Paternalism, Old or New, Blinds

22 Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. 24 But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything.

Ephesians 5:22-24

Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.

Colossians 3:18

The Olinka do not believe that girls should be educated. When I asked a mother why  she thought this, she said: A girl is nothing to herself; only to her husband can she become something.

Nettie to Celie, The Color Purple, Alice Walker

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.

Ephesians 6:5

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord.

Colossians 3:22

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

No one is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart: for his purity, by definition, is unassailable.
― James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name

I spent the last third of my career as a high school English teacher also serving as the soccer coach for the school’s boys and girls soccer programs. The reasons I took the coaching position included my own concerns about how public school coaches often behaved in ways that no one would have tolerated by teachers in the classroom—although most of those coaches were also classroom teachers.

Coaches routinely berated players, including the use of profanity, and in the South, the line between church and state simply did not exist since coaches always led players in prayer, especially just before a game or match started in full view of the fans.

For most of my life and career in my small hometown, the head football coach—who worked as athletic director and assistant principal—blared profanity over the stadium intercom during practices and even swore at students while issuing them demerits for profanity.

That coach won football games, state championships, and thus, essentially not a soul ever uttered a concern—even in those moments when the profanity was joined with racial slurs.

I did complain so when I became a coach, I set out to change the culture of my teams both in my behavior and in the messages I sent.

When I notified my team that I would not lead them in prayer—explaining why—and that before games teammates who wanted to pray needed to organize that and then join the team for a pre-game huddle, that change did prompt complaints. But that change also brought players to me in private who thanked me—players who had never spoken a word about coach-led prayers making them uncomfortable before.

So when I heard about the controversy surrounding Clemson University and whether or not head coach Dabo Swinney is coercing his players with his religious beliefs, I was certain of two things: (1) local public opinion would overwhelming support Swinney, and (2) despite Swinney’s good intentions (I do trust he has only good intentions), the situation is, in fact, inappropriate in the context of Swinney’s power as head coach and Clemson being a state university.

But the Clemson football/religion controversy is much more than the narrow situation because at its source, the controversy is about a recurring human flaw: the allure and failure of paternalism, both on grand and small scales.

Nettie and Celie are sisters who exchange letters in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Nettie reveals to Celie throughout the correspondence Nettie’s own awakening to the dangers of missionary zeal during her experience in Africa. Celie, who remains home in the Deep South, confronts her own awakening about the traditional view of women in the South—the subservience of women and wives occurring, however, in both sisters’ worlds.

As a work about racism and sexism, The Color Purple ultimately is a confrontation of paternalism. And paternalism is the driving force behind the justifications for misogyny and slavery: Women were to be protected because of their inherent frailties and slaves were to be taken care of by their owners because of Blacks’ inherent inadequacies.

Subjugating women to the control of men and Blacks to the control of Whites was repeatedly framed as acts of good intentions and then linked to the ultimate paternalism—the Word of God.

When the U.S. came against the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the political response was something that—looking back—seems nearly impossible to believe. Japanese-Americans were subjected to internment:

In 1942, still reeling from the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government ordered thousands of Japanese Americans to leave their homes behind and take up residence in remote detainment camps. About two thirds of them were U.S. citizens.

The most famous of the camps, located in California’s Owens Valley, was called the Manzanar War Relocation Center.

History reveals this pattern at a stunning rate: At the time, the unjustifiable appears justifiable and the acts are with good intentions, designed to protect everyone involved.

Treating women as second-class humans, U.S. slavery, the Japanese Internment—grand human errors all—are daily matched on smaller scales, however, in the pervasive paternalism that drives people in power to control those within their authority.

To suggest that Swinney and Clemson is a unique or isolated failure of paternalism, or that this crossing of the line between church and state is a lingering failure of the South is to miss the real message of the controversy.

And the controversy isn’t just about sports—although an easy scapegoat.

Consider education broadly. As Whitman notes: “In the narrowest sense, all American schools are paternalistic.” This comment, however, rests in a larger piece serving to endorse “no excuses” schools—a central justification being Whitman’s argument that a new paternalism deserves to be embraced:

Paternalistic programs survive only because they typically enforce values that “clients already believe,” Mead notes. But many paternalistic programs remain controversial because they seek to change the lifestyles of the poor, immigrants, and minorities, rather than the lifestyles of middle-class and upper-class families. The paternalistic presumption implicit in the schools is that the poor lack the family and community support, cultural capital, and personal follow-through to live according to the middle-class values that they, too, espouse.

