The Personalist Project

Truth and personal influence

[Truth] has been upheld in the world not as a system, not by books, not by argument, nor by temporal power, but by the personal influence of [those] who are at once the teachers and the patterns of it.

John Henry Newman, Oxford University Sermons

Last week, in a depressing turn of events, I decided to do a little investigation of birth-control activist Margaret Sanger's hopes and dreams. I don't have the stomach to continue with that, but I do want to take a look at how she (and so many others of her time) came to believe such outlandish things, things that even her defenders now concede are "unsettling to modern sensibilities." Yeah, the way a Taco Bell binge with a six-pack of Bud Light for dessert might be "unsettling." But let that go.

By her own account, she hoped to subject "fifteen or twenty millions" of "unfit" Americans to segregation, sterilization, or both. The "morons," "mental defectives," and "epileptics" would be just plain sterilized; the "illiterates, paupers, unemployables, criminals, prostitutes, [and] dope-fiends" would be farmed out (literally) to "farmlands and homesteads where these segregated persons would be taught to work under competent instructors for the period of their entire lives."

At this point, most 21st-century people, for all our faults, find that an obvious question starts screaming out for an answer. As my sister Sarah puts it:

Just to take one small point, her solution to illiteracy is to quarantine illiterate people till they develop moral character. Wouldn't it actually be easier to teach them to read?

Good point. Were they just plain irrational, or is there some other explanation?

In keeping with my determination to give credit where credit is due and to acknowledge grains of truth in unlikely places, I sought out the defense that her admirers offer for these ideas. At the Margaret Sanger Papers Project, I found the assertion that she wasn't really that interested in eugenics--that her driving passion lay with helping women reclaim their lives and health from "uncontrolled fertility." She just found it convenient, since she wanted to grow her audience, to hitch that ideological wagon to the then-current enthusiasm for big-picture "improvement" of the human race.

I found that awfully unconvincing, given the documents on their own website in which she divulges her hopes for controlling the destinies of all those "millions"--not because she had found them, one by one, distressed by their fertility, but just because they fit into some gigantic and crudely defined category like "feeble-minded." But you can read the defense for yourself here, such as it is.

It's true that eugenics, with all its ugly progeny of forced sterilization, dangerous and unreliable methods of birth control, and abortion, was embraced by the most powerful and influential business moguls and politicians at the time. It took the Holocaust to make the ugliness seem less acceptable in polite company. But Sanger was clearly not just one more person who breathed in whatever toxins were floating around in the sociological air at the time. Her grand-scale plans are too detailed to make that plausible.

Still, why not teach, reform, assist, or rescue people, rather than pushing them to the margins, there to remain invisible to the fortunate "fit" until their generation died out? Why move straight to elimination? 

Here the Margaret Sanger Papers Project has a more plausible explanation. Part of the problem was biological determinism. It was thought at the time that all sorts of negative traits were heritable. but also that "selective breeding" was the no-brainer solution, since Sanger and others "believed scientific studies that concluded that those with mental or physical challenges included criminals, alcoholics, drug addicts, etc. and that these groups were incapable of resisting their sexual urges."

You get the sense that the problem in those days was not so much faulty or primitive science, but science wed to an anti-personalist mindset. These days, we idolize science, but we do so because it seems to promise the power to change us--not just the means to aid collectivist megalomaniacs in organizing society for maximum efficiency. We might fall for "better living through science," but we look to it to give individuals abilities that we lack.

People no longer talk openly about segregating the marginalized into farms and camps (not that our rhetoric about inclusion necessarily leads to anything better). We might look to science to alter the bodies and mental health of those who need help--but not  just to alter the ratio of fit to unfit. We're confident about our powers, even believing there's such a thing as turning a man into a women, but you don't hear much about abolishing entire classes to usher in an age of higher intelligence and impeccable mental health. When we do push genetic engineering, we at least feel the need to offer the pretext of helping individuals flee suffering.

Sanger's sadly static view of the human person, with its pessimism about possibilities for development and its utter lack of supernatural hope, is the kind of thing collectivism spawns. Ideas for enhancing the lives or abilities or happiness of actual persons are replaced by schemes for eliminating this "kind" or that. People are divided into high- or low-quality specimens, frozen in their present state. All the considerable--even in those days--resources of science are marshalled to manipulate the big picture: to improve not the lot of the individual, but the status of the stock.

