Social Media and Subsidiarity

A video of a crying young boy describing his experiences of bullying in school has gone viral over the last day or so, being shared by many millions of people. Dozens of celebrities have responded, and have received glowing press in their turn as a result. Some have suggested raising money for his college education. Others have sent messages of personal support, or invited him to special events. There have been forceful challenges to the school authorities and attempts to identify the bullies.

As anyone who has been on the receiving end of it knows, bullying is a horrible experience. I was bullied over many years of my childhood and many of the events still stick in my mind. Kids can be brutal. I remember, for instance, an acquaintance taking me down to the cellar of a pub, ostensibly to show me around, then taking me by surprise, slamming my head full force against some barrels and trying to choke me. Fortunately, I escaped his grip and avoided hanging out with him after that point.

While that was especially dangerous, ostracization and personal attacks over several years by many of my peers hurt far more. The bullying at my school was very bad even though I had it relatively easy. One of my friends, a sweet and sensitive kid, went off the rails, tried to commit suicide, and ended up on the street on drugs after being systematically bullied over a few years. Other bullied students transferred to other schools.

Looking back, I realize that many of the kids who bullied me weren’t bad kids and only a few seem to have been purposefully vicious. Even the kid who may have been trying to kill me seems a lot less straightforwardly a bad kid in retrospect. Certain of the adults in the situation could have done more, though. Most of the kids who bullied me probably didn’t register what they were doing. Most of them matured in various ways over the years. Some former bullies became friendly acquaintances later in my childhood. I also came to appreciate that there had been occasions when I had been a bully without realizing it, even to people that I genuinely cared about.

Bullying is complicated. Kids can be rough yet deeply sensitive, with underdeveloped brains that can make it difficult for them to recognize others’ emotional states. They are bound to hurt each other and to be hurt in their turn. Both their roughness and their sensitivity are good things in their place, which need to be channelled. The roughness needs to be directed into healthy and responsibly exercised strength of agency and the sensitivity needs to be protected by the thicker skin of a well-defined self and the moderated behaviour of mature peers, rather than letting them become hardened.

I know the pain of being bullied and can imagine the pain of a parent seeing their child being bullied, perhaps feeling unable to help them as they would wish, and angry at school authorities for not creating a safer environment. The experience of deep love confronted with a sense of its powerlessness to rescue someone we care about from profound pain is something we have all felt at some point.

In such situations, the typical parental response is twofold. Parents try to develop more strength and resilience in their child and they intervene themselves, often by trying to get school authorities and other parents to act to prevent the behaviour recurring or continuing.

There is now a further option open: to get the Internet involved.

Seeing the outpouring of support in response to the pain of the bullied kid over the last day or so online has been heart-warming for many. Naturally we identify with the kid, and wish that we could do something to improve his situation. The sense that his life has now been transformed by a tsunami of sentimental support and action from the bowels of the Internet makes us feel that we’ve done something to make a positive difference in his life.

However, I was unsurprised yet concerned to see the amount of publicity this child’s case received.

Christians and conservatives often refer to the principle of ‘subsidiarity’: matters should be dealt with by the lowest level agency capable of doing so. This principle, which can be accompanied by a commitment to strengthen and equip lower-level agencies so that they can take more responsibility upon themselves, seeks to ensure that such agencies aren’t weakened, stifled, or reduced to dependency upon higher agencies.

Parents typically follow principles of subsidiarity when dealing with the conflicts and bullying that their children experience. They seek to encourage the strength and independence of their children, to ensure that they don’t become too dependent, teaching their children ways to stick up for themselves and how to develop greater resilience and a thicker skin. They seek to encourage the conflict-resolving abilities of children, discouraging over-dependence on parental intervention, pushing them to sort out certain conflicts among themselves. They act on their children’s behalf when the children aren’t yet strong enough to act for themselves. Then they appeal to other authorities to assist them—parents and school authorities—where neither their children’s nor their action is sufficient.

Processes that enact the principle of subsidiarity serve various ends. They encourage people to develop strength and steadily move them away from dependency. They decentralize agency. They constantly push against the escalation of matters, refusing to touch issues that could appropriately be dealt with by an agency nearer to the situation.

