Saturday, February 04, 2006

Me, L, and the State

It is a political obligation to figure out where you are and how that connects to where other people are. This applies not only to broad categories of identity -- race, class, gender, sexuality, ability -- but also to the instituitons with which you interact.

L and I are fortunate enough to interact mainly with one of the warmest and fuzziest tentacles of the state. Several mornings a week we go to a drop-in targeted to parents and children under six, administered by a not-for-profit agency with, I believe, provincial government funding. This post is an attempt to locate this interaction within the broader context of power and the state.

This post is premised on the idea that the provision of services, including services that seem quite unambiguously positive in many respects, is a way for the state to intervene in society and help control and shape people's lives. I'm not interested in arguing whether this is intended; it just matters that this is the impact. If there is a need, people will be drawn to a service that meets that need. Usually without realizing it, this means people surrender control over the details of how the need is met as a kind of trade-off for assuring that it is met at all. Once people are drawn in by the force of the need in question, they can often be smoothly slipped into an entire framework for how to think about and respond to that need, and often even to related needs. How we think about very basic concepts of "health" and "sickness," not to mention the mundane details of how we respond to need in that area of our lives, are shaped by the institutions that meet those needs and the range of options that they present us with. People who are unable to meet their need for income via the market are forced onto social assistance, and thereby to endure the routine indignities, conflicts, and humiliation that the system doles out, and the stigma of being part of a generally disapproved-of and exploited group whose existence is essential to the system and political useful (except when said group gets too stroppy) to elites. Need is a powerful compulsive force.

There are lots of positive things to be said about this parent-toddler drop-in service. It provides a space that is noncommercial and not only child friendly (at least in a mainstream understanding of that term) but child oriented, where you can take your toddler and they can play with all sorts of fun stuff and with other kids their own age. Though I have used neither, they provide a resource centre for parents with books on a wide range of topics, and they allow you to sign out toys. I have had several women from my mother's generation exclaim over how much they would've appreciated having something like this around when they had young kids. I also like the idea of community-based resources that increase options and maximize the amount of control in the hands of individualis, like libraries and drop-ins, rather than the more overtly controlling models like the current school system, the welfare system, and even the health care system.

There are downsides to the service, even in conventional social justice terms. My sense is that this sort of institution became more prevalent during the rule of the Tories in Ontario, as part of their effort to appear to be doing something about the wellbeing of children without actually providing widely available socialized childcare options and while actively attacking children and adults living in poverty. The drop-in as it stands provides an important resource to help those who choose or are forced to be stay-at-home parents keep their sanity, but it does nothing to increase the options of low-income parents in terms of employment and child care. Though the service is in downtown Sudbury, a city with lots of people living in poverty, I don't get the sense that very many of the very poorest people in the community take advantage of it. Very few Aboriginal people use the service, despite lots of liberal diversity-framework inclusion of lots of Aboriginal imagery and messaging in the physical environment, though from things I've overheard the staff say they do offer targeted programming in partnership with Aboriginal agencies at other times during the week.

As far as I can tell, this drop-in serves as a mechanism for the state to shape the lives of parents and children in three ways: through the character of the space, by shaping the resource universe of parents, and through surveillance.

Character of Space

I have written before about my discomfort with spaces created around the parent-with-child unit. Though this character is not unique to the particular state-sponsored space that is the subject of this post -- it seems to be nearly universal, in my experience -- the state is certainly complicit in that it choose not to challenge it. The acceptable topics of conversation, because of a norm that seems to gain a great deal of its strength from the presence of children and the fact that we have to "do it for them," are largely limited to children themselves, heteromononormative families more generally, and consumer practices. Even within those areas, politicized discourse is largely absent. I have done little to challenge this myself at the drop-in, beyond sometimes expressing some disagreement with the gender-essentialist statements that always seem to pop up ("Oh, that's just like a boy!") and making some more assertively pro-feminist statements on one other occasion.

The input from the staff seems to be firmly liberal in orientation. There is pro-equity and pro-multiculturalism paraphenalia in the physical environment, and a commitment by staff (as far as I can see, at any rate) to be proactive about offering extra support where necessary, but nothing to challenge parents with privilege or or to facilitate parents in politicizing their understanding of where that need for "more support" comes from and how to respond to it. And notably, none of the statements or imagery in the space are explicitly pro-queer.

