Photo by Xavier Lorenzo


British politics is afflicted by a hatred of normality

Artillery Row

At this point, it follows a script. First a prominent figure says the most inoffensively obvious thing you’ve ever heard. “We need to have more babies.” “The family is the basis of society.” “Anti-social behaviour ruins lives.” “Ideally children should be brought up by their biological parents.” (Two of these examples alone are Miriam Cates — what can one say, she’s a hero.)

Then comes the anger. Boy, people are angry. How dare a public figure say something so offensive. We need to have more babies? Actually’ you’re trying to “drag the party back to the dark ages on morality issues” (that one from a “Conservative” MP). Think the heterosexual family is the basis of society? You’re making “thinly-veiled anti-LGBTQ+ comments”. Do you believe anti-social behaviour is bad? You’re racistly targeting “people of colour”. Think that being brought up by your biological parents is the ideal? You “don’t represent the values of modern people”, you’re erasing “my identity and lived experience as an adopted person”, you’re attacking “single-parent families”, you’re “throwing families under the bus” to further your “Conservative ideology”, and you want “women to stay in abusive relationships”.

I call this phenomenon whataboutmeism — it’s when praising one thing is taken as a denunciation of every other type of that thing. Think having babies is important? You hate people who can’t or won’t have them. Think biological families matter? You hate everyone in a non-traditional family. Miriam said we should celebrate traditional families and support them in the tax system. Had she said this about adoptive parents, gay couples, ethnic minority families or single mothers, she would have been widely praised. Nobody would have accused her of hating heterosexual unions or demonising biological parenthood. Actually, whataboutmeism’s apparent double standard is coherent, though quite ironically so.

Married, biological families ought to attract the bulk of resources in a democratic society

The very thing they claim to reject — that two parent, married, heterosexual families with biological children are the social norm, and what most people aim for or hope to have — lurks in the oppression they claim to experience when such families are praised or advocated for. It’s not merely that they fear being excluded. They implicitly recognise that such families are historically normative. Naturally speaking, these families ought to attract the bulk of resources and cultural representation in a democratic society. In the romantic, bohemian vision of progressive change, however, families should become ever more “diverse”. It’s not enough to recognise non-traditional families as worthy of protection and toleration — they’re part of a cultural vanguard of positive change. Policy aimed at specifically helping traditional families is thus regressive. It is harmful to those advancing into the sunlit uplands of polyamory, childfree lifestyles, “chosen families” and so on, away from the repressive and religiously-inflected realm of traditional matrimony.

Most ordinary people, of course, simply want to be allowed to live their lives and for the government to support their family fairly, whatever that family looks like. The cultural script of whataboutmeism is very widespread, though, especially amongst younger generations. It’s an ultimately individualistic reaction — why isn’t this about me, like a child throwing a tantrum in a shop because his brother was bought a toy and he wasn’t.

The issue (precisely the one Miriam Cates was addressing) is that the biological family is not some fetish of conservatives. It’s the basic unit of society that produces all the babies. Public policy should focus on these families, and it should be aimed at helping people meet the aspiration the vast majority of people have: to bring up their biological children in a stable home.

There’s no amount of sincere reassurance that will convince some people that this isn’t personally insulting and oppressing them. Miriam said that single parents were doing an incredible job, they deserved the thanks and support of the whole community, and they needed to be helped through the tax and benefit system. Still the only thing some people will hear is denunciation, thanks to the curse of whataboutmeism.

Parasocial online behaviour being what it is, many of those moaning about non-inclusivity are not actually being excluded personally. No, bless them, they’re just worried on behalf of those rhetorically dispossessed by exclusionary concepts like being brought up by your mum and dad. Call it whataboutmeism-by-proxy, or “whataboutthemism”. Sure, us good upper middle class types may be overwhelmingly more likely to get married, stay married and have children within marriages, but we hate to preach what we so profitably practise. Family breakdown, we like to portentously explain, couldn’t possibly be the product of economic forces — even though, mysteriously, it becomes less likely the more money you have.

There is a serious policy debate to be had about how far state or economic intervention can meaningfully address the issue of family breakdown. It is perhaps ironic that our political Left, which believes that government intervention and economic redistribution can be decisive in solving most other social ills, doesn’t believe it could be effective when it comes to keeping couples together. That said, there are plenty of interesting and credible arguments from thoughtful people on both sides of the issue. Sadly, they are lost in the storm of sentiment. Whaboutmeism is a narrow and poisonous worldview, one that dismisses critics and opponents, switches off brains, and trivialises the aspirations of the majority. British politicians need to stop listening to these voices. Ignore the babies currently throwing their toys out of the pram.

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