Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Morals & Ted Byfield

Chris Selley has criticized Ted Byfield for referring to an "illegitimate" child ("I say, you there -- boy! What year is this?"), and is being taken to task in the comments for everything from being excessively PC to apologizing for the downfall of civil society. I threw in my two cents, and figured that would be the end of it: mainly because "what Ted Byfield thinks" ranks pretty low amongst my concerns in life.

However, partly because I have some personal experience with this topic, I feel the need to make two points about what I believe is a twisted, fuzzy, and un-Christian view of morality put forth by Byfield and those who would defend his comments.

Firstly, and Selley makes this point in down in the comments, if you're looking to accuse an adult of immoral acts, you're hitting the wrong target:
My only complaint is that Byfield calls Trudeau's daughter "illegitimate". It's pejorative, archaic and unfair, since it's no fault of hers, and it's used simply to make her father look bad (which, in a Catholic context, he deserves).

Colby Cosh replies that "it is still conceptually convenient for us to have an adjective for 'born out of wedlock'..." -- how so? Why? Do we really have a need for a concept, or rather a convenient word, that differentiates a child born to unwed parents from one whose parents divorce when she's six months old, or from one whose parents are married for life? Even if we do, why a pejorative one? A hundred years ago, the bastard/illegitimate tag was most certainly a slur on the child, not merely the parents, and was one that stuck her in a lower class of child. Am I really a PC thug to wish that nonsense away?

There is also a second point here that is just as important, and that is the broad unfairness of stigmatizing, as a whole, parents who have children out of wedlock. I will happily stipulate Christian morality for the purposes of explaining this point.

There is only one immoral act underlying all unmarried parenthood, and that is that the parents had pre-marital (or non-marital, or extra-marital) sex. Putting a further stigma on all women who become pregnant as a result is a strange and unwise thing to do, since you can't make any assumptions about their intent or their precautions.

Once a woman does become pregnant outside of marriage, then certainly the ideal outcome is a prompt marriage where both mother and father plan to lovingly care for their baby-to-be. But often this doesn't happen, and again, it is strange and unwise to further stigmatize those for whom it doesn't.

Perhaps the father becomes physically abusive - surely no one would advise the mother that the moral thing to do is to get married nevertheless. Perhaps the father loudly and clearly proclaims that he has no interest in being a parent, or moves to another country. How could this possibly reflect on the morality of the mother?

The next most moral option has got to be the mother giving birth to the child and caring for her as best she can, seeing as how the remaining alternative is abortion. (Yes, I have skipped over adoption here, but I can't take seriously anyone who believes that it is uniformly more moral, or immoral, for an unwed mother to give her baby up for adoption than to raise her herself).

(In fact, you can plausibly argue that unwed mothers should be assumed to be more moral than women who have had non-marital sex but never become pregnant: the former have proved themselves uninterested in abortion, whereas for the latter, it is mere theory).

In sum, the only assumption of immorality you can safely make about all mothers (or parents) of illegitimate children is that they had sex outside the bounds of holy matrimony. If you are inclined to look down your nose at all such women, go ahead, I suppose.

Which brings up the question: why don't we have a common adjective for "person who has/had sex out of wedlock"? Wouldn't that be especially conceptually convenient, to have a pejorative word that applied to all such people, regardless of the circumstances (or frequency!)? After all, there are a lot more people who fit that description than there are children whose parents weren't married. Surely, any pain resulting from the common use of such a word would be no worse than the broad stigma associated with the act, which is between microscopic and nil. Kathy Shaidle seems to be suggesting "bimbos" in Selley's comments: should we roll with that one?

Again, you (or Ted Byfield) are welcome to criticize Pierre Trudeau's Catholic-ness, or Deborah Coyne's morals. But when Byfield lists off the much younger women PET shagged, then adds "mother of his 15-year-old illegitimate daughter", he clearly believes that this statement on its own is further evidence of Trudeau's immorality. It isn't, and to believe it is betrays a weird and indefensible moral compass. It may be conservative, but it isn't right.


At 4:37 p.m., Anonymous Colby Cosh said...

This is a touching appeal to middle-class white people, who may truly accept the proposition for their own purposes that the legal legitimacy or illegitimacy of a child has no possible meaning or predictive value. Pierre Trudeau's 15-year-old daughter is going to get taken care of one way or another, right?

The concept, however, does happen to have incalculable meaning and predictive value for all sorts of people who aren't white or middle-class. In fact, there's a country right next door--a sociologist or an economist can point you in the right direction--where a vast number of illegitimate children face all sorts of verifiable obstacles to health and growth. Your attack may therefore apply specifically to Byfield's column, but as an attempted denunciation of a universal conceptual category, it sure doesn't make it very far out of Lethbridge with its pants on.

