for clarification. The paper, written in May of 2009, explores Alfred Adler's ideal of the democratic character and its implications for social inclusion: in child-rearing, education, and the work place. A "Levels of Functioning" chart shows how a community of optimally functioning individuals represents the antithesis of social exclusion. This material is protected by copyright and may not be reproduced, in whole or part, without the expressed consent of Dr. Stein.
Reading about different cultures, their democratic, anarchic, and autocratic underpinnings, I was struck by descriptions of families operating within a democratic structure and how they best exemplified a potential for social inclusion. We can only imagine how well or poorly people are preparing their children for inclusion within our global society nowadays.
As I enjoy doing, I went back to lectures that Sophia deVries gave long ago in the 1950's. She said that in previous generations, families were able to prepare their children for a known future, because things didn't change very much from generation to generation. It was as if people said to themselves, "This is the way it is; we are going to get you ready." Today, however, parents have the task of preparing children for a future with no conception of what it will actually be like. They have no idea what their children will face. What can we actually do about it?
Sophia's idea was that if we are part of, that is, included within a democracy, we prepares children with democratic principles. We also train them for the and independence they must have. We help them develop the necessary creativity to find their place within a democracy. This is not the same as artistic creativity, but creativity in living, which is an individual's invention. The great blessing of the human spirit is our capacity to invent.
In many aspects of life, including child-rearing, our society seems quite short-sighted. We tend not to face the real challenges, including the challenge of our common, unknown future. We do best when we can face it with confidence, with as many of our human assets as possible so that we are ready for what unfolds. Naturally, this also includes as many of our fellow human beings as possible.
Critique of Democracy in Practice
With an eye to preparing for this common future, and in light of my grounding in Adlerian philosophy--and its democratic ideal--I find regular stimulation and refreshment in reading non-Adlerian authors. A number of non-psychological authors reflect an Adlerian perspective in their writings. What they have to say about life and the future, what they believe is going on, what they insist needs to be done, and how they see the problems of life all interest me. Individual Psychologists don't have the same perspective as those in political science or history or sociology; and surely, Individual Psychology is not going to solve every problem. Other disciplines must also contribute to understanding life.
The broader view of political scientists especially captivates me: talking about what is wrong in Western democracies; what is not working and what needs to done about it. In his later life, Adler was not as deeply political as in his younger years--neither in what he taught nor in what he did--but strong political implications for Individual Psychology remain. Adler was trying to promote, and Classical Adlerians continue to promote, an ideal world for everyone--meaning, where everyone belongs and everyone actively does good for everyone. Therapists, today, can still implement this ideal. We can take action in the family, at work, on a political level to bring about a more inclusive world. For a decade and a half, people have written about "a deteriorating democracy." While noting several of them, I will concentrate on one of the original writers of this genre, Philip Slater, who seems to echo the issue Adlerians have raised within child guidance and therapy.
Might democracy be more than a political agenda?
Most people see democracy as merely a political phenomenon. But it is not only or even primarily this. While essential, that is only the beginning. Slater (1992) writes that we may have some democratic institutions, but we are a long way from becoming democratic in spirit, that is, in feeling this psychologically. He understands democracy as a vast social movement that embraces every aspect of human existence--from family life to religion--which includes economic survival. He insists, as do Adlerians, that we need to take democracy more seriously and look at it in greater depth. We need, he says, to start answering the questions: How many people even know what democracy means? How many people are making a commitment to prepare for it? How many people actually want it?
From a business psychology perspective, and as a result of having gone through several phases in the development of his seminars and books on business, Peters (2004, 2006) presents an argument for industrial democratisation. He argues that organisations, in order to survive well today must decentralise, share information with their people more quickly and readily, must "flatten" their structures rather than be hierarchical, must encourage more local autonomy, and have more people participate in decision-making. Reading his literature sometimes strikes me as a promotion of family council meetings! People who do not know what Adlerian Psychology is nonetheless are talking about needs and about practical application of democracy in a serious, similar way.
