Referentialism and Teen Depression and Suicide

This is Part 4 of a series on the subject of Teen Depression and Suicide. The impetus was an opportunity to speak at a recent workshop on the subject in the context of the “religious.” I spoke at a similar event last year and was graciously invited back. The audience was not necessarily Christian or religious. But the planners determined the need to include a “religious” perspective. You may read Part 1Part 2, and Part 3.

Slavo Zizek considers an over-identification with an ideology, or particular position, to create an episodic irruption of the real. The event exposes the antagonisms that lie beneath the ideological explanation. (My friend Guy may have to help clarify my assertion about Zizek as I am importing a discussion of Zizek’s ideas from a recent book by David Fitch as well as my reading of Zizek’s little book, Dessert of the Real.)

You could say that in the post-Freudian feminist psychologists you sense a reaction to the Freudian over-identification of the female with the male in terms of alleged stages of development – moral and social. (I am a hack at this, but it makes sense after reading Carol Gilligan‘s In A Different Voice at the encouragement of my friend Sally Morgenthaler.)

Freud’s control group, comprised only of males, formed the nexus for his speculative theories turned developmental guidelines for pre-adolescents and adolescents. The conclusions drawn from observing young boys was then universalized for all children, encompassing the female into the male experience. Over time there were irruptions of the real, to borrow Zizek’s terminology, where the over-identification of females with males revealed a latent antagonism. Boys and girls develop along moral/ethical/social lines in different ways and at differing points along the way.

Gilligan and others determined to “see for themselves'” if Freud or Kohlberg could be supported or undermined by observing a different control group. The results are described in In a Different Voice. (I have not looked close enough, but the sociological study turned Guyland may well illustrate the ways the attempts to hold on to the former ideologies affected female adolescents continuing to rob them of their voice.)

I dubbed this part of my talk on the subject of teen depression and suicide “referentialism.” Conversations or arguments stemming from the wranglings over moral/ethical/social development models/stages tend to offer an adolescent an identity only in so far as they are connected to a “referent.”

The point here is beyond a persons’s particular context. The social structures surrounding young people are surely formative. But, here the point is that a referential framework makes it harder for a young person not to be a widget in the image of the referent. In this case, and for the example, the dominant referent for a young girl is a young boy.

This thought occurred to me after reading Godin’s Linchpin wherein he remarks that the industrialization experienced in the United States and other Western Countries runs the great risk of people being trained to be widgets rather than encouraged to express and experience their own longings to see the world function for the better. Thus, he calls on the “linchpins” to lead into new ways and places across our cultural spectrum.

The matter tends to our understanding of personhood. And, for the Christian this rests with the assertion human beings are made in the image of God. But, tying development to a referent tends to create the young girl into the image of the young boy (referent) to which they are tied.

The development of personhood then becomes mired in the need to extricate oneself from the framework provided by the given “referent.” When an adolescent girl is not given space to become her own person depression may not be far behind. That is not to say parents or communities practice a hands-off laissez faire approach to their children. But, instead as something of a atmospheric architect may provide space for social interactions within the designed edifice, communities may help alleviate the depression move among teens by creating space to develop her personhood beyond the referent. In this case, simply, girls need to be given space to develop as girls rather than as something less than boys. Or, put a different way, girls need atmospheric conditions for the peculiarities of their own moral/social/ethical development that take in their very different social ways – different than boys. Thus, Gilligan’s “different voice.”

For we who are Christian, we want to point to the “imago dei” and what real humanity looks like in Jesus. Our tendency is to create structures that contain our images in a self-perpetuating game of making of our children widgets for the system.

I realize this creates quite the range of questions. Ask away. I also understand the limitations of this description. Critique away. But, should someone happen on to this series and suspect I could have been more hard charging with Christian themes, that was not the nature of the conference or in keeping with the spirit of the invitation.

About the Author
Husband to Patty. Daddy to Kimberly and Tommie. Grandpa Doc to Cohen, Max, Fox, and Marlee. Pastor to Snow Hill Baptist Church. Graduate of Oklahoma Baptist University and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Reading. Photography. Golf. Colorado. Jeeping. Friend. The views and opinions expressed here are my own and should not be construed as representing the corporate views of the church I pastor.

5 comments on “Referentialism and Teen Depression and Suicide

  1. Natalie says:

    OK I couldn’t wait any longer -I finally moved Gilligan’s book from wish list to actual download (aren’t e-readers great?). Good stuff!

  2. Andrew C says:

    Isn’t everyone (male or female) leaning on a “referent” anyway? At times I’d lean on studying or music, but are you suggesting we should cast out ALL referents?

    1. Everyone looks to another for an example. However, parents, for instance, have been given guidelines to assist with the moral/ethical/social development of their children. We want to be good “Dads and Moms.” For a long time those guidelines were developed by observing only males. In this case, the referent is not something we lean on. Rather, the referent becomes the guide to understanding how to help shape. If boys and girls develop an awareness of the moral/ethical/social differently – as Gilligan suggests – then the “guidelines” have suggested patterns in raising girls as though they were boys. In Guyland, which I have not completed, it seems the author suggests that this trend shows up socially as young, adolescent girls attempt to fit in by emulating the dominant male culture – particularly young “guys.” Putting these two together would at least intimate the wider culture has an embedded structure that treats girls and women through the lens of the males in our culture. The consequences are not healthy.

      A somewhat similar illustration would be the way we have a hard time with those from “eastern” cultures. So, as the 2.0 and 3.0 generations here develop, their culturally wired ways are subverted as the expectation becomes, “you must adopt American ways.”

      In religious contexts, it may be akin to someone thinking the “free church” or “low church” tradition is the way “all” churches should be patterned. So, the “free church” or “low church” tradition becomes the referent for “all,” even if the values of a more traditional expression of church, complete with a magisterium and its attendant structures, fills out the mission of God in the world.

      In these illustrations, a “referent” becomes the “norm” for all. When it comes to gender and moral/ethical/social development the issue is not there are different “rights and wrongs” for girls and boys. The issue is how they develop. and how we participate in that development. Viewing girls as boys without male genitalia patently denies the imago dei in the female and only locates it insofar as the female may participate in the male culture. Depressing to be sure if you believe God made you wonderfully female.

      1. Andrew C says:

        ok, I’ve got a clearer idea of “referent” now and how a “norm” based on males works to form females into something they’re not – male.

        Would you give a specific example of gender difference in moral/ethic/social development? I’m just trying to get my head around it a little more.

        More Barbie dolls? less roughhousing?
        I guess my question is if so (if we really are training girls to be something they’re not), then how is this corrected?

        I’m sure there’s not a checklist for the parents’ “pathway to success.” But are there observations (like the ones Freud had) that center on girls’ development? So that parents are at least given a better direction. So that parents know girls develop better in environments like this, whereas boys like that.

        Again, I’m just trying to get my head around it a little more. Thanks for bearing with me. I’ve got the easy part – just asking questions.

        1. Gilligan gives the illustration that young boys will play together on the playground by the “rules.” When they interact with each other, the rules tend to be the primary governor for their social interactions.

          Young girls play on the same playground (at the same age) and see their relationships as the primary social place and so may bend the rules they have made as they play together.

          Later in adolescence these roles tend to reverse a bit. Older boys tend to moderate on their “kick ball” rules when relationships become more important. Older girls tend to moderate the value they place on relationships as they see the need for healthy boundaries in those relationships and so adopt some rules to abide.

          All questions are good. Some may be more difficult to answer. But, all are good.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.