Two expressions with interesting histories have collided in recent years. I first heard the term “politically correct” in the fall of 1984, as a second-year student during the dining-hall workers strike at Yale. My one movement-left friend was talking to a comrade about suggestions for supporting the strikers by a certain lecturer. One of them asked “Is he politically correct?” and the other affirmed that he was. There was some smirking going on, and this friend had sufficient self-awareness that I was never sure of this was meant entirely seriously or more tongue-in-cheek. I next encountered the word in the late 1980s, when conservatives like John Silber, president of Boston University (and Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Massachusetts, in possibly the only election in which I voted for a Republican) picked up the term as a cudgel for attacking the Left on campus. Since Silber had attained prominence precisely as an opponent of free speech and academic freedom, there was little attempt at that time to pretend that anti-PC was a stance for freedom. In his campaign book Straight Shooting, Silber presented it instead as a struggle for absolute unchanging truth against fickle academic fashion. Weird, since the current anti-PC movement has fully embraced the extreme moral relativism that it used to ascribe to the Left.
As for snowflake, I think it’s important to remember that it didn’t start as a reference to the fragility of snowflakes, but to their beauty and uniqueness. Liberal writers on child-rearing referred to children as snowflakes in opposition to what they saw as an obsession with molding children into a predetermined image. Each snowflake is individual, and each one is beautiful in its own way. A lovely metaphor. Of course, there were immediately those who attacked what they saw as mollycoddling, rather than slapping some reality into the little brats, suggesting that these “precious snowflakes” were growing up to have an inflated sense of self. And at some point the self-esteeming precious snowflakes acquired the fragility of snowflakes. The self-described tough guys (and gals) of the right could dismiss complaints about their shredding of constitutional norms as the snivelling of “snowflakes”, implicitly unfit for the rough and tumble of real life by their neglectful upbringing.
… and the “pussification of America”. This term came up in an article in Slate about the decision by the American retailer Target to remove the gender attributions from its toys. Since I had children I’ve been amazed at the extent to which children’s clothes and toys have become gender-specific since I was a child in the 1970s. And it amazes me as well how closely identified the colours pink and blue have come to be with girls and boys, despite the fact that it’s an obviously artificial (and quite recent) tradition. (Jo B. Paoletti has written a book on the subject, Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys from the Girls in America.) I have also long been intrigued by the way people seize upon even the most tenuous evidence that “science has proved” the validity of this or that gender stereotype.
Anyway, someone set up a honeytrap fake Target customer service Facebook account to collect the outrage that some people (men and women) were spewing over this issue. As chronicled in AdWeek, there are some biblical arguments, like
God made a difference between male and female as there should be. I would never give a boy a barbie doll. It’s not chauvinistic but the BIBLE says women are the weaker vessel I Peter 3:7 so many people are making their boys the weakest link and making their daughters manly.
(Interesting that “as there should be”. Not that she’s simply going to accept on faith that God got this one right. But she approves.) And many rants against PC
You guys should listen to the people who spend money in your stores, not the liberal, PC Complaint people that don’t have two cents to rub together.
I thought the PC Complaint people were wealthy elitists…
Anyway, I thought this comment was particularly telling:
This is classic Simone de Beauvoir stuff. This is an American woman, outraged at a refusal to emphasise gender distinctions, because it will feminise America. Because America is a man, and if America can’t get a steady diet of trucks and toy soldiers when he’s a boy, he’ll be “pussified”. She’s not concerned that America will be toughened, or dickified, or whatever the corresponding word for “pussified” would be.
I was just reading an article in Die Zeit (not available online, for some reason) about a divorced mother in Bavaria who abruptly had custody of her six-year-old son removed, and given to her ex-husband and his new wife, on the basis of vague complaints that anonymous neighbours communicated to social services. They said the boy had injured himself playing outside with a lawnmower, though there is no evidence that such an injury ever occurred. She yells at him. The boy sits outside and waits for his father to pick him up, showing that he doesn’t like being there. But one detail — from the testimony of the new wife — stood out for me:
She doesn’t pay any attention to her son. She lets him play outside in the winter for hours when it’s minus 12 degrees Celsius.
If that were child neglect, you’d have to prosecute most of the parents in Canada. As I recall, when we lived in Kingston, my daughter’s kindergarten would have them playing outside during breaks unless the temperature went below -30°C.
One thing that surprised me when I moved to the UK was the lack of any significant paternity leave. It seemed peculiar, in this century, for the government to have a policy of making space for new parents to take care of their newborn children without losing their jobs, but to be insisting that the care must be provided by the mother. It seemed even more peculiar that otherwise progressive employers, that go beyond the statutory minimum in providing leave for new mothers, rarely seemed to extend any protection to fathers. (Oxford, in particular, provides on its own initiative leave for fathers who adopt a child, but not when a child is born.)