Slater (1992) says we should not call ourselves a true democracy until the values of our heritage are reflected in the reality of our daily lives. If democracy is something we only read about in school or locate within documents such as the Declaration of Independence, then it is not reflected in how we conduct our day--how we deal with our spouse, how we deal with our children. We must strive for a democracy that is present all the time--like breathing--regardless of what we are doing, not something up in an ivory tower. He recognizes that cultural patterns are imbued in infancy. That is, we must attend to what children are exposed to in the home which is a micro-culture. Here, children either get, or do not get, a sense of democracy; that it is good, safe, desirable, normal and natural. Or, they get some other impression--with or without words--that this world is a dangerous place, a power-oriented place, and an exclusive, unpredictable place. What message are we giving our children?
What children learn in the mini-society of the family, Slater (1992) says, is often accepted as the way the world is regardless of how it is defined politically. Unfortunately, we know that holding fast to a distortion of society is too often the norm, even in the face of radically new experiences later in life. Children raised in an authoritarian family--where unquestioned obedience is demanded, where discipline is severe, where the parents are secretive, where children are encouraged to hate various kinds of strangers--may grow up even believing that authoritarianism is right and that psychological slavery is a sign of character. Unfortunately, we therapists see this in families all the time.
We do better to emphasize that in democracy, the fundamental goal of education is the development of the whole, interconnected individual. For authoritarians, the goal of education is obedience. Regrettably, an ignorant populace is more likely to be an obedient one. One wonders if this had implications for funding cuts in education during the previous U. S. political administration.
To see how naturally children train themselves in democracy, Slater (1992) suggests we watch children at play by themselves. Watch how they work things out together. He finds adults are the ones to establish and enforce rules. Instead of this, children make, modify, and discard rules correctively. When children get together, they say, "Let's do it this way!" and then another says, "Let's not do it that way, lets change it," but in the end they agree. It is different than adults who tend to say, "These are the rules of the game and you may not play around with the game." Among adults, games do not seem to be played for pleasure, but only to win. Eventually, children learn to be competitive and follow orders. From a democratic standpoint, the intrusion of adults into the play of children is a disaster.
In speaking of groups, Slater (1992) says neither the person who wants to dominate the group, nor the person who has nothing to add to the group, can be considered democratic. Apropos to the issues of social inclusion and exclusion, I would add, neither the excluded individual nor the excluding power can be considered democratic participants. Only the person who participates in the group is actually democratic. Passivity is not democratic, nor is exclusion. Slater writes that conflict can be resolved not through compromise, but through invention, through the creative re-definition of the problem in a way to meet the needs of all. This sounds like Adler to me.
Also similar to Adler, Slater (1992) insists that education cannot teach democracy any more than books can teach children how to swim. Democracy is learned through practice, through personal involvement in issues of personal concern: the family, the playground the school. Democracy is based on the conviction that ordinary people possess extraordinary possibilities. How many parents think about their children in this way; that children have the capacity to think through problems, to come up with solutions, to do things through trial and error and deal with the consequences in a discussion afterwards?
So, Slater (1992) concludes, a fully democratic society demands fully democratic individuals. To explore the idea, he defines what he calls a "democratic personality." He does not mention Adler or Maslow, but he may well have been influenced by them. He writes about the character of the person and how that character fits into a social ideal. He insists that one of the basic tenets of democracy is that no position of authority or status anywhere on earth entitles its occupant to automatic respect. In a democracy, respect for any living being must be earned anew every day. How many parents would accept this? How many teachers? How many people in positions of authority? How many political leaders? Slater (1992) encourages a re-thinking of what democracy really means.
When he writes about undemocratic character, he very much described what Adler defined as a "lifestyle:" individuals being guided by a compulsive goal that they will not let go of; a goal which, if not reached, will result in self-punishment. This is similar to how one lives an autocratic compulsion. The compulsion resides in one's head, as it were, as an autocratic insistence. That goal within the individual says, "I must do this!" otherwise feelings of anxiety, inferiority, or depression may set in.
