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The Big Answer

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Haven in a Heartless World

a book by Christopher Lasch

(our site's book review)

First published in 1977, this book is only remarkable in its ability to concentrate more ignorance and foolishness per page than most other books of its time. The problem with this tired tome is that it has buried within it a few jewels, and that many people have apparently generalized from the part to the whole and decided that most of the book has merit, which it surely does not. Perhaps his enthusiastic reviewers were all skim-readers who missed the gaffes. Or perhaps the reviewers needed to do a bit more studying and thinking themselves. In any case, if the worthy ideas were collected together and the balderdash deposited in the circular file for recycling, he’d have a nice article—but hardly a book. Oh well, 1977 was not a year especially known for its insight. (Elvis died from being an addict for so long.)

A history professor
A history professor

Lasch, a history professor, spends a lot of time writing about the history of psychology, sociology and parenting, but never realizes that no amount of purely historical knowledge and context on such subjects will suffice to give him a reasonable depth of understanding of the subjects. He adopts psychological, sociological and parenting beliefs from the early part of the 1900s and then vigorously defends these regressive beliefs against all that has been learned since. This dovetails with Lasch’s disdain for progress in general, and Enlightenment attitudes in particular.

Eighteen years later (1995) Lasch revamped and corrected some of his earlier Haven in a Heartless World blunders in The Revolt of the Elites—in which he presented a lot more good insights, and in which he more assiduously controlled his tendency to step in it.

In <i>The Revolt of the Elites</i>, Lasch controlled his tendency to step in it, which he failed to do in <i>Haven in a Heartless World</i>
In The Revolt of the Elites, Lasch controlled his tendency to step in it, which he failed to do in Haven in a Heartless World

Although justified in his criticism of the social engineering aspects of a therapeutic society out to fix us with its experts, and the community disintegration which has led to such heroic measures, he actually tries to convince us to buy into the following naïve falsehoods:

  1. Conflict resolution as in P.E.T. is a cop-out from the necessary arguments and confrontations of families; and if we do this we’ll drive the feelings underground and make matters worse! A knowledgeable person could write a book on what’s wrong with this absurdity, but suffice it to say that the authoritarian confrontations he prefers to P.E.T. is exactly what drives conflicts underground, while P.E.T.’s allowing feelings during active listening and the democratic, authoritative conflict resolution that P.E.T. utilizes is precisely what does not drive conflicts underground. (One gets the feelings that some of his most irrational assumptions in this area stem from his own experiences of unpleasant family confrontations, which he now wishes to define as necessary, inevitable and healthy.)

  2. Authoritarianism will raise kids best. (It had already been shown, by 1977, that permissive and authoritarian parenting were failing and that authoritative methods were what worked.)

  3. We should stay stuck in Freudian theories and consider the great advances since these ideas as heresy. The advances since Freud are what has given us the knowledge needed to know how to raise kids, relate, communicate, listen, problem-solve, love, discipline, and avoid sexist practices. Freud gave us NONE of these things. Also, science now knows much faster, better, easier, and more successful ways to psychologically aid people than Freudian psychoanalysis.

    Sigmund Freud
    Sigmund Freud

    The fact that the world’s best wisdom about families and relationships now include everything needed to have a great lifestyle—this is in many instances in spite of Freud, not because of him
    The fact that the world’s best wisdom about families and relationships now include everything needed to have a great lifestyle—this is in many instances in spite of Freud, not because of him

    The fact that the world’s best wisdom about families and relationships now include everything needed to have a great lifestyle—this is in many instances in spite of Freud, not because of him. Freud reductionistically assumed that he could follow the old, mechanistic-reductionistic paradigm and treat the client like a mechanism full of parts to be fine-tuned and fixed.

