The past couple weeks have seen a firestorm of controversy surrounding a 30-second television promo by MSNBC anchor host Melissa Harris-Perry. Conservative commentators reacted sharply against what they perceived as the insinuations of the video that children are owned in some collectivist way by the community or, worse, by the government at large:
Such concerns cannot be dismissed out of hand. MSNBC, with its slogan of “Lean Forward,” has been consistently positioning itself in recent months and years as the true progressive cable news network, vying for the title conservatives long conceded to CNN. It stands to reason that these attempts would draw the ire of those who lean away from MSNBC’s more liberal inclinations.
Harris-Perry’s own phrasing noticeably contributes to this ire. Here is the complete transcript of the video’s contents:
We have never invested as much in public education as we should have because we’ve always had kind of a private notion of children: Your kid is yours and totally your responsibility. We haven’t had a very collective notion of these are our children. So part of it is we have to break through our kind of private idea that kids belong to their parents, or kids belong to their families, and recognize that kids belong to whole communities. Once it’s everybody’s responsibility, and not just the household’s, then we start making better investments.
The key flashpoint would seem to lie in the middle of this paragraph, in the idea that “we have to break through our kind of private idea that kids belong to their parents, or kids belong to their families, and recognize that kids belong to whole communities.” By choosing the particular phrase “belong to,” Harris-Perry suggests ownership and thus, more broadly, may suggest that “whole communities” have a claim to ownership on children that somehow equals (or even supersedes) the parental claim. If we take her to mean that communities have such a supervening right to kids that they could exercise that claim to dictate radical terms of conduct to parents, to the extreme of even stripping custody from parents on ideological grounds, there would be reason for substantial apprehension. I certainly have no desire to see anyone—whether federal, state, or local governments or progressive activists or MSNBC—given the ability to reduce my authority or my wife’s in our household. Of course, in the sense I understand the word, my kids do not “belong to” me either, since that terminology suggests ownership. They do, however, “belong with” me, because I am their parent.
So I will certainly agree that Harris-Perry’s wording in this television spot is problematic. Was it deliberately provocative or unintentionally so? That I cannot judge. Since the statements came in a television promotion that aired several times, she is certainly accountable for her choice of words. Those words come across as more off-the-cuff than scripted in the video, though it is assuredly possible to script scenes that appear “off-the-cuff.” Yet all this leaves open the fundamental underlying question: however poor her choice of wording, was Melissa Harris-Perry actually suggesting that anyone is going to take “collective” authority over kids away from the familial parental unit?
The answer to that question appears to be, “No.” Honestly, my own initial reaction upon first seeing the commercial was that she was simply emphasizing the importance of community in the lives of children: as a member of a community, I have a stake in the children around me, and my neighbors have a stake in what becomes of my own children. I might have been misreading her, but her own subsequent comments bear out this interpretation. Following the controversy, Harris-Perry posted this response on her blog:
I believe wholeheartedly, and without apology, that we have a collective responsibility to the children of our communities even if we did not conceive and bear them. Of course, parents can and should raise their children with their own values. But they should be able to do so in a community that provides safe places to play, quality food to eat, terrific schools to attend, and economic opportunities to support them. No individual household can do that alone. We have to build that world together.
So those of you who were alarmed by the ad can relax. I have no designs on taking your children. Please keep your kids! But I understand the fear.
We do live in a nation where slaveholders took the infants from the arms of my foremothers and sold them for their own profit. We do live in a nation where the government snatched American Indian children from their families and “re-educated” them by forbidding them to speak their language and practice their traditions.
But that is not what I was talking about, and you know it.
I venture to say that anyone and everyone should know full well that my message in that ad was a call to see ourselves as connected to a larger whole. I don’t want your kids, but I want them to live in safe neighborhoods. I want them to learn in enriching and dynamic classrooms. I want them to be healthy and well and free from fear. I want them to grow up to agree or disagree with me or with you and to have all the freedom and tools they need to express what they believe.
I am not entirely satisfied with her response in that she steadfastly issues no apology for her word choice—significantly, however, she no longer applies the contested term “belong to.” The passage quoted above—which forms the conclusion of her posting—represents the perspective I had thought she was taking in filming the ad. And there are certainly many points in this conclusion that Christians, conservative or liberal, ought to be able to agree to. All Christians live as parts of larger communities, and if we have a responsibility to show love for our neighbors, that certainly includes our geographical neighbors. If my neighbor saw my three-year-old chase a ball into the middle of the street, I would not feel he was usurping my authority if he ran out there to take him out of danger. That is a simple, common-sense manifestation of the call to care for the children of our communities. But while this perspective may be common sense in an intellectual way, it is not always common sense in practice. Many Christian parents are probably like me in that we want so desperately to shelter and guard our children—legitimate activities—that we must be wary of overreacting. I am cautious about allowing my children to have interactions with other children, and this caution can threaten to degenerate into a neighbor-shunning paranoia.
Moreover, the community referred to in Harris-Perry’s original promo has a very specific locus: the public school system. The uproar about the “kids belong to communities” aspect of the promo seems in many cases to be missing the fact that her specific thesis is the need to invest more in public school systems. Now, this is certainly a debate worth having. Many conservative Christians support America’s public education system, while others are more skeptical. Some may appreciate it broadly but take issue with Harris-Perry’s assertion that “[w]e have never invested as much in public education as we should have.” But whatever stance Christians may take in this debate, we should be able to do so in a manner that is thoughtful and charitable.
I agree that people, public figures included, ought to be held accountable for the words they choose, and Melissa Harris-Perry chose her words poorly. But I also believe that truly civil discourse involves making good-faith attempts to understand what people mean to say, acknowledging that people do not always choose the best words to communicate their ideas. Contextually—both in the ad itself and in her later clarifications—Harris-Perry is simply not advocating the removal of children from their homes, nor is she making some claim that the state owns children or has an authority equal to individual parents. She is contending that families in communities ought to have the best interests of all the children around them at heart, something it seems Christians should be able to agree to; and she is contending that public schools represent a major means of achieving those interests, a contention which might be disputable but which can be debated in a thoughtful and respectful manner.