The harder, duller work of self-care is about the everyday, impossible effort of getting up and getting through your life in a world that would prefer you cowed and compliant. A world whose abusive logic wants you to see no structural problems, but only problems with yourself, or with those more marginalized and vulnerable than you are. Real love, the kind that soothes and lasts, is not a feeling, but a verb, an action. It’s about what you do for another person over the course of days and weeks and years, the work put in to care and cathexis. That’s the kind of love we’re terribly bad at giving ourselves, especially on the left.
I started working on this entry yesterday morning. At that point, I planned to title it, “Pushing my limits or just my buttons?”. As I tried to write, I struggled with whether or not to keep reading David Brooks’ book The Road to Character and how to respond to his claims. I wanted to take his ideas seriously because he’s talking about character and virtue (my areas of interest) and he has a lot of power over how these topics, and morality in general, are being discussed by many people in this country. I first became aware of his book when several of my Facebook friends shared a link to his NY Times op-ed column, “The Moral Bucket List.” But, I kept encountering cringe-worthy sentences and arrogant claims about what “WE” need or how “YOU” (as in, the reader) feel. And I couldn’t get past the contradiction between his call for humility (and the recognition of our limits) and his tone of all-knowingness about what’s wrong with our “moral ecology” and what we can do to fix it.
Even as I was bothered by the book, I kept reading. I wanted to engage with his ideas and to think through how they might enable me to be critical and reflective about my views on character and morality.
Yesterday, I skimmed the entire book, reading through the chapters on his different role models, and then taking a closer look at one of his concluding chapters on “The Big Me.” And I had a realization. This book is not worth my critical and creative energy. When Brooks invokes “WE” and “YOU,” he’s not talking to, about or with me or a lot of folks. As I suggested in my first post on his book, his role models are not the ones that I’m looking for…or need. His “moral road map” isn’t instructive or helpful. In fact, some of the values he promotes and the logic that underlies them, is toxic to folks who are struggling to be counted as selves worthy of respect and dignity.
So, I have concluded that his book is not pushing me to the limits of what I know and believe, provoking me into thinking critically. His book is pushing my buttons, discouraging any critical or creative thinking I might have about how to work on moral selfhood and cultivate a soul. This button pushing is a distraction from important conversations about how to develop—OR, how to recognize already existing—moral languages and landscapes that respond to current moral/political crises.
Other, more important, conversations
I think I finally gave up on Brooks when he linked “women, minorities and the poor” (which is, in itself, a problematic lumping of categories that ignores intersections between gender, race, class and more) to the cultural shift from the humble, “little me” to the bragging, self-promoting, “Big Me.” This shift, he claims, resulted in the loss of the important language and ecology of “moral realism” and the valuing of and adherence to Norms and institutional values.
The shift in the 1950s and 1960s to a culture that put more emphasis on pride and self-esteem had many positive effects; it helped correct some deep social injustices. Up until those years, many social groups, notably women, minorities, and the poor, had received messages of inferiority and humiliation. They were taught to think lowly of themselves. The culture of self-esteem encouraged members of these oppressed groups to believe in themselves, to raise their sights and aspirations (247).
Huh? I don’t know what to make of this statement…and maybe I don’t want to think about it too hard because it might melt my brain (or get me really cranked up), trying to understand Brooks’ problematic or sloppy logic in using social justice movements as examples for the loss of moral language. If Brooks isn’t condemning social justice movements of the 50s and 60s, then why use them, without further explanation, to illustrate our turn to the Self?
I don’t completely disagree with Brooks’ arguments for the value of character or the need for moral language (and maybe that’s why I spent so much time thinking about his claims), but I do believe that he gets social justice movements like feminism and their focus on dignity and claiming the value of oneself, wrong here. At its best, feminist movement is not merely about building up self-esteem or making individuals feel good about themselves. It is about ensuring that all folks (not just women as autonomous individuals) are recognized as inherently valuable and worthy of dignity, respect, attention, material resources, protection and care. The social justice focus on the self is not about self-actualization; it is about self-preservation. It concerns more than the fate of an individual soul, or whether or not one cultivates good “eulogy virtues.” It concerns the fate of communities, whole groups of people, who are systematically devalued, ignored, destroyed.