One of the signs of good authority is the way in which it strengthens those under it, so that they can increasingly function without it. Bad authority makes us increasingly dependent, even in the name of ‘empowerment’. Healthy authority is a source of freedom, providing us with and directing us towards the proper ends of character and action and supporting us as we grow in our pursuit of them. True authority frees us to undertake effective action. Oliver O’Donovan writes:

Where authority is, freedom is; and where authority is lost, freedom is lost. This holds good for all kinds of authority. Without adults who demand mature behavior, the child is not free to grow up; without teachers to set standards of excellence, the scholar is not free to excel; without prophets to uphold ideals of virtue, society is not free to realize its common good. To be under authority is to be freer than to be independent.

As O’Donovan observes here, full independence should not be simplistically equated with freedom. Our agency is always limited and healthy authority enables it to become stronger. While there are some forms of authority that we mature beyond, such as the parental authority experienced by a young child, there are many others that we remain dependent upon to some degree or other throughout our lives and which, practiced well, can encourage our lifelong growth.

As individuals on the Internet, we can see ourselves as limited by various authorities, and thereby fail to appreciate and take responsibility for the immense collective authority that we wield. As the #MeToo and other such campaigns reveal, the power of online accusations and allegations are considerable, as is the power of our collective anger or feeling. The outrage that people participate in online can (very often entirely deservedly) destroy reputations, cost people their jobs and careers, render them unemployable, destroy their communities, and stalk their steps for years. Yet this collective outrage is wielded so thoughtlessly and carelessly that most people who have participated will forget what they have done in a few days. When each participant casts only the smallest pebble, they may feel little responsibility, failing to consider their full participation in a collective assault that has buried its victim.

There is no due procedure in, no possible appeal of, no effective recourse in response to the Kafkaesque authority of the online masses. We are urged to just ‘believe’ the truthfulness and accuracy of allegations and little attempt is made to weigh the relative seriousness of matters carefully. There is no suspension of judgment and no process of deliberation. There is no careful revisiting of past judgments, or self-scrutinizing reflection upon the long-term consequences of past outrage. There is no attempt to overcome the capriciousness of the cases judged and the manner of their judgment.

Online, we can be like Absalom at the gates of the city, always prepared to give the desired judgment in a case, having only heard one side of the matter, discrediting and undermining legitimate authorities in the process. The appeal to the Internet is a great way of undermining lower-level agencies. The authorities at the bullied child’s school are summarily and reactively condemned, without any attempt to ascertain their side of the story or, more importantly, to recognize that it is none of our business in the first place. Indeed, much of our time online is spent arguing or getting outraged about matters in which we are completely unqualified to judge.

By acting so forcefully in response to the child’s case, the online masses have hampered the school authorities in their response to the situation. The radically disproportionate character of the Internet’s response singles out that child in a very unhealthy way and leaves the school authorities with a weakened authority with respect to him. He now knows that he can go above their heads. Likewise, the Internet has sided so unilaterally with the bullied child that it risks damaging healthy relationships within the population of students. Rather than supporting and encouraging all students in their development of their own responsible and considerate agency, the immensely powerful Internet has become the partisan of one student in particular, greatly empowering him relative to his peers.

Yet the immense power the child now enjoys is of a form that discourages his growth in his own agency and resilience. Indeed, the Internet rewards weak and vulnerable victims in a way that encourages victimhood, rather than developing resilience and strength. Nor do we consider the long-term effect that we might have upon the people we are trying to help. In twenty years’ time, when this boy is looking for a job, the first thing that potential employers will see when they search for him is a video of him as a blubbing kid. Although the response is a heart-warming and piece of online feelgood theatre for most of us, this event is going to transform this child’s life in ways for which I don’t believe we are taking responsibility.

Of course, the insatiable hunger of the bored billions on the Internet for emotional stimulation is now predictably moving on to consume stories about the racist behaviour of the child’s mother. The wildfire of a media circus will burn over the child’s family life, former supporters will retract or downplay their support as it becomes more of a liability for their reputations, and what will be left when all is done?

It is important to bear in mind that the primary problem here comes from the form of online social media, not from people’s failure to act responsibly. Our problems are chiefly structural. People’s failure to act responsibly is merely the predictable human behaviour to be expected on media that, through their rapidity, socially-saturated character, and undifferentiation of conversations, reward and promote emotional reactivity, the contagion of outrage, the stifling of discourse, and undeliberated judgments. These are issues I’ve discussed at length in the past (see the posts linked here or this post). The call for responsibility is a call to develop new antibodies against the diseased logics of our modern social environment.

