Bullies, Lisping Babies and Timid Chickens: Peter Brady and the Limits of Reason

OR How Peter Brady Single-handedly Defeated Jurgen Habermas and his theory of communicative rationality

Making trouble and being in trouble are usually thought of as bad things—as things that we want to get out of as soon as possible. Smoothing over trouble and getting out of trouble becomes the goal. But, how do (and should) we resolve trouble? How do we get rid of it? And, how do we make sure that we deal with trouble in ways that don’t do harm to ourselves or others? What happens when trouble comes in the form of a violent bully? How do we resolve that situation? And, is resolution the best response?

So, for over 10 years now I have wanted to write about an episode of the Brady Bunch called “A Fistful of Reasons”.  If you haven’t seen it, you should. It is from the second season, which may be the best season of the series—“Will the real Jan Brady please stand up?” “The Liberation of Marcia Brady.” Need I say more?

It all started when I was in graduate school taking a class on Hermeneutics at School of Theology at Claremont. We were discussing Jurgen Habermas and his idea of communicative rationality. Simply (maybe too simply?) put, Habermas believes that we can resolve our conflicts and come to agreement by engaging in rational dialogue with each other. This dialogue involves the practicing of a certain set of rational and reasonable rules that we use as we talk with each other. In other words, our differences of opinion and conflicts with each other are smoothed over when we use “calm, cool reason.”

Habermas’ idea sounds great: using reason and being reasonable allows us to engage with others without resorting to violence, right? But, what happens when all of our appeals to reason and our attempts at rational conversations with others don’t seem to work? What happens when those with whom we come into conflict don’t want to talk or resolve differences but want to impose their own ideas onto us in violent ways? How do we get those people to listen to us? How do we reason with them? Enter Peter Brady and the Brady Bunch episode, “A Fistful of Reasons.”

Here’s the plot in a nutshell: One day little Cindy Brady is walking home from school. She runs into Buddy Hinton who teases her for lisping. The next day, the same thing happens but this time Cindy’s older brother Peter is with her. Peter tells Buddy to knock it off. When Buddy challenges him to a fight, Peter refuses and Buddy teases him. When Peter tells his parents Mike and Carol about the incident, Mike tells him to use calm, cool reason instead of violence to resolve the situation. The next day, calm, cool reason fails and Buddy punches Peter. Mike intervenes by talking “reasonably” with Buddy’s father. This attempt fails and almost leads to a fight between the two fathers. Carol also tries unsuccessfully to talk with Buddy’s mother. At this point, Mike decides that while reason should be the first course of action, Peter needs to be prepared to fight Buddy if and when reason fails to work. Peter trains for a fight. When he and Cindy run into Buddy again the next day, Peter tries to reason with the bully. When this fails, he ends up punching Buddy who falls on the ground and chips his tooth in the process. The chipped tooth causes Buddy to lisp and he learns what it feels like to speak “baby talk” as Cindy and the other kids tease him. Peter tells the kids to knock it off and the episode ends. Problem solved. Conflict resolved. Reason has failed. Violence has won. Or has it?

When I first saw this episode I thought about Habermas and envisioned writing an essay about how Peter Brady single-handedly defeats Habermas’ theory of communicative rationality. Repeatedly through the episode, reason is offered as the way to resolve the conflict between the bully and the bullied. And every time reason seems to fail. Violence (and the threat of violence) thwarts all attempts to mediate conflict; the bully Buddy refuses to listen, to reason, to back down on his teasing. This episode raises the questions to Habermas: how can we resolve conflicts and reach a consensus with people who aren’t willing to engage with us? Who not only refuse to practice our (rational) rules of engagement but seem to be hell bent on doing physical (punching Peter) or psychic (teasing Cindy) violence to us?

Recently I was able to show this episode and discuss it at length in my Feminist and Queer Explorations in Troublemaking class. Through the process of watching and discussing it, I started to think more about what was going on the episode. It seems too simple to offer it up as evidence for why Habermas was wrong, to see it only as proof for the failure of reason in the face of violence. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this episode has so much to offer us as we attempt to think about how and why reason fails, how it is connected to constructions and performances of masculinity and what the possibilities for engaging in troubling conflict differently are.

In the next few posts, I will offer my own analysis of “Fistful of Reasons.” As a teaser, here is what I posted on Facebook right before teaching the class in which we discussed the episode:

Today in class I am screening an episode of the Brady Bunch called “Fistful of Reasons.” Among other things, we will talk about how it raises questions about the usefulness of reason (a la Habermas) for mediating conflict. It also gets at some interesting questions about the performance of masculinity and its connections to instrumental reason and the abject homosexual (a la Butler). Who knew the Brady Bunch was so deep?

Be prepared to never watch the Brady Bunch the same way again…