“There is deep infantilism in the culture,” laments actor and comedian Stephen Fry. Indeed, the ways in which opinions are formed, framed and expressed today often reflect a troubling lack of cognitive and emotional maturity. This creates a toxic environment in which reasoned discourse becomes increasingly impossible.
One example is the current epistemological emphasis on lived experience at the expense of objective reasoning. The insistence that my truth be treated as though it were the truth suggests a childlike myopic subjectivism. The following experiment comes to mind:
The experimenters invite young children into a lab and hand them a candy box. Expecting to find candy, the children instead find the box contains pencils. Ultimately, the children not only believe that other children entering the lab will expect to find pencils rather than candy in the box, but will say that they themselves knew all along what the box really contained.
There is something quintessentially totalitarian about the way people who think in this way attempt to eradicate the past and impose their view on others. Consider the following passage from George Orwell’s 1984:
Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.
Recent efforts to remove statues of historical figures whose views and actions do not align with the moral standards of today can be seen in this light. The defacing and toppling of these statues in the name of anti-racism or anti-fascism may best be understood as juvenile vandalism in pursuit of a utopian fantasy.
It is hardly a coincidence that such a movement should arise at a time when sophomoric tendencies dominate public discourse. Such tendencies are at the heart of today’s outrage and cancel culture. Ideas that challenge preconceived beliefs are perceived as potentially traumatic and therefore suppressed or—as in the case of safe spaces—actively blocked out. This widespread lack of emotional resilience makes rational debate impossible and thus impedes intellectual progress.
Infantilism appears to be especially prevalent in the gender debate. The idea that gender identity has little or nothing to do with biological sex and everything to do with subjective feelings not only flies in the face of science, but also translates into an unreasonable demand on society to deny objective reality. Gender fluidity and nonbinarism, in particular, involve an infantile denial of a developmental inevitability—that we, as a sexually dimorphic species, grow up to become either men or women, depending on our birth sex. Gender dysphoria appears to be a genuine condition, especially among prepubescent children, but evidence suggests that most of them grow out of it.
Yet, when it comes to gender identity, there is a tendency to take children’s claims at face value. This approach not only implicitly sexualizes prepubescents (part of a concerning trend); it also inverts the roles of children and grown-ups. While there is something to be said for taking cues from a child’s curiosity, imagination and creativity, parents would be ill advised to take their kids’ lead when it comes to decisions the consequences of which children clearly lack the mental capacity to understand. After all, we do not even trust our kids to make the right dietary choices. We simply accept that they do not yet know what is best for them.
The line between childhood and adulthood has become increasingly blurred. Take welfare politics, for example. A social safety net can help individuals in need get back on their feet. The prevailing approach to social welfare, however, presumes victimhood, fostering dependency rather than empowerment. Individual agency and responsibility rarely enter into the equation. This is not to reiterate Margret Thatcher’s contention that poverty is “a personality defect.” But if we treat adults like children they will probably behave like children. Paternalism breeds infantilism.
This principle is by no means exclusive to welfare. Take the patronizing tone of voice in which many media outlets address their adult audiences and the advertising industry’s appeal to infantile desires, which promotes impulsive behavior.
There is also a tendency to idealize childhood. However, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was mistaken when he stated, “Man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains.” At no point in life are we less free than in infancy, when we are completely dependent on adult care and guidance. Growing up means taking on obligations and responsibilities. This is crucial not only for our personal development but for society as a whole.
Failure to grow up makes for a toxic personality. As Jordan Peterson has remarked, “People who don’t grow up don’t find the sort of meaning that sustains them through difficult times … and they’re left bitter and resentful and without purpose and adrift and hostile … and vengeful and arrogant and deceitful and of no use to themselves and of no use to anyone else.” In short, “there is nothing uglier than an old infant.”
Infantilism is pervasive in our culture. So how can we outgrow it?
For starters, it is imperative to emphasize self-control and decency in our public discourse. Since it would be self-defeating to impose these values on other people (thus infantilizing them), the best way is to lead by example. Certain lessons need to be hammered home.
