Whenever you have a moment, do a quick inventory of whatever moral and political issues you can think of. Now try to think of how you felt about these issues five years ago. How about ten years ago? Do you see any differences? (If not, is it because you were 9 a decade ago? That’s fair.) The most obvious shift for most people will be with respect to gay marriage. For me, it was almost exactly ten years ago that my opinion started shifting on that issue: it happened during an argument with my grandpa when I realized he was reasoning in circles. “I’m against gay marriage because it’s wrong.”
“Why is it wrong?” I asked.
“Because it’s morally wrong.”
“But why do you think that?”
“Because it’s wrong, you jackass!”
Even progressive politicians have an interesting track record on gay marriage, the most obvious of whom is Barack Obama. Just before the 2012 election cycle got into full swing, Obama announced to the world that he had been “going through an evolution on this issue,” and was ready to announce his unbridled support for gay marriage. “I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.” As recently as 2008, however, he said, “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman. I am not in favor of gay marriage.”
Now imagine, if you will, that over the next twenty years there is a similar shift in the philosophy of child-rearing and child-care. Imagine, say, that “time outs” – that is, making a child sit to him or herself quietly for a prescribed length of time – come to be seen as both ineffective and abusive. Rather than considering time outs as punitive but necessary, the punishment is regarded as psychologically damaging with lasting repercussions to a child’s social development. It’s maybe described as a “power struggle” that is “confusing for the child” who is “left to make sense of strong emotions” with no greater context. Imagine that this guiding philosophy is now firmly held by somewhere around half the population. In this hypothetical 2034, how much guilt would you feel if you’d used time outs on your children?
This last weekend, the news broke that Adrian Peterson had been indicted for “reckless or negligent injury to a child.” In May, as a disciplinary measure, Peterson struck his four-year old son with a switch – a small, stripped down tree branch, basically – leaving welts and abrasions on the boy’s buttocks and thighs. I am not attempting to defend Peterson here: Adrian Peterson is a man whose handshake makes grown men wince, he is a brutishly strong athletic marvel, even compared to his peers – men who are already among the strongest and fastest in the world. He has no business using corporal punishment as a disciplinary device.
The public reaction, however, has gone predictably over the top. Part of it stems from the immediate context of the situation – the recent release of Ray Rice for knocking his wife unconscious in a casino elevator being the most dramatic part of it. Fans are fed up about a culture in which athletes continue to earn financial rewards after committing barbaric, horrific acts against women and children. One aspect that has magnified the outrage towards Peterson has been the fact that he seems completely unaware that people think he did something wrong.
But that doesn’t give us license to ignore the role that cultural context is playing here. Nobody is claiming that Adrian Peterson set out to hurt his son. In fact, the nature of the charges – reckless or negligent injury – tacitly acknowledges that the legal system believes that Peterson “went too far” in the normal course of parenting. The use of a switch has been commonplace in southern parenting for ages. Peterson himself received such treatment growing up, or so he claims. (Considering how open he was with police and the grand jury, it would be odd to doubt his word on that point.)
I am not trying to argue for the merits on using a switch – I think that’s horrific. What I am trying to do is point out the absurd arrogance of demanding that everyone, regardless of culture or background, regardless of context or mitigation, must adhere to the arbitrary set of progressive mores at play in society. This is an impossible standard. We are judging a Southern black man, one who grew up in a poor home with a dad in prison, under the ethical system of a predominantly White, upper-middle class East-coast ethic. This is disingenuous at best. We live in a world where the most liberal, progressive president we’ve ever seen didn’t embrace gay marriage until he’d held that office for three years. It’s easy to want everyone to agree with your core values at all times, but it’s unrealistic to expect anybody to be able to hold that pace.
By the way, that time outs hypothetical? That’s not a hypothetical. Several major child-care providers consider time outs to be unethical, ineffective for discipline, and harmful to the child. (The YMCA is the most notable example.) It is currently a minority opinion, of course, and it is not unreasonable to believe that a time out is a perfectly valid form of discipline. But that might not be true in ten years. And, perhaps more frightening, the same could have been said about using a switch twenty years ago. When we judge someone by our immediate cultural context, when we don’t temper that judgment with reference to how that person is acting in the context of their norms, we are constructing a system of social morality where no one has any legs on which to stand.