I don’t think people yet appreciate the power of social media as a game-changer in the organization of society and its discourses. The online masses have become a powerful, yet deeply irresponsible, authority in their own right. Social media are one force empowering the movement from a dignity culture to a victimhood culture in our current context, not least through their facilitation of the overriding of the logic of subsidiarity. Where other authorities might encourage resilience and agency in those petitioning them and present disincentives to those considering appealing to them, social media rewards dependence and accentuated victimhood.

The ability to mobilize outrage has been found to be a powerful way to stifle conversation on controversial issues and to close down people that we dislike. When James Damore shared a controversial memo on gender differences in a private forum at Google, for instance, publicizing it for the sake of outrage on social media proved to be a far more effective alternative to reasoned dialogue to those who wanted to challenge his position. Why go to the effort of answering genuine arguments when you can shoot the messenger and cow any others who might come forward into silence for the sake of their careers, reputations, and lives?

It is important to bear in mind that human beings are not gender-neutral beings. The traditional culture of public and academic argument and debate was a development of male places, which depended upon male codes of behaviour and gender norms, and presumed that those realms would remain overwhelmingly male in their composition. The development of dignity culture involved the moderation and containment of high agency interactions between men, ensuring that they didn’t revert to the violent form of preceding—and often surrounding—honour cultures, manifested in duels and other such forms of conflict. The assumption was that participants were robust, resilient, firm, and largely independent in their agency.

Modern victimhood culture is in no small measure the transformation of these spaces as a result of the influx of women, where women’s generally less forceful and resilient agency leads higher agencies to assume more of a protective than a regulative function. Female sociality has always tended to function differently from male sociality. Where male sociality is more directly conflictual in its style, female sociality is more typically characterized by indirect conflict and the formation of and maintenance of cliques.

I’ve written about this at length here, but John Robb describes some of the key dimensions of the dynamic pithily here. When male and female forms of sociality are mashed together, we tend to get a mess, where the goods that both forms of sociality uphold when practiced well become compromised and destructive. John Robb highlights a point that I have also emphasized, which explains the importance of social media as part of the picture:

This network fights like a ruling clique, albeit vastly larger than we have seen historically due to the scaling effects of social networking. This network openly connects people in authority across every major institution (from education to the media to the government to the tech industry) and leverages it and the politics of identity to establish moral authority. It fights by categorizing, vilifying and shunning enemies. It scores victories by manufacturing consensus.

Social media allows for cliques to be scaled up to hitherto unimaginable new levels. It allows for the control, manipulation, and mobilization of public opinion.

The manufacture of collective opinion through control of social relations is proving to be an increasingly effective mechanism for the formation of public policy and orthodoxy. The power of people who belong to a victim or protected class—women being the largest such class—taking offence on social media is one before which traditional forms, institutions, and agencies of social judgment and authority are increasingly powerless. The fact that men have historically dominated in the enjoyment of public power within large, broad, and shallow public networks easily blinds people to the fact that women have always been the great centripetal force within society. Society may gather behind its leading men, but it gathers around its women.

Social media amplifies this force considerably and thereby changes the dynamic of society more generally, conforming it more to a matriarchal pattern and the socially-enforced consensus that can involve. The fact that this power has achieved some very positive ends, not least in the recent exposure of many abusers in various institutions, does not change the fact that, in its current form, it is deeply dysfunctional, irresponsible, and a threat to the healthy functioning of authority and truthful discourse in society. Either we will find some way to master, mould, and contain the power of social media for our collective good as a society, or its disordered power will cause considerable problems for us in the decades to come. These concerns may not be popular ones to raise in a society where gender neutrality and parity are orthodoxy, but it is increasingly imperative that we attend to them, as the integrity of our public life and discourse may well depend upon it.

The principle of subsidiarity is one that Christians and conservatives really need to bear in mind online too, as we are also in frequent danger of breaking it. Many of the free speech causes célèbres have involved the irresponsible use of the power of the online crowd to undermine or discredit legitimate, even if failing, local authorities, to judge cases without hearing both sides, or to insert ourselves in situations in ways that disrupt proper procedure. Often hearing both sides reveals that issues are more complicated than they first appeared and that the appeal to social media was an opportunistic attempt to circumvent proper procedure through tickling conservatives’ deep desire to be outraged about something.

