Consider the elephant and be wise
From Brother Ivo:
Brother Ivo likes to offer an occasional piece which arrives from an odd perspective, and today he would invite readers to explore a little elephant psychology. It is not a field in which he claims any personal expertise, but life is infinitely fascinating and instructive.
His invitation to explore unfamiliar territory, however, will take us to issues not as far removed from the major preoccupations of this blog as may at first appear. There has been a lengthy study by Sussex University of African elephant herds, with a particular focus upon two groups. The first was the Kenyan population, which offered a stable control sample of normal and successful elephant behaviour. This was studied to ascertain its responses to a variety of challenges and stimuli. The second group was a South African herd which had been the subject of significant culling of the older animals during the 1970s and 80s.
The report on the BBC website is short and readable: the only thing that Brother Ivo notices is that our friends at the BBC have not begun integrating this study into a wider narrative about the support it offers to social conservatism amongst humans.
The herd which had lost the influence of elders and had its social patterns disrupted left juveniles to find their own ways of coping with uncertainty and stress. It was not a pretty picture. "African elephants' decision-making abilities are left impaired by culling operations that ended decades ago," University of Sussex research suggests. A study found that elephant herds that lost adults to culls during the 1970s and 1980s were less able to respond appropriately to other elephant calls.
Lead researcher Prof Karen McComb said the animals' "social understanding" had been impaired by the loss of adults. The scientists from the University of Sussex say this is the first "systematic evidence that fundamental social skills may be significantly impaired by man-made disruption.
There is already evidence that the loss of these adult elephants had dramatic social consequences on South Africa's elephants: the researchers describe these effects as akin to post traumatic stress disorder. In two protected areas in South Africa, Prof McComb told BBC News that "young, orphaned male elephants became hyper-aggressive and attacked and killed rhinoceroses... This really suggests that the breakdown in their social fabric, even though it occurred decades ago, has had a real effect on their decision-making processes."
Doubtless lessons are being drawn about the impact upon nature of the culling activity determined by human agency, yet to limit the conclusions of the study to elephants alone surely misses the bigger picture.
Brother Ivo thanks the Sussex scientists for proving that not all obscure inquiry is self-indulgent and wasteful, for does their work not insist upon parallels being draw with the equally devastating culling of UK family life during those same years?
Social Conservatives have always believed that happy children and integrated communities at peace with themselves arise out of traditions handed down through the experience, wisdom and recollections of past generations. This is not to deny periodic evolutions and adjustments, but always there is a core of cultural stability and close inter-generational bonds. What works for elephants applies in equal, if not greater measure with humans.
What proves disruptive is equally instructive. It is surely no wonder to us that the impact of the rapid social changes of the latter 20th century have left many of our young in a similar condition of isolation, confusion, aggression and unhappiness. Many are separated from a parent and the deeper support and control exercised by grandparents and the wider family. As the US politician Rick Santorum wisely wrote: "It takes a family to raise a child." He wrote that partly as a ripost to Hillary Clinton's book It takes a Village, though even that idea - initially taken from an African proverb about child reading - is not wholly irrelevant; it simply misses the first priority that values are initially taught and best enforced within a family - as Brother Ivo would say - as God intended.
Happy children tend to live within concentric circles of bonds, with close family, extended family and friends and neighbours contributing, though usually in diminishing degree the further they stand from the central bonds. The state, with its varying attitudes and "here today gone tomorrow" teachers, social workers and counsellors, often tends to add to the vulnerable person's sense of inconstancy and unreliability.
The support of the state is rarely enduring on a lifelong personal basis, and therein lies the difference. What it certainly does not take to raise a confident, socialised child is a commercially exploited, self-invented, self-regarding gang culture developed in an atmosphere of self-preservation. Too many of those lacking supportive families and not encultured on the streets are often to be found inventing their own culture in the isolation of their gaming consoles or the unboundaried social media. Many of these, detached from traditional family life - frequently but not exclusively within "the underclass" - are as damaged and disadvantaged as those elephant orphans whose parental culling through state policy, for doubtless well meaning purpose, has had long-term effects well beyond the expectation of those who planned the policy.
