On Mothers and Political Violence

Parents and politicians alike pretend we can do without moral norms

Et in Arcadia ego: this month’s essays have mostly concerned how things that seem too good to be true often are too good to be true. Utopian communities fail, the rise of empathy in public life has normalised the use of weeping as a political weapon, and the welfare state undermined a great swathe of previously robust civil society.

But in case you think I’m all doom and gloom, I’ve opted also to celebrate the anniversary of the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (a textbook failure of utopia, as it happens) with some reflections on parenting and political violence. But not on how we might eliminate the use of force either from politics, or from parenting - a futile pursuit, if a popular one today. Rather, what follows concerns our ambivalent relationship to authority, and how that plays out in parenting and politics alike.

“’Parent’ is an oppressive class,”  wrote the journalist Noah Berlatsky last year, “like rich people or white people”. To which I suppose the most succinct response (and, if you’re in a hurry, the tl;dr summary of this essay) is

Less flippantly, I’ve long found myself mulling over the question of just authority, both as a writer and as a mother. Under what circumstances do we agree that it’s okay to force a child to do something? It’s been clear to me from discussions between friends since long before I became a mother that this question is political, and provokes passionate debate.

But why? How we raise our kids is our own affair, is it not? Well, perhaps not: adults shaped by the childhoods we give them will not lead purely private lives. It follows from this that how we raise our kids is, inescapably, political as well as private. And the reverse is also true: we will end up doing politics in ways that reflect, and are shaped by, how we raise our children.

In the Anglophone West, a glance through Mumsnet threads about child-led parenting conveys the clear sense that the high-status answer to the question about imposing your views on your kids is ‘no’. Delving into that ‘no’ reveals the conflicted contemporary understanding of how authority and empathy interact – and behind that, deep uncertainty about whether power can ever be legitimate. This uncertainty is especially acute for adults raised – as I was – by parents who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s social revolution. It’s a crisis of authority that suffuses not just parenting but public life, as evidenced recently in bitter debates on pandemic control, outbreaks of pseudo-religious mob violence, and a background of deteriorating faith in public institutions and democratic norms.

Its core: what right does anyone have to impose their viewpoint on others? In a recent interview, OnlyFans superstar Aella expressed the view that we have no such right. Even if there’s a possibility, for example, that someone might be coerced into sex work, she said, “I still tend to try to stay on the side of people know what’s best for them individually”. Thus “It’s not our right to tell someone that no, they shouldn’t be doing this, this hurts them.” Approaches to parenting premised on the idea that children also ‘know what’s best for them individually’ are much in vogue – even when the child in question is pre-verbal and still in diapers. ‘Baby led weaning’, for example, is officially endorsed by Britain’s National Health Service.

What are the proper limits to this approach? There are obvious ones, such as when your kid is about to run into the road. Not even the most radical ‘gentle parenting’ advocate would suggest ‘natural consequences’ as a responsible way of teaching road safety. But what about more positive determinations, such as handling defiance or imposing a bedtime? The question of harm is more ambiguous here. But the reason such apparently private matters are hotly debated on parenting websites is because from birth onwards, every decision we take about the shape of our kids’ lives is a positive statement about social – that is, moral – norms. And today, the notion that someone in a position of authority over others has any right to make moral statements, especially on another’s behalf, is fundamentally in question.

In September 2020, Nancy Pelosi responded to a Baltimore mob tipping a statue of Christopher Columbus into the harbour with the pronouncement: “People will do what they do”. Communities, this implies, should not have abstract moral standards imposed but be maximally free to set their own. “I do think that, from a safety standpoint, it would be a good idea to have it taken down if the community doesn't want it,” Pelosi said.

Here, Pelosi articulates at the political level something analogous to ‘baby-led’ parenting at the family scale: an understanding of political leadership as meaning chiefly facilitating the collective wishes of ‘the community’. We could call it ‘community-led politics’. Seattle’s mayor, Jenny Durkan, expressed a similar enthusiasm for community-led politics at the height of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, when a ‘community’ attempted to self-organise in Seattle’s Capitol Hill area. Durkan’s instinct was to embrace the movement, joking that “We could have the summer of love!”.

In the event, far from resulting in a Summer of Love, this self-organising ‘community’ resulted in five shootings within two weeks. Watching CHAZ implode, I was reminded of my own anti-authoritarian twenties in the years between the Iraq War and the Great Crash of 2008. Raised by parents who were, themselves, marinated in the 60s culture of freedom and self-realisation, I internalised the belief that my parents had no authority over me, only a kind of advisory role. This principle applied more broadly as well: there could be no such thing as legitimate authority, only brute power backed up by propaganda. As a young adult I lived in intentional communities, went on anarchist demos, and was mesmerised by the then-nascent internet.

