The Problem with Social Conditioning…

When I was in the fifth grade, our D.A.R.E. officer – you know, the “just say no to drugs” guy? – used to play basketball with my friends and me at recess. Jim, we’ll call him, was probably in his thirties.  Playing with Jim was far beyond his job description, and of course it gave us all a huge thrill to have an adult paying attention to us. One time, though, when he was demonstrating his moves on the court, his cigarettes and can of dip fell out of his pocket.

We all laughed about the incident at the time. Another day, I was out at a restaurant with my family, and I saw Jim across the way, drinking a beer. Now as an adult, I drink here and there and have even enjoyed a few recreational cigarettes (so sue me!). And for all I know, Jim’s usage of these substances may have been moderate. I don’t know his life; perhaps he was no addict.

What stayed with me from the incident, though, was this fear that adults – even good, important ones – were not to be trusted. They would tell me one thing – “just say no to drugs” – while they had drugs in their pockets. And if they were lying to me about this, what else were they lying to me about?

To be honest, True Love Waits wasn’t much better. I first encountered the abstinence program at a youth group lock-in. With time, these kinds of events would become familiar to me, and in fact, a youth group conference would oddly even become the most emotionally-charged weekend of my teenage years. You know, one of those ones where one speaker tells the masses of teenage kids which “Christian bands” they should listen to instead of the “secular bands” they’ve been listening to.  I didn’t respond to the alter calls, but what I remember most about the weekend – besides sitting with an ex-girlfriend even though my current girlfriend was also at the conference – was that I spent most of the weekend bawling my eyes out. I can’t even really explain why or what triggered the tears. All I know is that they just kept coming. Maybe I was making up for lost time, letting go of God-knows-what after God-knows-how-long whatever it was had been buried inside of me. It felt good, a kind of cleansing even.

But True Love Waits came long before the youth group tear-fest. I must have been in late elementary or early-middle school at the time. My older brother, an older cousin, and I braved the event together. I didn’t really know anyone else who was there, but I also don’t recall having much say in the matter of whether or not I would attend. Let’s face it, the babysitting service was what we were after as much as anything. Part of the evening involved moving around to different topical stations. I don’t remember much of what was actually said about sex, probably because I didn’t understand any of it, but I vaguely remember signing some kind of pledge.

Now the three of us were a small sample size, there’s no way to control for all the variables, and I have no intention of throwing us completely under the bus, but I doubt any of us really became the sexually-pure role models the program hoped for. Then again, from the opposite side of the political spectrum, in high school I learned how to put a condom on, and low and behold, that didn’t solve any of my real questions or problems about how to relate with women either.

What these supposedly opposing methodologies tend to share is the acceptance of this premise that the way to good individual choices and a better society is some version of social conditioning. Behavior modification. If we can just get the right information into people’s brains, then they will act rationally and stop hurting each other. The problem is, the whole idea is a crock of shit. Information matters and knowledge is good, but so many of the decisions we make over the course of a life come from places so much deeper (and more fragile) within us. The “right” decisions often aren’t quite as “obvious” as we’d like them to be, and (most?) mistakes, so long as we name them as such, are both fixable and forgivable.

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