I’ve spent a good chunk of my day thinking through this post and now I’ve run out of time. 5 minutes until I leave to pick up my daughter from school. I guess I don’t have much to show for it. Yet, I’ve finally arrived at the conversation that I want to have about character, morality and the self. It’s about self-care. When I have more time, I don’t plan to talk, instead I want to listen to and think deeply about the insightful words of Audre Lorde and Sara Ahmed in Ahmed’s post, “Self-care as Warfare.”
Here’s her conclusion:
Self-care: that can be an act of political warfare. In directing our care towards ourselves we are redirecting care away from its proper objects, we are not caring for those we are supposed to care for; we are not caring for the bodies deemed worth caring about. And that is why in queer, feminist and anti-racist work self-care is about the creation of community, fragile communities, assembled out of the experiences of being shattered. We reassemble ourselves through the ordinary, everyday and often painstaking work of looking after ourselves; looking after each other. This is why when we have to insist, I matter, we matter, we are transforming what matters. Women’s lives matter; black lives matter; queer lives matter; disabled lives matter; trans lives matter; the poor; the elderly; the incarcerated, matter.
For those who have to insist they matter to matter:
selfcare is warfare.
Summer is over and I feel a bit lost and overwhelmed. I tried a new experiment this summer. I didn’t work on any projects. I didn’t write. I didn’t create digital stories. I didn’t research. Instead I swam, biked and ran. And I read a lot of library books. I’m ready to get back into writing, storytelling and researching. But, having dropped the kids off for the first day of school yesterday morning, I’m not sure what to do with myself.
Where do I begin?
After sitting and staring at this computer screen for awhile, I’ve decided to revisit a project that has inspired my troublemaking work from the beginning: kids, troublemaking and moral education. I’ve been thinking and writing about kids and troublemaking since this blog was created. As my kids have grown older (they are now 11 and 8), my thoughts about troublemaking, both how kids practice it and how I model/teach it, has been evolving.
I’d like to turn my work into a bigger, more substantial project. What would that project entail? I’m still not sure. For now, I want to slowly get back into the habit of writing and thinking about kids and moral education. I’ll start by archiving some links about kids and moral education that I’d like to put into conversation with each other:
- Think you’re raising kind kids? Think again.
- What does mean mean?
- On Bad Babies, Moral Education and Caring-as-Generosity
- Making Caring Common
- Raising a Moral Child
I want to put these above sources beside:
Note: I originally started this blog post in mid April. I decided to finish it up today. Originally, this post was intended to be far more ambitious…maybe that’s why I never finished it. In completing it today, I’ve decide to focus less on offering up every insight that I can think of, and more on just getting it done.
I miss writing in this blog. Why did I stop? I think it’s because I’ve been too busy working on other projects: writing/editing two ebooks, researching and developing an interactive documentary about my family’s farm, experimenting with digital storytelling, and learning how to collaborate with my son on an epic video game project. It’s also because I was burned out on critical thinking and making trouble. I wanted to create, not just critique. And finally, it’s because I’m still working on figuring out how to maintain a healthy distance from the academy. I’m trying hard to not get sucked back into it and its highly toxic values.
But this spring, I find myself wanting to return here. To write. To critique. To ruminate on theories/articles/podcasts/media that connect to my primary areas of research interest: moral education, caring, curiosity, troublemaking, virtue and ethics. Today’s post is inspired by an article I found on Facebook about kids and moral education: Raising a Moral Child by super/over-achieving Academic Adam Grant.
Instead of writing a straight-forward review of the article (which I may do in the future), I’d like to let my mind wander and wonder at how the topics raised in this brief opinion piece for the The New York Times connect to other things I’ve recently (and not so recently) read. I also want to use this post as a space for both talking back to the article and being curious about the implications of some of its claims.
