Shaming as Social Policy
Shaming as Social Policy
In a chapter entitled “The Restoration of Shame” in his 1995 book, Profiles in Character, when he was 42 years-old, Jeb Bush argued that:
One of the reasons more young women are giving birth out of wedlock and more young men are walking away from their paternal obligations is that there is no longer a stigma attached to this behavior, no reason to feel shame. Many of these young women and young men look around and see their friends engaged in the same irresponsible conduct. Their parents and neighbors have become ineffective at attaching some sense of ridicule to this behavior. There was a time when neighbors and communities would frown on out of wedlock births and when public condemnation was enough of a stimulus for one to be careful.
During a recent NBC News interview, Bush was asked if his views on shaming unwed mothers had changed and he said they had not. When Jeb Bush’s comments were dually reported on social media I was surprised at the number of comments that were supportive of Bush’s position. In fact, a good friend of mine wrote--The greatest cause of poverty in unwed mothers. Little male support. Little opportunity to improve skills. Reduced education. More likely to have problem with children. If shaming them helped reduce unwed mothers, I could support it--which summed the positions of a good number of respondents, regardless of political orientation.
When confronted with social policy issues, I like to draw on my own experiences to determine if a suggested social policy would work. I thought of the unwed mothers I have known to decide what effect, if any, shaming had, or would have had, on their lives.
Power Authority Baby
Construction on the Niagara Power Project began in 1957 and was completed in 1961. The Project brought 10,000 construction workers into the Niagara Falls area, and when they departed they left behind hundreds of unwed mothers, whose babies were known as Power Authority kids. I met one of these unwed mothers when I was a newly minted college junior home for the summer.
I worked in a chemical factory during the day and hung-out at bars at night. One bar, The Brown Jug, on Buffalo Avenue near the old Nabisco shredded wheat factory, was my favorite and a watering hole for local college kids and young secretaries: that’s where I met Cecile Levendowski, a secretary who owned her own car and had an apartment she shared with a girlfriend, which was novel because we college kids lived with our parents and drove their cars. Cecile had a round face accented by short brown hair, deep brown eyes, a nice body, and small lips that kissed well. As Cecile and I dated through the summer I learned she had a Power Authority kid. This was the early 1960’s and having an out of wedlock child meant the mother was hidden away until after the birth to avoid family humiliation, and the child was adopted out or placed in an orphanage, usually Father Baker’s Home in Buffalo, a grim stone and brick edifice redolent of a Dickens novel.
Though Cecil was sent to live with an aunt in Buffalo, her family was supportive to the extent that they found a foster family willing to raise Cecil’s baby. Cecile worked for the aunt as an indentured servant cleaning, cooking, and doing laundry, and was not permitted to leave the house except to attend weekly confession and be harangued by the neighborhood Catholic priest about her “Jezebel” ways and need to repent; she learned she had humiliated her family and her church, and in the eyes of God had committed a grave sin for which she would suffer. To drive home the gravity of her offense, the priest insisted she read Deuteronomy 23:2: If a person is illegitimate by birth, neither he nor his descendants for ten generations may be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. That was her punishment and it would be visited on her child, and her child’s children, for two hundred and fifty years. How’s that for a life-long burden?
As we slowly got to know one another, Cecile told me that the foster parents agreed that Cecile could visit her son once a month, and that should Cecile marry and be in a position to support the child, she could have him back. Cecile worked in the front office of a local construction company and made decent money, so the only remaining barrier to her getting her son back was marriage, which explains why she was interested in me.
Though we dated through the summer and groped each other occasionally, and Cecile made it clear she was willing and even eager (too eager?), we never had sex. It wasn’t that I didn’t want sex: This was 1960’s and the sexual revolution when sexual repression was judged the cause of everything from poverty and mental illness, to war and famine, and, as Saul Bellow’s Herzog said: Why to get laid is actually socially constructive and useful, an act of citizenship. We remained platonic because I sensed that in this instance sex was a trap, and one path to Cecile’s wedded bliss might just be another pregnancy.