This has now changed. The government passed a shared parental leave law that now comes into effect. Not everyone is happy about it, though:
The Institute of Directors has previously warned the new law could create a “nightmare” for employers.
I’m not particularly prone to nightmares, but those I have had almost never involved men taking care of their infant children while the mothers returned to work. At least, not primarily. Perhaps a different cliché would have been more appropriate here.
As a sign of how much difficulty journalists have keeping the UK’s constitutional arrangements straight, the article concludes with
Parental leave is a devolved issue in Northern Ireland but the Northern Ireland Assembly passed a bill offering parents the same rights as in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Scotland didn’t even vote to secede, but it’s already forgotten…
And if not, why don’t they have any privacy rights with regard to their photographs?
Here is the illustration provided by the BBC on its home page for a report on the decision to approve fertility procedures that take genetic material from three different people:
Not a three-person baby, but manufacturers promise they will look similar to this model.
One wonders what purpose this photograph serves. Are there readers who see the headline and think, “Wait, babies, I’ve heard of them. Can’t quite remember what they look like…” In what sense is this an illustration of the article? It’s not even a newborn infant. They might as well have shown a 90-year-old lady, because making three-person babies inevitably leads to the eventual creation of three-person 90-year-olds. It might be even more relevant to show an elderly person, because that’s the goal: the purpose of the procedure is to improve the health and longevity of the humans so conceived.
They could have used their stock photograph of weirdly lighted lab technicians pipetting something into a test tube instead.
I’m wondering, who is this baby who is standing in for a “three-person baby”? I’m used to seeing children have their features blurred out in news photos. But, of course, this one was presumably a “volunteer” model. One baby can stand in for all babies. (As long as it’s white, of course.)
Slate’s Amanda Hess has written about the case of Retaeh Parsons, a Nova Scotia girl who committed suicide last year, four years after being the victim of bullying over a photograph of her being sexually assaulted. She became famous across Canada after the police originally refused to prosecute those who assaulted her. The national, and then international, outcry, inspired some creativity among the reluctant police, who have now successfully prosecuted one of the perpetrators for child pornography.
The main point of the article was to comment on how
the judge in the case has barred Canadian journalists and everyday citizens from repeating the girl’s name in newspapers, on television, over the radio, and on social media. He cited a portion of Canadian criminal code that bans the publication of a child pornography victim’s name in connection to any legal proceeding connected to that alleged crime.
She quotes a Halifax reporter Ryan Van Horne on the perverse effect:
If you say the name “Rehtaeh” in Nova Scotia… you’ll be met with “instant recognition” of the case and all of the issues it represents. But when Van Horne asks locals, “You know that victim in that high-profile child pornography case?” he draws blanks. The famous circumstances surrounding Rehtaeh Parsons’ bullying and death don’t fit the traditional conception of a child pornography case, which makes linking the two difficult if reporters aren’t allowed to use her name and photograph.
This sounds like a horrible version of Frege’s Morning-Star/Evening-Star puzzle: News media (including social media) are allowed to talk about Retaeh Parsons (the famous child victim of sexual abuse and online harassment); and they are allowed to talk about the victim in that high-profile child pornography case. But they are barred from talking about Retaeh Parsons as the victim in that child pornography case. In Fregian terms, it’s as though we banned any reference to the “morning star”, but were still allowed to talk about the evening star.
Of course, there’s nothing terribly unusual here: Often important privacy concerns turn on concealing the identity of what appear to be two different individuals. It only seems so perverse here because the person whose privacy would implicitly be protected is 1) famous for her role in this case; and 2) deceased, which means that the only people whose privacy is being protected are the police officials who screwed up so badly in the first place.
I’m always intrigued by the eternal present of “nowadays”: Trends that rise and rise like an Escher staircase. Just now I was coming to the end of Anna Karenina — which I had expected would be just Madame Bovary on the steppes, but it was vastly more — and found this passage:
“He assures me that our children are splendid, when I know how much that’s bad there is in them.”
“Arseny goes to extremes, I always say,” said his wife. “If you look for perfection, you will never be satisfied. And it’s true, as papa says,—that when we were brought up there was one extreme—we were kept in the basement, while our parents lived in the best rooms; now it’s just the other way—the parents are in the wash house, while the children are in the best rooms. Parents now are not expected to live at all, but to exist altogether for their children.”