Here, it seemed to me, new and non-hierarchical creative forms and movements were possible, concretised by the internet’s unique ability to make visible the self-organising currents of collective desire.I formed a web startup with friends, riding the ‘web 2.0’ wave of the mid-00s, in which we tried not just to disintermediate education but also to eliminate hierarchy within our organisation itself. If not even my parents were entitled to command me as a child, how could it be acceptable for co-workers who were also peers and friends to tell me what to do?

While there were several reasons we never got to second-round funding, the lesson that stuck with me was the unintended consequences of our anti-authoritarian work style. If your project has concrete goals, and you try and achieve them without an official hierarchy, the likely outcome will be a hierarchy forming anyway – just implicitly, rather than explicitly. And this comes with downsides: because it’s implicit, there’s less scope to negotiate conflict, competition or other counterproductive currents. Far from freeing us to work collaboratively, as a team, having little or no hierarchy within even a small organisation fanned a subtext of conflict that ended up not only destroying the most important friendships of my twenties but driving our project onto the rocks. I remembered this brutal lesson as I watched CHAZ cycle at warp speed through an analogous idealism, giddily celebrating self-organizing social solidarity before running aground on the question of how to navigate conflict and antisocial behaviour.

From the perspective of a worldview that privileges the emergent and self-directed over the imposed and hierarchical, the question of when or how to interrupt something that’s both emergent and self-directed but also destructive is problematic in the extreme. What happens when your self-organising utopia goes wrong and teens are getting shot? Should one still follow a child’s lead when their priorities are, well, infantile? Around ten years after the startup foundered, the year Donald Trump came to power, I found myself once again wrestling with my own ambivalence about authority and hierarchy. This time, though, I was not the one resisting being told what to do, but the one whose job it was to do the telling, as a new mother.

On what basis can a parent be authoritative without being a tyrant? This is fundamentally a question of when (or whether) the exercise of power is legitimate. In recent centuries, we’ve tended to think ‘being voted into power’ an adequate answer to the question of legitimacy. That is, authority in the democratic age is conferred by the electoral process: it is, in short, an aggregate of the community’s wishes. The system is the facilitator. But prior to the democratic age, rulers were more difficult to dislodge. Thus a great deal of political thought went into the distinction between just authority and tyranny – theories which have atrophied now we consider ‘the people’ to be the sole legitimator of power.

The ‘mirror of princes’ literary genre, common throughout both the West and the Islamic world from Xenophon through to the Middle Ages, was devoted not just to the practical art of politics but also to its moral aspect. One of the most influential Mirrors of Princes was De Regimine Principum, composed circa 1280 by the Augustinian theologian Giles of Rome.

What could a medieval political theorist have to offer a new mom struggling to reconcile parenting responsibilities with an anti-authoritarian upbringing? More than you might think – for contrary to what we might fondly imagine, caring for small children is much more like being a medieval despot than it is being a modern elected leader. Kids, especially very young ones, are profoundly dependent on their parents - and don’t get to vote them out of office if they aren’t doing a good job. Family life is fundamentally un-democratic.

But un-democratic doesn’t axiomatically mean immoral. For Giles, the key for avoiding either chaos or tyranny was the proper ordering of both natural and human worlds, via hierarchy. Just as God orders the natural world, so the human sphere should be ordered hierarchically as well, and this hierarchy was legitimated by the different attributes of the rulers and the ruled. It was, Giles thought, the duty of those who possess ‘good intellect vnderstondyng and prudencia’ to command those who ‘lakken vse of resoun’, while it is ‘always hurtful’ for those who lack reason to command those who possess it. Anyone who has spent more than a few minutes around young children will observe that toddlers very definitely ‘lakken vse of resoun’. And adults are indeed, as Giles of Rome, puts it, more likely than their kids to possess ‘good intellect vnderstondyng and prudencia’. Thus, following Giles of Rome, far from it being a parent’s duty to follow their child’s lead – as per ‘community-led politics’ or ‘child-led parenting’ it is in fact a parent’s duty to apply his or her greater understanding to positive leadership in the benign dictatorship of family life.

