Thursday, March 28, 2013

On Being a Problem

Once, when I was studying in France during college, I was at some sort of dinner party, the kind where I was the youngest person there by about twenty years. I remember being asked about the death penalty (which often seemed to stand in for Europeans' sense of the United States's backwardness back then - ah, the relative innocence of those Clinton years) and about Virginia Woolf (because when you tell French people you're studying literature they ask you about what you've read instead of asking if you like being poor the way Americans do).  In my mediocre French I managed to say, more or less, that I was against the death penalty and very, very much in favor of Virginia Woolf.  Then the male host, who up until then had been pretty quiet, leaned in with that "ok this has been fine and all but now I will ask the really important question people are afraid to ask" posture.

"Et les noirs, aux Etats Unis?" he asked. " Comment ça va?" Black people in the U.S. How's that going?

Now, obviously, he  didn't rationally think there was anything I could say that would meaningfully speak to the condition of 30 million people. Like a lot of dinner party conversation, it was a performance. I think he disliked me for some reason and wanted to trip me up, to ask something 'controversial' that would throw me off balance.  The people he was talking about weren't really people, weren't really even a 'problem' or a 'question,' they were just words for him to say.  I wish I could say I whipped up a stinging reply invoking James Baldwin about how we don't have a black people problem, we have a white people problem, or something like that.  Instead I mumbled, well, that's a very complicated question. The female host saw my discomfort and changed the subject and may have shot her husband a nasty look. I don't remember exactly.

But I remember that detail from that dinner party from all those years ago because it comes to mind every time I read some article about what people - most often women, or non-white people, or poor people - are doing wrong.

For a long time I was unable to read any article like this that was about a group I'm a part of. Being relatively fortunate and white, these were usually relatively mild pieces about why there were so many single women in New York City and why so many people were stupid enough to go to graduate school in the humanities. Back when I was doing internet dating, I made a rule not to reply to the (so so many) guys who had rants about how they never wanted to date anyone who identified with any of the women on Sex on the City.  I didn't identify with them (well, almost never), but I was weary of anyone who was a little too excited to have a shorthand for the single-woman-as-problem. (Correctly so as I found out when I broke my rule).  I still have a problem getting through a lot of these kinds of articles, especially now that I'm a mother. Maybe I'm just sensitive, and this is just a variation on the Groucho Marx problem. I can't read any article that has me as a member of its problem. But I don't think I'm alone on this.

I've been thinking about this a lot in the last few weeks because of these horrible ads.  Now, not surprisingly, a lot of the responses have been about the tone of them, whether they shame teenage parents and whether they'll be effective. There's been less discussion about whether they are accurate.

Kell Goff  claims that critics have focused on tone because "of course" they're accurate - a claim she finds so self-evident she doesn't feel the need to support it - although she finds time to link to a very relevant study about young people wanting to be famous.

But actually, there's a lot of evidence that they're misleading at best. This overview of recent studies  argues  that teen pregnancy is a result, not a cause, of poverty and that it actually has "little, if any, direct economic consequence.  Kristin Luker reached the same conclusion in her book from 1997, and Planned Parenthood's criticism of the ads cites the work of Frank Furstenberg,  who did an early long-term study following young mothers and their kids and found the same thing and similarly summarizes the findings.

Now, I know a lot of people find this hard to believe. But you, know, that's why we have studies: because something seems intuitive and is agreed on by both liberals and conservatives doesn't make it so. And when you think about it, it actually does make sense. Kids are expensive! scream the ads. But they're expensive no matter what age you are. If you're middle class, your income will likely go up a lot over the course of your working life, so waiting has a lot of economic benefits. If you're poor or working class, not so much. And having your kids early has some advantages: you have more energy, you're more likely to have help from your own parents and extended family. (Ironically, you'll see articles acknowledging this, but usually only when they're using it slam on women for having kids too late.) And being a parent can inspire young people to do well in or go back to school, and to achieve in all kinds of ways.

But these false beliefs have real consequences for real parents and their kids. Listen to someone who's been there: 
"As a teen mom, my life has seen some insanely high peaks of hell and it wasn’t because of my pregnancy or motherhood, it was because of the crappy experiences I had to endure with people who were (and still are) judgmental and bitter. When I wanted to apply for college in high school, my guidance counselor told me not to bother - that I should focus on trying to graduate high school first and apply to a community college IF that even happened. When I turned to people for support, they threw statistics into my face and told me I was what these very ads portrayed. I wasn’t. I’m not. And most teen moms aren’t. Until today, I still hear the “Well, you should have thought about that before becoming a mom.” 
There's a particularly awful irony here: when people cite statistics about poverty in order to talk about the challenges of helping students succeed, the administration who spent your tax dollars on this crap accuses them of "making excuses." Demographics aren't destiny! A good teacher can solve everything! Defy the odds with bootstraps! But once you're a fallen woman, the (misleading) statistics are all. You no longer have any agency.  Poverty isn't a problem in Bloomberg-land; it's a punishment.

That's why the criticism that "you can't change people's behavior by shaming them" isn't quite right. Because the people being shamed aren't ones the ads are talking to. They're the ones being talked about. They're the problem. They're the object lesson meant to wear the scarlet letter for the rest of their lives. And we should think twice before doing anything to improve their lives - or the lives of their kids - because it will send the wrong message. That might sound paranoid, unless you remember the "debate" over welfare reform.

I remember leaving the hospital with my son just over a year ago now.  The hospital where he was born is on a busy city street, so I remember the odd feeling of stepping out from that other self-enclosed world to find the city had been going about its normal business. I remember the mix of exhaustion, adrenaline, joy and terror.  I can't imagine what it would have felt like if I had come across an ad, an official message put forward by the city of which I was a citizen, that told me my worst fears were justified, their realization inevitable, and that any joy I was feeling was a delusion to which I had no right. I would say that I wouldn't wish such a feeling on anyone, but I sort of do wish that the ad team that came up with this "edgy" concept and probably is congratulating themselves, taking the controversy as evidence they've "started a conversation" or what have you, would feel it, just for a while. Because they're the problem.

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