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Semiformalishmaybe

The Harm in Scouting

When I was younger, I was involved in Boy Scouts. Like many former scouts, my experiences were mixed, and as I've come to be able to analyse social shaping (and have come to be very solidly liberal, leaving the libertarianism of my youth and the wealthy suburban inculturation), I've become much more bothered by scouting. My family was involved in scouting to a fairly large degree (although it was never recognised as such); my grandfather on my dad's side was a scout, as was my father and at least one of my uncles. My sisters also did scouting, and my mom helped with a girl scout camp several summers; I went along to that (I wasn't the only boy there). My overall impression, at least based on my experiences, is that girl scout culture is much more healthy than boy scout culture. The hierarchies are less steep, there's less elitism, far less patriotism, the time is somewhat less structured, and there's less of a nudge towards conservative values. I can't back this up at this point in my life though; the memories are too old.

What I can do is suggest an examination of creeds and history. Not just the particular matter of treatment of homosexuals (although even there, Boy Scouts stand in contrast to Girl Scouts in policy; BSA claims homosexuality to be immoral, while GSA neither bans nor has a strong stance on the matter). Let's examine the "Scout Law" of each organisation:BSA: A scout is

  • trustworthy
  • loyal
  • helpful
  • friendly
  • courteous
  • kind
  • obedient
  • cheerful
  • thrifty
  • brave
  • clean
  • reverent
GSA:I will try to be
  • honest and fair
  • friendly and helpful
  • considerate and caring
  • courageous and strong
  • responsible for what I say and do
  • and I will
  • respect myself and others
  • respect authority
  • use resources widely
  • make the world a better place
  • be a sister to every Girl Scout
(these are the American creeds; the Baden-Powell Scouts and the Girlguides in the UK, where all this originated, are somewhat distinct and have a somewhat different culture to my understanding)

I attempt to read hese in the light of Baden-Powell's explanations of the specifics of these norms, understood through the lens of having been a boy scout and having seen girl scouting.

Looking through those:

  • Baden-Powell had an absolutist notion of trustworthiness/honor, not accepting circumstances where deceit or going back on one's word is the right thing to do. I think that's unfortunate, and pushes an excessively rules-based morality, limiting the potential for goodness. I believe there are times in life where it is not only permitted to lie or break one's word; not doing so is a great moral failing. If one were bound by contract or other promise not to disclose something that is causing significant harm to the public good, one must break that bond. Likewise-but-weaker, there are times when we are asked to promise things we can't reasonably bind our future selves to; in such circumstances I claim it acceptable to make such a prima facie invalid promise and to treat it as such. Besides, the reason we consider promises to be ordinarily a good thing to keep is not honor. It is to make society reasonable and to help us generally treat promises as things where when we properly make them we don't intend to break them out of laze or other selfish needs in the scope of what was reasonably expected when we made them. Most of this applies to loyalty too (although BP's parsing of loyalty was fanatical and seems more suited for a cult than anything else, endangering inner criticism or the ability to leave organisations/employers when appropriate)
  • Obedience is not a virtue, at least for an adult and .. well, it's a lot more complicated for children. There are times when we may choose to limit our agency in life, but it should not be a habit nor a personality trait to do so. This goes even more strongly for intellectual obedience; mental independence is too precious a thing to sacrifice to any movement (or cause). Our thoughts should never be crafted to make others happy, nor following any obligation to any group.
  • Cheerfulness I don't have a lot of comment on; I recognise that Baden-Powell was pushing against certain kinds of bad character, but I'm not sure cheerfulness really is the right goal there. The British scouts have an even more obnoxious version of this creed.
  • Thriftiness I generally approve of, at least as a mental skill.
  • Cleanliness is meant as a kind of mental hygiene; it's a fairly complicated topic where I think he had some worthwhile intuitions mixed into a bad larger notion. At least in my family and in many scouts I know of, this was not held to in the ugly form the BSA suggested.
  • Reverence is broadly bad. It's bad for religion, bad for idols, bad for leaders. There's a big difference between being principled and being reverent, and I think it's regrettable that the latter was stressed.
And for the girl scouts, my experience with them suggested that their creed was generally interpreted more reasonably the whole way through, that their creed generally leads to development of good character, and the only really questionable thing is that respect for authority part. Otherwise, their creed is healthier than that of the Boy Scouts. GSA is generally compatible with a healthy form of feminism, and pushes against some of the bad norms that are often pushed onto girls.

There are camps in place as well as efforts to organise scouting experiences around better norms; CampQuest is run by Secular Humanists, there are splinter groups of scouts with different creeds as well as entirely independent groups like 4H and Spiralscouts. Hopefully this will continue; civic institutions that expose people to new life experiences are important, as is getting people out of cities, but I believe that BSA is ill-serving youth and should be considered as a whole something to urgently replace.

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