Rather than seeing what we can do to strengthen and equip local authorities for good practice, we have intervened in invasive and destructive ways. We forget that many of the problems for free speech in universities today arise from the precarious employment conditions of academics and the steady undermining of their power relative to that of their students as consumers in the business model of the university. Rather than pursuing systemic responses to such problems, the online community has often used its power in ways that make academics even more embattled, especially if they are on the other side of the ideological aisle. It must also be remembered that one of the marks of responsible authority is its self-limitation, its resolve not to get involved in many situations, leaving matters to those authorities nearest to the ground. This is a virtue decidedly uncharacteristic of the conservative use of social media’s power.

The power of the Internet has also been used in ways that are cruel and invasive towards students and others who challenge free speech. Students have always been immature and restive. Many of them are still kids. What they need are institutions that will firmly yet gently shepherd them towards maturity, neither coddling them nor assaulting them. Like young bullies, trained well, many of them will grow out of their immaturity and develop resilience of mind. What is really required are academics and academic institutions that are powerful enough relative to their students to treat them as minds and characters to be formed through challenge, rather than as consumers to be coddled and pandered to. Subsidiarity recognizes that we shouldn’t use sledgehammers to crack nuts. Local authorities are best placed to handle local situations and we should support them in their exercise of their responsibilities. Unlike the crowd on social media, those nearest to the ground will generally be in the best positions to forge solutions that protect and value all parties, encouraging people to grow, rather than just crushing and attacking them for their manifest immaturity.

The coming decades will almost certainly involve increasingly desperate struggles to develop coordination mechanisms and social antibodies to resist the dysfunctional logics of the various principles, techniques, and technologies which are ordering our world. We are in situations where everyone is acting rationally, yet the collective result is destructive, on account of the dysfunctional systems that are choreographing our actions. The powers and systems that were supposed to increase our autonomy have themselves become autonomous and society is being reduced to servitude to them. Organic human life is being subjected to the alien rule of universal reason and technique.

The solutions to our widely unperceived crisis are not easy to discover. Considering the crisis of society’s growing subjection to technicity, Heidegger famously declared:

[P]hilosophy will be unable to effect any immediate change in the current state of the world. This is true not only of philosophy but of all purely human reflection and endeavor. Only a god can save us. The only possibility available to us is that by thinking and poetizing we prepare a readiness for the appearance of a god, or for the absence of a god in [our] decline, insofar as in view of the absent god we are in a state of decline.

For others, the recovery of true agency could only be rediscovered in the weakness following our divestment of much of the technical power that has come to master us. As the complete technical transformation of the world—and the gradual victory of unformed human impulses over robust moral character—seems like a more realistic prospect than the development of deep moral character and resolve, this might seem like a counsel of despair. Which is why trust in the power of the Spirit to renew the creation must become a deciding factor in our response.

Technique and technology have become means for us to divest ourselves of our limits and to enjoy greater autonomy. However, ‘autonomy’ has come at the expense of robust agency, gradually forming us to be fickle servants of our whims and impulses, against which our technologically-formed world offers ever-reducing friction. If change will come—and it really must—there is only one quarter that it can truly arrive from: a rediscovery of robust moral agency. No technology can save us.

This will require a renewed appreciation of the logic of subsidiarity, of the fact that responsibility and agency ought to be focused on and move towards the most immediate sphere. If change will come, it must start with persons like you and me prayerfully and mindfully recovering their strength of agency, and supporting each other in this task in community, for none of us is sufficient alone.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Culture, Ethics, In the News, On the web, Society. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Social Media and Subsidiarity

  1. Hi Alastair,
    I need to read your piece again and again… but here’s an initial response with some thoughts (in addition to the fact that I love the Charlie Brown cartoon!)
    Much of your focus is on online bullying, and certainly everything online is amplified and inflated and so very public. I agree with what you wrote about agency and maturity,but these factors cannot help a physically weak person if a physically stronger person is trying to beat the living daylights out of him or her, and I think it is small wonder if the victim cries out, ‘I’ll get my Dad onto you’ (or the whole police force or great gangs on the internet!) Nor can these factors help a physically strong person if he/she is outnumbered by opponents, as OT Joseph was by his brothers (though of course God magnificently transformed those relationships eventually).On second thoughts, maybe Joseph could have exercised some agency by keeping quiet about his dreams rather than provoking the envy of his brothers by talking about those dreams – not that envy justifies bullying, but I think bullying is, unfortunately,sometimes fuelled by envy.
    Reading your piece has reminded me of when I was about six and I was regularly bullied on the way home from school by a girl who was older and bigger than I was. On one occasion she thumped me so hard that I was struggling with my breathing. When I got home and told my Mum, she said the girl had ‘winded’ me, and when I asked what I could do about that girl, Mum just said nonchalantly, ‘Hit her back.’ The next day I tried to hit that girl’s back, but she kept turning round to look at me, so I didn’t manage it. I thought my Mum would never stop laughing when I told her this, and though I don’t think I learnt much about protecting myself from a bully, I did learn a bit about language usage, and got some laughter therapy into the bargain 🙂
    But you have written about far more than big people bullying smaller people and groups ganging up on an individual, so I will now re-read your piece and my first task will be to try to understand the full meaning of ‘subsidiarity’.
    Thank you for posting this – it is great, as always.

