Yesterday afternoon my local public radio station, KALW, aired a discussion about the possible adoption of “Laura’s Law” in Alameda County, just across the bay. The law
“allows for court-ordered assisted outpatient treatment or forced anti-psychotics in most cases. To qualify for the program, the person must have a serious mental illness plus a recent history of psychiatric hospitalizations, jailings or acts, threats or attempts of serious violent behavior towards [self] or others.”
[From the Wikipedia summary of the law, which can be found at the following link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laura's_Law#Supporters.]
One of the interviewees was a minister from northern California who told of his son’s mental illness and increasingly violent behavior. Under current law, the young man’s psychiatrists refuse to inform the parents of any details of their son’s treatment. To do so would be to break the confidentiality considered fundamental to the doctor/patient relationship. But the son in this case lives with his parents, is supported by them, and has physically attacked them in the past. So the question arises as to what position the State should take vis a vis families such as this.
The recent murderous rampage by a young man who killed six others in Isla Vista before killing himself as well has fueled the passions on both sides of the debate. I do not intend to take either side here, but I would like to consider the question in light of an historical trend toward greater and greater interference by the State in familial relationships previously deemed to be “private” matters and therefore no business of the State at all.
I remember an old saying that “A man’s home is his castle.” The implication was that within his home, each man was the law-giver, the ruler, a sovereign whose authority was complete. Not that long ago, a man’s wife and children were his chattel, and he could do as he pleased with them, including such abuses as beatings and imprisonment. While men who thus abused their power were scorned by society, the law did not charge them as criminals. The protection of women and children lay in the power of the community’s moral standards, not in the power of legislatures and courts of law. Families had to work out their own relations of power, the extent and limitations of each member’s rights and responsibilities, and the realm in which this took place was emphatically not public.
In the course of the last century, the State has gradually insinuated itself into the midst of these family relations. The functions of the community’s moral standards have been usurped by the law, with the result that there seem, to me at least, to be no widely held moral standards at all anymore. And we have lost any sense of the difference between what is public and what is private. People gladly “air their dirty linen” before millions of viewers on television; celebrities are stalked and photographed and gossiped about by the press; and one hears the most appallingly intimate details of other people’s lives as they themselves talk loudly into their mobile phones about anything and everything. Meanwhile, the government, along with every internet and telecommunications company on the planet, gathers information about everything you do. They read your emails, record your telephone conversations, and have their cameras mounted in virtually every public space. “These days,” Mick Jagger sang a couple of decades ago, “it’s all secrecy and no privacy.”
When I was a kid, any adult who saw me try to pocket a candy bar at the grocery store would have grabbed me by the caller and marched me to the shop owner, who would telephone my parents. I would be in big trouble, terrifyingly big trouble. Now if an adult reprimands a child, the mother or father is outraged: how dare you discipline my child! I am his/her parent and that is my business not yours! So too, teachers can no longer physically discipline children, and a savvy child has every opportunity to use the law to go after a parent who might dare to spank the little brat on his/her bottom. “Spare the rod and spoil the child” is now called child abuse. And the police stand ready to throw either husband or wife into jail whenever one or the other thinks to call 911 and say that he/she fears the other.
I am not trying to argue for a return to any previous social order. The old way may have been nice for the Man-King who ruled the household, but it wasn’t so nice for his wife, his children, or his slaves. And the man who, like me, chose not to marry had no good place in that order either. As I have said elsewhere, we live in a period of flux in our social relations, the old hierarchies gone and the new not yet established. Such flux is very difficult to bear. For me, remembering the feeling of security one has in a world of clearly defined and communally enforced social standards, I find the current chaos particularly disheartening. And for me, remembering the self-loathing and terror I felt at my own unnamed suspicion that I might be gay, I also feel this state of flux as a joyous liberation.
What worries me is the extension of judicial authority and police power into the realms of personal relationships. It seems to me that the State has extended its power in alarming, totalitarian ways all in the name of the Sanctity of the Individual. In the name of protecting husbands or wives from their spouses, children from their parents (and from their teachers), consumers from businesses, home buyers from predatory lenders, pets from their owners, and so on, the State has designated itself and its courts as the arbiters of the “right” way for people to live and to interact. Increasingly everyone who suffers misfortune (which of course means everyone) is seen as a victim – not a victim of bad luck or bad choices, but a victim of someone or something that should pay for it. Men no longer settle their differences privately, with arguments, fists (governed by Marquis of Queensbury rules), or pistols: they sue for damages instead.
Look at the language: we have Megan’s law and Laura’s law and Amber alerts, all judicial powers named for victims which further the development of a police state. Instead of searching our own souls or hearts or psyches or consciences trying to regain a common morality, we abdicate responsibility for correcting our own and each other’s behavior and pass that responsibility to the State and its police. And I fear that in doing so we lose the ability and the right to determine what that new, as yet unestablished, social order will look like. We allow those who hold the brute reigns of power in this society to shape a new order to their own liking, without regard for the common folk like you and me.