Saturday, August 21, 2010

Rudolf Dreikurs on social equality

By Steve Rensberry   

Among the books written by Alfred Adler protégé Rudolf Dreikurs was a 1971 book entitled "Social Equality: The Challenge of Today," published by the Alfred Adler Institute of Chicago. The back cover carries this bold statement:
   "It has become obvious, as the fabric of society has been assaulted from all sides, that the mechanistic proposals put forward as tentative solutions of society's problem -- usually involving the expenditures of money, and little else -- do not work. What is needed is a new and workable proposal that takes into account the totality of human existence, at the personal as well as the social level."
   Adler's central contention is that one of the most important motivating forces within humans is to feel as though they belong, to feel accepted by the group. A reference by CTER, an on-line Master of Education program available through the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, cites the basics of Adler and Dreikurs' theory:
  • Humans are social creatures and their basic motivation is to belong.
  • All behavior is purposive. We cannot understand the behavior of other people until we know what goal it is directed toward -- "and it is always directed towards finding one's place."
  • Humans are decision-making organisms.
  • A person's perception of reality is based upon their own particular perception of it and is open to mistakes and bias.(See: CTER)
   Postulates three and four make sense, but exactly how much and to what degree humans are "social" is, I think, open to debate. And whether it is fundamentally good for them to be social at all times and in all places raises other questions. Introspection. Tending to one's self. Removing oneself from destructive people and destructive group influences are all advantageous. Furthermore, what was good for perpetuating humanity's existence in prior years or in terms of evolution may not be so in the future. Most behavior might be purposive to some degree, but the assumption that it is always directed toward finding one's place is, in my view, somewhat less certain Dreikurs doesn't stray far from the teachings of Adler, his major point in "Social Equality" being the importance of attending to the social needs of people, and "finding a safe place with the group." Related to this are feelings of inferiority and the negative self-concepts that prevent people from reaching their full potential.
   The theistic community will, of course,take exception to much of what Dreikurs says, given his emphasis on humans taking charge of their own lives rather than on a chosen deity, but what he says about attitude, and about trusting and believing in oneself as a prerequisite to success, is worth repeating.
   Part of what Dreikurs defends is plain old social equality and democracy. That's a good thing. "We are still saddled with an autocratic tradition and we still fail when we try to emancipate ourselves," he says. Still, Dreikurs tends to write in phrases that lack clear definition, leaving many of his ideas open to debate. I do agree with much of what he says, but there are other points he tries to make that seem way off base.
   "In a deeper sense, death symbolizes life. Our attitudes toward death-acceptance or denunciation--reveal our attitudes toward life," he writes. "If we free ourselves of our antagonism to both death and life, we can realize that death is not necessarily terrible. If we free ourselves of our antagonism to both death and life, we can realize that death is not necessarily terrible. Most people die without suffering. Of course, anything alive wants to live; intrinsic to life is the desire to grow, to develop, to continue. But life is struggle too--pain torture--and death is a release. (page 163).
   But does our attitude toward death really reveal our attitude toward life? I don't think so. To the contrary, our attitude toward life may reveal how much we understand death, but to suggest people should accept something as final as death, or view it as an innately positive thing, could just as easily facilitate its progression by leading people to subconsciously step away from possible solutions, and in effect deny reality for the sake of psychological comfort.
   And who is to say that death is either natural or inevitable? A strong case has been made in recent years that it is, in fact, neither. Maybe at this point in time it appears to be. Maybe historically it has been. But will it be out of reach100, 200 or 500 years from now? Hundreds of years ago much of what we can do today was also deemed absolutely impossible. Acceptance, as much as it leads to fatalism and a state of learned helplessness, can be the absolute antithesis of happiness and progress.
   His statement that "life is struggle too....and death is release," is grossly mistaken and in my opinion fails to realize that as painful as life is, the pain we experience while alive is never endless. Death is not release, it is the ultimate cessation of possibility. Even a life full of pain carries with it the possibility that such pain could stop under the right conditions. Life is of near infinite value. Death is permanent, irreversible and devoid of the possibility of change. Death is qualitatively a zero and the absolute negation of life. Rejecting death, and everything that leads to death, with all your heart, soul and mind is, if anything, positive and life affirming. If you think something is impossible, or train your mind to "accept" it as inevitable, you unwittingly contribute to making it so. What I find most despicable are those people who even wish for the death of those they hate, terrorists for instance, in the name of justice even. Teachings of eternal damnation and torment take it to the extreme and help only to perpetuate the violence we see in the world.  What they should be wishing for is the transformation of those they hate, from bad to good, from destructive to kind. Only in a mind that has failed to sufficiently mature, or which woefully misunderstands life, is death seen as any kind of solution.

Updated on 12/7/10