I learned that a reserved, humorless demeanor was Cecil’s first line of defense against any sort of perceived criticism, followed by silent sullen anger if she sensed an attack: she would not be an easy person to live with, not that I had anything of the sort in mind. Half-way through college, I had no idea what I wanted to be or do in the future, but I knew I didn’t want to live in Niagara Falls, didn’t want to be a father, and didn’t want a wife subject to mood swings that were the product of sustained psychological abuse. So as fall approached with the promise of a new semester, I did the only honorable thing: I cut and ran back to college, chaste but wiser.
Did the shaming of Cecile work to keep her from fornicating out of wedlock? No, but it did cripple her emotional make-up, make her desperate, and in all likelihood doomed her to more loveless relationships. Did Cecile’s shaming keep me from having sex and possibly fathering a child? No, because at that moment I didn’t have any intention of having sex with anybody; it wasn’t sex that scared me, it was the possibility of marriage; truth be known, I pretty much settled for oral sex. Did her shaming keep other women in Niagara Falls from having out of wedlock sex? No, because that outcome was overrun by the sexual revolution and to work would require that we return to a nineteenth century sexual outlook that could only be installed by an authoritarian theocratic political system. Such a system was described by former Senator and Presidential candidate, and outspoken Roman Catholic, Rick Santorum when he said:
We are seeing the fabric of this country fall apart, and it’s falling apart because of single moms … What we have is moms raising children in single-parent households simply breeding more criminals. What we say is that in order for Mom to be able to go on welfare if she has a child out of wedlock, you have to tell us who the father is … If you don’t tell us who the father is, you’re not eligible for any welfare benefits, none, not even medical care. You tell us who the father is or you don’t receive benefits. If Mom knows that she isn’t gonna receive welfare if she doesn’t tell us who Dad is, y’know maybe she’ll be a little more careful, maybe … Or maybe she gives us a list, say ‘Well it could be one of five,’ I mean, y’know, I don’t know what she’s gonna do, but at some point we’re gonna see her cooperate.”
That’s the kind of political environment it would take to reverse the sexual revolution: a morality thousands of years old enforced not only by religions, but by State and Federal authorities threatening, “Ve have vays of making you cooperate.”
A fair question to ask is, “Why is this so?”
Someone to Love
Around 1980 Janna lived in the Heritage Hill District of Grand Rapids, Michigan, an area containing large turn of the nineteenth-century homes (many on the National Register of Historic Places), so large and impractical as single family residences that they were divided into apartments such as the one Janna rented. Janna worked as a secretary at a salary sufficient to pay the rent and own a well-worn Ford auto. Janna’s story generally represents the stories of three other women I know in that all were unwed mothers, all had intentional pregnancies, and all ended roughly the same.
Janna conducted a long-standing affair with a married man. The man lived with his wife and a daughter both of whom knew about Janna; in fact, Janna had met the wife and would occasionally have the daughter over to Janna’s apartment. This tidy quadrangle coasted along until Janna felt the call of her diminishing hormones and told the man that she wanted a child and was going off birth control. Janna’s mother had died and left Janna her childhood home free of a mortgage or any debt. Janna moved into the house and told her lover she now had a proper place to raise a kid, and Janna’s lover responded by getting a vasectomy without telling Janna. When Janna found out she dumped the guy, took in a young male boarder, and promptly got pregnant. Janna told my wife and me about her pregnancy and naturally we were all excited, though a part of me worried about Jenna’s ability to raise a kid alone on her meager income. I asked Janna if her pregnancy was accidental, and her response was, “Hell no, I want a family.” After Carmen was born Janna quite her job so she could be with her baby full-time. Janna went on public assistance until Carmen started school, at which point Janna went off public assistance and back to work.
Soon after learning of Jenna’s pregnancy, a friend, Reg Chappel, former deputy director of research for the Michigan Department of Social Services, and I were discussing urban poverty and I asked why poor women had out of wedlock babies when doing so seemed to be a big factor in keeping them in poverty. Reg’s answer was simple: “The research indicates that the overwhelming reason is because they want something to love.”
In no way would the threat of shaming have had any impact on Janna, who was then and still remains, a devote Christian. In fact, because public assistance is less than generous, Janna’s Christian Reform congregation (quite conservative, as anyone who lives in Grand Rapids knows) helped send Carmen to Christian schools, from which she graduated. Shaming would have stigmatized Carmen as “illegitimate” and opened her to ridicule, embarrassment, and discrimination. As it is, Carmen is married and has three children, and Janna has her family---all doing quite well.
