Virtually all of the attendees would happily have described themselves as “progressive,” or maybe “radical,” in their political orientations. An odd collection of aging hippies and earnest young disciples, their principal objective was to develop exciting new ways to cure the ills of our society.
And yet, if a visitor from outer space paid attention to what was said in many of the sessions, she could not avoid feeling caught in a time warp. Here were the 1960s (and sometimes earlier) brought back to life with gusto. Nuggets of “wisdom” I heard as a young man were breathlessly re-uttered as if freshly discovered.
One of the favorite topics was “victimhood.” Thus in a session devoted to drug use, we were told that women addicted to methamphetamines were losing their identities because of misguided government programs. Instead of having their status as mothers affirmed, this was undermined by taking their children away.
These women were therefore double victims; victims of a frightful drug and of professional insensitivity. Even though they loved their children and found comfort in their roles as mothers, the officials did not care and callously separated families that should be kept intact.
While this exposition was well received by the audience, it was a bit too much for me to bear and so I rose to tell two stories from when I worked as a methadone counselor. The first concerned a woman I helped get her children back after they had been placed in protective services.
My heart had gone out to her when she tearfully explained how her children were all she lived for. Then when she subsequently came to see me with her youngsters in tow, almost the first thing that happened was that she rapped her little girl across the face with the back of her hand when the child plaintively expressed a desire for candy.
This woman was sincere in expressing her love, but that did not mean she was a good parent. Nor were the social workers that sought to protect her children entirely mistaken in their concern for their welfare.
In another instance, a woman whose children had been removed from her care bore a fourth baby by a different man and then moved in with a third. Soon thereafter, he, in a fit of pique, threw this infant against the wall when he could not get it to cease crying. The child in question shortly died.
Upon concluding these tales, I made the point that morality mattered. These women were not merely victims; they were agents who needed to be held accountable for their actions. To do less was to invite dire consequences.
To this an audience member responded by suggesting that my comments were ill-advised. I was told that I should not be invoking “morality” because the concept was too contentious. We needed to find another word that would not invite the authorities to act as self-righteous busybodies.
So here we were with tired relativistic platitudes being used to justify failing to protect the innocent from abuse. The alleged victimhood of the mothers was to prevent us from intervening for the sake of their children. Because the investigator felt sympathy for the women she interviewed, we were to ignore the plight of sufferers she never meet.
All of this is defended in the name of compassion. Somehow it is supposed to be “progressive” to jettison moral standards. Social discipline is to be thrown out the window because those forced to behave in ways they do not like might be offended. Were this to become the conventional attitude, chaos would surely reign.
Melvyn L. Fein, Ph.D., is a professor of sociology at Kennesaw State University.