Parenting in an Age of ‘Politics-as-Destruction’

Maybe it’s the philosopher in me, but for some reason, I always wonder what people mean when they admonish other people to ‘stop the hate’.  Presumably these admonishments would mean that we are not to hate other people.  If that is the meaning, then I agree 100%.  But there often seems to be an underlying assertion here, which goes something like this:  if we are fighting against hate, the one thing we can and must hate, is hate itself.  But hate itself can only exist in people – whom we can call haters.  So, if you are a hater, you must be hated. 

So we aren’t stopping the hate, after all.

I cannot speak for anyone else, but I have found the past 6 months or so to be permeated with the idea of hate.  After all, it was an election season.  I think I have some kind of post-traumatic stress from it all.  And the first weeks of 2021, characterized as they have been by the amping up of partisan vitriol to new heights, only cemented in place my views regarding the urgent problem of political divisiveness in this country. 

So, I am worried – like, sleepless night worried.  I am worried about the intertwining of politics and intense hatred that is destroying so many good things that are fundamentally important to me. 

It’s taking everything I have to protect my family from the toxic political culture in which we find ourselves.  Hence this post: how do you raise children in a democratic society – where they will soon need to be responsible citizens – when the discussion of every political issue puts you in a siege mentality of ‘us vs. them’?  Indeed, where everything depends on your side winning the argument, where you take no prisoners?  We have all but lost the skills of deliberation and negotiation and, in their absence, turning to the practice of ignoring, silencing, full-on censoring – and, if those things don’t work – downright persecuting each other.  And political violence – which is what happens when discussions break down – is fast becoming normalized.  Lately, I’ve just been praying that God will deliver us from ourselves

But, until that deliverance takes place, we have to live with each other, no matter how much our hyper-angry political culture wants to deny that.  So, in that spirit, let me offer a few observations about our current situation, and what we as parents might do to help our children as future citizens.

Let us go back to the idea of hate.  ‘Hate’ evokes notions such as ostracization – and even banishment – from a community.  For, if someone is hateful, we must not listen to them.  They must not be given a ‘platform’.  We must shut them out.  And the reason for this is because, surely, if we let them speak, they would do the same thing to us – that is, they would silence and banish others from the community, because that’s what haters do.  So, we have to get there first

And with the phrase ‘we have to get there first’, we may have articulated something:  to hate the haters is to do to the haters what they are doing to others.  This is, I would have thought, one of the oldest themes in human history:  how does one not become – at least in some sense – what one is fighting against?

Perhaps closer to home is not only the idea of ‘politics as destruction’, but ‘politics as contempt’.  Politics as destruction is based on an impersonal notion of ‘the other side out there somewhere’ – the ‘other’ political party, for instance, or political leaders whom one has never met.  But politics as contempt, I think, is very personal.  It is about feeling contempt (a form of hatred) toward someone you know because you view their way of thinking about things as wholly inferior to your own way of thinking.  But it’s not just inferiority that is the problem.  It is that this particular kind of inferiority also makes that person wholly immoral.  And we can’t be friends with immoral people.  That is, we can’t be friends with the haters. 

And so, we ignore, we isolate, and we ostracize people that we know personally.  Depending on how far we let our contempt extend, we might agitate for their censorship, or even their loss of employment or community position.  In this sense, the political becomes personal.  We are fast losing the ability to make a distinction between the two.

I am not exaggerating.  Indeed, here in the first few weeks of 2021, it is obvious I am not exaggerating.  I know so many people who no longer speak to extended family, old and once very dear friends, and even siblings because of political and philosophical differences.  Perhaps, whoever you are, you can identify with this situation.  But I am not only writing to describe a problem, I am also writing to think about how to help our children in the future.  So, there is a sense in which I am writing, not only about relationships which have broken down (sadly, I know a lot about those), but also about relationships which will never get off the ground because political differences make that relationship impossible.  It is our children who must learn how to navigate this situation in which we find ourselves.  And we must help them.