But enough. Next week I fully intend to return to some more pleasant subject.

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Margaret Sanger was a eugenicist. Why are we still celebrating her? That's the title of an article by John J. Conley I ran across in America Magazine the other day. Her views on the desirability of a "race of thoroughbreds" and the dangers of being "overrun with human weeds" are well known, at least in the circles I frequent. But a couple new things struck me this time.

One was this: How controlling can you get?

I think a sensitivity to the evils of being "controlling" is a genuine modern (and very personalist) insight. The idea is that it's not just wrong to bend people to your will by coercion and violence. It's also wrong to manipulate, pressure, and gaslight them into submission, so that they see things the way you do, and act in ways convenient to yourself.* The arrogance of blithely micromanaging, or simply vetoing, the lives of others is obvious to us in a way it apparently wasn't in Sanger's day.

What, after all, could be more "controlling" than to set yourself up as an authority on who gets to exist and who doesn't? More striking yet is the way Sanger makes such decisions not on a case-by-case basis, but according to the broadest and crudest of categories, and on the grandest of scales. Listen to this (keeping in mind that I've taken pains to choose quotations the authenticity of which is not in dispute. They're pulled from a pro-Sanger website, The Margaret Sanger Papers Project). In a speech entitled "My Way to Peace," she proposes a Population Congress, the aims of which include the following:

[A]pply a stern and rigid policy of sterilization, and segregation to that grade of population whose progeny is already tainted or whose inheritance is such that objectionable traits may be transmitted to offspring.

[T]o insure the country against future burdens of maintenance for numerous offspring as may be born of feeble-minded parents, the government would pension all persons with transmissible diseases who voluntarily consent to sterilization.

Note the disingenuous use of "voluntary"

The whole dysgenic population would have its choice of segregation or sterilization.

I hope the word "choice," too, rings false to modern sensibilities, even if it didn't to many at the time.

And then there is this: 

There would be farmlands and homesteads where these segregated persons would be taught to work under competent instructors for the period of their entire lives.

The first step would thus be to control the intake and output on morons, mental defectives, and epileptics.

The second step would be to take an inventory of the secondary group such as illiterates, paupers, unemployables, criminals, prostitutes, dope-fiends; classify them in special departments under government medical protection and segregate on farms and open spaces as long as necessary for the strengthening and development of moral conduct.

There follows an impressive block of doublespeak:

Having corralled this enormous part of our population and placed it on a basis of health not punishment, it is safe to say that about fifteen or twenty millions of our population would then be organized into soldiers of defense--defending the unborn against their own disabilities. [emphasis mine]

Say what you like about the way words like "morons," "idiots," "mental defectives" and "dope fiends" were considered conventional medical terminology at the time; the speech still tells you something about the speaker. Especially when the speaker's not just lobbing random insults but is proposing a wide-reaching program to be implemented at the federal level. Say what you like about the popularity of eugenicist assumptions and rhetoric at the time, and how it was embraced by other influential and still-admired figures like Winston Churchill. What emerges here is not the portrait of a benevolent woman caught up in the spirit of the age but the soul of an engineer who aspired to make that spirit the wellspring of the treatment of "this enormous part of our population" for "the period of their entire lives, " as well as the blueprint for the future.

Whatever you think of birth control, and whatever you think of the present state of Sanger's brainchild, Planned Parenthood, I bet her words ring false to you.

                                            *                    *                     *

The second thing that struck me is this: What's with this penchant for treating anything and everything as an immutable characteristic? As my sister Sarah Johnson points out, 

Just to take one small point, her solution to illiteracy is to quarantine illiterate people till they develop moral character. Wouldn't it actually be easier to teach them to read?

And my friend Sarah Eliot adds:

Interesting that being illiterate qualifies one for moral retraining.

Strangely enough, there's a clear explanation for this. Tune in next week to find out what it might be, and let me know me how convincing it sounds to you.


*Of course, when the evils of being "controlling" are misunderstood, you get the kind of thing that of course never, ever happens in my house: Daddy says, "No, Child X, you can't take the car to go to the movies, because I need it to go to work," and Child X retorts, "Oh, Daddy, don't be so controlling."


