Joan Frawley Desmond, is the Register’s senior editor. She is an award-winning journalist widely published in Catholic, ecumenical and secular media. A graduate of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family, she lives with her family in California..
Why would angry college protesters on the beautiful grounds of Middlebury College attack a middle-aged professor, sending her to a hospital emergency room for treatment of a concussion?
What led students at the University of California Berkeley to react to a controversial speaker by assaulting their perceived political enemies and causing $100,000 worth of property damage?
A number of theories have been posited to shed light on the disturbing rise in violent attacks on free speech rights at campuses across the nation, and three trends are surely relevant: political polarization, a culture of victimhood, and demonstrations facilitated by social media.
Likewise, many would put some blame on moral relativism and the consumer culture that has taken hold at our institutions of higher education. Administrations and faculty often appear more focused on protecting students’ feelings than transmitting a deep knowledge and respect for democratic values like freedom of speech and freedom of religion.
Now, Mary Eberstadt, the Catholic author and commentator, offers an additional explanation for the unchecked rage that has fueled student pushback against speakers who challenge their political or social identities.
“Identity politics cannot be understood apart from the preceding and concomitant social fact of family implosion,” writes Eberstadt in her essay, “The Primal Scream of Identity Politics”, published in The Weekly Standard.
Eberstadt takes note of the most obvious sources of family instability and loss.
Out-of-Wedlock Births, Fatherless Children and Blended Families
“By 2012, Millennial women—who were then under the age of 30—exhibited for the first time the out-of-wedlock birth rate of black women in 1976: i.e., more than 50%. Millennials, of course, are the demographic backbone of identity politics.”
“Many of us now live in patterns of serial monogamy, for instance, in which one partner is followed by another. When children occur, this means a consistently shifting set of family members to whom one is sometimes biologically related and sometimes not: stepfathers, half-siblings, ‘uncles,’ and ‘cousins.’ As couples form and un-form, finding new partners and shedding old ones, these relations morph with them.”
Contraception and Abortion Shrink Family Size
Contraception use and legal abortion, notes Eberstadt, have resulted in smaller families with fewer siblings for young Americans.
“In 2008, the Guttmacher Institute reported that 61% of women terminating pregnancies were already mothers of at least one child. Many children—and many grown children—have been deprived of potential siblings via pregnancy termination.”
What has been the broader impact of this revolution in marriage and family life?
“The result of all these shifting and swirling selves is that many people no longer know what almost all of humanity once knew, including in the great swath of history that was otherwise nastier, more brutish, and shorter than ours: a reliable circle of faces, many biologically related to oneself, present during early and adolescent life. That continuity helped to make possible the plank-by-plank construction of identity as son or daughter, cousin or grandfather, mother or aunt, and the rest of what’s called, tellingly, the family tree.”
As Eberstadt sees it, many millennials have sought to fill the resulting void with identity politics, though most inflamed activists probably wouldn’t make that connection.
She also reminds us that family instability is an equal opportunity scourge, and young Americans on both sides of the partisan divide have felt shortchanged. That fact helps explain why recent surveys suggest that an alarming number of young Republicans and Democrats now believe that the use of violence is justified in some political disputes, and that controversial speakers should be shouted down.
No doubt, many Americans will dismiss the suggestion that the wounds inflicted by family instability have inflamed campus activism. And it’s true that additional social science research on this subject would be helpful (Eberstadt's rich essay also should be read in full here, as I have only skimmed the surface).
It is equally true, however, that when commentators and experts have raised the alarm in the past about the unintended consequences of out-of-wedlock births or no-fault divorce, they were accused of resisting progress or unfairly blaming victims whipsawed by broader economic or social trends. The value and infuence of the family has been downplayed in our individualist culture that celebrates the fiction of radical autonomy.
Indeed, experts faced the same pushback when they first raised questions about the advisability of placing infants in day care. And it is worth a brief digression to consider how modern elites often resist any attempt to challenge the unintended consequences of social practices they endorse, like no-fault divorce or day care.
To take one example, let’s consider the recent case of New York psychoanalyst Erica Komisar, the author of a new book that highlighted the latest science documenting the benefits of infants being cared for by their mothers—Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters.
This book was been mostly ignored by the mainstream media, and readers like me only learned about the book because The Wall Street Journal Opinion page published a column that was partly about the author’s findings and partly about the resulting media blackout on a topic deemed too dangerous for public consumption.
“Every time a mother comforts a baby in distress, she’s actually regulating that baby’s emotions from the outside in,” the book explains.
“After three years, the baby internalizes that ability to regulate their emotions, but not until then.” That’s why mothers “need to be there as much as possible, both physically and emotionally, for children in the first 1,000 days.”
These are fighting words in progressive circles, where gender differences are dismissed as a threat to sexual equality. Book review editors reportedly told Komisar that they simply didn’t agree with her premise, or they didn’t want to make mothers of young children feel guilty.
Media outlets are otherwise rather comfortable making people feel guilty about their behavior and choices. But the author’s data raise uncomfortable questions for feminist true believers who view the maternal impulse as a trap.
Yet many working mothers already suspect that they are shortchanging their children, and such a book could provide critical information as they make future plans. Likewise, similar anxieties burden single mothers, as well as parents who divorced before they understood the full consequences for their children.
As Alan Bloom concluded in his 1987 best-seller, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, even high-performing Ivy League students cen be deeply affected by family instability.
In his classroom, Bloom observed that the children of divorce exhibited distinctive habits of mind that diverged from their classmates’ thinking. It was the era of so-called “creative divorce” and young people were supposed to embrace this therapeutic formulation. But those who had been schooled to suppress the truth of their own painful experience also had trouble engaging other truths.
If Bloom were alive today, I wonder what he would make of the need for “safe spaces” on U.S. campuses, or the high costs for providing security for controversial speakers? For now, it is surely worth asking: Would this generation be less anxious, intolerant and aggrieved if they were free to acknowledge and address the deeper unresolved issues of family implosion and loss?