Just as animals have been disoriented by a disruption of the natural order, so the radical attack on traditional family life and social structures has left us with too many long-term victims of these social changes. They have low educational attainment and an increased incidence of substance abuse and self-harm. The trajectory of these problems began with the social revolutions of 40 years ago.
Amongst too many of our disengaged young, we see a misplaced self-reliance, a lack of empathy and a suspicion of those outside the narrow bounds of "yoof culture". Much of this is excused, explained away, or even championed by opinion formers in many sectors of politics, the media and academia. They will not willingly join up the dots to connect the causal link between misconceived change of former years, and current ongoing problems.
What the elephant study teaches us is that the social disruption of families has long-term consequences, and these consequences were unforeseen by those who promoted them with short-term thinking. They never dreamed that their quick fixes might lead directly to learning disability, dysfunctional social interactions, fear responses, and aggression, the like of which we see all to often in our schools and courts. It may take such oblique but striking evidence from the natural world to give the "progressives" within our culture pause for thought about their continued promotion of "alternative" lifestyles. We can see the consequences of such policies from our past, and they are not attractive.
The contemplation of the implications of this study led Brother Ivo to another field.
Psychology, like economics, is far from an exact science, and frequently there are multiple factors at work which produce or mitigate the effects of the problem under consideration. Sometimes similar circumstances create varying responses because other more benign factors or influences intervene. Some victims of adverse circumstances, even within the same family or grouping, have compensating resilience. Some are blessed by the strength offered by faith, others are held back by a predisposition to depression or despair. Trends can usefully be identified, but in such areas of study prediction is a less than exact science and more akin to an art.
That said, insightful artists can also contribute to our understanding of the human - and animal - condition. The study of the elephants may remind readers of William Golding's prescient study in adolescent tyranny, Lord of the Flies, which predicted similar effects upon young people traumatised and left to their own devices.
There is, however, an unanswered question from this study. The subjects were initially traumatised by the culling of the older generation. They suffered the secondary impact of loss of social bonds and controls. Which of these was the dominant event? Brother Ivo suspects it was the latter. As we enter the season of Remembrance, it is worth noting that the considerable impact of the loss of a generation of fathers, uncles and brothers from both World Wars was deep and heartfelt, yet not as societally disruptive as one might have predicted from modern psychological theory and methodology.
One suspects that the ties of extended family and the fortifying strength of faith and social institutions made the difference in keeping those earlier generations on the straight and narrow path. Those exposed to the horrors if war often did not speak of it, but returned to a context which supported, if not entirely healed. There may not have been modern-day counselling for the traumas suffered: social disruption and the acting out of internal pain was less prevalent than we see today. That may merit a little more reflection. Brother Ivo hopes to return to such themes as we remember our war dead.
One ought, however, to consider an alternative explanation for the observation of such studies, whether animal or human. If we discount the loss of social structures (which Brother Ivo certainly does not), one is left with considering the impact of psychological trauma in isolation of the loss of loved ones and the events causing it. This is a wider question.
Many children will suffer such loss within our own society. Additionally, we are accepting vulnerable people into our society, some from very different cultures which most of us (not least our politicians) do not understand. It may be a moral and noble policy, but it is not consequence free. What may flow from the importation of displaced, traumatised asylum seekers from war zones is a most troublesome area of concern for Brother Ivo. He does not wish to seem to lack compassion, but feels compelled to flag up a potential problem to which he does not currently know the answer. He suspects few others do either.
As Christians, we need to be our brother's keeper: we should not pass by on the other side. Yet as Margaret Thatcher correctly observed, the Good Samaritan gave real support to the victim he helped, offering ongoing concern and applying resources to address the continuing needs until health returned. He did not foist the hapless victim on the nearest social services and walk away.
There may be unforeseen risks and problematic consequences with a policy of sentimental liberality followed by benign neglect and isolation. Admitting people damaged by trauma would appear to have greater potential sequelae than we may think. If we are to continue an open-door policy towards genuine asylum seekers, the implication is that we need to be more sophisticated and comprehensive in identifying their needs and how we mitigate the longer term challenges they will face as they try to adapt to an unfamiliar life amongst us.
As an old friend used to say, "Being human isn't easy."
Being Christian certainly isn't.
Brother Ivo is the Patron Saint of lawyers