How can an individual do this to him or herself and yet be democratic to others? It just is not possible, Slater (1992) insists. He develops a premise that, in order to have true democracy, we must find a way to release people from autocratic self-structures. This includes the willingness to say, "This is one point of view and there could be another. I might be right, I might be wrong; this is what I prefer, but there might be something else." That is not to be defensive, or to force one's will on somebody else, or try to manipulate people to serve unwillingly. To me, this presents a convincing case about the implications of character structure, for the effect that our child-rearing has on democracy, and why the Western world is not getting very far with it, despite its insistence on developing democratic structures.
Why the paltry showing in advancing democratic structures? Because democracy is, as yet, neither a living reality nor a psychological reality.
How might we deepen our understanding and application of the democratic ideal?
While Slater (1992) the sociologist, philosopher, and radical rabble-rouser, writes as an innovative critic of Western-style democracy, he is not alone. William Greider, the political scientist, calls for the political restoration of democracy. Greider (1993) predicts that a politics of restoration would not start not in Washington, but in many other places: in the nursery, home, and school. He insists that Americans cannot teach democracy to the world until they restore their own. He writes about democratic conversation, which does not require elaborate rules or procedures or utopian respect. People can talk with each other critically in an atmosphere of honesty and shared regard. Respect must be extended even to adversaries.
Vaclav Havel (1985) says democracy is the unfinished story of human aspirations; that it is a good idea which we have not yet established. He laments that we are not even part way there. It is something that has to be constantly developed and, I think, this lack of conscious development has to do with a complacency many people exhibit regarding democracies they live in.
Adler's conceptualizing of Gemeinschaftsgefühl comes to mind. His is an action-oriented notion. Ansbacher (1992) brings this back to our attention: community feeling as a way of thinking and feeling, and social interest and social responsibility are ways of acting that have broader implications than just for the self. Of course, we can also think of Gemeinschaftsgefühl as the beginning of a welcoming feeling toward ourselves, and of taking care of ourselves; yet this self-care then extends naturally toward our partner, "I am going to incorporate your needs with mine." But social feeling does not stop here. We can embrace the entire family: "What do we all need to be happy and healthy?" If we keep the expansion going, we can think about our nation and our world. Is it fine to let our neighbours take care of the problem, or should I contribute to a solution?
Today, in our political scene, inspirational leadership may restore social responsibility to our life. Take somebody who is in high political office; let him or her be discovered as not so honest and committing some crimes and it has an incredible impact on the culture. Such examples suggest it is okay to do this. Then we suddenly see many people imitating our leaders. But a leader can also show integrity and inspire. Some people, from time to time, do embody some of these ideals. In the United Sates, it would appear that Barack Obama reflects this potential.
Although he is not part of our system, Vàclav Havel talks about politics the way he talks about leadership and values; he does not sound like a politician. He is a playwright, poet, and philosopher. He writes that the root of all cultures, what lies infinitely deeper in human hearts and minds than political opinion, convictions, antipathies and sympathies, is self-transcendence.
Who else talks about self transcendence? Adler and Maslow to be sure. Very few political people, however, talk about it. Havel says that transcendence is like a hand reaching out to those close to us, to foreigners, to human connectivity. He says that politics and journalism must aim at serving the community, by which he means morality in practice. The task for the coming era, he insists, is a radical new role in our sense of responsibility.
This man does not sound like a political leader, in any conventional way, while in office. Imagine the implications of having somebody like that leading a nation. At the same time, people need to know that inspiring people do not have to be perfect. If people have a good idea and do fairly well promoting it, give them some credit and stop the muckraking. We may well find a contradiction, and become a little disillusioned; still, it does not cancel out the good idea. As Alexander Müller (1992) writes repeatedly, we do not do the right thing because we get a reward for it, we do not do the right thing because we feel good. We do it because it is the right thing. I like to say, "Get used to it; just keep on doing it."
Inclusively speaking, could we not adopt this as a kind of guideline? So what if the other person is imperfect? So what if the person we imagined was perfect shows obvious flaws? We do well to return to the principle of right action and determine whether his or her position is valid or not. And, naturally, we will be annoyed because the other did not do everything to our desires, but that does not cancel out the premise. Frequently, that is an excuse to drop out of this kind of right direction and action.