Women must be subservient to men and wives to husbands because women lack certain qualities (that men have). The same with slaves. The same with the poor (who tend to be people of color).

And therein is the problem—a problem not unrelated to the Clemson/Swinney controversy: beware justifications of paternalism on grand and small scales, especially when the person in authority is above reproach.

Parents, teachers, and coaches all face a tremendous paradox: Those roles are by their nature prone to paternalism (and maternalism) by necessity because (unlike stereotypes of females, African Americans, and people in poverty) children in fact lack some qualities that adults (literally as parents or in locos parentis) are obligated to monitor and even control.

The paradox grows from when anyone in authority confronts her/his paternalism, the fact of that authority and the possibility of coercion must check that paternalism against some moral imperatives: (1) Is the paternalistic drive based in a deficit view of those subjected to the authority? (2) Is the paternalistic drive grounded in a moment of crisis? and (3) Is that crisis genuine or fabricated as a circular argument for justifying the acts?

Public education embracing “no excuses” ideologies and Dabo Swinney infusing his football program with Christianity (small scale paternalism) are in no way the Japanese Internment, U.S. slavery, or the historical weight of misogyny (grand scale paternalism), but they fail young people in ways that are just as hard to justify as much larger social scars facing humanity.

Our ability to see in hindsight historically grand failures of paternalism should help sharpen our ability to recognize the failure of paternalism on smaller scales.

People in authority—such as coaches—often get passes they don’t deserve, and acts grounded in assumed positive contexts—such as religion—are often above reproach.

Authority, religion, paternalism, and missionary zeal, combined, are dangerous and likely to fail us all, regardless of anyone’s good intentions. (Allow me to point back to Nettie’s experience in The Color Purple.)

Authority and its necessary paternalistic impulses must always be tempered with humility and the ability to see the world with other people’s eyes—particularly when those other people are likely intimidated and coerced by that authority.

I think it is not ours to cast stones at Swinney because he is us. Every time anyone thinks “what is right for me is right for you,” she/he is falling into the same trap of paternalism that we must recognize and avoid. And although I cannot guarantee a line has been crossed at Clemson, I am deeply suspicious it has because the responses from all involved remain righteous, and I know we all are prone to being trapped in the amber of the moment, the amber of our assumptions.

Let’s not cast stones, but let’s ask some important questions:

  1. Do we want our athletic coaches to also serve as our athletes’ spiritual leaders?
  2. How do we justify Christianity (or any religion) in the context of competitive and violent sport?
  3. If the exact same situation were occurring but Swinney was as devout about being Hindu, not Christian, would public reaction be the same?
  4. And how do we treat as sacred the wall between church and state in our public institutions so that both church and state remain honored?

And let’s be sure to answer these recognizing that paternalism on scales grand and small tends to blind us from the answers we seek.


4 thoughts on “Paternalism, Old or New, Blinds

  1. Pingback: Paternalism, Old or New, Blinds – @ THE CHALK FACE

  2. Not sure how that will go over with todays mindset. I’m more of a equal partner than a subjective entity. Don’t believe in slavery either. I hear that was prevalent back then too.

  3. Much to my (and probably your) surprise I agree with 99% of your article. As public educators we are not to teach our religion, or opinions. We should be empowering our students to make their own choices and stand behind their convictions, confident that when we do our jobs well they will find their successes and failures and grow from them. My question to you is this: you suggest we constantly check paternalism against moral standards. What standards would you suggest? There are no morals common to man that do not find their roots in a religious organization.

    I don’t like how you portrayed the Bible because as a Christian I know I will fail God’s expectations every day. The problem is not the Bible or the words in it. The problem is man’s interpretation because we do not have the heart or mind of God. I know I will misinterpret His word. I know I will make mistakes that affect other people, sometimes scar them despite my best efforts. In such cases I am left to hope the mercy of others will be forgiving when I was blind to my actions. I can only speak for myself, but I pray I will never be subjected to public criticism in my failures as a Christian because I know they are great.

    • I don’t think I portray the Bible in any way other than to highlight how it can and has been used as a tool for things we now recognize as wrong. The problem would then be the paternalism, but no necessarily the text. There are plenty considerations of ethics and morals not grounded in religion; that is the field of philosophy.

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