First, a brief summary: In “Raising a Moral Child,” Adam Grant poses the question, “What does it mean to raise a good child?” and ponders whether focusing on good practices or good character is more important for helping children to become “kind, compassionate and helpful.” Drawing upon several psychological experiments involving kids, Grant makes the following conclusions:
- Praising character (you are a generous person) is ultimately more important than praising a kid’s actions (you did a generous thing).
- In terms of negative responses to their failure to be kind, kids should feel guilt not shame. Parents can encourage this by expressing disappointment in the action instead of in the kid.
- Modeling generous/caring actions as parent is more important than lecturing to kids or telling them to be generous or caring. Character is shaped by actions: kids see how to be by what we do.
I appreciate Grant’s focus on character and the relationship he sees between character and action. I also appreciate his focus on caring, generosity and moral education. But, as I was reading this article, I found myself repeatedly asking: What does he mean by caring? Being kind? Being generous? Is generosity, in the form of kids giving their extra marbles to “poor children” (the primary example Grant offers), the most effective basis for determining what is/isn’t moral/good/caring? (My implied answer: No, it isn’t). These questions reminded me of a variety of things I’ve read or written about in the last few years.
What is care?
How do define care? While Grant assumes that we all (who is the “we” here?) share an understanding of care, I’m not so sure. Especially when that agreed upon definition seems to be reduced to generosity in the form of giving to the poor. I appreciate how Joan Tronto and Berenice Fisher offer a more expansive definition:
On the most general level, we suggest that caring be viewed as a species activity that includes everything that we do to maintain, continue, and repair our ‘world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible. That world includes our bodies, our selves, and our environment, all of which we seek to interweave in a complex, life-sustaining web (103).
Care and generosity come in many forms, some of which aren’t always as caring and generous as we assume them to be. The paternalistic care that giving to the poor (marbles or money) often engenders may feel caring to the one giving it, but what does it do to the object of that giving—the “poor”? Here I’m referencing Adam Grant’s discussion of this study in which 7-8 year olds could give some of their marble winnings to “poor children.” Sadly, since I’m no longer an academic, I don’t have access to the whole study. I’d really like to know how the researchers describe “the poor children.” Part of the focus on raising caring children should be on discussions/working through of what caring can/does/should mean. And on resisting the impulse to see “the poor” merely as objects (and not subjects) of your giving generosity.
Way back in 2010, I wrote about kids and learning to care in Linking care with Troublemaking.
what does it mean to be kind?
In What does Mean Mean, Kate Bornstein writes:
And why didn’t I simply write, be kind. I almost did.
But people have ruined that word by calling for a kinder, gentler nation and then effecting a nation that’s very close to the opposite. Another example: someone could consider truthfully that they’re being kind to you when they stop you from being a homosexual… because then you won’t go to hell. It’s become too easy for people to convince themselves that they’re not being mean when they simply call themselves kind. Nope, the word kind can be stretched way out of shape. So, be kind couldn’t be the rule.
I think that treating others with respect in ways that doesn’t do violence to them or deny them of their dignity is very important. Perhaps that’s part of the kindness that Grant is calling for. But, instead of only training kids to be kind, we should also focus on helping them to develop ways for not being mean and for standing up to others who are mean. This can provide kids with some valuable tools for resisting/fighting back against people who try to treat them, and those around them, like shit (or, as I’ve started telling my 8 year old daughter, people who “try to dim your light”). And, it doesn’t restrict the “good” behavior that we promote to some narrow form of kindness.
I was reminded about “not being mean” this morning (May 27th), after clicking on and reading through the link that STA sent me about kids (especially girls) and relational aggression as a form of meanness that is affecting younger and younger kids: Little children acting mean
Right around the time I started writing this post, back in April, I listened to an episode of This American Life called Bad Baby. Here’s the episode description:
They’re small. And they’re cuddly. But sometimes it feels as though our babies were replaced with demon replicas — controlling, demanding, or just downright awful. This week, stories of infants and children who dominate the adults around them with their baditude, or whom adults have painted with the “bad” brush from early on. We also ask the question: at what age does badness begin?