There is much that is stacked against them.  The social media culture in which they are so immersed demands that they signal their virtue by parroting adamant opinions, by engaging in fierce (online) activism, and by communicating with a polarizing rhetoric.  In this way, social media trains them to become soldiers in ideological warfare, rather than insightful, thoughtful human beings.

Now, if it really is true, as I have just asserted, that social media trains our children to become soldiers, perhaps we could ask:  so, what do soldiers do?  Well, they fight. They fight by defending their own side, and by scouting out and attacking the other side.  And in this war, allies and enemies are identified by their views.  Of course, there is nothing wrong with ‘holding a view’ on a particular matter.  Indeed, as rational, thinking creatures, that is what we as human beings do.  But, in our current political culture, the problem is that ‘holding a view’ has come to define us – that is, our identity has come to be bound up with our views.  And so, our ‘views’ put us into camps, namely the ‘good people camp’ and the ‘haters camp’.  And now, we are back where we started:  more of the siege mentality, more of the ‘us vs. them’, more of the ever-escalating ‘Oh … you think that?  I didn’t know you were one of those people ….’, until human connection becomes the lowest of our priorities.  Indeed, we break our connections – that is, we break our human relationships based on our ‘views’ and what we perceive other people’s ‘views’ to be.  Identify, break, identify, break.  We are continuing to sow for our children the very thing we are now reaping for ourselves.  And it will not end well for them.

However, I think we are getting closer to the heart of the matter:  in our current political culture, human connection has become the lowest of our priorities.  Ideology comes first.  And yet, surely this is completely backwards.  Our ideologies should serve our close and meaningful relationships, not the other way around.  This is because as human beings, we need connections – we need relationships – in order to flourish. 

Now, presumably, we also need political arrangements in order to flourish.  This idea is as old as the ancient philosophers Plato and Aristotle, who argued that without political institutions, human beings would never fulfill their rational potential.  Political activity stems from the human ability to conceptualize notions of justice, which is connected to our rational ability of speech, by which we can articulate notions of good and evil, right and wrong.  In this way, political activity is a natural extension of our human capacities, as well as a fulfillment of them.  And political activity is meant to create and sustain communities, providing order, safety and justice so that we can pursue our relationships with one another, learn from one another, and thus flourish. 

But if politics is destroying our relationships, then it is necessarily destroying our flourishing.  And it is therefore not fulfilling one of its most fundamental purposes.

So far, I have gone from talking about ‘politics as destruction’, where we are intent on destroying the ‘other side’ (that is, ‘the haters’), to ‘politics as destroying us’, in the sense that putting political ideology before relationships will destroy what is basic for our happiness, flourishing, and spiritual survival.  I’ve tried to tease out how these two notions are really two sides of the same coin, but, either way, politics is now intricately tied to destruction.  And our children are being trained by social media to participate in the destruction, whether we as parents like it or not.

Is there anything we can do?  Seriously, at this point, is there anything we can do?  Can we somehow re-train our children to be thinkers and lovers, rather than fighters?  I think a key to the answer has been with us all along.  There is a sense in which this post is definitely a lament – a lament of human goods being lost in the service of politics.  To put it in a more general way, however, would be to say I have been lamenting that something extremely important has been lost in the service of something less important.   The key, I think, is the notion of order, the notion of priorities.

‘Priorities’ might seem like a mundane, overused word.  But the underlying idea here is that we need to understand the concept of ordering our commitments – that is, of placing in a hierarchy the various things to which we are committed.  In order to keep political destruction at bay, something else has to be above politics in that hierarchy.  In other words, something needs to transcend politics.

The word transcendence is defined as ‘to go beyond, or be beyond’.  In the philosophy of religion, it is often used to describe the notion of God as ‘beyond’ this world.  What could be ‘beyond’ politics then?  Although that is an ancient and daunting question, let me take a stab and say that it would have to be something fundamental to the human condition, something which we do not want politics to destroy.  It would have to be something like the dignity of the individual human person, which is made manifest in thinking, deliberating, and building relationships with other human beings.

