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Know ye not that we shall judge angels? how much more things that pertain to this life?

Ta-Nehisi Coates and Rod Dreher (oh, and Ross Douthat) have been having a back-and-forth the past little while on family values; specifically, Rod Dreher’s general condemnation of unmarried mothers and fathers versus Coates’ specific family experience. And to be frank I’ve only been following the one side; I’ve little use for the Crunchy Conservative, and only so much time in my day. —But something about the most recent exchange, the last exchange, made me click through to see what Dreher had to say for himself.

Here’s the set-up, from Coates’ penultimate:

Social conservatives are interested in encouraging one model, and stigmatizing all others. I’m interested in encouraging practices and stigmatizing others. I’m interested in encouraging active involvement in your child’s school, and stigmatizing ignoring the teacher’s phone calls. I’m interested in encouraging fathers to put in as much manpower as they can summon, and stigmatizing those who walk out.
My point wasn’t that my family structure, then or now, should be held up as model. But that in families which social conservatives dismiss on paper, you can find the same values and behaviors that you’d hope to find in a nuclear/traditional family. Ross is effectively arguing that these families should be dismissed anyway—regardless of whether they hold the same practical values that social conservatives hold. Social conservatives are arguing for a world where people are stigmatized for being unmarried. I’m arguing for a world—and have argued for a world—where people are stigmatized for not performing the most elemental of duties.

And this is Dreher’s response:

It seems normal to me that you would stigmatize having sex and having babies outside of marriage, while at the same time loving and trying to help those who have babies outside of marriage—help them to do the best they have with the situation they find themselves in. That’s life. Why does trying to do the latter mean you cannot insist on the former? You don’t help someone deal with the consequences of wrongdoing by pretending that they didn’t do wrong in the first place.

Coates wants to tag the parent—wed or unwed—who slags on their basic responsibilities to their kids. Dreher wants to tag the unwed parents, period, whether or not they meet those basic responsibilities.

—When someone opens the comments under Dreher’s post by rather rudely asking how, exactly, Dreher proposes we go about stigmatizing the unwed, Dreher properly stigmatizes him. But: it’s a damn good question. After all, Dreher demands we stigmatize anyone who falls into this category, even his sterling interlocutor, for the collective good of all our children, whether or not what any particular unwed individual’s doing is working for their particular kids. And the sorts of stigma that have historically been applied have generally been such to make the already difficult task of raising kids that much the harder. —How does he propose to square the circle of stigmatizing the sinners while loving the sinner? Commenter after commenter chimes in, wanting to know.

Mealworm, I’m about to be off the blog for a while, so I will trust others here who share my perspective will be able to give you a more complete answer. I would simply point you to the story from the Gospels in which Jesus defends the woman caught in adultery from the men who were going to stone her. He reminded them of their own sin, and sent them away. But—this is crucial—he did not tell the woman she had done nothing wrong. He only said, “Go forth and sin no more.”
That’s it, right there. Uphold standards as best you can, but be as merciful as you can to those who fail them.

Which—question-ducking aside—is fine, and even dandy, but makes far more sense when applied to Coates’ standard of stigmatizing specific people who fail their specific duties, and not much sense at all when your goal is to stigmatize entire classes of people for the greater good. —The best someone who shares Dreher’s perspective can do to pick up his slack is Turmarion, who says—

The thought that occurs is that it is hard for those (even close kin) who are not actually in the family to know if a father is taking or ignoring a teacher’s call, e.g. In other words, it is much easier to promote (or stigmatize) a pattern, such as marriage, which is publicly declared, than it is to promote (or stigmatize) a complex set of interrelated behaviors which are generally not clear or obvious to outsiders.

Ah, yes. That’s it. Collective guilt is so much more efficient.

It isn’t just the willful confusion of correlation and causation that leads to the willfully silly insistence that if only you all got married, it would all be better; that willfully ignores all the countering wedlocked families, unhappy in their own ways. —It’s the moral cowardice. Dreher refuses to answer the question of how, exactly, he’d stigmatize the unwed in the specific, because he can’t face that very real consequence of what he’s demanding. He can’t be mean, and meanness is what is called for when you want someone good and stigmatized. You need a Coulter for this stuff, or a Hannity. A Dreher just can’t get his hands dirty.

The only other example of stigmatization he offers is from Peggy Noonan:

We have all had a moment when all of a sudden we looked around and thought: The world is changing, I am seeing it change. This is for me the moment when the new America began: I was at a graduation ceremony at a public high school in New Jersey. It was 1971 or 1972. One by one a stream of black-robed students walked across the stage and received their diplomas. And a pretty young girl with red hair, big under her graduation gown, walked up to receive hers. The auditorium stood up and applauded. I looked at my sister: “She’s going to have a baby.”
The girl was eight months pregnant and had had the courage to go through with her pregnancy and take her finals and finish school despite society’s disapproval.
But: Society wasn’t disapproving. It was applauding. Applause is a right and generous response for a young girl with grit and heart. And yet, in the sound of that applause I heard a wall falling, a thousand-year wall, a wall of sanctions that said: We as a society do not approve of teenaged unwed motherhood because it is not good for the child, not good for the mother and not good for us.

But even here, there’s no actual example of stigma. Merely a desire that she not be, what, applauded? Did she do well in school? Did she have a large family there to cheer her on? What happened to her kid? Did she get the prenatal care she needed? Was she going to live with her folks, or friends, or on her own?

I mean Jesus Mary Mother of God, we don’t even know if she was already married. Just, y’know, in high school. And pregnant.

But assuming she did fit the specific argument Dreher’s supposed to be making. How would he have us stigmatize her? Not applaud so loudly? —But that’s hardly a stigma; that’s treating her just like everyone else. Should we all boo and hiss, then? Should the principal stand up and lean over the microphone and say “Go and sin no more” as she marches past? Should we just not let her cross the stage at all, make our point by absence, allusion, indirection?

How do you stigmatize the sinners without stigmatizing the sinner?

—Meanwhile, here’s a bunch of people who want to get married, who in fact did get married, but same-sex marriage is a violation of Crunchy Conservative constitutional rights or something, and so they must be stigmatized. Still. I bet he can’t bring himself to sit down with each one and tell them to their faces, no, you may not be married, it’s better that way for all the rest of us—

"Fidelity": Don't Divorce... from Courage Campaign on Vimeo.

  1. julia    Feb 18, 06:46 PM    #

    OK, but, here’s the thing: guilt comes when you’ve violated your own standards, and you feel as if you’ve been less than you should be. Shame is when violate someone else’s standards, and they convince you that you are less for having done it.

    In the first case, you know what you’ve done and you have to face the consequences, because your knowledge is crashing up against your standards. In the second, there’s really no point in trying to do better, because you are less.

    What you can do is make sure nobody catches you.

    It’s a blackmailer’s charter, and it’s moral only in a sense that the rock-throwing villagers in The Lottery would recognize.

    Act as if only works if you’re living like the person you want to be until you can manage to actually be that person. If your own moral compass isn’t involved in your goals, I invite you too look under the nearest rock to see what grows when it’s buried.

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