    Lasch, in turn, assumes that history professors that infuse their writing with Freudian concepts of castration anxiety, Oedipal complexes, and unconscious desires in general are somehow clarifying and revealing in their treatises on sociology. Actually, they merely cloud the issues. His most conspicuous reason for employing psychoanalytical babble in his writings—if one follows the reasoning and conclusions he comes to in such sections—is to give the reader complex reasons—which he hasn’t the knowledge to argue with—in support of an omnipresent, Second Wave, Laschian contention: that patriarchal authority in the family—as in the good old days—is necessary for healthy families, and authoritarian parenting is good because all the other forms are somehow harmful or deficient, and authority and orthodoxy in general are good while permissiveness and democratic family structures are unworkable.

    In his black and white argument for authority rather than permissiveness, he totally neglects to cite the authoritative perspective, which transcends both permissive and autocratic ways of relating. Worse, his Freudian arguments for retaining obsolete and discredited authoritarian methodologies do no service to Freud, Lasch, or the reader; they merely confuse the issue. Moreover, each argument is wrong in one way or another, the conclusions these arguments lead to are not sound, and evidence available at the time he wrote his book and since that time has conclusively shown the negative effects on all concerned when misguided males indulge in autocratic practices with their families. Lasch shows his true colors when he bemoans the “organized assault on the superego [which] reflects the devaluation of authority in modern society.”

    He has no concept that people who become self-actualized and autonomous and able to intrinsically choose their own values and restrictions end up as more pro-society than most people (but not because of conformity), and more happy than most (but due to responsibility and connectedness, not irresponsible narcissism). He’s sure that guilt- and fear-based motivations from superegos, feared fathers and orthodox authorities are the best forces of all and that any other force must somehow be suspect and corrupt. By failing to understand what Fromm, Riesman, or any of those that came after even meant by their universal human goal of autonomy and freedom, he has twisted his agile mind into a type of thinking that cannot see reality sans authoritarian filter, and cannot understand people except as the we who ought to find authority as the right context for everything and the they who don’t respect it, don’t behave, wreck our country, corrupt our morals, etc.

    More naïve falsehoods:

  4. Toffler said that superindustrialism (the Third Wave—see The Third Wave) requires us to socially engineer families so they’ll be reduced from extended families down to being mere marriages, and children should be assigned to special clinics full of experts!

    This is erroneous and out of context. What Toffler said—in Future Shock—is that those careerists who need great mobility can be expected to remain childless (so as not to short-change their kids in a rootless existence) but many will have kids when their careers have wound down (and they have roots and their lives would now be able to give kids the time they need, obviously). This is simply wise and benevolent life organization, based upon win-win, rather than win-lose contexts where careers and kids each get short-changed.

    Toffler also said not that kids should be assigned to clinics, but that with all the incredible social symptoms manifesting in society, especially among the young, it’s inevitable that professional parenthood will be proposed even though there are far better ways of coping with problems of youth, and those who find that their frenzied careers are wrecking their kids might opt to temporarily put them into actual flat-gradient, extended families whose sole purpose is raising kids in the best possible way—as a way to save these kids from being casualties of anti-child career demands. Toffler said not a word about “clinics,” nor did he use the word “requires” anywhere in writing about these issues, as Lasch said.

    Finally, Toffler also said the majority of people will continue with standard marriage practices, but will divorce and remarry a couple of times in their lives. Most will have kids. What Toffler meant by “far better ways of coping with problems of youth” he spelled out in later books: Far from Lasch’s view of Toffler as saying we’ll abandon families and send our kids off to the social engineers, Toffler sees—in The Third Wave—the home as having increased social functions (e.g., the electronic expanded family) and increased likelihood of including extended family contexts, but not necessarily nuclear family structure (statistics have borne this out).

  5. Individual autonomy, choice and psychic freedom are all illusions. Perhaps they are for Lasch—a captive of Freudian determinism. But for those of us who experience choice and autonomy as a way of life, they are what makes it all work so well and feel so right.

  6. Parenting knowledge is unnecessary because parents do fine via parenting instincts! And one supposes that the incredible array of statistics about social symptoms we’re treated to daily in the media are all because of the “original sin” we’re all born with?! He may be right that we don’t need experts tampering with our families, but the contention that we also don’t need parenting knowledge is irresponsible, unscientific, Second Wave, and, frankly, foolish.