    • Thanks for the comment, Christine. To clarify my point, it wasn’t that we should just stick up for ourselves and never ask for help. We all need help sometimes. Rather, it was that we should not ask for or be given more help than we need and should be encouraged to develop greater levels of independence. The bullied young child is absolutely right to ask for parental help, as they aren’t sufficient for the challenge that they face. However, part of that help should be training them to be able to stand up for themselves better and to develop a thicker skin, so that people’s cruel words don’t impact them so much and they are less in need of help in the future.

      • Thank you Alastair, and thank you for being patient with me
        I focused on physical bullying but verbal/psychological bullying is also an ugly reality, both offline and online. We certainly need to find ways of insulating ourselves against verbal bullying without feeling the need to ride on someone else’s coattails at every turn. You mentioned children getting help in developing ‘a thicker skin’. I haven’t got a thick skin – in fact, many people have described me as sensitive. My mother used to tell us to ‘rise above it’ when, as kids, we were weary of name-calling and so on, and the same advice was given by some of my former colleagues to pupils and also to some members of staff. I was never able to ‘rise above it’! What does sustain me the shield of faith which enables us to quench the fiery darts of the evil one. But as we know, faith is no guarantor of survival!
        Thank you again for your piece. It’s given us plenty to think about.
        I am still learning about about subsidiarity – that should keep me quiet for a bit 🙂

  2. CW says:

    Alastair,

    Subsidiarity is verboten in the victimhood culture. The goal is to find more and more powerful advocates to plead your case, and to exercise agency on your behalf. In social media you can wield the collective outrage of a nation, if you can gain their attention.

    From the other side of things it is important to see the ways bullying can be exacerbated by social media and radical connectedness. Kids (or adults) entire social experience is in realms where the bullies can lurk, and strike. This can be very destabilizing and frightening.

    • Yes, the collapsing of the division between school and home through social media and mobile devices is a huge and under-appreciated factor. There aren’t the same places to which a person can retreat.

  3. Eric says:

    Of course, tempted by the numerically almost infinitesimally rare case, more and more seek to be protected by the ‘ever present’ yet always absent anonymous, impersonal masses of a’social media’, when True help if it lies anywhere probably exists only a few spoken words away.

  4. Austin Tayshiss says:

    I was with you for the first five paragraphs which were really good, but then you went off the rails and were obviously completely deluded by the time you wrote this:

    “Indeed, the Internet rewards weak and vulnerable victims in a way that encourages victimhood, ”

    I have no idea which corners of the Internet you hang out in, but in my experience the Internet does EXACTLY the opposite of what you describe in the text I quoted. Have you ever heard of the social-darwinian cesspools known as 4chan? Twitter? No seriously, I want to know which website in particular “rewards weak and vulnerable victims in a way that encourages victimhood”. Are you talking about crowd-funding sites? Because those are benign since they can be used for any purpose, and far more often than not have nothing to do with “victims”. So again I challenge you to provide a link to anywhere that “rewards weak and vulnerable victims”, whether it’s in a way that “encourages victimhood” or not, either way would satisfy me… thanks in advance.

    • Austin, if you think that 4chan is characteristic of the Internet, I don’t know what to say to you. 4chan is anomalous in today’s Internet, a throwback to the time before most of the Internet was ‘paved over’. Networks and contexts like 4chan, Reddit, and anonymous Twitter (about 25% of Twitter users are anonymous or partly anonymous) are heavily male, tend to be more agonistic, and definitely don’t encourage victimhood. However, these aren’t the main networks and contexts out there. Facebook and non-anonymous Twitter are far more powerful contexts. 4chan has about 25 million monthly users. Facebook has about 2 billion. There really is no comparison. And on the non-anonymous social Internet—which is what dominates the overwhelming number of Internet users’ experience, even those heavily active on more anonymous and less personal networks—victimhood is rewarded.

