About six years ago, my four-year-old son and I were upstairs watching a Discovery channel "shark attacks" special (possibly this one). He was very young at the point and I was always worried what he might see on a show like this and how he might take it. I didn’t want him to develop, for example, any special fears of the water or blab something inappropriate to his friends and possibly cause his baby friend network to come crashing down.
Discovery handles these kinds of subjects very well. It’s not about creating a fear of something, but rather to show how unusual it is for sharks to attack humans.
So, we’re watching it and there is this one particularly scary attack involving a small girl. As Discovery is building the drama of the attack, my son (who has always been extremely jumpy anyway), is getting very excited. I make some noises about how unusual it is for sharks to attack people, and how bad the poor girl must feel. I’m trying to explain that people recover from these events and become stronger for it. However, I had misinterpreted his excitement. He was not worried about the girl at all. Instead, while clapping his hands, he tells me, "The sharks love it! It’s terrific. It’s wonderful. Its a DREAM COME TRUE!"
I thought this was hilarious, but also very disturbing. On the one hand, I was glad — even a little proud — that he could have strong empathic feelings, cross-species though they may be. As humans, we need to develop our "empathic muscles" so speak or you’ll end up like this guy 🙂 On the other hand, he was feeling cross-species empathy toward a species who was exhibiting behavior inimical to his own. I was really struggling with this when the narrator used the word "paradigm". My son picked up on that and asked me what that meant.
That’s not such an easy word to describe to a four year old, but I gave it a try. When I think of the word "paradigm", Thomas Kuhn is never far from my thoughts. I read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions back at Lafayette and for better or for worse, the word "paradigm" is pregnant with extra meaning for me. (Sort of like the word "contact" after hearing a Movie Phone voice tell me where I could see that movie [I thought the book was better]; I always say to myself, "CONTACT!" whenever I see or hear someone say "contact").
Anyway, I’m trying to explain to him a Kuhnian definition, that it’s "a historical movement of thought" and that it’s a "way of thinking with a number of built-in assumptions that are hard to escape for people living at that time." Of course, you can’t talk like to a four-year old, so I’m trying to successively define it to smaller pieces and feeling rather proud of myself as I do so. (I just knew that someone outside of college would care that I had read Kuhn!).
I’m just warming to the task when he interrupts me. Waving his hand in my general direction and never taking his eyes off another brutal shark attack, he just says, "Yeah, yeah, yeah. Blah, blah, blah.".
So much for that 🙂
At that point, I decided to run away, rhetorically speaking, sit back, and enjoy watching sharks attack humans with my son.