On what basis do we take those decisions, though? My daughter has recently taken to asking ‘Why?’ in response to any instruction she is given. If you supply her with reasons, she’ll ask ‘Why?’ again. The only response that stops the questions is:‘Because I say so’. To someone raised by the anti-authoritarian 1960s generation, uttering these words is uncomfortable to say the least, and especially when imposing your will makes your kid sad, which is fairly frequent. Conflicts of will don’t suddenly arise when your kid is old enough to talk back, but rather the moment they’re old enough to express any desires of their own: perhaps six months old. In those moments, instead of being a facilitator of your infant’s needs and wishes, merged harmoniously with your baby, you find yourself interrupting that blissful continuum, to your child’s distress.

And for what? If the only justification we can offer is ‘Because it suits me’ it’s difficult not to feel like a despot. Giles of Rome, though, argues that authority is critically distinguished from tyranny by its orientation to wisdom and virtue: ‘kinges and princes and generalliche all lordes’ should make every effort to be ‘wise’ ‘good’ and ‘cunnyng’, to employ wisdom and prudence, to control their own passions and to govern for the common good.

But how are we to determine the common good? Catholic social teaching has plenty to say on the subject, but for anyone unaffiliated to Rome while still in need of such a framework, this is a trickier question to answer. I’ve argued previously that the characteristic modern desire to render all of life in transactional terms serves to obscure normative, pattern-based social interactions that form the backbone of everyday human life. And this is especially the case in the asymmetric relations of interdependence that characterise family life. It’s these pattern-based norms which form the only plausible basis I can see for any understanding of the common good that’s neither inescapably theological or utterly arbitrary. The question then is: if the common good is central to just authority, and just authority necessitates a re-discovery of the pattern-based norms of social life, how are we to go about making space for this domain?

The Middle English translation of Giles of Rome’s theories offers another clue. In the Middle English translation of his work, to meet the criteria set out above is to be ‘kyndelich a lord’. This ancient sense of ‘kyndelich’, from which we gain the modern word ‘kindly’, is crucial to understanding Giles’ conception of political order, for in Giles’; world ‘kindly’ did not convey the modern sense of ‘generally benevolent’ but something more like ‘according to the nature of things’. That is, core to Giles’ theories is the idea that things have a nature.

To a modern sensibility, it takes a mental gear-change to think of ‘kindly’ as seeing someone in accordance with its nature. On the contrary, we’re counselled repeatedly on the perils of stereotyping. But setting aside stereotypes is not always kind – especially when the aim is to care responsibly for a dependent. For example, it is not in the nature of toddlers to be reasonable, and it is not kind, any more than it’s ‘kyndelich’, to treat a toddler as though he or she is capable of reason. When a two-year-old is having a hysterical meltdown, the kind response is not to ask her to articulate what she wants. A toddler in this state will be too distressed even to try, and asking them for verbal reason when what they need is someone to take charge is neither kind nor ‘kyndelich’ – it is at best an abdication of the duty you have as a loving adult to make a decision in your child’s best interests. Similarly, anyone who has spent any time around farm animals understands that it’s neither kind nor ‘kyndelich’ to anthropomorphise them. Non-human animals are sentient, but they aren’t like people. They have their own nature, and kindness lies in treating them ‘kyndelich’: that is, in accordance with that nature.

In family life, then, outwith democratic norms, seeing people and the natural world in terms of normative patterns is a critical part of what grounds a ruler’s legitimate authority. That is, a capacity to see things as they are, and govern according to that insight. When a ruler does so, while also embracing the ‘kyndelich’ qualities of a lord – that is, prudence, wisdom and orientation to the common good –  Giles sees it as in the interests of a community to be ruled. In family life, then, provided the relation of authority is suffused with love, prudence, an effort at governing one’s own passions and attention to the common good, Giles would see it as similarly self-evident that the proper relationship between parent and child includes the right to impose parental authority.

As it happened, the march of cops down the streets of Seattle’s Capitol Hill coincided with an argument I had with my preschool daughter. Already undressed, bath run and waiting, she declared defiantly (despite being very grubby) that I couldn’t ‘make her’ have a bath. I replied “I can, actually”, picked her up and put her in the water. She was angry, but also no longer grubby. One could argue that this was an act of pure despotism, but I prefer to see it as an ethical wielding of authority, up to and including the use of main force, in the interests of the common good.

Seen from a ‘kyndelich’ perspective, then, the question of whether (or when) to impose your will on a child is not just about harm to the individual child. It’s a far more broadly contextual, normative and fundamentally relational question. Answering it means weighing not just a child’s temporary distress, but potentially also the needs of other children, the mother’s own needs, the parents’ relationship and their wider situation, in the context of social norms. It also means seeing the child as they are: understanding, for example, that cognitive development at three months old is not the same as at nine or twelve months, or that different kids have varying needs and personalities. Even in the same family the right decision is determined relationally, with a degree of flexibility.