Might the democratic character be fostered in the family?
Another political writer, John Gastil, writes much along these lines. Democracy, he writes, is no longer just a term for political structure; rather, it applies to democratic business meetings, schools, clubs, organisations, families, and even personal relationships.
What is a democratic relationship? Gastil (1998) writes about group dynamics and adds things similar to what Adlerians promote. What constitutes a small group democracy, when you think in terms of family or any other group? Small group democracy is consists of people who have some stake in the decision-making process. Should not children have a part in the decision-making process of the family?
Should we not ask their opinion? Truly, we must; because democracy will not work if we are robots. It works, rather, among diverse individuals. Why? Because we have many things to do and many different kinds of people to do them. Democracy must value and encourge individuality. We must respect each unique participant.
Gastil (1998) insists that accepting the democratic ideal for society at large differs greatly from being willing to accept it as a guide for everyday conduct. He writes that democracy, democratic ideals, and politics must be practiced in the kitchen, nursery and bedroom. In fact, he wants democratic parenting to be viewed as a responsibility of citizenship on a par with other forms of public service. This puts into perspective how important it is to be an effective parent compared to other professions. We need to bump the parenting issue up! How important it is to be a democratic parent and how much respect is due from society at large!
Carole Pateman (1988, 1990) similarly writes about such democratic values from a feminist perspective. For her, the task for educators and parents is to learn how to raise children in a way that develops the attitudes and abilities necessary for full participation in democratic groups and large-scale political systems. The ideal for a family democracy is when the family begins to function as a microcosm of our dream of a larger democratic society. When we hear others ask, "What can I do? I can't start a political party!" We can readily respond, "Start a democracy in your home! Are you willing to do that?"
This is the principle behind how democratic child guidance operates. That is, we are not merely trying to make people feel better; we are not merely trying to reduce misery and conflict: Rather, we have a more comprehensive goal in mind: a commitment to include as many people as possible. Some people may say: Is this the province of psychology? I say: Yes, it should be; it must be, otherwise, our profession is altogether too narrow.
Here are a couple practical examples of democratic parenting:
How many parents assume that their children are competent to make good decisions? A lot of the time they do not, they discourage instead by not giving the child the opportunity to experience the honour of saying, "You have the capacity to figure this out; what are you going to do?" Or how about the recognition of connectedness? Many people operate on the basis of self-interest; they do not realise they are connected or the impact of what they are doing on others. It is as if we let a person "go down the tubes" without knowing or caring how it affects our life. In the short term, people may say, "Well that is their problem; it doesn't really affect my life." But if we examine it carefully, everybody who drops "down the tubes" affects each of our lives to some degree.
A concept in physics, undergoing modification now (Hilborn, 2004), is called "the butterfly effect." It has its roots in the Buddhist impression of "inter-being" (Hanh, 1973/1995) and assumes the sensitive interconnectivity of all life: as if a butterfly's wing-flapping in Singapore could result in a typhoon 2000 miles away as a result of this sensitive interconnectedness; something like a chain reaction. This may be a bit exaggerated; but think in terms of family interconnectedness: a father who looks at his child and says something very nasty and discouraging; perhaps he makes his child very, very fearful and angry; perhaps that only takes a half-hour. Do we say simply, "He was a bad father," and that is the end of it? Just trace this for a couple of generations and we may see that a discouraged, angry child has grown up with the memory of repeated abuse, and from such experience becomes vulnerable to following the ways of a terrorist. Such interconnectivities as these do exist and can be responsible for harming a whole people. While many don't think this way, it would be helpful for us to begin doing so: "Just how does my influence grow and affect others and the world?"
The history of industrialisation can serve to illustrate the interconnected influences of the family on the world. The female-male interrelationship in the workplace is yet another aspect of democratization. In spite of men and women being able to manage similar roles in the industrial age, all the power went to the males and the females received none of it. Our information age is seeing dramatic changes in this regard. To move toward actually valuing equality and democracy between the sexes, however, men must be willing to share the use and benefit of power. What would help persuade a person in power to share in this way, to give up power?