Life Is Not Fair
As Stephen Fry has noted, “It’s so simple to imagine that one is hard done by, that things are unfair, and that one is underappreciated.” To expect an equal distribution of anything in life is naïve. It presumes that life would produce roughly equal outcomes for everyone, were it not for unjust treatment. This often manifests as a tendency to blame others for one’s grievances.
Immature people tend to resort to self-pity. In today’s victimhood culture, grievances serve as social currency. However, “self-pity is the worst possible emotion anyone can have, and the most destructive,” says Fry. Self-pity stifles human development on both the individual and the societal level.
Young children tend to display a strong sense of entitlement. They make demands on the adult world—in particular, their parents—without having done anything to earn what they desire. As we grow up, however, most of us learn that we have to earn the things we desire by behaving in ways that benefit others. This is how society functions.
Good Things Are Easily Destroyed, but Not Easily Created
Young people are more prone to radical thinking than those with more life experience, who understand that “good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created,” as Roger Scruton puts it. Revolutionary movements throughout history have had to learn this lesson the hard way, killing millions in the process. Yet, there are still those who seek to dismantle the institutional structure of society, arrogantly or naively thinking themselves capable of constructing a better alternative from scratch.
As Thomas Sowell has pointed out, human progress is a matter not of absolute solutions but of incremental trade-offs. Even Friedrich Engels recognized that “what each individual wills is obstructed by everyone else, and what emerges is something that no one willed.”
Given the complexity of our world, no one group or individual has enough knowledge to devise a perfect plan for society. If we want real, lasting progress, it is imperative that we mature out of such delusions. Some of the most calamitous retrogressions in history—in particular, fascism and communism—were caused by people who, convinced of the absolute righteousness of their plan, felt justified in stubbornly imposing their will on society.
Now such ideologies only exist on the margins of contemporary politics. However, the idea that complex issues can readily be solved with the wave of a political wand still has a surprisingly large number of subscribers. The childlike Greta Thunberg, for example, has been lionized for demanding simplistic solutions to the complicated problem of climate change. It is highly unlikely, however, that she understands the far-reaching social, political and economic implications of her demands. What is most surprising is that world leaders play along with her.
Donald Trump’s impulsive, thin-skinned reactivity and apparent lack of self-reflection make him appear like an overgrown infant. Indeed, “the way he processes information appears qualitatively different from an adult mind,” writes psychologist Noam Shpancer:
The president, if anything, exhibits a characteristic inability to see much beyond his own ego preoccupations. He appears to have no real friendships, habitually belittles those he sees as weak while denying any weakness of his own, and is perennially insecure, desperate to bolster his ratings, numbers and stats by bending the facts to assuage his fears; he has little demonstrated capacity to joyfully laugh at himself (or laugh at all), and has professed to being uninterested in self-reflection and insight; the only problem he seems genuinely interested in (and truly capable of) solving is the chronic threat of his own waning relevance, and his guiding moral principle is that whatever works to make him “win” is the right thing to do.
In the wake of the 2020 presidential elections, Trump has, unsurprisingly, shown himself to be a sore loser. Not only has he tried to bend the rules to his advantage; he has torpedoed the democratic process by spreading disinformation. Arguably the most powerful reaction to Trump’s electoral defeat has come from political commentator Van Jones: “It’s easier to be a parent this morning,” he said, amid tears; “it’s easier to tell your kids that character matters. It matters. Telling the truth matters.”
There Is No Such Thing as Your Truth
To navigate reality, we want the most accurate map available. The recent emphasis on standpoint epistemology obstructs this. Identity politics encourages us to clutch at immutable characteristics and subjective feelings for epistemological orientation, having abandoned the guiding principles of objective reasoning and rational debate. Trumpism is the flip side of the same coin.
Part of the reason infantilism is so widespread in today’s society may be that many of the pressures faced by previous generations—war, deprivation and rigid religio-cultural norms—are absent. Their absence is the result of a long maturation process from infantile superstition to enlightened thinking. However, we appear to have entered a new age of toxic infantility. It is time to change course. But that will take an adult mindset.