May 7, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
Kurt Vonnegut always had a certain genius for seeing humanity accurately, harshly and yet with a certain charm and humor borne, I think, of forgiveness. Whatever the reason, Vonnegut’s books and stories always had a sting to them.
Such was his short story “Harrison Bergeron” published in 1961. It’s a dystopian view of the future in which the government has decreed that everyone must be equal, not just in the opportunities they have or before the law, but in everything. So, if a person is strong, he/she must wear heavy weights; if a person is beautiful, he/she must wear a mask; if a person is highly intelligent, he/she must wear a radio receiver in the ear that interrupts thought. In short, the concept of equality has come to mean the lowest common denominator. No one is lifted up; all are diminished.
Sounds outrageous and absurd, right? Of course it does, just like this article that actually argues for something much the same (ABC, 5/1/15). Really. I didn’t make this up.
It’s entitled “Is having a loving family an unfair advantage?” and both the writer and the two men he interviews answer “yes.” To understate the matter considerably, this is the single most deficient ideas I’ve come across, possibly in my entire life. Truly, these people must be from another planet. (Vonnegut could do a lot with that too.)
The writer for ABC Australia is Joe Gelonesi; his interviewees are philosophers Adam Swift and Harry Brighouse. Having first taken note of societal inequality, they go on to notice that kids from intact families tend to do better in life than do kids in “non-traditional” families.
Swift in particular has been conflicted for some time over the curious situation that arises when a parent wants to do the best for her child but in the process makes the playing field for others even more lopsided.
‘I got interested in this question because I was interested in equality of opportunity,’ he says.
‘I had done some work on social mobility and the evidence is overwhelmingly that the reason why children born to different families have very different chances in life is because of what happens in those families.’
Once he got thinking, Swift could see that the issue stretches well beyond the fact that some families can afford private schooling, nannies, tutors, and houses in good suburbs. Functional family interactions — from going to the cricket to reading bedtime stories — form a largely unseen but palpable fault line between families. The consequence is a gap in social mobility and equality that can last for generations.
Good so far — up until the inevitable question, “what to do?” arises.
‘One way philosophers might think about solving the social justice problem would be by simply abolishing the family. If the family is this source of unfairness in society then it looks plausible to think that if we abolished the family there would be a more level playing field.’
Yes, I suppose that’s “one way philosophers might think about” family structure and inequality. Just “abolish” the family. Really stupid philosophers might figure that would be (a) a good solution or (b) a possible solution or even (c) a solution that anyone on the planet would want. Those philosophers would respond to children in healthy families doing better than those in unhealthy families by making sure that no children were raised in any family, a “solution” that’s been tried to disastrous results whether those philosophers know it or not.
More competent philosophers, or even just run of the mill people over the age of eight, might conclude that, instead of bringing everyone down to the level of the worst of the worst, maybe we might try to lift up those who are suffering. In short, maybe making things better is a better idea than making them worse.
Not Swift. Having started with a concept that is so nutty as to defy description, Swift moderates to a position that is merely nutty enough to be utterly dismantled by any literate being. In so doing I assume he figures he appears the very model of a modern social justice warrior. About that, he’s probably right.
‘Nearly everyone who has thought about this would conclude that it is a really bad idea to be raised by state institutions, unless something has gone wrong,’ he says…
‘It’s the children’s interest in family life that is the most important,’ says Swift. ‘From all we now know, it is in the child’s interest to be parented, and to be parented well. Meanwhile, from the adult point of view it looks as if there is something very valuable in being a parent.’…
‘Parenting a child makes for what we call a distinctive and special contribution to the flourishing and wellbeing of adults.’
So if parenting, particularly good parenting, is good for kids and parents alike (and in the process is good for society, a point lost on Swift, et al), and some kids get better parenting than others and are therefore “privileged,” how can we level the playing field while ever so graciously refraining from “abolishing the family?” Swift has the answer.
For this, Swift and Brighouse needed to sort out those activities that contribute to unnecessary inequality from those that don’t.
Ah. So the philosophers have gone from opposing all social inequality to discriminating between inequality that is “unnecessary” and, presumably, that which is necessary. That is, they’ve replaced utter stupidity with hypocrisy, perhaps a step forward. So how would they decide what inequality is necessary and what isn’t?
‘What we realised we needed was a way of thinking about what it was we wanted to allow parents to do for their children, and what it was that we didn’t need to allow parents to do for their children, if allowing those activities would create unfairnesses for other people’s children’.
“Allow.” That’s a big word. It’s far larger in fact than Swift betrays any awareness of. So just who is going to do this allowing and disallowing? He doesn’t say, but there’s really only one possibility — the state. I suspect his refusal to identify the power that would enforce his social justice paradigm is telling. After all, it’s one thing to say that we want kids to get an even break; it’s another to admit that we’re going to empower the police, courts and prisons to prohibit “excessive” parental love at the point of a gun. So Swift skips the nitty-gritty of his proposal.
The same delicacy explains his refusal to mention just what the penalties should be for doing too much for one’s children. A scarlet letter? A fine for the first offense? Jail time? How much jail time? What about repeat offenders, those who again and again violate the law by refusing to sell their kids short? Should both parents be imprisoned, rendering the child an orphan in need of government services? Again, Swift doesn’t say and again I suspect it’s because doing so would further reveal just how absurd and brutal his ideas are.
And since it’s the government that’s enforcing its new prohibitions on parenting deemed too good for society to bear, just who how will those new laws be enforced? I think I can answer that. We already have a long list of “mandatory reporters” for child abuse, so surely we could rely on them to bring the matter of too happy, too healthy, too well-educated children to the attention of authorities and let the police, prosecutors and courts take it from there.
Just imagine. Doctors, nurses, the police, teachers and teachers’ aides could be tasked not only with determining whether a child were being abused, but whether they were being treated too well. What could possibly go wrong with such a scheme? When little Andy or Jenny goes to the pediatrician, she’d be careful to look not only for suspicious bumps and bruises, but also for the opposite. Is the tyke too robust, too cheerful, too curious? Is he walking, talking or reading too early? All these and so many more could be indications of criminal promotion of inequality through good parenting. So the massive apparatus of state criminal law must be brought to bear to ensure that little Andy or Jenny pays the price for the fact that another set of parents elsewhere provides less-good care to their child. Yes, by all means ensure that all children suffer because now some do.
The abyss of stupidity into which Swift and the ABC article descend is too vast for me to plumb in a single post. So, more tomorrow.
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