And how would a ‘culture of dignity’ counteract the current ‘politics-as-destruction’ culture?  Instead of helplessly watching our children come to view those in the ‘other tribe’ as nameless, faceless ‘haters’, we can teach them that there is a name, a face, a mind, a life, a soul – indeed, a dignity of each person they encounter, which transcends that person’s political views.  This does not necessarily mean that we will always be able to ‘see the good’ in someone who we think has very wrong and immoral views (although I think we should try as much as possible to understand where people are coming from).  But it does mean that we need to model to our children the idea that people are not to be wholly identified with their views on a particular matter.  There is something more fundamental about a person that remains separate from what they think about whatever hot-button political issue that is trending at any given moment.

When we allow the dignity of the human person to transcend politics, there is a sense in which we are limiting politics.  Specifically, we are limiting the ways in which we can pursue political warfare on one another.  We can take inspiration here from what is called a deontological position on ethics, which is also known as an ‘agent-relative’ ethics.  Agent-relativity, in its simplest form, holds that it matters what actions a person does, and it also matters what actions are done to a person.  Taking its cue from the notion of human dignity, agent-relativity can help us think about just what sorts of limits we should put on ourselves in our interactions with a person whom we deem to be some kind of enemy.

The basic thought is that in a situation of warfare, you attack what is hostile about your enemy, but you do not attack what is not hostile.  So, you may disagree with someone regarding their political views, and argue with them on this matter.  But you must not then attack, say, their integrity, their intelligence, their character, their religious views, their family, their friends, their performance in their career, and so forth.  In limiting yourself in this way, you have argued the point, but left the dignity of the person intact.  Perhaps you are intent on winning the argument, but in doing so, you do not also try to ghettoize your opponent – by threatening to destroy their employment, their position in the community, their reputation, or their means of communicating with other people.  And if it someone who is important to you, you do not threaten to destroy your relationship.

More to the point, however, let me return to this phrase: ‘it matters what action a person does, and it also matters what actions are done to a person.’  It matters how we treat other people, and it matters how we are treated.  These things matter because it is through our agency, and the agency of others, that we build or destroy relationships.  And, as I argued above, relationships are essential for our flourishing.  So, it matters how we treat each other, irrespective of our political views, or our larger political goals.  In that way, it is our dignity, our relationships, and our flourishing which must put a limit on politics, because they transcend politics.

In this post, I have talked in terms of the ‘less important’ and the ‘more important’, arguing that we must not let the less important overwhelm and destroy what is more important.  I have argued that politics be deemed ‘less important’ and our dignity, relationships and flourishing be deemed ‘more important’.  But I still have the online warrior in my head, arguing with me that there is nothing more important than the political fight – that it is only through politics that we will redeem and save ourselves from our past and present injustices, and that it is a good thing that our children are being taught to ‘hate the haters’. 

In conclusion, let me respond with this:  it is only through letting something transcend politics that we will, paradoxically, save politics.  Politics will fail us if it becomes our highest love.  If there is nothing to limit it, we will, in the end, destroy the very communities – the very bonds – which politics is meant to protect.  Thus, politics will succeed only if we mark out places where it cannot come.  I suggest that the first place we mark out is our relationship with our children.  When they understand that unconditional, transcendent place which we have set for them, no matter their political views, they can carry that understanding into other parts of their lives.  This will allow them to turn their battles into thoughtful discussions, and their wars into communal searches for truth.  Thus, we can help them become thinkers and lovers. Only then can we begin to ‘stop the hate’.

Is Parenting a Political Activity?

The best way to describe how I felt when I first became a mother is invisible. I went from going to meetings, lectures and libraries, where people would show interest in me and my work, to being stuck in our apartment with round the clock feedings and baby care. I didn’t see many people, and, more to the point, not many people saw me.

But it wasn’t just that kind of invisible. It was that no one was in the least bit interested in the fact that I had a baby. In a way, this was a good thing. Families are a private affair, and I was free to have one. And yet, it was this freedom, I felt, which also made me invisible. I was free to raise my child as I saw fit. The flip side was that no one cared. They cared about my academic work. But they didn’t care about this work.