      If victimhood were not rewarded, there would be a very strong disincentive to putting oneself forward as a victim. However, in a more socially saturated and personal network, making your victimhood known can become a benefit, because the group protects victims and vulnerable members. When some anonymous Twitter user attacks a non-anonymous user, they will often broadcast the existence of the attack to their followers, often portraying themselves as the vulnerable victim. This sort of strategy pays off in closer and more personal networks. In less personal networks, the effective strategy tends to be one of hiding one’s victimhood or vulnerability.

      If the Internet generally penalized weak and vulnerable victims, explaining the viral appeal of videos of a bullied boy is going to be much harder. I haven’t checked, but I would predict that 4chan’s response to the story initially involved ambivalence coupled with some ridicule of the kid, followed by feigned outrage about the way people turned against the story once his mother was presented as a racist and he was claimed to be a racist bully himself. 4chan is atypical and dislikes the victimhood culture of the ‘normie’ Internet, where stories of bullied kids go viral and people rush to the kid’s defense. They rightly intuit that this protective instinct is exercised as much against them as on behalf of those presented as victims. The fact that 4chan is so often unusual in its responses and antagonistic to the prevailing culture of the Internet is important to notice as it highlights the fact that the Internet is mostly quite unlike 4chan and that anyone taking 4chan as typical is really missing the big picture.

      To understand these phenomena, this is a helpful start. You are attending to the ‘bad boys’, who operate from the margins and the shadows, like 4chan. The anonymity of such contexts is important to notice: people go anonymous precisely in order to protect themselves from the power of the social group, in which the ‘mean girls’ hold a disproportionate amount of influence. And it is with the ‘mean girls’ and the culture that they create around themselves that the victimhood culture is most operative.

    • CW says:

      It’s kind of obscure, but I’ve heard there are some people declaring that they have been victimized in a public way, and they are generally receiving affirmation and support…. #MeToo, or something like that. 4chan is probably a lot more influencial though.

  5. BILL MURPHY says:

    Thanks for another wonderful and thought provoking article, Alastair. I was particularly horrified by the sentence: “In twenty years’ time, when this boy is looking for a job, the first thing that potential employers will see when they search for him is a video of him as a blubbing kid”. It reminds me of C S Lewis’ comment that perhaps God always sees you as a bullying schoolboy when you pride yourself on having long outgrown such sins. It is arguably worse than the “1984” scenario of being under permanent scrutiny by the Thought Police; at least you could train yourself to never express any sort of heresy. Already, employers can find any embarrassing details about your birthday party or ferocious rows with your old girlfriends.

    And the mooted “right to be forgotten” must be a fiction in a world where so much can be copied instantly between various websites. It is a nightmare version of Andy Warhol’s quip that one day everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes. Everyone can be publicly infamous for ever, depending on how much they or their acquaintances have placed in the public domain.

  6. Hi Alastair,
    I am still trying to understand ‘subsidiarity’ and I am not sure if this is relevant or not , but I believe that you will give your blessing to me posting it here on your page.
    I will tell it as it happened. I believe that this kind of thing probably happens quite a lot around the country, and I felt tempted to post it on twitter, but then I chickened out!
    Anyway – here it is.
    A few weeks ago at 8.50 a.m one day I heard someone hammering on my front door. I was upstairs and as I walked downstairs to open the door the hammering continued persistently – this was hammering, not normal door-knocking.
    I opened the door and saw two men outside. One asked, ‘Is Mr. Sykes here?’ I said he wasn’t and the man asked, ‘What is he to you?’ I replied, ‘Nothing. I have never heard of him.’ He then said to me, ‘Then you will have to show me a utility bill as proof of your identity.’ I said ‘No.’ (Gut reaction!) The second man moved forward and said,’ What do you mean, ‘No’? You have to!’ I asked, ‘Why? I don’t even know who you are.’ Then they told me that they were from the Magistrates Court – bailiffs, in my language. They were wearing identity badges but I was unable to read them because I was not wearing my specs. (Also, many people wearing identity badges knock on my door – salesmen, charity volunteers and so on – but they usually introduce themselves before asking me any questions.) So, having taken a close look at the identity badges of those two bailiffs, I showed them a utility bill and they calmed down and apologised for disturbing me. One also said, ‘That proves that Mr.Sykes is not here’, to which I replied, ‘But it doesn’t – it just proves that I am who I say I am – but I can assure you that he does not live here and that I have never heard of him.’ They shrugged of my comment and left.
    I am 73. Over the years I have learned to deal with all sorts of strangers who come knocking on my door. At a house I rented previously the bailiffs came round but they spoke to me very differently and, as soon as I opened the door, one of them smiled and said, ‘I don’t think you are the person we are looking for.’ I am concerned that some people might have felt intimidated by being spoken to as I was by those men from the court. Yes, I felt angry, and yes, I wish this matter could be addressed at national level. However, I am not convinced that twitter is the best forum for it.I have thought of contacting the local court about this, but I am not well just now and could really do without the strife!

