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Social Micawberism

From the socialist Norman Dennis,

On any performance or characteristic that can be measured from smallest to largest—any ‘continuous variable’—most people are clustered on both sides of the category’s average score. The numbers then tail off in one direction to the few who have extremely low scores (a few English adults are under three feet tall). The numbers tail off in the other direction to the few who have extremely high scores (a few English adults are over seven feet tall).

Very frequently one category’s bell-shaped curve overlaps with that of another category. Very frequently, indeed, the intra-group dispersion from the lowest to highest scorers is much larger than the difference between the average for the two groups—there is a very large overlap. The average height of the category ‘women holding British passports’ is lower than that of the category of ‘men holding British passports’. There are more women in the ‘small stature’ tail of the distribution than men, and more men in the ‘tall stature’ tail than women. The curve showing the number of women of different height is shifted to the low end of the distribution as compared with the men’s curve. But the curves overlap very considerably. Many women, that is, are taller than many men. Everyone knows that both things are true. Men are taller than women. But many men are smaller than many women.

This is so obvious that no difficulties ever arise when the matter is discussed. No one ever tries to argue that because there are undoubtedly tall women and short men, this proves that men and women are the same height, though it is quite possible to argue that under modern urban and economic conditions the difference is no longer of much social significance (that is a second, separate, but also an empirical matter).

Yet since the 1960s the first argument has been applied quite recklessly to the characteristics, achievements and experiences in the area of sex, child-care, childrearing, and adult mutual-aid. It can be shown that children biologically created in any number of technically available ways, and subjected to almost any conceivable sort of parenting, can be found who do as well on almost any conceivable criterion

as some children born to and brought up by their permanently married biological parents. Therefore (the non sequitur runs) families without fathers are ‘just as good as’ the institution of life-long heterosexual monogamy as the context for procreation and socialization. Or they could be just as good as long as they were given enough money: fatherhood is only a matter of cash. Or they would be just as good if the matrix within which sexual practices, and arrangements for the safety and well-being of the child, had been those created by, say, Danish conditions, not by British economic and social development. Or ‘the jury is still out’, and we do well to remain neutral and inactive on the question of whether these ‘alternative families’ do on the average a better job for children brought up in them.

‘If Mr. Micawber’s creditors will not give him time’, said Mrs. Micawber, ‘they must take the consequences.’ So the policy of social Micawberism is happily propagated, at the expense of a generation of children or more, that we may ready ‘in the case of anything turning up’.


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