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Motherhood, Privacy, Choice

As I said in my last post, I have had a bit of radio silence and I do apologize for that!  The combination of a new job, some personal issues, and a few Sooper Sekrit projects have put me out of blogging commission, but only temporarily.  I’ll try to get back to a once-a-week or more schedule here, and I thank you all so much for your patience.

Today, I’d like to talk a little bit about children, about mothering, and about where those topics intersect with feminism.  I had some mixed reactions to the recent guest posts on Feministe that addressed the topic of young children in public spaces.  I, like a number of feminists, am happily child free.  I don’t hate children, in fact I have worked with children of different age groups in a few capacities, but I am child-free by choice.  I enjoy interacting with children, and I also like to have adult spaces where I do not have to interact with children.

I agreed with the poster on a number of points.  Children are human beings, and feminism does need to recognize the importance of mothers and girls in the movement (as well as fathers and boys).  I am a strong believer in the “flip side of choice,” aka the choice to have a child and the need for support of children.  I think the “it takes a village” concept is awesome, and I also believe that a form of “community parenting” can be a very good thing.

On the other hand, I don’t like it when I feel like someone is telling me that it is my responsibility to interact with and comfort an upset child in a public space.  I do think that if a child is crying and no one volunteers to comfort the child, it’s the mother’s job to take the child outside, calm him or her down, etc.  It’s also a mother’s (parent’s) job to teach children appropriate behavior in public.  Sure, it would be great if mothers could say “my child is well-behaved and thus should be able to enter all public spaces.”  I sympathize with the poster, who expresses concern about mothers being isolated or stigmatized.  But the fact is that unfortunately, most mothers do claim that their child won’t cry or scream in public, and usually somebody does (ruining it for the rest of them).  I can imagine how frustrating it is for parents of quiet children when someone brings in a noisy, disruptive child and the animosity gets focused on the parents of the quiet child instead.  But I don’t have a handy solution.

The fact is that society shouldn’t stigmatize mothers, nor should it stigmatize those of us who are child-free.  I am so tired of having the heterosexual relationship model foisted on me, so tired of having happy families and cute kids shoved in my face, so tired of medical professionals insisting that I will want a kid one day, so please take our fertility literature.  Just as I’m sure mothers like the poster on Feministe are tired of being ridiculed for their choices.  I hate to say it, but… can’t we all just get along?

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Positive and Negative Liberties: What Our Government Should Do

From time to time, I get really thoughtful comments that make me want to respond a little more thoroughly than a usual quick reply, and unfortunately the WordPress system doesn’t allow for any sort of direct reply or notification.  I got one of those comments the other day from reader Teresa on this post, and so I thought I’d post my reply here.  It raises some interesting questions.

Yes, I think our descendants will be embarrassed about a number of things happening now. You bring up that there is a difference between a constitution and democracy, and that’s something most Americans probably wouldn’t think about. The Constitution lists what the government cannot do to us, while “democracy” is focused almost entirely at this time on what the government should be doing for us.

Obama has picked up FDR’s idea for a second Bill of Rights to give the country a “positive” list of what the government must do rather than what it must not do. Included in the list are things like jobs and houses and health care and education. But are those correctly labeled as “rights”? I understand a right as something natural that doesn’t impinge on another. If we guarantee everyone a satisfying job or house, then that means government must force someone else to provide it. I honestly don’t think most Americans have fully considered what Obama is proposing, or they are so stunned they don’t believe he will pursue these things.

The notion that Obama or his supporters would support the right to a job or housing or health care and construct the government machinery to strip mine the country for the resources but not the right to marry is outrageous, and I marvel still at the coalition of constituencies that gave him the election while denying this basic human right to the LGBT. Freedom and equality are not the same thing. Often they are contradictory, with freedom being the riskier, and only truly democratic ideal.

So what is a right?  The classic notion is that for someone to have a right, someone else must have a corresponding duty.  At the time of this country’s founding, the Framers were thinking about negative liberties in the context of an aggressive, intrusive imperial government.  The duty of the government was simply to stay the hell out – don’t stop people from speaking, from practicing their religion, from electing representatives.  These were freedoms from intrusion, not freedoms to a particular object.  One man’s right ended where another’s began.

But then socialism began to ascend, along with the idea of a state that has a positive duty to provide certain benefits to its citizens, whether that be health care, a living wage, or education.  People started talking about economic, social, and cultural rights.  Personally, I’m a strong believer in these rights, and in the idea that the state, to the extent of its resources, has a duty to provide them.  So my idea of rights does include jobs, houses, health care, and education, not only the “natural rights.”

Still, the “to the extent of its resources” bit is crucial.  I tend to support politicians that I think lean towards my socialist ideology, which includes providing to the citizens.  I also recognize that no politician can actually provide health care for all, quality education for all, a house for every citizen or a job for every citizen.  I think we should work towards these goals, but we don’t have the resources to achieve them.  We can’t achieve world peace, either, but does that mean that constantly working towards it is a waste of time?  I don’t think so.

I agree with Teresa, though, that it’s interesting that people would simultaneously vote for a candidate who is trying to assure everyone these positive economic, social, and cultural rights and vote against propositions that simply assure everyone the civil and political right to be left alone.  The right to marry does generally fall under positive rights, but as the Supreme Court has recognized there is a big difference between not having the resources to provide a service at all and having the resources but excluding only one group from its benefits.  I do see how this particular fight can fall into the category of government intrusion into individuals’ private lives, and I find it upsetting that the people of several states have decided this election to allow it.

What are the acceptable limits of consent?

Consent is something that we obviously value very greatly in modern Western society.  Consent is often the difference between a crime and an unpunishable act.  In the realm of sexual acts, consent (sometimes) is what makes activity acceptable to the law.  When we talk about sodomy laws, we frequently repeat the phrase “consenting adults.”  These are consenting adults in the privacy of their bedroom, therefore the state shouldn’t interfere.  Consent is one way to mark a line between activity protected by the right to privacy and activity into which interference by the criminal system is justified.  If there isn’t consent, then at least one of the parties’ privacy rights – or more broadly, right to individual autonomy – is not being respected.  Autonomy is to right to do as we will with our own lives, as bodily integrity is the right to do as we will with our bodies.  When these rights are breached, the other party can no longer say that he or she was justified by autonomy – the limit to autonomy is where it interferes with someone else’s.

Of course, this is all well and good, and as a general rule I agree to consent as the line we should use.  I don’t think, for example, that the government should interfere due to some overriding “public interest” when consenting adults participate in sadomasochistic activities.  I don’t believe that the public morality, when people are having sex in private, all consenting, and therefore not harming anyone else’s autonomy, can override the autonomy interests of the participants.  But that said, I found an interesting paradox in an essay I was reading for a paper I’m writing on sexual autonomy.  The author gave the example of two gay men kissing in the street.  The men argue that they have an autonomy interest in being able to express themselves affectionately – and indeed, autonomy goes behind a mere geographic sense of “privacy,” so that the interest exists on a public street as much as in a private home.  But then some bystander argues that her autonomy interest is being violated because she doesn’t want to see men kissing.  Where do we draw a line?  If autonomy only goes so far as the limits of others’ autonomy, then they men shouldn’t be able to kiss – but do we want to go this far?  I certainly don’t.  Does everyone in the neighborhood have to consent, or only the “reasonable” ones?  What is reasonable?  A member of the moral majority?  An interesting paradox.