“Well, what if they like it better?” Lvov said, with his beautiful smile, touching her hand. “Anyone who didn’t know you would think you were a stepmother, not a true mother… Well, come here, you perfect children,” Lvov said to the two handsome boys who came in…
The time when children knew their place, and parents could enjoy themselves, is just a generation past, and apparently it always was.
Do adults struggle to distinguish reality from fantasy?
Growing up in New York, and attending a Jewish primary school, I don’t have a very intimate relationship with Santa Claus. Of course, I knew the story — fat man, presents, chimneys, reindeer — from television, and from Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer, but it was more or less of a piece with the tooth fairy, Spiderman, and Mickey Mouse. That is, when you’re 7, you may have a heated discussion over the details of Spiderman’s backstory, and which other characters he knows (he may know Captain America; probably doesn’t know Santa or Mickey Mouse), and what he might do in the future, but that doesn’t mean he’s real, in the sense of inhabiting the same world that we do. Magical beings are something you play make-believe with, tell stories about, act out stories about.
(I remember when I was 3, my brother told me that there used to be a Santa Claus, but he was killed falling off a roof. I guess that did seem plausible to me at the time.)
What I only learned much later that for many (perhaps most?) in the US (and the UK, apparently) Santa Claus (Father Christmas) is a different sort of magical being. Children seem to genuinely believe he exists, and, even more strangely, adults seem to think it important to encourage them in that belief. It’s not just, “Let’s pretend on Christmas that a magical man comes and brings your gifts”, but “No, really. He really does come.” And making significant effort to prevent anyone from revealing the wicked truth. I was reading about a weird spat on American television, about an online article that suggested portraying Santa not as a white man, but as a penguin. The article was criticised on right-wing Fox News, but what I found most interesting was that the television reporter Megyn Kelly apparently began the discussion by announcing “By the way, for all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white but this person is just arguing that maybe we should also have a black Santa.” She was heavily criticised for prejudging the issue of the skin colour of a fictional character, but she was just following the prescribed line of pretending publicly (whenever children might be listening) that Santa Claus is real. Not “real” in the “let’s pretend” way that the child’s mudpie is really a cake. Really really real.
One of the first things the Cameron-Clegg government did when it came into power in 2010 was to announce the revocation of child benefit from families where one earner earned above £42,000 p.a. (the threshold for the 40% marginal tax bracket). They’ve held to this — and the implicit penalty for single-income families — though they have sensibly replaced the sharp cutoff, which would have caused some people to actually lose money if they got a salary raise, by a more gradual cutoff between £50,000 and £60,000. This was superficially sensible — in times of austerity, why should wealthy parents be getting a government handout? — although most developed countries have some sort of tax credit for children, reflecting a sense that some of the cost of taking care of children should be seen as public costs. In the US this comes in the form of an income deduction, so that high-income parents who pay more tax also get a larger subsidy, so the old UK system was less biased toward subsidising wealthy parents. For that matter, the same is true of the credit for childcare expenses in the UK, which comes in the form of paying expenses with pretax income, effectively giving a larger subsidy to wealthier parents. This has been slightly modified, but it still favours the wealthy.
Anyway, so far so consistent. But now the government has announced that they want to spend more money on children, to provide free school lunches to all children up to age 7. (Poor children already get free lunches, and there is also free fruit for children up to age 7.) The rhetoric around it is the government claim that parents don’t know how to pack appropriately nutritious lunches for their children. So the government has taken away a subsidy that parents could have spent in any way the choose — including nutritious lunches — and replaced it with a subsidy to the companies that have not been very successful at convincing children to eat their lunches voluntarily. And this from the party that attacks Labour as the party of the “nanny state”. If I had a nanny who insisted they had better ideas than I of what my children should eat, I would fire them.
It’s not entirely the Conservatives’ fault. This seems to have been some sort of coalition bargain to gain Liberal Democrat support for their even more pointless priority of a tax subsidy for married couples (whether or not they have children).
But it’s still not as bad as Catholicism.
Regular readers of this blog are already aware that Richard Dawkins thinks that, among the crimes perpetrated upon children by Catholic priests, sexual molestation is less bad than teaching religion. (The quote is here.) Now he has given an interview to the Times magazine (reported by Katie McDonough here) in which he describes a schoolteacher who “pulled me on his knee and put his hand inside my shorts”, and says this “mild touching up” and “mild pedophilia” is something he “can’t find it in me to condemn… by the same standards as I or anyone would today.” Being an expert on something or other, Dawkins opines that “I don’t think he did any of us any harm.”
Some of those school masters presumably also taught religion, but it’s sadly too late (by several centuries) to bring them to justice for that crime.
I find myself wondering why this man keeps coming back to publicly trivialising child abuse. Maybe the Bible can provide some insight.