Mathilde and Mathias Vaerting, the Dutch sociologist couple, trace the historic development of what they called mono-dominant cultures. Their research (Vaerting & Vaerting, 1923) in the early 20th Century indicates that at times in history, men were dominant, at times women were dominant, and at times they enjoyed equality. Their work suggests that every abuse we see today that seems to reflect the male abuse of power has been duplicated by females in different cultures in different periods. They contend that we can take practically everything that we find as the way males are, the way they look and talk and their sexual practices, their military acts, and economics, and we can turn the whole thing around to see that women when in power, did exactly the same things. This seems to indicate that anybody can abuse power and dominate; it is not genetic. The Vaertings also point out that in certain historical periods, when domination did not exist, we had equality. During these times, all of the domination factors disappeared.
Why didn't these periods of equality last? The reason, the Vaertings (1923) suggest, was that there never was a spirit of equality within democracy; that is, equality as an ideal in itself was not valued. There was merely a transfer of rights and privileges, so that humanity went from men having all the rights and women having none, to a point where they shared rights. That is only a temporary position, however, because the women still felt as though they had been short-changed, so they wanted to have all the power they were deprived of.
We can see something like this happening today--we seem to be moving on the continuum to women having more and more rights and men feeling more and more resentful. According to the Vaerting's (1923) hypothesis, this is likely to go too far and we will pull back in the other direction. The Vaertings' reasoning--that it continues to go back and forth due to a lack of the true spirit of equality--is what can be addressed today.
Valuing Democracy as an Inclusive Ideal
How do we make that spirit of equality and inclusion, the democratic spirit, come forward psychologically, as Adler, Maslow, and now Slater and others are encouraging? Having considered non-Adlerian thought to frame the question, I would like to bring forward Adlerian thought to frame one answer.
Adler addresses the democratic spirit, the feeling and the spirit of equality, not as a legal premise, but something written in our psyche, or heart; something that we must fully believe. If one does not believe it whole-heartedly, confusing the importance of the value with the legal premise happens sooner than later. And so it is that we experience people who talk about "having rights" and "correcting wrongs" but who do so by correcting wrongs at the expense of the wellbeing of the whole. This was Adler's concern in his time about the Bolshevik revolution (Adler 1918/2003); it remains a concern today. As the Vaertings (1923) taught: too often those seeking to correct wrongs, while having a defensive premise, are dealing with things in a wholly undemocratic manner. In such instances, if we look at their character, their lifestyle, we find they cannot end with a democratic relationship as they are only focused on getting their share of the pie.
So, here is where Adlerian therapy comes back into the equation. Adlerian therapists are concerned with their clients' level of human functioning; in assessing this functioning, Adlerians consider the social situation in which all persons are embedded. It is the Adlerian-way to evaluate individuals from within their social context. When people elevate themselves over others, thereby excluding themselves and others from full participation, we are seeing the workings of their lifestyle.
Chart 1: Levels of Functioning
The "Levels of Functioning" chart is an elaboration of Adlerian principles on how to evaluate character from the point of view of a democratic value system. Located midway down the chart is the "neurotic" personality--an unfortunate term, still in use. This is where peoples agree that things should be done, but they have an excuse to not do it themselves. There is marginal cooperation; the person expects more than they actually give, but they have a cover, an excuse, for not doing it. The cover is usually a symptom. Therapists are used to this, and see a lot of it in terms of level of functioning in our practices. But what is the implication of creating a whole culture this way. Can you imagine what it would be like?
Bump that up some levels on the chart to the "normal" person: one who is there to cooperate and functions efficiently. They do their share and meet expectations. It is all very appropriate but not 100% so. Perhaps their thinking is, "I'll do something if you do something. I don't feel like not participating, so I'll give you 80%." What are the implications here if everybody is this way? It reduces the level of real functioning. It is a little sad. It is not all that it could be. People imagine that this is all that they can do and the perspective in terms of philosophy of life is essentially that people do not believe or imagine or expect that they can go higher. Why would people give 100% all the time even if they got nothing in return? "I'll do my share only if you do your share." So it is a conditional thing. It is a little fragile.