Image credit: Wikipedia

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It's not difficult to see what makes intentional community attractive for young families. There's something very good and natural about desiring the company and community of those who share a faith and an identity. Yet my own experiences with second-generation members of these intentional communities suggests that there are particular challenges that come with raising children to adulthood in an intentional community. 

(I don't want to come across as condemning these communities or the people who have chosen to invest their lives in them. However, I think that if they are to continue in a manner that respects the individual person, it's important to look at characteristic failings to address them or at the very least become aware of them.)

Intentional communities are nothing new. Religious orders are all intentional communities, and some, like the Augustinians, date back well over a millennia. Obviously, there is nothing fundamentally unstable about intentional community life. 

Religious communities differ from newer forms of intentional community, however, in that they persist by attracting new adult members. These communities are founded on a charism that attracts people whose identity is already congruent with the community's mission and charism.

Even then, with time, a healthy religious order will see changes in how mission is understood and pursued over the lifetime of its members, and if there are real conflicts you'll see people leave or start new households or new orders. 

This points to a weakness in the modern intentional community phenomenon, one common both to secular intentional communities--like The Farm in Tennessee--and "covenant communities" like Sword of the Spirit. While the first generation of any intentional community is composed of adults who are drawn to the mission statement or values of the community, things get complicated with the inclusion of children.

Personal identity normally changes and shifts in response to marriage and childbearing--and growing children have to be allowed to form their own sense of self. The strong sense of identity of the intentional or covenant community becomes a barrier to this normal process of family and individual growth.

This conflict is especially difficult on young adults growing up in the community, since the normal adolescent process of differentiation can look like a dangerous challenge to the community identity. Parents wind up in the position of either opposing the community's assertion of its identity--which at this point is very strongly tied to their own personal identities--or opposing their children's growth.

Older intentional communities, like the Amish, resolve this tension with the inclusion of points of choice--times when young men and women are given the chance to see and explore the world outside the community and choose to come home to full adult membership and conformity with community values, or leave to live elsewhere. (There's still some question about how free such a choice can be when leaving still means estrangement from friends and family, and when young people are sent out without the skills to make their way outside the community. That's too complex a question for this post, though!)

Of course, this conflict between individual, family, and community identity isn't unique to intentional communities. Organic communities, such as the ones that grow up around geographical areas or ethnic neighbourhoods, also develop strong senses of "who we are" that can be alienating or burdensome to young adults. The perennial popularity of the "coming of age" tale speaks to the universality of this process of individuation. 

But if the community has organic roots that extend past the identity of values or lifestyle, it can withstand the shifts of generational change and growth by hearkening to more basic shared foundations--and relationships. In healthy organic communities and families, identity is always an expression of the actual persons within the community/family, arising out of similarities and differences, strengths and weaknesses, needs and gifts, as they interact with one another. 

Fiddler on the Roof illustrates this with Tevye's slow acceptance of his daughters' increasing variance from the expected path laid out for young women in his community--from "tradition," that word for the accumulated expression and transmission of organic identity. In the end, not only does Tevye come to accept his daughters' choices--representative of their individual values and identities--but he--and his relationship with his wife, Golda--are also changed by them.

(And in the end, do these changes, this internalized sense of priorities that places relationships above tradition prepare Tevye and his family for the loss of their home, for the diaspora to come? We don't see how it plays out, but we are allowed to hope that this is the case.) 

The challenge facing intentional communities is this: to give young men and women growing up within the community the room to be who they are without threatening their primary relationships. Will those who grow up within the community will be given a voice in shaping the mission and identity of the community? Is there room for them to have one foot in community and one foot in the wider world, as they explore their own potential and come to know themselves as individual persons? 

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A friend of mine and her husband are in the process--and have been for some time--of extricating themselves from a tangled web of dysfunctional family dynamics. I've been blessed with a remarkably sane family (weird, but sane), and our conversations often drift into trying to identify the fundamental differences underlying surface similarities between our families.

Most recently, we were talking about what it meant to have a "strong family identity" in these different families.

Almost immediately, I noticed that in comparison to my friend's experiences, my family talked very little about "what it means to be a Whittaker." Our family identity and culture is an organic reflection of who we are--a combination of the things our parents brought into marriage with them and the traditions, principles, and habits that we developed together as a family in response to the people we are and the ways we interact.