And yet, I thought that they should care. Not in a busy-body, ‘I’m going to call the social worker if I’m concerned about your parenting’ sort of way, but in a ‘Thank you for raising a future citizen’ sort of way. I had always been interested in politics, but now being a mother with a baby seemed about as far away from politics as I could get. I couldn’t help feeling, though, that in some way, raising her was a political activity. It was political in the sense that what I did in my home – how I treated her, and the values I taught her – would have an impact upon her. And she, in turn, would one day have an impact on those around her in wider society.

Parenting, Politics, and the Public/Private Distinction

Is parenting a political activity?

To consider this question, I want to point to a previous blog post in which I asked a related question: Could parenting be more important than politics? There I argued that, in some versions of liberalism, the role of the state is limited to protecting our freedoms to live as we choose, as long as we do not bring harm to others. It must remain neutral as much as possible on moral questions regarding a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ human life. By contrast, an essential aspect of parenting is teaching our children the moral concept of what it means to live a good human life.

On this liberal view, there is a distinction between the public sphere of the state, and the private sphere of society, which includes the family. The private sphere is defined by our rights, which are fundamentally rights against the state – things like our right to private property, free speech, free assembly, religious freedom, and so forth. These rights defend us against political authorities seizing control of every aspect of our lives. They set up a ‘non-political’ space, in which (theoretically at least) we can pursue the good, without the state dictating to us what is good.

Parenting, I would argue, is one of the most important activities of the private sphere. This is especially true if we view parenting as an exercise in leading our children toward the good. Thus, if we accept the sharp distinction drawn by liberalism between the state and the private sphere, then parenting cannot be considered a political activity.

Rights-Bearing Citizens vs. Virtuous Citizens

Now, fond as I am of the public/private distinction, it is also problematic. Let’s consider the private realm more closely. I have just explained that the private sphere is a space of freedom defined by our rights. Yet, what this also means is that the state regards its citizens within the private sphere only as rights-bearing individuals. As far as the state is concerned, our personal characteristics – indeed, our virtues or vices, our aspirations, our relationships – are not matters of consideration, as long as we keep the law.

For instance, it doesn’t matter if I volunteer at the local hospital, or sit at home watching porn for hours on end. In the liberal state, the political realm treats these private activities as though they were equal in value. This is precisely because it does not make value judgements regarding the good life. And yet, the first activity requires – and generates – virtues such as compassion, generosity, and patience, while the second activity requires – and generates – no virtues.

So, it seems to me that the public/private distinction, although essential for freedom, at the same time cuts itself off from acknowledging, or valuing, the vital role which private virtue plays in our society. What if none of us were compassionate, generous or patient? What kind of world would that be? It is clear that our public sphere depends upon citizens to be virtuous in their private lives. Yet, liberalism can only respect us as rights-bearing individuals; it cannot ask us to be – or value us as – virtuous individuals.

The Political Need for Virtue – Especially in Parenting

Now, nowhere is the need for virtue more prominent than in parenting. I can’t think of anything in my pre-parent life that required even half as much patience, resilience, self-control, kindness, forgiveness (for myself, mostly), courage, sheer determination and unconditional love as parenting does. And that’s just for ‘getting-through-the-day’ parenting.

Virtue, really, if we think of it in an Aristotelian sense, is what enables us to align our lives with the good. If we believe that parenting is essentially a moral pursuit in which we lead our children toward the good, then virtue is indispensable to good parenting. But if the state remains silent on the good, then it also stays silent on the importance of virtue – even in parenting.

In my experience, this silence has been deafening. It is as if, because we cannot require people to have virtue – and because often we cannot agree on what virtue is – we therefore cannot be honest about how much we need it, especially in parents. Clearly, our characters as parents matter for society, and therefore, for politics. Indeed, they define how we interact with our children, which in turn influences their actions and characters. And their characters, in turn, will shape our future society.

