Thursday, June 02, 2011
Some time ago, I encountered one of those news items that manages to be both repulsive and fascinating at the same time: an egalitarian couple from Canada have made news because they have decided to keep the sex of one of their children a secret. They are doing this so he can grow up, as they put it, "unconstrained by social norms about males and females." Part of their plan involves getting their other two children, one five years old and the other two, in on the secret.
Now, to be fair, it is true that some social norms -- and not just about sex -- are bad. But this couple's "cure" is far worse than the disease, as an editorial by Mitch Albom of the Boston Herald makes somewhat clear:
The Toronto couple believe they are giving their child a "choice" -- even though that choice was made by nature and was evident in the first pee-pee. Meanwhile, it seems pretty unfair to tell a 5- and a 2-year-old to keep a secret. Isn't that imposing something on them?Several related things interest me further here, although perhaps the first two are beyond the scope of Albom's editorial. (I'll throw them out there, anyway.)
Personally, I am all in favor of a little imposition. It's time to eat. Time to sleep. Time to stop crying. Time to go to school. Don't treat others that way. Don't say rude things. [minor format edits]
First, if there is a major weakness in Albom's piece, it lies in a distinction he's relying on the reader to make between the "imposition" the couple is making and the "imposition" he favors. It's a normative distinction, namely, that some forms of parental imposition are good, and others bad.
Second, I would not be surprised to learn, upon further pressing Albom (or many other implicitly rational people), for him to object that the above couple are "taking things too far," rather than that the beliefs (explicit or implicit) they are acting on are not objective (i.e., based on perceptual evidence and logic), or that their method of approaching this issue isn't objective. This is because practically all philosophies (and stand-ins, like religions) do not have such a basis. This fact makes most philosophies inapplicable to real-world problems, and look (rightly) absurd when carried out to their logical conclusions. Albom does implicitly raise the issue of the couple's method of thinking about the problem they're trying to address being wrong, but he can only do so in metaphysical terms, when the couple's actions conflict with the facts of reality. He doesn't (and, I think, couldn't) argue that what they are doing is morally wrong. (And I bet he might have trouble helping a child understand why he shouldn't be rude, or what makes something rude.) So Albom correctly pegs the couple as ignoring a fact of reality, but then both objects to imposition and, later, stands up for imposition.
Third, it is interesting to see how many ways the couple's egalitarianism affects how they evaluate and think about sexual mores. They seem to regard them indiscriminately as impositions and, conversely, anything that could be related to their child's sex as up to his whims (and nothing else). This causes them to discard, as far as I can tell, such considerations as whether there are aspects of one's sex that have a bearing on behavior for good (e.g., biological or psychological) reasons, or whether it might be beneficial for their child to at least know what the relevant social mores are so he can more effectively interact with other people who adhere to those mores (e.g., If a boy likes pink, fine -- but he should at least be able to expect that he may have to stand up for his choice if he wears a pink shirt.). Fascinatingly, it is interesting to see what else goes by the wayside, like the importance of teaching children to be honest, as their quest to deemphasize the sex of their child curiously ends up warping every aspect of how they raise their children. It is as if it has never occurred to this couple that they could simply teach their child to question things as he encounters the mores they disagree with or his mind and personality have developed enough to think about them.
This is a disturbing, but thought-provoking story.