Adrian Peterson and Cultural Context

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.



Fatherlessness and Me

There are some experiences on which you can only speculate. With what certainty, for example, could I say how my life would be different if I had gone to the U of M rather than Northwestern? It is obvious that all my friends would be different, I likely would have picked a different major and developed different hobbies (cooking, Frisbee, and table tennis all came from people I got to know at Northwestern). But would my life have been better? Worse? Or would I just be a different version of myself in an unremarkably similar place in life, reflecting on the same choices?

I have said before that I never knew my father. But that has never stopped me from imagining what my life would have been. I picture myself growing up in a Pensacola trailer park, using the littered remnants of crumpled cans of Coors as some kind of hillbilly slalom. I see myself acclimating to a lifestyle that embraced both drunkenness and casual drug use, with little or no concern for the value of marriage or purity. Perhaps my first car would actually have been a motorcycle. It’s impossible to say, but that’s the picture that emerges in my mind.

I doubt I would have grown up in an environment as nurturing as the one I did: a grandma that taught me to read by the time I was three; a grandpa that was stern but modeled self-discipline, generosity, and consistency; an affectionate step-father just in time for me to become a teenager. I probably would have had none of that. And the cultural values of arts, education, and social responsibility that are endemic to the Minnesota zeitgeist…. Would they have been alien to me in the Florida panhandle?

There are some things I feel somewhat more certain about. I have noticed that people with involved fathers have an easier time than I when it comes to meeting and interacting with people. That could be just a coincidence or a projection. And I don’t think most people who meet me would think I lack those interpersonal skills: I’m perfectly confident and competent in my ability to connect with people, and now having reflected for a few moments I find myself surprised at just how many times I’ve had total strangers enthralled by what I’m sharing with them. But the important piece of this relational puzzle is it feels so unnatural – practiced or rehearsed – while the children of involved fathers seem so much more natural about it.

Another thing that makes me nervous is the fact that I didn’t have an immediate model for a healthy marriage. It has left me feeling like I lack some of the skills I’ll need to be a good husband. Or that I lack a feel for it, I guess? Like someone who has read about baseball and overheard conversations about the sport but has never seen the game. The image in my head of how it’s supposed to work seems like it must be incomplete by definition. Of course, I’ve filled in some of the gaps over time. And when I’ve expressed this concern to people who know me, they’ve been reassuring. My friend Carica told me she feels like I was born to be a husband and father, like I’ve been especially equipped for the role. I hope she’s right, but in the meantime I feel like I’m approaching finals week and skipped two months of class.

I’ve never had to learn the harsh lesson that my father was imperfect, that he wasn’t a hero, that he probably isn’t stronger than your father. I didn’t grow up and lose a hero, as some people did. That’s an important thing for the fatherless to remember: It’s all too easy to insert the image of a perfect man as a placeholder for what we lost. But in reality, it would have just been a flawed, selfish human being who had a series of small moral choices to make. Since he failed a basic one – one of the simplest test of manliness, actually – and abandoned us, I don’t feel like it was any great loss for me. But still…. I wonder.

What I Would Tell My Son About Chivalry

“Justice is better than chivalry if we cannot have both.”
– Alice Stone Blackwell

I cannot make many certain claims about the future. I am certain our two-party system will create more problems than it will solve. I am certain that the next “miracle diet” will be worthless (unless it includes an Oreo ration, of course), and I am certain that whatever the food industry comes up with to replace trans fats will somehow be worse than trans fats. (On that note: can we just bring back beef fat for fryers? There’s no way that’s worse than what we’re using now and it’s oh so much more delicious.) One thing I am not certain about, though, is how relevant chivalry will be ten, twenty, thirty years from now. Considering the rate at which gender roles and norms are changing, the idea of holding the door for a young lady – or even the entire concept of a lady – may be somehow less than archaic.

I expect you to be chivalrous anyway. But before you go looking up notions of classical chivalry, performing heroic deeds and penning epic poems (don’t get me wrong here: please write an epic poem), let me clarify what I mean. To me, chivalry is not about how men ought to treat women. It’s about how men should treat everybody. Don’t hold the door for someone because you think they’re weak, or because they’re lacking without your intervention. Hold the door because you consider them valuable, and because you want your mark on their lives to be a positive and helpful one. As soon as your behavior towards a person is more centered on yourself than on them, you can no longer consider yourself a chivalrous man.

It’s easy to identify a chivalrous man: he is someone who puts the needs of others in front of himself. (In Christian terms, he is someone actively aspiring to Christlikeness.)

Guidelines covering behavior are challenging to lay out because you can never cover every contingency. And on top of that, your thoughtful behavior at home could be deeply offensive to someone in another culture with different norms and mores. And that’s what makes defining chivalry as a checklist of “Dos and Don’ts” so problematic. Instead, if we see it as 1) considering others (and by others I mean whoever happens to be in your immediate vicinity) to be more valuable than yourself, and 2) treating them with that consideration, you will already have most of the information you’ll need in order to act chivalrously. (Also, this attitude will cut down on your susceptibility to road rage rather significantly.)

Virtually everyone likes to be made to feel important. So if you’re given the chance, do it. Stop overcomplicating things – yes, I know, it runs in the family.