Tuesday, October 14, 2008

On Calls for Personal Responsibility

I wrote this shortly after Obama's "Father's Day Speech"

Recent statements by Barack Obama and Bill Cosby, calling on African-American men to take responsibility for their children (see,for example, USA Today, July 15, 2008, "Obama to NAACP: Blacks Must Seize Responsibility") raise some questions that are crucial to sort out at this moment in our history. It is easy to confuse talk of holding people accountable with blaming them. Calling on a father to acknowledge his responsibility to his children is not the same as blaming him. It is asking him, going forward, to think about the consequences of his actions and how to deal with problems that he inherited from his own family of origin and from a social history of oppression and disadvantage. Blame is backward looking; it entails accusing a person of a misdeed without taking account of the problems he was born into and that shaped his circumstances. If one wants to think in terms of guilt for various social problems, there is usually more than enough to go around. It is more productive, and ultimately empowering, to encourage the individual to think about responsibility going forward than to blame. Blaming is shaming, and shame is counter-productive if what we want is change.

There is a history of blaming the victim in this country, and especially of racist blaming of African-Americans, so it is understandable that people would be sensitive to this possibility. By the same token, it is crucial to clarify that Senator Obama and Dr. Cosby are not asking people to forget about historical and ongoing suffering and oppression. They are asking that we contemplate what to do going forward. They are asking that men take account of what they can contribute as fathers, and to think about the consequences of not taking on that responsibility.

Calls for personal responsibility and efforts to remedy systemic problems are not mutually exclusive. Senator Obama, in his speech on race, and Dr. Cosby at numerous points, have recognized the history and persistence of systemic racism in the United States. As Senator Obama points out, his assumption of the burdens and risks of running for President flows from his recognition of the need for political change. Further, a major reason that he and Dr. Cosby call on fathers to be present for their children is that they recognize that sons of absent fathers are more likely to become absent fathers to their own children. In this way, they do not dismiss the fact that there are historical forces in the culture and in the family that contribute to our social problems. This recognition only strengthens their determination to hold each generation accountable for the consequences of their behavior. We can only hope that the history of poor fathering will not rule out the sense of possibility, in future generations, that the cycle can be broken. Senator Obama and Dr. Cosby themselves are both examples of men who took responsibility for blazing a new trail in their personal lives. To promote personal responsibility is not to negate that there is much social and political change that needs to occur to support families. To paraphrase Mahatma Gandhi, the best kind of social change is
produced by those who try to live the change they, and we, want to see in the world around us.

It might be tempting for white people in the United States to assume that this conversation is happening among African Americans because that is the only place it needs to happen. White people, however, should not assume that calls to responsibility are not needed in the white community as well. All Americans can learn from the way African-American people are facing up to the problems in their community. White people should be inspired by the strength being shown to acknowledge shortcomings and to address them, rather than, in self-congratulatory fashion, choosing to see therein only evidence of African-American family pathology. Rather than African-Americans feeling only shame about their dirty laundry being washed in public, there is an opportunity to feel a sense of pride in leading the way for all Americans in productive self-examination. Whatever our backgrounds, Americans need much more of the kind of self-reflection and willingness to challenge oneself shown by Senator Obama, Dr. Cosby and others who call for renewal through courageous and honest self reflection.


Andrew Samuels said...

from Andrew Samuels in London:

Here are a few comments on the father in politics and in the family, deliberately intermingling the two levels.

First, though, an appreciation of Neil's having opened up this space and for posting such important and interesting statements.

In conventional Western politics, there is always mileage in slagging off the alleged missing Black fathers. It goes on in so many countries. The electoral aspect is obvious. But what is the psychology here? I think that, alongside the crude votewinning we can se a genuine but utterly misguided idealization of an old-style Jurassic father and what he can do if he were somehow to reintroduce himself to the inner cities. At a stroke, problems of discipline and lack of spiritual direction would be solved. Powerful and suffocating mothers would be put in their place. No space for (in that sick 1950s term) 'Momism'. Real men, spearheadd by real fathers will be back: strong, silent, strict, certain of their place in the world, devotees of the missionary position.