The political leader who views a mob toppling statues as part of community decision-making is not making a relational decision, but abdicating their responsibility to make any decision at all, trusting in the emergent aggregate of human desires to deliver the best outcome. But just as sometimes a parent needs to take charge in a child’s best interests, so at a political level, in times of unrest, conflict or rapid change, there’s an analogous obligation to try and determine what needs to happen next and then make it happen, regardless of whether people yell.

Many in the mainstream responded to last summer’s riots with op-eds about how they represented the voice of the voiceless and ought to be met with empathy and political change, not riot shields and repression. Senator Tom Cotton triggered the resignation of the NYT’s opinion editor by calling for military intervention. Sometimes, though, the emergent aggregate of human desires doesn’t turn out so utopian after all. The kid won’t stop crying. Joyriding teenagers get shot. So perhaps we should not be surprised when, just this week, many of the same individuals who celebrated that disorder responded to the equally community-led politics behind the QAnon invasion of the Capital by calling for them all to be arrested. A culture marinated in narratives about the wisdom of crowds and liberatory nature of emergent desires may be waking up to the fact that such desires are not axiomatically good, and that institutional authority has a role to play.

How to make that determination about the common good and the nature of things or people? On what basis, and in whose interests? What guides decisions made from a place of authority, even those guided by love? Here the missing piece in our conception of authority becomes easier to see: for outside islands of religious faith, what Zygmunt Bauman calls ‘liquid modernity’ has worked methodically to dismantle any metaphysical foundation on which moral decisions might easily be based. Just as we have become blind to patterns of relational meaning, so too we’re resistant to the idea that there might exist positive normative patterns for human social life – or even to the idea that humans have a nature.

The conventions of democracy seemed (for a while at least) to have decoupled the question of political legitimacy from wider moral debates. But today a bleeding-away of political power into other domains – such as technology – and a steady attrition of public confidence in the democratic process threaten even that abstracted source of legitimation.

In the absence of a shared understanding of human nature, the only available backswing is toward a technocratic authority shaped by credentialed experts. The shadow side of politics hyperfocused on freedom is a utopia of rules, just as the shadow side of ‘child-led’ parenting is helicopter moms.

But in truth, whether in family life or politics, responsible judgement can’t be wholly supplanted either by the free play of desire or by a perfect, clockwork technocracy. I’m not fulfilling my obligations as a mother if my aim is just to enable my child to do exactly as she pleases, unless she’s hurting herself or someone else. And nor will I see her ‘kyndelich’, which is to say as she is, if I’m so committed to following the parenting books that I don’t stop to notice whether the advice is working.

A ‘kyndelich’ authority, existing in attuned relationship to those in its care, can’t avoid a duty to see the world as it is, and also to envision how it should be. At the level of parenting, that means accepting that every decision I take on behalf of my child amounts to a positive statement about moral norms, and accepting the responsibility of discerning those norms to the best of my ability according both to the world as it is and also how it should be. That means (for example) teaching normal eating and sleeping habits, and modelling good manners for interacting with others in our sociocultural context. Making determinations about what ‘normal’ means in a world where most norms are radically liquid can feel impossibly daunting. But it’s not possible to be a parent without trying.

What’s perhaps less obvious is that the same applies at the political scale. It’s not possible to be in a position of leadership without making positive determinations about moral and social norms. Our leaders may at present be inclined to duck this duty, by referring to the ideal of community-led politics and the role of leaders as facilitators of emergent desire, but this is at best a polite fiction. The differential reception of the BLM and QAnon riots attests to the persistence of elite moral discernment even as it’s disavowed. Our elites need to be franker about this, for it is no more possible at the scale of mass politics than at the level of family life to abstract political power from determinations about the common good. As Giles of Rome pointed out some 800 years ago, that way lies tyranny.

The central duty of authority wielded legitimately is to not to render itself invisible as a vector for emergent desires, or govern obliquely via a thicket of rules. Power is legitimate to the extent that it doesn’t hide behind moral relativism. Its job is to make moral determinations, oriented toward the promotion of healthy norms, in the interests of the wider community. The fact that today democratic norms are faltering makes it more urgent than ever for those who wish to govern legitimately – to be ‘kyndelich a lord’ – to make every effort both to see the world as it is, and also to rule in the interests of the best possible version of that world.