Friday, February 09, 2007

What a Tangled Web

[posted by Callimachus]

Ingrid Robeyns, writing at Crooked Timber observes that in the Netherlands, civic-run "playgroups" are offered for little tykes accompanied by a parent or guardian. But, apparently, only adult women are allowed. "Apparently," she writes, "the justification is that otherwise mothers from certain ethnic minorities [read: fundamentalist Muslim immigrant enclaves], where gender segregation is an important issue, would not attend with their children" if adult men were there.

Ingrid self-identifes as a feminist and as a liberal-egalitarian, and she's standing right in the middle of the modern European crossroads where they collide. It's a perplexing place.

What should we think about such policies? In principle, I would strongly condemn such policies, since they are plainly discriminating fathers, grandfathers, and male babysitters. In practice, I can appreciate the underlying goal of offering mothers from social groups where opposite-sex parental activities are entirely out of the question more options to socialise, and also the social and developmental benefits for their children; but it does restrict the options of more progressive heterosexual couples to equally shared parenthood, let alone the options of gay fathers and single fathers.

And she manages to torture herself down off the fence on the side of "this is on the whole a bad thing."

Please note that this is anecdotal. That it is official policy is neither confirmed nor denied throughout the comments thread (64 as of this count), which kind of makes me wonder about a site that prides itself on intellectual rigor. I'd think they would want to have that "true or false" bit nailed down before the mooing starts.

Instead, the commenters often seem more concerned with parsing finer and finer degrees of "progressivism," shaving it so thin you can see right through it and then stacking it up in a sandwich for blatantly regressive prejudices to devour.

This, frankly, is the kind of thing that drives troglodyte liberals like me up the wall. And it clearly makes a lot of the Crooked Timber regulars feel a bit queasy to be cannibalizing one of their values to feed another.

The "pluralist" justification for illiberal behavior gets a full airing:

Sometimes good europeans (of the laicist streak) are so adamant about everyone being open, that they close themselves off to perfectly legitimate forms of cultural difference.

Ingrid herself puts it like this:

I guess the feminist in me is upset with this playground denying access to fathers. The liberal-egalitarian in me tries to find justifications for why it may be defensible in terms of the benefits to the worst-off or to liberal toleration. I suppose the feminist in me is stronger than the liberal-egalitarian – at least in this case.

One commenter justifies exclusion of fathers based on "women coming along who’d suffered domestic violence or for other reasons wanted a ‘safe space’ and would have felt uncomfortable talking about personal matters with men present."

I can therefore see justifications for having some groups which are women-only, but I think there should also be ones which clearly encourage fathers as well. In fact there might even be advantages if there are groups which are specifically encouraging and targetting men as well as women.

There seems to be a consensus for this answer: "How about dividing the spaces in two, and having one half of the space devoted to mother-only, and the other space to mixed playgroups?" ... "And there should be groups for young fathers too, since they might feel more comfortable talking among themselves." ... "i agree that two types of spaces – one woman-only and one for both – certainly seems like the better idea." ... "In short, there can be legitimate reasons to discriminate, but the effects of such self-discrimination should be roughly proportional to those reasons—ie, not too intrusive on the rights of everyone else."

It takes a while, but finally someone gets to the nut of this fondness for separate-but-equal: "Is this case really any different from the argument (which I believe actually existed at the time) that U.S. schools shouldn’t be racially integrated because that might harm the children of white parents who would stop sending them to public schools?"

Another commenter hits the other nail on the head:

I think it would be better to apply the tools we use to think about creationism in the schools .... Arranging an educational institution in what to liberal/progressive/rationalist types seems like the “obvious” way is deeply troublesome for religious fundamentalists: it makes them uncomfortable, it challenges their faith, it publicizes a lack of public respect for the scientific implications of extreme fundamentalist beliefs, and it may cause marginal members and families to deconvert.

While another writes, "if it could be proven that a large group of white racists existed who would not attend job training programs unless those programs were racially segregated, would this justify the use of government money to fund racially segregated programs?"

One commenter even brings up the strange word principle:

Ingrid’s point is that this is basically a good idea; but it’s a pity we can’t sign up to it because concerns for progressive heterosexual couples, single fathers, gay men, etc. That’s just feeble. This form of segregation is wrong in principle, irrespective of its impact on these groups, and we should not go along with it. Confronting these ideas will do much more good than colaborating with them.

Which draws a response, in which "principles" is given scare quotes.

It seems to me that there are two liberal approaches. One is to simply condemn gender segregation. The other is to work with the communities/groups involved and try to get them to change their minds. This is a less ‘principled’ approach, but seems to me to have more potential than demonisation. If you want to use the racism comparison, it’s the difference between condemning white people in a particular area as racist and working with them to try and persuade them that the BNP (or other racist parties) are not the answer to their problems.

Which, as we all know, is the typical response of "progressive" groups to such problems: Don't demonize those impoverished, undereducated Southern white segregationist folks; don't glorify yourselves as Freedom Riders: Go down to the lodge halls and roadhouses and talk it over with those misguided good ol' boys. Open their eyes to their errors.

It's a good discussion, even if, if you're like me, reading a lot of what is said is a painful reminder of why you can't call the left home anymore. In the end, this comment gets closest to the truth of the thing:

Because liberalism is the politicisation of the abhorrence of cruelty, good liberals aren’t happy to see either well-established kindnesses or deep cultural identities trampled. But if liberalism is taken seriously under the definition I offered, it may very well be that these are both sensible prices to pay for the long-run aim of greater inclusion in lesser cruelty.

That's a small excerpt from a large comment. Nick Lowe put it more succinctly: "You gotta be cruel to be kind." The comment goes round and round and comes out here:

So, in this case, assuming that the liberal ideal will include a genuine and pervasive gender equality, which I think is well-established (hence the difficulty of this issue), what’s the best policy for bringing that about? Might it not turn out to be setting gender equality aside in particular areas of social life where doing so strongly conduces to its long-term realisation overall?

Yes, admit that sometimes you have to burn the village to save it. And you can't apply rules meant for angels or the logic of philosophers in a world where people kill their sisters for sleeping with the wrong boys.

Maybe the saddest thing of all is that it takes better than 53 comments before someone asks, what about the children?

I think this is horrible. What about children who want their fathers to come with them—they have to have less time with their fathers because some other people are scared of men? If the women are so offended, they can stand around in a circle with their backs turned. Or they can go home.

What, indeed? In the end what hurts the serious and thoughtful discussion most is that it was so fixated on its own ethical contortions that it forgot there were real, live children in the room.

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