    • That sounds like a rather unpleasant experience!

      Subsidiarity is the principle that prioritizes the most immediate level for the resolution of political and social problems, only appealing to other parties when those are insufficient for the task. An extension of the principle is the strengthening of more immediate levels of agency, so that centralizing agencies can increasingly step back. As a principle, it is primarily emphasized in political and social contexts.

      This sounds complicated, but it can easily be brought down to earth, which is why I focused on the character of child-rearing. As a parent, when your child is very weak, untrained, and vulnerable, you will have to do most things for them. You will have to feed them, tie their shoelaces, wash them, and bring them to where they need to go. They are radically dependent upon your agency. Your parenting exists in part to act on behalf of your children, when they cannot act for themselves. However, your parenting also exists to train your children to the point where they can largely act for themselves, leave your protection, and be independent.

      If you were to ‘baby’ your children throughout their lives, you would prevent them from growing and would make them weak and dependent. As a good parent, there will be occasions when you will just need to step back from your children and refuse to step in when they appeal to you, lest you make them dependent upon you to an unhealthy degree.

      Similar principles apply to our own lives. There are ways in which we can foster independence, and ways in which we can become increasingly dependent upon others in immature and unhealthy ways. There is nothing wrong with being dependent to some degree. We all must rely upon others in various ways and to various degrees. However, there are some ways in which we rely upon others that are indications that we haven’t yet reached maturity or our full potential. Also, when we are dependent upon others, we should generally follow a principle of subsidiarity too: ideally, we shouldn’t appeal to the government to intervene when we have family and friends who could resolve our problems. Likewise, we should try to develop our strength to resolve certain problems of our own by ourselves, rather than appealing to some other party.

      • Austin Tayshiss says:

        What I have a problem with is people not accepting the responsibility of their choices, regardless of what those choices are or how they happen to align on the political spectrum. Just as parents who coddle their kid and produce an over-dependent entitled brat all too often absolve themselves of the consequences of their actions, often so too do those who use a “tough love” approach with their children. Case in point, being in Canada, I’ve been paying attention to a murder trial taking place in Ontario in which a 22-year old young woman named Laura Babcock was killed and incinerated by her former ‘friends’ after her parents had booted her out of their house because she “didn’t like rules” such as a curfew. Now a curfew for a 22-year old is ridiculous to begin with, but fine, if you allow her to live under your roof, you make the rules. And if she won’t obey them you have every right to make the choice to kick her out. But then if she winds up murdered afterwards because you put her in a position where she’s sleeping in parks at night in downtown Toronto (which is what happened in this case), and some people decide to kill her because they figure she won’t be misssed and the crime won’t be investigated much because she’s now a ‘sketchy homeless person’ (which is what happened in this case), then don’t pretend that your kid’s death isn’t the direct result of choices you made. And again, in this case the father has been acting like he had no blame in the matter, it was even brought up during the trial and he was incensed anyone would suggest such a thing. So yeah, if your plan backfires then take responsibility for it regardless of which social theory or political ideology your plan falls under.

  7. Hi Alastair,
    Thank you for explaining so clearly – I think I have a much better understanding of this now. What you have said puts me in mind a bit of Parzival and his initiation journey towards knighthood (and manhood) and his mother’s wish to protect him from risk, which would have stifled his growth . (Parzival was one of our set texts at Uni many years ago)
    I suppose when we can’t represent ourselves, as in matters of criminal law, it is best to put our case in the hands of lawyers/solicitors and not make it public property on, for instance, twitter. I suspect that some court cases have been sabotaged because some details have been put in the public domain in this way.

