My cousin raised an interesting question yesterday, as he so often does. After I described my encounter with an out-of-control teen neighbor who threatened violence and spat on me (in the context of his having cursed and abused another neighbor, perfectly nice guy), he asked, “Where is it written that you should intervene?”
I’ve been pondering that point. Why should we intervene? Or rather, why did I feel that I should intervene?
When I confronted the kid, I was not aware of anything except a sense of the standards of conduct in a civilized society having been outraged and abused (along with my neighbor and myself). But I have been pondering it, and I think there is a difference of philosophy between my cousin and myself.
No big surprise there. He’s an engineer and I’m a teacher. He’s a Republican and I’m a Democrat. He smokes cigars and rescues dogs in his spare time. I don’t smoke and I think dogs smell funky. We do both play guitar, though we have never played together. And we have great-grandparents in common, bringing us, perhaps, a shared set of ancestral values–hard work and integrity being chief among them.
The question of whether to participate in community with others is a choice one makes. When I became a mother (thanks, Sam and Sophie), I discovered that suddenly I had more in common with other people than I had ever had. Before, I was more of a loner. I went my own way and didn’t feel I had much in common with others. But my babies did the same things other babies did. They didn’t sleep at night, just like other babies. They needed to be fed and changed and directed, just like other kids. I was exhausted, just like other mothers. Suddenly I was no longer a loner but part of a very big club.
As my kids grew, we were lucky to live in a neighborhood with a lot of kids around the same age, and the kids were lucky to be able to roam the neighborhood across friendly yards in a pack of happy miniature hooligans–not destructive in any way but imaginative, and fun. For a few years it was a magic moment.
When the tribe of kids was at my house, I was the mother in residence. I corrected their manners and reminded them to say “please” and “thank you” just as I reminded my own. I read them stories. I brought out the paints and let them daub. I washed their hands. I fed them if it was snack time. My other neighbor moms did the same, and I trusted them to uphold the same standards of conduct. We raised the kids together. This is a human primate trait, I think, raising offspring in common. Very sensible, and with tremendous protections for all against stresses or strains in any one quarter. If a parent is “outdone” (my mother’s phrase) with a kid, another parent can step in and no one gets hurt. If a kid is angry at his own parent, he can find calm in someone else’s house until emotions cool.
Now, a libertarian philosophy would say, “Don’t tread on me. Mind your own business. Do not correct my child even if he does wrong to you. Leave us alone.” Or, more broadly, “Screw you, everyone.” Or, more specifically, “I have a gun. So don’t mess with me.” That appears to be the philosophy of the people across the street.
There are so many ways in which I disagree with conservative philosophy, but primary among them is this deeply rooted aversion to connectedness and to mutual support, this radical mistrust and refusal to take responsibility for one’s own actions in terms of how one’s actions affect the community.
Here’s an example: our very conservative Tennessee legislature just lifted the burden of some taxes off the backs of wealthy Tennesseans, which means that either those taxes will have to be made up by more regressive taxes such as sales taxes–hurting poorer people–or that essential services like public education will be cut–also hurting poorer people. There’s no other way around that math.
I wonder what kind of person can deliberately hurt another, much more unlucky person. I mean, who goes out to a homeless person on the street and decides to inflict a little more pain, like perhaps burning them with a handy cigarette? Who goes over to a bullied child and slaps him in the face for good measure?
In a time I dimly remember, the 1950s and 1960s, every mother and father in my village was an adult whom I obeyed implicitly, just as I did my own. The whole community was raising the kids. Standards of kindness were generally upheld and the community restrained itself from violent action by small correctives of the kind I attempted to administer. Radical libertarian philosophy has taken that away from us. I’d like to see it come back.
So that’s why I intervened. People need to know when they transgress social boundaries. They need to be confronted so that society can impose its restraints. Otherwise they never learn.
I’m not talking about social fascism. But I am talking about the delicate and incredibly important task of creating human beings in a society, not creatures who can scarcely be called human. It really does take a village to raise a child.