Blame It On the Parents

Orcinus, April 25, 2009


Some of the commenters below seemed confused or surprised by my asserting that conservative or liberal parenting styles could affect people’s ideas about the prerogatives of authority, and of how they think about ideas like liberty, justice, and accountability.

A few thought the whole idea absurd. (It would be interesting to hear their alternative theories on how they think the dramatic worldview shift between conservatives and liberals comes about.)

Others pointed out, quite rightly, that the two parenting styles I described are hardly exclusive or hard-and-fast. Most parents go to the authoritarian side on some issues (and generally, it’s those issues where they feel least in control themselves); and tend to be more liberal on others (generally, those where they feel more confidence in their ability to control the situation). George Lakoff made the same observation about how people mix-and-match the strict-father versus nurturant-parent models in their political thinking. It holds just as true here.

But it’s also true that the conservative worldview is far more obsessed generally with the issue of control — when in doubt, clamp down hard and fast — and conservative parents would therefore lean to a more authoritarian parenting style. The liberal worldview tends to trust people and the world in general — when in doubt, stand back and see what happens — and this leads to a more open-ended sense of how to manage children.

Either way, though, the basic fact is this: Parenting is the first — and far and away the most defining — experience most of us have with power relationships. What we learn from that relationship teaches us a great deal about what we can expect from power for the rest of our lives. We may choose to revisit those assumptions as adults; but it’s not easy, and requires significant re-trenchment of how you view yourself and the rest of the world.

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The Truth About Consequences

Orcinus, April 23, 2009

Run your bank into the ground? Hey, it was our fault for not keeping a better eye on you. Here’s some cash. Since you’re rich guys, we trust you to do the right thing going forward, so we’re not going to bother you with a bunch of rules and oversight—but you promise to be good now, ‘K?

Also, you Bush guys and CIA operatives who thought torture was a fine idea? Yeah, we know we’ve signed a bunch of treaties that unequivocally require us to bring you up on charges; but we’re looking forward now, not back, so, y’no, whatever. It was pretty ballsy of a few of you to actually admit to committing war crimes in public. We know from “audacity” (it’s our middle name, in fact), and that was audacity with the gain turned up to 11. I mean, really: We’re impressed. Shocked and awed, even. But we’re not gonna hassle you about ancient history, because it’s so much more important that we keep our eyes firmly on the future. Just promise you won’t do it ever ever again, all right?

It’s interesting to watch the Democrats trying to work some life back into their long-neglected oversight muscle. Thirty years of conservative misrule have muddled Americans’ understanding of words like responsibility, accountability, discipline,and punishment to the point where nobody knows that they mean any more—and don’t seem to want to know, either. The social conservatives go on and on about the evils of postmodern morality and situational ethics; and on this score, I can’t quite summon myself to disagree. It’s been as though nobody on Planet Washington ever had a parent who was able to explain right from wrong, or demonstrate the role cause-and-effect plays in the ethical universe. It’s like a moral-gravity-free zone.

Stuff happens. Whatever.

I am neither an ethicist nor a philosopher. But I am a mother, and know a thing or two about disciplining children. (I’ve got a freshly grounded teenager pouting upstairs right now who would be delighted to tell you all about it. At length. With loud choruses of what a Mean Mommy I am. What he doesn’t know is: I take that tune as a clear sign I’ve done my job right.) And, as an observer of the differences between conservatives and liberals, I know that our attitudes toward discipline—whether it’s children or adults who are being called to account—is one of our core areas of disagreement.

Understanding that difference may explain something about how we got here.

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