When we think of politics, we think of politicians. They make laws which affect us, to be sure. But I would argue that parenting practices have a far greater impact upon society than laws. Society is shaped continually, in one way or another, from the ground up, and it is parents who are in the trenches. Politicians may go on about the social ills of inequality, poverty, substance abuse, family breakdown, etc., but the truth is that politics will always be an ineffective way to solve these problems. Solving them revolves firstly around parents, and only secondly around politicians.

Parents aren’t politicians. But make no mistake, parents have an essential political role. Raising a family has profound political consequences, whether for good or ill. I’ll say what I wish someone would have said to me 16 years ago:

Your efforts as a parent –  

midnight feedings, cleaning, cooking, pushing through exhaustion, budgeting, going without, discipline struggles, rule-making, weeping, teaching, chasing, more cleaning, more cooking, more rule-making, more weeping, searching, reading, playing, working, cold-dinner eating, unconditionally loving –  

and the virtues that results from all of that,

matter for us all,

even though no one wants to say so.

Because one day, even though you can’t see it now, your kids are going to be awesome people, who will change their corner of the world.

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Could Parenting Be More Important Than Politics?

Since my blog started  two months ago, I have had two commentators cite the following quote by C. S. Lewis:

‘I think I can understand that feeling about a housewife’s work being like that of Sisyphus (who was the stone rolling gentleman).  But it is surely in reality the most important work in the world.  What do ships, railways, miners, cars, government etc. exist for except that people may be fed, warmed, and safe in their own homes?  As Dr. Johnson said, “To be happy at home is the end of all human endeavor” … We wage war in order to have peace, we work in order to have leisure, we produce food in order to eat it.  So your job is the one for which all others exist.’

I love this quote.  I live my life by this quote.  But I think it needs some discussion.

‘The Job For Which All Others Exist’:  Was C. S. Lewis Right?

I did my undergraduate work at Wellesley College, which is a highly competitive all-women’s school.  For some reason, when I reflect on Lewis’s quote, I often think of Wellesley.

Wellesley was full of very ambitious women – who were, I hasten to add, also very lovely (the following is not meant as a criticism of any of them, just an observation).  Most of them had plans to become lawyers, judges, politicians, high powered business women, doctors, journalists, etc.  Yet, I don’t think they saw their future careers as somehow existing for the sake of happy homes in the wider world.  Were they undertaking all that education just to be part of a support network that ultimately focused on enabling families to function well and be happy?

That certainly didn’t seem to be the dominant thinking among our professors and college administrators, either.    Our studies were not for the purpose of generating happy homes in society, were they?  And if they were, then what about the happiness in our own future homes?  It was not a secret that the careers we were going into were grueling and would require everything we had to succeed.  Wellesley was there to prepare us for that success, not so much for success in the home.  And perhaps it was an open secret that if we wanted to be successful professionally, there would be some unavoidable conflicts with success in the home.  (I say it was an open secret, because this conflict always seemed to me to be swept under the carpet).

When successful Wellesley alums came to speak to us, they were always invited to campus because of their success in their profession, not because of their success in the home.  Bankers, lawyers, politicians, academics, activists were all invited to speak.  I never heard them speak of their home lives.

So, my point is that if Lewis is right, then why was my experience at Wellesley the way it was?  If the job we have in our homes, with our families, is the job for which all other jobs exist, then why do we spend nearly all our time preparing for, working at, analyzing, applauding, and rewarding all those other jobs?

I don’t have a neat answer to these questions, but at the same time I don’t want to abandon Lewis’s insight.  Instead, I want to look at it from a different perspective, by considering it in light of some thoughts from Aristotle.

‘The Job For Which All Others Exist’:  Is it Politics?

Aristotle, too, considered the concept of a ‘job for which all other jobs exist’.   He discussed this concept, though, by using terms like ‘master art’ and ‘highest science’.  The highest science was defined as the science for which all other arts and sciences existed.  Aristotle thought this highest science was politics.

