With the government’s announcement of a crackdown on baby criminals, there’s a strangely apposite comment piece from Daniel Finkelstein today on the difference between dispositionalism and situationalism.
any one of us is capable of dreadful behaviour depending on the circumstances we find ourselves in. Our concentration on the personality of evil people, on their dispositions, is a mistake. We should think instead of the situation.
Finkelstein points to evidence that the Tories are moving from being dispositionalists to being situationalists. Ironically, they are meeting a Labour government steaming in the opposite direction with their latest initiative to target unborn ‘menaces to society’.
Any one of us is also capable of being a pretty poor sort of parent: loneliness, financial worries and the inability to see how things can possibly improve are enough to plunge plenty of people into depression. It’s hard to smile, sing nursery rhymes or enjoy being pregnant when you feel utterly bleak.
It’s actually no bad idea to offer friendly help to, say, an isolated young woman who doesn’t have the network of family and friends that many people can take for granted when they are plunged into parenthood. But to bill that as a crime-prevention measure instantly turns it into something hateful. It makes a child’s birth into an occasion for gloomy doubt and reduces an expectant mother merely to the sub-standard object through which the next generation arrives, with its implication that “hey, you’re so useless that we need to try and make something of you so that at least your child stands a chance”. A repugnant message, but the govt seems incapable of recognising just how vile it is.
Kate Billingham, director of the project and deputy chief nursing officer, rejected suggestions the scheme could stigmatise deprived children. “I myself think labelling and stigmatising are used as ways of not giving people the help they want and their children can benefit from.”
The fatuity of that statement undermines any hope that ‘giving help’ will be handled sensitively. How can a scheme that is trumpeted by the government as entirely negative – ‘preventing’ someone identified as a potential problem from becoming so – ever be anything but labelling and stigmatising? But if one doesn’t recognise the pitfall, one can hardly avoid it.
In the right hands, this initiative ought to be a really good, positive idea: a compassionate offer of support from one human being to another in recognition of the fact that pregnancy and babies can be frightening, exhausting and confusing, especially if you’re alone with a mountain of other problems. Instead, though, macho government posturing, hate-speech and the driving ambition for control have reduced it to a divisive, dispositionalist measure stripped of any humanity.