Thursday, March 18, 2010

"As a Mother..."

I've spent the last week or so slowly reading Lisa Dodson's The Moral Underground. It's only about 200 pages and the prose isn't dense, but it's sooooo depressing that it's hard to read quickly. I'm still reeling from it.

It's about the ways in which people in various service and management roles bend rules they find inhumane to help people who need it. Dodson focuses mostly on three settings: workplaces, schools, and medical offices. In each setting, the core dilemma is the same; rules drawn up based on certain assumptions about people frequently don't fit the reality on the ground, and enforcing those rules as written would badly damage some very vulnerable people. Dodson examines managers who look the other way when employees take unauthorized time off to deal with child-related emergencies, physicians who bend rules to get needy patients into medical studies, and teachers who actually bring in food for students who they know don't get enough to eat at home.

The details of the stories are horrifying -- I'll admit having a hard time facing some of the things people do to children -- but the underlying logic is consistent. In Dodson's view, the economic facts of life for the working poor are absurdly bad and getting worse, and the consequences of that are most obvious in children. (The description of the connection between asthma and poverty was alone one of the most disturbing things I've read in a long time.) In her discussion of the reasons that practitioners of underground morality use to explain why they bend rules, she notes that many of them preface their explanation with a sort of demographic autobiography: "as a mother..." "as a black man..." "as a cancer survivor..." Those alternative narratives gave ways to defy the dominant cultural narrative of the free market.

Dodson's book reminded me of a nearly-forgotten classic. In the late '90's a wonderful book -- Avoiding Politics, by Nina Eliasoph -- offered a different interpretation of the "as a mother..." stories. Eliasoph noted that many politically active people had a hard time owning the theoretical sophistication they actually possessed, so in conversation, they would explain their politics by retreating to "as a mother..." Those autobiographical touchstones became a form of retreat from argument -- a way of avoiding politics -- that excused political participation as a sort of personal quirk. They gained a certain political authority by hiding their politics behind autobiography. In doing that, Eliasoph argued, they inadvertently contributed to the cultural default assumption that politics is somehow bad and private life good.

Although Eliasoph framed "as a mother" as a retreat from larger issues, and Dodson framed it as the beginning of engagement, I'm not sure the positions are really that different. It may be less a question of entering or avoiding larger issues and more a question of legibility. I have only the vaguest sense of how the economy works, but I have a pretty good sense of the basic obligations I have to my kids. If the rules in a given situation seem to compel me to treat people in ways that years of parenting tell me are wrong, it's easier and faster to get to that reaction than it is to suss out the particular reasons why. That's both good and bad, but it's probably unavoidable.

Any parent knows that there's a constant tension between the need for overall consistency and the need to recognize special circumstances. For example, we maintain pretty consistent bedtimes for the kids, but we make exceptions for travel and certain holidays. Similarly, anyone in a position to make decisions that affect other people at work -- whether it's managers and staff, professors and students, or whatever -- is constantly trying to balance the general rule that's "fair to other people" with the reality of the case in front of you. Over the years, you learn some rules of thumb to help with that balance. For example, the rule I wish all administrators would learn on their first day of work is that Secrecy Doesn't Work. If you cut someone a special break, you can bet money that others will find out about it. (The same holds with siblings.) Worse, if you don't explain the rationale behind it, they'll invent rationales to fill in the vacuum, and what they invent will often be far worse than the truth.

There's a basic dilemma, too, in palliating individual cases: you may actually prevent the wholesale change that's actually needed. In my perfect world, the rules would be fair enough that we could just enforce them as written and call it good. But we're not there. Some rules are outmoded or silly, but people's 'moral underground' adjustments have postponed the day of reckoning long enough that we just haven't had to fix them yet. I'm not a huge believer in forcing a crisis, but sometimes you have to rip off the band-aid. Too many side deals can amount to 'enabling' a lousy rule to outlive its usefulness.

I've done a few 'moral underground' actions in my time, as I imagine we all have. At the end of the day, you live with your own conscience. Sometimes it's just hard to know whether you're righting a wrong or enabling a greater wrong to continue. This one really struck a nerve.