Perhaps the most disturbing intervention by the institution in charge of the space was a media conference to draw attention to their good works on the occasion of the Week of the Child, or some such. The drop-in play area was used as a tot-filled background. Every explicit unpacking of the word "family" in the course of the event involved endorsement of two-parent, other-gender couples, implicitly marginalizing households that include single parents, same-gender couples, and arrangements of co-habitation and care that involve extended family or other multiple-adult situations.

Clearly, though the staff can certainly be individually supportive of people who are oppressed in one way or another, this is not guaranteed, and it does not do anything to facilitate parents, in their privilege or their oppression, in understanding the power arrangements underlying their situation and in disrupting those arrangements.

Shaping The Resource Universe

As we muddle through the raising of our kids, parents often seek outside sources of information. We ask our own parents and our peers; we search the internet and read books; we consult professionals who have been awarded the status of expert by society. I think maximalizing the range and type of sources that are available to parents is a good thing. But how does the drop-in actually function in this regard?

It provides resources both in the form of the women who work there as staff, and a collection of books and periodicals related to parenting.

In my experience, the staff are quite good on a personal level -- warm, open, approachable, and experienced. Their general attitude seems to be open to a wide range of parenting choices, but focuses on listening to the kids and not trying to force them to be who or what they are not. This is good, as far as it goes. But the arrangement is still troubling, at times. For one thing, it is not clear to me how this openness and approachability is or is not maintained with parents and children that more obviously deviate that L and I from the oppressive, normative ideals of what "family" is supposed to be.

As well, though the staff don't tend to be assertive in claiming expert status, the structure of the encounter awards it to them regardless. Even when not explicitly asked, their side of casual conversation often falls into questions that could be considered sureillance (see below) and comments that amount to reassurance or advice. While parents, especially new parents, can often do with repeatedly hearing, "It's okay, you're doing fine," even that content, let alone more instructive advice, reinforces the idea that staff have a right to be dispensing that reassurance and advice: they have and deserve authority.

This is a problem for two reasons. First of all, their advice and directing of parents to other resources is likely to prioritize the mainstream, and even though their take on "mainstream" is relatively broad, that still marginalizes more politicized, radical approaches, and approaches grounded in more oppressed standpoints, and subtley shapes parental responses. For example, I recently overheard the staff providing some guidance to a mama around a potential psychiatric diagnosis for her child. I don't know who introduced it as a possibility, what I heard was certainly within the bounds of a mainstream understanding of acceptable role for the staff, and the intent was to provide supports to a mama that does a great job in what is, for multiple reasons that aren't mine to share even to the extent that I know them, pretty tough. And I can't claim to know exhaustively what was requested and what was suggested. But making some guesses based on what I know of the space, and from my experience working in the agency sector myself, the impulse on the part of staff to help a woman in a tough spot lead to suggested action steps involving further involvement with bureaucratic, hierarchical "helping" structures affiliated with the state that would psychiatrize and possibly medicate her child.

This might be the best option. It might be what she would choose regardless. But did they direct her towards any radical critique of the psychiatric system in general and of this particular diagnosis, in order that she might make the most informed choice? I suspect not. Did they offer to help create a peer-support, non-medicalizing space for her to explore the contributing issues with other mamas, away from influences that would overdetermine the slotting of certain patterns of behaviour into reified diagnostic categories? I doubt it. Did they offer material which might support this mama in building on her understanding of her experiences as a (white) woman in a relationship with a (white) man, and thereby take practical steps to support her own wellbeing in a context of familial stress, given the socially imposed tendency for women in her position to fall into the role of making everyone else feel better at the expense of their own wellbeing? Don't think so. None of this is out of nefarious intent. Rather, it's a desire to help but one that tends to replicate the structures from which the advice springs -- ones that understand problems solely in apolitical, social servicey ways and approach solutions similarly.

Another danger of situations structured by one party's expert status and the other's lack of same is that experts (the party with more power) can get away with insufficient listening and can dispense "wisdom" that is not adequately informed by the particularities of a given situation. I have witnessed no major incidents of this type, but a number of minor ones -- a few situations in casual conversation where a given interpretation is placed on L's behaviour or choices or development that strikes me as patently wrong, and in which casual, low-key efforts to provide a different perspective (as, y'know, someone who spends all day every week day plus more with him) are largely left unengaged with and unlistened to. It has been all very innocuous -- mildly irritating to fainly amusing -- and I'm sure if the situation were more serious and I felt called to be more direct, I would not just be dismissed. But it is still indicative to me of certain underlying assumptions about the space and about the structures of the relationships between parents and staff.