At 5:28 p.m., Anonymous Anonymous said...

The all encompassing word you are looking for to describe the only people with questionable morals in this situation is "fornicator". It's perfect, has a nice ring to it and ... having been randomly called one myself once, instills a sense of pride in those for whom it is infact true. I AM A FORNICATOR and if you have a problem with it, it's only because it sounds so much better than "hypocrite" or "frigid bitch".

At 8:26 p.m., Blogger Chris Selley said...


Predictive value? Are you talking about illegitimacy or single motherhood? I'd have said that America's huge numbers of black children with unwed parents are predicted, if at all, by the number of undereducated young black men with no sense of responsibility and the number of undereducated young black women who see a baby as a declaration of independence. To focus in on "illegitimacy" is to believe that things would get better if the deadbeat papas married the misguided mamas, and, well, that's crazy talk.

At 3:20 a.m., Anonymous Colby Cosh said...

Am I talking about single motherhood or illegitimacy? Yikes--you split that hair any finer, you'll be eligible for a nanotechnology research grant.

Legitimacy--the active presence of a mutually acknowledged father who is lawfully committed to responsibility for his children--is the issue in black America. Would things improve if the deadbeat dads actually married the misguided moms? I don't know that there is a single person who has studied the issue seriously who would say "no" to this. (Welfare reform seems to have improved the lot of the American underclass specifically by removing a large economic impediment to marriage.)

At 9:45 a.m., Blogger Matt said...

Colby, we seem to have gotten snagged on what Virgina Postrel concisely refers to as "the difference between general statistical patterns and individual data points". I agree completely with the notion, backed up by the data you mention, that taken as a whole, kids are better off being raised by married parents (and happen to have my money where my mouth is, so to speak). To deny this, I think, would be irresponsibly PC. (And no, one doesn't have to venture far from, or even out of, Lethbridge to see that. There is a large geographic area to the south and west of Lethbridge, not subject to provincial or local jurisdiction, where we see all the same problems associated with the American underclass).

The question then is whether specific women and/or children in this situation should bear a stigma, or be presumed less moral, for the greater good of providing a disincentive for others who might freely choose this arrangement. This is what Ted Byfield has done, and I think it's horseshit.

This might be a bit of a strawman, but what if there was some convincing data showing that children of mixed race exhibit lower achievement and more social problems than the mean (there might be, for all I know). This presumably would provoke further study and discussion as to the 'why'; it certainly wouldn't do any good to ignore the data in the name of 'fairness' or something.

An inappropriate response would be to normalize referring to such children as "half-breeds", and to assume that each one of these children is the result of unwise or immoral decisions on the part of their parents.

I reiterate the last 3 sentences of my original post. I am not saying, nor did I, that parents' marital status is meaningless. What I AM saying, as forcefully as possible, is that it is downright scummy to use predictive values associated with membership in a certain group to denigrate or make assumptions about an individual in the group. In fact, I thought civil society was past that.

At 10:20 a.m., Blogger Matt said...

A better parallel is divorce. We know that children of broken families are more likely to have problems. Yet, Grampa Ted notwithstanding, if you heard an acquaintance was getting divorced, you would have to be tremendously arrogant to assume that they were making a bad decision for their own children.

Likewise, generally kids are better off when Mom stays home, but to tell a specific working mother that she's harming her children, without having any other information, you'd have to be a king-sized dick.

At 1:30 p.m., Anonymous Colby Cosh said...

Well, I'll put it this way: if you do have strong positive reasons to suspect that the effects on a child of a certain decision are not going to be negative, then it's appropriate to suspend any sort of stigmatizing. In a case like parental divorce, I would like the bar set a little higher generally; the corollary of what you're saying is that there was no real negative effect from the sudden planned destruction of the stigma attached to divorce, because, hey, all the affected children could potentially have done OK as individuals. As for working mothers and their latchkey kids (another forbidden term, perhaps?), the social evidence is ambiguous.

At 4:06 p.m., Blogger Matt said...

The corollary of what I'm saying, I suppose, is that there was no net negative effect from the destruction of the stigma attached to divorce. Yes, there are children who have been worse off because their parents divorced (where it might not have happened were the act still very stigmatized). There are also kids who are better off being out of a tense situation, and more to my point, there are kids who are treated like plain-old regular kids by civil society, rather than second-class "divorce kids".

And even if you don't accept that, which is fair enough, I think simple human decency requires treating (say) a divorced mother (individual data point) as if she made the best available choice in her own circumstances - definitely so in the absence of any information about those circumstances. This does not require denying the data that (general statistical pattern) divorce is bad for kids!

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