My friend, in comparison, spoke about families where family identity was consciously shaped and imposed from above, extending into adult life. This kind of imposed identity and culture is used as a coercive tool of inclusion and exclusion—"In our family, we do things this way"—with the implicit message that to fail to meet those standards is to no longer belong as fully to the family.

I've asked other friends about family identity and found strikingly similar patterns, not only in families, but also in the intentional communities founded by the previous generation.

In case after case, individuals experience themselves as having their identity as a member of a family or a community presented to them as pre-determined, creating conflict when the individual has difficulty conforming or finds that they differ on a matter of principle with the community.

Last year I wrote on my personal blog about the pressure we sometimes put on ourselves when we try to incorporate every appealing tradition we hear or read of into our own family lives. 

About my own experience trying to do it all during one particular Advent, I wrote:

"I came from a family background rich in our own traditions, but when I was away from that organic context, I felt a little lost, and I tried to remedy that feeling of loss by cramming in more. More traditions, more family. I didn't have my own family of origin around to reinforce the things I had to pass on to my children, so I found myself aping the traditions and rituals of other families that seemed to have what I wanted for myself and my kids."

In order to find a balance that "fit" my own small family, I had to look at which traditions had real meaning and significance to us, and let go of those that were less personally resonant or too much extra effort. I'll gladly spend a day making speculaas dough for the Feast of St. Nicholas, because it combines the Dutch heritage I have from my mother with my children's love of baking with me, molding shapes out of the pliable dough. It fits us in a way making a candle wreath and breakfast for St. Lucy's day simply doesn't.

It occurs to me that perhaps the phenomenon of imposed family identity, imposed and entrenched family culture, comes from a similar place as my frenzy to imitate the traditions of other families. As populations became more mobile and families more fractured, more and more young men and women have found themselves launching into the world feeling rootless and deprived of the warmth, stability, and security they naturally crave.

Just as I went overboard, trying too hard to give my kids more when I was distant from my family, these men and women went into adulthood wanting more for themselves and their children. What didn't come organically to them, they sought to create artificially. And with the culture wars being fought on every side, they found many people willing to tell them what family life and community life "ought" to look like; who they ought to strive to be.

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I was recently struck by an article by Shawna Wingert called "Homeschooling like it's my job." 

But wait! Don't tune out if you don't homeschool! It's about much more than that. It applies to all kinds of callings and missions, shedding light on everyday time management and how to translate your pleasant intentions into actions--the kind that reverberate to the good of everyone around you, rather than remaining admirable resolutions that sit quarantined in your own head. Such stagnant ideas can make you feel so self-righteous that you overlook the fact that you're not acting on them. Or so frustrated at your failure to live up to them that you become even less effective "in real life."

The author's point is deceptively simple. Homeschoolers are often heard to proclaim, "It's not just a job--it's a lifestyle!" And of course that's true--just as it's true of raising children, or practicing your faith, or doing many worthwhile things.

But look what happens: once you identify your mission as something so important, so crucial, with so much riding on the results--you never give yourself permission to stop focusing on it and turn your attention to something else. You indulge in endless, futile attempts at multitasking, because whatever else you need to get done, you're trying to accomplish it while homeschooling (or childrearing, or saying prayers, or whatever your good intentions center around).

The author's solution isn't complicated: she started approaching homeschooling as if it were paid employment. She set herself regular start and stop times, invested in periodic "professional development," and ceased the practice of endlessly multitasking around it. 

And here's the personalist point: once you set such limits, you're more available to the people around you. You're no longer trying to fit them in around the margins of your life-or-death "mission." You're no longer sending the message that the sooner you're done with them, the sooner you can get back to what really matters to you.

Also, a misguided focus on your mission makes for a continual, haunting sense that you're never doing enough, never "off duty." Rightly understood, it's true: a mission is much more than a job of the time-clock-punching sort. Even so, it requires a structure, one that provides for other duties, genuine attention to persons, and also recreation, an authentic human need.

Such things have to be approached with some structure, some limits, something beyond continual, nerve-racking reflections to the effect that "this is so important that no amount of focus could be excessive!"

So did Wingert's homeschooling suffer from her new approach? Not at all. Her children gained a mother more at peace with herself and easier to live with, and she noticed them spontaneously indulging in educational activities while "off duty." Their formation didn't suffer--just the opposite. 

My attempts to put this approach into practice have been promising so far. What do you think?


Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons: War workers clock in at a British factory.

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