    What remained when most social tasks were exteriorized in the 1950s was the isolated ‘nuclear family,’ held together less by the functions its members performed as a unit than by fragile psychological bonds that are all too easily snapped
    What remained when most social tasks were exteriorized in the 1950s was the isolated ‘nuclear family,’ held together less by the functions its members performed as a unit than by fragile psychological bonds that are all too easily snapped

  7. Nuclear family isolation is questionable. Isolation hasn’t eroded family ties. It’s a sociological fact that isolation of the family from meaningful social connectedness not only erodes family ties but contributes heavily to abuse of people and abuse of substances, divorce, and community dysfunction in general.

  8. Margaret Mead has no good point to make when she points out the flat-gradient nurturance advantages that are part of Samoan culture and produce less neuroses than the steep-gradient American culture; he interprets her as saying that American kids should have less parental involvement—which is not what she meant at all. What she meant was that parents should have help (from friends, relatives, neighbors, etc.) with child nurturing like they have for many millennia all over the globe. Her ideas were very close to Lasch’s correct idea that kids should have the benefit of not just parental guidance but guidance from many adults in the local community. He contradicts himself elsewhere in this very same book, acknowledging flat-gradient nurturance (in other terms). Note: Mead, in her 70s, was writing about the need for fathers and mothers to both engage in childcare for their kids, and she was encouraging anything but the need for less parental involvement.

    41% of first marriages in the U.S. end in divorce
    41% of first marriages in the U.S. end in divorce

    Divorce rate in the US from 1935 to 2010
    Divorce rate in the US from 1935 to 2010

  9. Adolescence has become almost obsolete. Adolescence in America is prolonged because of higher education, the high cost of living independently, and the convenience of remaining at home prior to marriage and/or career take-off. In the future, adolescence will be reduced somewhat by more elder-centered and less child-centered families, however. Lasch’s erroneous belief about adolescence becoming obsolete is based upon his reading of some unnamed, obscure theory in which there’s a new “finding” that kids no longer get attached to their parents!

  10. Child-raising techniques aren’t very important and parents who fail shouldn’t think they have a very important role in the failure. “. . . [parenting] advice undermines parental confidence at the same time that it encourages a vastly inflated idea of the importance of child-rearing techniques and of the parents’ responsibility for their failure.” The jury is in that the way kids are raised is the most important factor in how they turn out with regards to character, intelligence, autonomy, security, social skills, and parenting skills. We know what methods give kids the best start. Period. This sounds suspiciously like a person trying hard to absolve himself of guilt for his own parenting errors and their consequences. Such statements are unscientific, anti-intellectual, counterintuitive rationalizations that represent little more than whistling in the dark. Such irresponsible, wishful-thinking-based speculations should never have gotten into print. They insult the readers’ intelligence.

Whistling in the dark
Whistling in the dark

On the other hand, he shines when he states that women should be given opportunities in the job market, not via abandoning their young to the care of “experts,” but by reorganizing work so that women needn’t sacrifice family in the pursuit of opportunity. We need “. . . a new set of social arrangements in which work becomes itself another aspect of nurture, transcends its present character of individual self-aggrandizement, and comes to serve the needs, not merely of the living, but of generations yet to come.” This is, of course, what the Tofflers’ electronic expanded family [and/or MCs—see Why Register for an MC?] would do, and yet he has no awareness of this because all evidence supports the conclusion that he never actually read the Tofflers’ books.

Registering for MC search and match
Registering for MC search and match

Another jewel is his acknowledgement of the emotional overloading of the parent-child connection, and his implication that flat-gradient nurturance would help ease the tensions caused by steep-gradient nurturance. But there’s no follow-through on this thinking.

Also, he says the social engineering of the welfare state is part of the problem, not part of the solution. Amen.

He indicts “possessive individualism extended to the emotional realm, of the jealousy that confuses love with emotional ownership.”