We’ve Been Watching You
Just outside the campus of Grand Valley State University used to be a coffee shop called By-and-By, owned and operated by Donna, a lesbian in a committed relationship. After work I would exercise at Grand Valley’s fieldhouse, and then stop at By-and-By for a coffee. I got to know Donna well, and met her partner on several occasions. Donna’s shop was framed on three sides by large windows that let in lots of warm sunlight even in the winter. In the middle of the shop was a pool table at which I occasionally played. Donna had plenty of opportunity to watch me.
During one visit to the coffee shop Donna and her partner came from behind their L-shaped counter and sat at my table. “We have something to ask you,” Donna said.
“My, my, sounds serious,” I said.
Donna flashed a smile to her partner and said, “It is. We have decided to have a child.”
This was now the 1990’s and I didn’t know much about gays being allowed to adopt children, but I immediately thought they needed my help as an employee of the State of Michigan to approach an adoption agency. I told them I didn’t have any contacts that I thought could help them adopt.
“No,” Donna said. “We have been watching you and getting to know you, and we would like your sperm.”
The statement took a few seconds to sink in: “We would like your sperm.” I had never been asked for my sperm though I’ve had it accepted, usually with gratitude. Donna’s forwarded her proposition in a friendly but business-like manner as one solicits a charitable donation, which in a way I guess it was. Donna explained that it was a simple process: I would go to a clinic and masturbate in a cup and then Donna or her partner (I can’t remember which, or if they even told me who was to be the recipient) would be inseminated. They would pay for everything, including the drafting of legal document absolving me of any responsibilities for the child. Very clinical, very cut-and-dry. “They’ll even give you porn to look at if you need help,” Donna added.
Donna and her partner displayed an out-of-context calmness probably born from rehearsal, but I fidgeted with my coffee cup and caused Donna to say, “That’s assuming you have no religious objections to any part of this, such as masturbation.”
I laughed and said, “No, nothing like that.” Though I was born and raised a Roman Catholic, I never bought in to masturbation as sin. Besides, in this case I would not be “spilling my seed” as it were, but contributing to a birth, albeit with two lesbians. I wonder what the Church would make of that situation, considering the Church’s current stand against gay adoption. Which is the bigger sin: jerking off, or contributing to a gay birth?
I told Donna and her partner I was very flattered, but that after my son’s birth I had a vasectomy.
The two women looked at each other, and then Donna said, “Okay. Well thanks anyway.”
My inability to help Donna was but a temporary set-back. Donna now has two thriving children and is very happy.
Does anyone serious think that Donna and her partner gave a shit about shaming, or would in the least been deterred from their goal by attempts to shame them?
Past Practice and Irrelevance
Though it is always useful to review past practice to inform current decisions, there are situations where past practice is irrelevant because of the extent of social change. In the past fifty years our thinking about sex and parenthood and marriage has changed so much that attempting to impose an old morality would not only cause many people much pain, but would require very coercive, if not violent, means to accomplish. Because shaming is so inappropriate in today’s social context, force would be necessary to change the social order to accommodate shaming. A social upheaval is necessary to accommodate an ancient morality, like that of the Islamic State’s revolution to accommodate stoning.
There is however one exception to the need for a social revolution to implement an archaic morality: when only a minority of a population is to be singled out for scapegoating. All the women I talk about above have one important factor in common: they are white. I don’t think the politicians advocating a return to shaming think they can influence these white women. I think the politicians are too smart for that and know it would require social, religious, and economic charges so disruptive that we would indeed see “the fabric of this country fall apart”.
When we look closely at the Bush and Santorum statements we find certain socially loaded phrases that give us a key to the audience the speakers are appealing. “Young men walking away”, “Single parent households”, “Breeding more criminals”, “Welfare Benefits”, “It could be one of five”, are all intended to bolster a shared prescriptive belief that certain racial minorities (usually meaning blacks) are promiscuous, irresponsible, and welfare dependent. When we understand that scapegoating is the goal---that the goal is not radically changing a society---it becomes clear that suggesting shaming unwed mothers as public policy is really intended to foster cohesion among those who think themselves responsible, self-controlled, and economically independent, at the expense of an economically and socially exploited minority. The real motive behind shaming is group cohesion through the continuance of racist exploitation.