What can be done about this politically motivated idealization of precisely the kind of father that, as therapists know, does untold damage? (And if you are thinking that it is precisely such fathers as leaders who take us to war, you are right.) Dinosaur fatjers, and dinosaur leaders are strict because secretly unsure. They are sexually confused (what exactly are 'sexual relations'? They may be Don Juans but they are inhibited in bed, turning to porn and lapdancing for real thrills. They feel useless and sidelined in the IT age which values keyboard skills over physical strength and can even imagine emale presidents and vice-presidents. And so on.

We need different models of the father (really, it is of masculinity) that admit of male softness and lack of certitude as positive virtues. Not the commander-in-chief father but the slobby, weekend, sit around and rap with the kids and lots and lots of cuddles father. A father whose body is apprehended by all as benevolent and not malevolent. It is not so hard to do that kind of good-enough fathering. It is not exciting and it is hard to make it sound exciting. That's what the world's therapists should - but don't - say.

Now translate a little of these ieas (which I realise are an inadequate summary of all I've written on the father) into today's US politics.

Obama does not have a clue about how to portray himself as a father of the nation in anything approaching this new good-enough paternal style. He has been stupidly instructed to stay statesmanlike, to accentuate his toughness (e.g. in foreign affairs). Oh, you all know what I mean!

The issue affecting Obama is not that different from the issue affecting most fathers and probably most men. The pay-offs in family and world for being a heroic father are immense. In bad taste, I like to say you can have all the women you can eat! But where is the bum father, the schlemiel father, the nomad father? These are tropes of citizenship and leadership that are only beginning to creep out of the post-modern academy and into the world of focus groups and spin doctors.

Finally, a word on lone mothers and their families. I am never sure how deliberate it is, but the sequelae of idealization of the father is a denigration of the lone mother. Here, surely therapists must stand up and say we know that there is absolutely no guarantee of emotional maturity and metnal heath just because you have or have had two parents who lived a long time and stayed married!

I think that, with the right kind of support and a general cultural rethink about what women can do, lone mothers can, in ways that may well differ from the ways that male parents do it, deliver a lot of the good things in the traditional father areas of discipline and spirituality. They can be 'good-enough fathers of whatever sex'.

It's important for therapists to say things like this in public lest we add to the racally fueled stigmatization of fathers of African ancestry an equally disgusting dumping of all the problems and cruelties of our largely male made world onto lone mothers.

No welfare queen is repsonsible for Wall Street. (And we should maybe blog about that too, especially those of us who stayed a tad Marxist after all hese years of the end of history.

All of this could be a basis for announcing that heroic leadership is dead. We know it is in our heads but not in our hearts (or lower down). The relations that the media and the entire political system prescribe for leaders and citizens ar quite abusive.

Neil Altman's blog said...

Thank you, Andrew, for such a rich comment(s). I cannot do justice to the number and subtlety of the points you make. Maybe if we have an ongoing exchange, hopefully involving others, we can begin to process some of what you've raised.
I agree that there may be an idealization of a heroic father-image, and a denigration of mothers, latent in calls for responsibility on the part of fathers. The heroic father-image, and the suffocating, inadequate mother-image need to be deconstructed and debunked. I think these points are valid on a different level of abstraction, though not unrelated to, the level on which people live their real lives. If I were a single mother, I imagine I would be angry at the father of my baby and child who took no responsibility for co-parenting, unless I had wanted only to be impregnated by him, and this without my necessarily having an idealized or heroic conception of what he could contribute. And I imagine that a female partner could largely meet the need for a co-parent, especially if I hadn't expected the biological father to be my co-parent. Then, from the point of view of the child, I imagine that a father who unilaterally refuses responsibility leaves many troubling questions and feelings, and confusion, and, in fact, may foster the heroic (easily taking the form of the fearless, feeling-less, violent) father-fantasy, and denigration of the mother, that you so rightly warn about. In other words, the presence of good enough, ordinary, fathers (of whatever gender) who are comfortable nurturing as well as being limit setters is probably the best way to avoid the fantasy of the heroic (feeling-less, violent) father.
Finally, I want to dwell for a minute on how the heroic father-fantasy morphs into the cold, hard, violent, image of masculinity. Its so obvious that violence arises from helplessness, as does drug use and the violence fostered by the drug trade, other forms of crime, war, and abuse of people. So, as I know you're well aware, the cold, hard, violent image of the man/father is just another way of representing his absence and powerlessness via a fantasy of omnipotence that doesn't exist in the real world.
Thanks again for your stimulating comments, Andrew. I look forward to more.