Now, that sounds a little more plausible than Lewis’s view.  Power over millions of people, global fame, the opportunity to practice state craft, change the course of history, influence world events – you know, that sort of thing – surely Aristotle was not far off the mark when he argued that politics was the highest of all the sciences.

Yet, let us consider his reason why politics is the highest science.  In an earlier entry, I explained that Aristotle thinks that everything we do in life aims at some ‘end’, or ‘good’, and that there is a ‘chief good’ in life – the highest end for which all of our other actions are done – which is happiness.  Now, not only is Aristotle interested in what the highest end is for a human life, but he also wants to show which of the disciplines have this highest end as their object.  Surely, whatever discipline studies how to achieve this chief good would be the most authoritative of all the arts and sciences – it would be the ‘master art. ’

Aristotle argues that politics is the discipline which has this good as it’s object.  Politics is the master art because it’s purpose is to achieve the ‘good for man’ – the highest good which all other disciplines are used to achieve.  It is politics that legislates what we should do and what we should not do; in this way, it has a certain conception of what a human life should look like.  Aristotle thinks that the function of the law is to guide us toward our highest ‘end’ of happiness.   Remember that for Aristotle, the happy man is the virtuous man, and the virtuous man is the one who is fulfilling his potential as a human being to be a moral agent.  So, the law is there to help us develop good, virtuous habits, which will make all the difference to the kind of person that we become.

Now, there is a problem here.  To modern ears, the idea that politics is there to direct man toward his ‘highest good’ sounds foreign, even dangerous.  Nowadays, we regard the function of politics to be that of protecting and defending our freedoms, not directing our actions toward some ‘end’.  We value our freedom to direct ourselves – and our families – toward what we understand to be our ‘good’.

This modern conception of politics, indeed, was (and continues to be) the project of the philosophy of liberalism.  As I have mentioned before, liberalism espouses the importance of individual rights and individual liberty, and is considered by most people to be the philosophy upon which our western, democratic society is built.  Although liberalism has a rich heritage incorporating many thinkers, one definitive version of it can be found in the work of the philosopher John Rawls, who wrote A Theory of Justice in 1971.

One basic premise of Rawlsian liberalism is that the freedoms, or rights, that we have in our society should not be based upon any particular conception of the ‘good life’ for human beings.  In other words, governments should remain neutral as much as possible on questions concerning what is a ‘good’ human life or a ‘bad’ human life.  After all, people often disagree on what it means for a human being to be good or bad, or even on the nature of happiness (remember that for Aristotle these are the same thing – a good life is a happy life).  If a government were to have its own conception of what human happiness or goodness was, and then were to police its citizens to live according to that conception, it would deny a certain portion of society the freedom to live their own conceptions.  The state, then, must remain silent on the moral content of what we as citizens try to achieve in our lives, and limit itself to protecting our rights to live as we choose, as long as it is in a peaceful way.

Parenting as the Master Art

Now, maybe you agree with this aim of liberalism, or maybe you don’t.  Whatever your view, I think it is fair to say that something like this version of liberalism has had a very great influence upon our Western democracies.  And if that is the case, then politics can no longer be considered the ‘master art’ under Aristotle’s criteria.  Indeed, if questions of the good life are no longer the concern of politics, but instead have been recognized as an issue of private concern, then surely it is parenting that becomes a prime candidate to replace politics as the master art.

It is in parenting that the question of what it means to be human is at its most urgent.  It is parents who give their children a conception of what a ‘good’ life and a ‘bad’ life for humans might be.  It is parents who develop their children’s moral reasoning, directing them toward a ‘good’ life.  And the strong emotional bond that exists between parent and child means that moral values are transmitted from one generation to the next powerfully, not only by words, but also by feelings.   That is why politics, though clearly important – and here is where Aristotle and I part company – simply cannot achieve for human beings what good parenting can achieve for them.  Parenting is a practice that passes on humanity like no other, and in that sense, it has to be the master art.

I hope C. S. Lewis would agree.