Why You Have Bad Neighbors

The ongoing conversation about parenting and police is a good opportunity to consider what’s missing from our communities that would make parents’ jobs easier.

In the final episodes of Seinfeld, the anti-heroes (for that’s what they are) end up in jail for not helping a fellow human in need. They disgust us as viewers, as they disgust the other characters in the show. They are people who, though not members of some lower class, are members of a lower moral order—they reap the benefits of society, but take no responsibility for it themselves. They are so emotionally insulated from anything that might resemble community that it barely crosses their minds to intervene. We think angrily, “They should have done something.”

I’m not sure our children will feel the same way.

There’s been a flood of articles recently about the parenting police state. The articles are about two unhealthy dynamics we’ve created; one where people call the police on parents whenever they see a kid unsupervised for five minutes, and one where we consider it good parenting to constantly supervise a kid in the first place (if you think it is good parenting, for the sake of humanity please read Anthony Esolen’s Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child before you inflict yourself on any unsuspecting offspring).

In one of the least polemical but most thoughtful entries to this conversation, Humane Pursuits contributor Gracy Olmstead observes that part of the problem is that parents are largely left to raise kids in isolation, without strong and supportive community structures to aid the parenting process. She writes:

“This is the unfortunate result of living in a world where parenting is no longer supported and bolstered by private association and community. […] We live in a society that neglects the sort of private stewardship that could foster truly safe environments for our children—and unfortunately, when parents are thrown into prison, it hardly seems to create more safe surroundings for these kids.”

The unhealthy social situation Gracy observes is a good example of the moral dualism with which we’ve imbued our civic engagement. If you’re like me, you’ve either felt the guilty pang when you ignore a beggar, or the guilty pang after you give him a couple dollars (wondering whether you just made things worse). But you massage away the guilt by reassuring yourself that you donate to the United Way or Goodwill, and they’ll help him.

The only thing standing between you and Seinfeld in this scenario is a few dollars. Yet this attitude is encouraged in modern society. It’s generally accepted that the best way to help someone in need is through “the system” (be it the government welfare system or your favorite human services charity). We pay professionals, public and private, to run the system. By helping that man ourselves, we’d be diluting the efficiency–that all-important objective!–of the system (in my example, by encouraging him to beg).

This is a bizarre moral split, where we are supposed to help The Poor in the abstract, but not the person before our eyes. We are supposed to Love Our Neighbor, as long as he’s figurative or political. We are supposed to feel (in Hannah Arendt’s words) the exquisite pity of the superior to the inferior class, but not the compassion that would require us to get into the mud with a member of it.

There are absolutely social realities that led to the creation of the system we have, and there’s some logic to them.

But what’s wrong in this equation is that we’ve replaced social structures with social services.

“Community” is a word we use very lightly these days. We talk about “the gamer community,” or “the Denver metro community,” or just “the community” (by the last of which, we mean “the people within a certain geographical radius who sleep in buildings that are in proximity to each other”).

But these aren’t communities, especially not the last one. Human relationships and communities need things that help glue them together, show us what our obligations are, and tie those obligations to real people. As Gracy points out, such social structures are increasingly rare. By outsourcing our compassion to professionals, we create a dynamic where even if we are well intentioned, our instinct when confronted with a problem is to do the same thing we do when we have a leaky faucet. This is our role in the system; we have neither the well-trained moral instinct nor the ability to do anything else.

And this role, well learned over time, has influenced us greatly. So when I see an irresponsible parent, it’s assumed I won’t know who he is. It’s assumed I shouldn’t confront him directly. It’s assumed we won’t be members of any group with a leadership I to which I could appeal for intervention. This (like everything else) is a job for The Government. That father made a decision I wouldn’t have made—so we’ve got to get that kid somewhere where the professionals can work their magic. It’s assumed I ought to call the police. Far from being a “bad Samaritan,” I am 2014’s edition of a good Samaritan.

Watching the scene in Seinfeld, we think, “They should have done something.” Will tomorrow’s viewers feel the same way? Or will our children, watching the same scene, think “Someone should have done something”?


Other entries in our conversation about parenting and bad Samaritans:


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