    • Just one more thought – I don’t regard my incident with the bailiffs as personal because it would not have happened had it not been for Local Government regulations, so I think there is a case for taking it beyond family and friends. The personal aspect of it is that I don’t want to take it to Local Government at this time because I am unwell! That said, I can see that there are personal matters which are sometimes taken outside the realm of family and friends and this can sometimes be detrimental to all concerned.

  8. Hi Austin Tayshiss, you have commented on a tragic event and if that young woman were my daughter I would be heartbroken. You mention ‘tough love’. In my experience ‘tough love’ is often tougher on the parent than it is on the child who is negotiating the risky journey towards responsible adulthood. I just thought of how eager toddlers are to climb stairs, and how very much their parents *don’t* want the little ones to fall and maybe suffer serious injury in the process. When my (now adult) children were at that stage I was always a few stairs behind them so that I could catch them falling, which they often did. I was a sort of ‘back-stop’ while they learned by trial and error. Of course they could eventually climb the stairs without the need of a ‘back-stop’, which was a great achievement for them and a great relief for me! It’s not easy to watch youngsters learn by trial and error. And I don’t suppose I’m the only parent who is still a ‘back-stop’ in some respects after the birds have flown from the nest.

  9. Bruce Charlton says:

    @Alastair – I found this post thought-provoking – and one of the thoughts was related to this modern social media ‘sin’ of ‘shaming’ (fat shaming, slut shaming etc).

    It struck me that this may have originated in a *sometimes* legitimate feeling of disproportion between a person’s sin, and the scale of ‘punishment’ meted out by the mass/ social media. A person that has done wrong is – potenitally – singled-out and put at the centre of a firestorm of social condemnation of unbounded severity and consequences.

    In our secular society that regards ‘sin’ as a merely expedient category (expedient to the implicitly utilitarian aims of secular ethics) the response seems to have been to say that ‘there’s nothing wrong with’ the behaviour of characteristic that potentially leads to massive piling-on of condemnation.

    That is, because there is such immense scope for making individuals feel ashamed, the new ethics emerging is that only a few officially-sanctioned categories of behaviour – core to the Leftist project – warrant being regarded as shame-worthy (i.e. racism, homo’phobia’, trans’phobia’ etc).

    Thus this ethic is unbounded pro-shaming (to the point of provoking suicide, or mob violence against a person, and celebrating that occurrence) for some ‘transgressions’ – while anti-shaming for others (including Christian sins).

    So, by contrast, Christian sins (such as promiscuity and infidelity) are replaced by the supposedly-greater sin of shaming-for-those-sins; because (by a utilitarian ethic) it can be argued that more human misery is caused by the shaming than by the sin which provoked it.

    In sum, it may be that we are seeing an adaptive evolution of social media towards supporting (and not destablising) the mainstream political project that sustains it.

    • Good points. This ties into a number of things I’ve discussed in recent posts. First, as I discuss here, the Christian concern for the victim has been perverted into a form of anti-Christian ‘victimology’, which is used to present moral order as fundamentally oppressive and those condemned by it as victims. This René Girard quotation is key:

      Neo-paganism would like to turn the Ten Commandments and all of Judeo-Christian morality into some alleged intolerable violence, and indeed its primary objective is their complete abolition. Faithful observance of the moral law is perceived as complicity with the forces of persecution that are essentially religious. Since the Christian denominations have become only tardily aware of their failings in charity, their connivance with established political orders in the past and present world that are always “sacrificial,” they are particularly vulnerable to the ongoing blackmail of contemporary neo-paganism.

      Neo-paganism locates happiness in the unlimited satisfaction of desires, which means the suppression of all prohibitions.

      Second, modern society, and especially social media, produce a fragilization of the self and create a socially saturated environment as I discuss here and here. To challenge such a person’s morality is seen to be tantamount to invalidating their person and a form of ‘violence’.

  10. West Midland Police have posted a request on twitter for people not to post on social media photos and videos of the harrowing road accident in Birmingham in which six people died and one is critically injured, and to delete any photos and videos they have already posted. I respect the police for making this request, a request which they made out of respect for relatives of the victims. It grieves me that there were people who exploited tragedy and grief by posting these images on social media. I understand that one newspaper has also published some of these images – if only market forces were such that no one would contemplate buying a copy of that newspaper.

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