As for the lending library, my inspection of it has been fairly superficial, but the pattern seems to be much as I would expect: lots of standard pregnancy and parenting books, including some that are relatively progressive -- I'm definitely going to have a longer glance at a book about children's books by renowned feminist and writer Michelle Landsberg -- but no copies of Anti-capitalist Parenting for Dummies or Queering Curriculum: Dyke Mamas Talk About Challenging Oppressive Schools. And, yes, I made those two titles up, but there are definitely parenting resources out there along those lines which would just not be included.

Again, this doesn't prevent access to those resources for those who are persistent in seeking them out, but providing a centralized, easily accessed resource centre that excludes them does tend to channel people not already looking for them to less blatantly challenging material.


This includes keeping tabs on child development and status, with the intent to gently intervene by providing advice if that is seen as necessary, as discussed above. I would also imagine it includes keeping tabs on situations that might be seen to require more direct state intervention by child protection services or the police.

The former is a problem because it tends to further marginalize critical perspectives and thereby limit parental options even as it addresses need. The latter is also addressing a real need. As long as we live in a society in which people, mostly men, abuse children, often their own, then we need to respond to that problem.

The state has little credibility in this regard however.

The Canadian state is complicit in killing children abroad. For example, it never opposed the U.S. and U.K.-driven U.N. sanctions on Iraq between 1991 and 2003, which U.N. statistics show killed hundreds of thousands of children, and which drove two successive holders of the office of United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq to resign in protest.

The Canadian state kidnapped many thousands of Aboriginal children in the so-called Sixties Scoop and contributed to cultural genocide and much personal trauma by disconnecting Aboriginal people from their communities and identities.

The Canadian state forced many thousands of Aboriginal children into residential schools, where they were robbed of their language, robbed of family continuity, and often physically and sexually abused.

The Canadian state has yet to respond satisfactorily to the disproportionate violence wreaked by its armed agents (police) on racialized youth.

The Canadian state has yet to respond satisfactorily to the alienation and oppression of queer youth in the school system and elsewhere which leads to disproportionately high suicide rates.

The Canadian state is part of a political economy that depends on people being unemployed. One arm of the state provides the only source of income for such people but refuses to provide adequate income. Another arm of the state then takes away the kids because their parents are supposedly neglectful because they can't feed them properly. (This from a prof of social work that spoke at this action.)

The Canadian state refuses to implement more than the first level of changes required to create women's equality, the only way to adequately respond to the endemic violence by men against women and children.

The responses of Children's Aid services in Ontario have been consistently racist and oppressive in other ways -- racialized and poor communities are often disproportionately negatively impacted as mentioned in paragraphs above, and often just by giving parents in these communities less of the benefit of the doubt when assessing situations.

So. We need to have social and community responsees to the (mostly male) violence against children (and women). We also need social and community responses to the violence that the state is perpetrating in literally taking food from hungry children and their families, and the systemic and everyday oppressions of Aboriginal people, queer people of all racial backgrounds, and people of colour.

If the state really cared about children -- about people, really -- we could do way better than we do right now. The staff who are mandated to act as surveillance are only doing what they have to do, and are acting out of genuine care for children. It is the rest of us that are to blame for attaching this care to systems that sometimes do what they are supposed to do but that have acted in ways oppressive to children time and time again.

L and I deal with, as I said at the beginning, the warmest and fuzziest tentacle of the state when it comes to kids. In most respects, we are unlikely to be directly targeted by the nastier elements. But in some ways that makes it even more important to be conscious in my decision to enter this state-sponsored space, to know how it functions and to know what it is connected to.

In terms of action for me coming out of this reflection, I think what I want to concentrate on at the moment is how I am present in the drop-in space. I reflexively respond to situations that bore me or make me uncomfortable by disengaging and keeping my self hidden. This isn't necessarily wrong, but responding in that way reflexively rather than strategically is uncool. And what I need to do, I think, is focus on being more emotionally present and more willing to show self while in the drop-in. That not only could lead to personal benefits, but has the potential to inject some of my own critical perspective on the world in a small but organic way into the space and to shake up a little bit the limits on acceptable and unacceptable conversational content in the space. I tend to be quite cautious and reserved about such things and have no desire to draw unwelcome attention to myself or L, but I think some additional attentiveness to the opportunities for such action would be a personally and politically useful thing to do. It isn't much, but it's something.

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