What the chart's schematizing allows for is that at the top of the system is the ideal character, called the "optimal" personality. It is reflected in a living goal of maximum cooperation with other people. The implication of this personality and a democratic environment is that there can be an ideal match.
Take those who vigorously develop their own capacities, whatever they are. Assume that they have the opportunities to do so, and that they have so much initiative that they do not do 50% of the task or 80%; rather, they do everything they can all the time, they are giving 100%. These individuals are doing their best, they are motivated, they do not have to be told what to do, they want to do it. They are functioning as fully as they possibly can, not more than they need to, but as much as they can for their intelligence, for their abilities; and at the same time they have a focus on what is going on around them. They have a focus on what needs to be done, even if they don't like to do it. Even if it is inconvenient, they think, "This is what needs to be done." Can you sense the ideal functioning here without an ideology?
We understand these people are not operating as a matter of responsibility, and duty; but that they like to do it, they have pleasure, they enjoy it. We can assume that they are willing to risk a lot for doing the right thing. By "risk" I mean to risk making mistakes; they risk having a bad opinion, they risk failure. But they see the opportunity worth the risk so that their self-esteem is not connected to the vanity of "I must succeed." Rather, we can detect a thought process something like, "I do this because it is necessary; if it doesn't work, well, that is going to feel bad. If I fail, I will learn how to do it a different way."
This is what we call a guiding ideal from the Adlerian point and it is similar to what Maslow (1971) talks about as self-actualizing. It is not something unattainable, but something one senses even as one strives to bring it about more fully. One way to test such an ideal would to take this ideal person, this democratic character, and multiply it by a 1000 times to make a community. Imagine a community functioning like I have described: Everybody is different. You have musicians, you have therapists, you have people who want to be ball players; all of these kinds of things are there but imagine from a character standpoint you have this kind of optimal person as a norm.
What are the implications of this? Unlimited! What happens if things get difficult? People pull together. If things get difficult they take their share and if things are going well everybody is having a great time. What if somebody falls down? Do we leave him on the side of the road? No, of course not, we help him get himself up.
The social implications of a person like this is that, without having to create policies to solve everything, there is going to be a lot personal responsibility, a lot of initiative and we will not have to worry about motivation. There is no incentive plan needed. We don't need incentive plans, we don't need a lot of rules and regulations, punishments or threats. Just let such people at the problem.
Economically, what might happen? Economics is a very convenient fiction of exchange; in itself it does not mean much. What can we do with it; how can we get enough money to build the things we need or for the programs we need? Might there have to be a little creative thinking to modify an economy to have to work better? How do we free people to not to have to worry about economics so that they are free doing the things that are very creative? Should the government be willing to support a program that promotes this as a practical consideration? What would be the medical implications of people who function this way? They might be very healthy. So there would be financial, legal and medical implications.
At any rate, could we define such optimal functioning as a goal of mental health--individual and communal health? If we had individuals or a community like this, might not their opinion of themselves be? "I am capable, competent, productive." It would not be exaggerated high or low. They wouldn't say, "Oh, I am just a nobody that can't do anything." Nor would they insist, "I am the best." Such self-judgement would not even be relevant. Self-opinion would simply be in perspective: "I am capable and do what I need to do and I feel good about it." We thereby define it as the goal of gradual improvement, of unfolding social value, a goal of eventual, total social inclusion. Thus, the implication of optimal functioning is a wholly inclusive community!
At an individual level, the achievement of optimal functioning may require the dissolving of a style of life and fictional final goal, since both involve the attempted exclusion of people and circumstances that might challenge or threaten the individual's unconscious striving for personal superiority. The style of life also demands selective inclusion, limiting contact to those people or situations that seem to promise personal prestige. Classical Adlerian depth psychotherapy attempts to promote the evolution of democratic character by dissolving the style of life and fictional final goal, stimulating the maximum radius of social inclusion, and by verifying that the individual's attitude and behaviour become congruent with his stated ideals.
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