The Needs of Strangers

Every now and then I find myself reading a book that gives me the words and ideas that I need to make sense of some of my experiences, and to refine some of the questions and hypotheses that are forming in my mind as a result of my daily life in community at Mill Grove and my conversations with those working and living alongside children worldwide. One of these books is The Needs of Strangers by Michael Ignatieff, first published by Chatto and Windus in 1984 in London UK, and since available in paperback published by Vintage: I wish I had come across it earlier.

What’s In a Name?

Let me share my queries with you before revealing how this splendidly insightful, imaginative and pithy book helped me. Mill Grove, in case you are not familiar with the story, is the name of the house where Ruth and I live. It is in the East of London, and members of my biological family have lived here continuously since 1901. I was born at Mill Grove, and our four children spent most of their childhoods living here. We share our home with children, young people and families who are looking for some form of care and or support.

Given this brief outline history you can see that it is a bit of a challenge to label Mill Grove. It is not a school, a hospital, an orphanage, children’s home; it is not strictly speaking a foster family; it is not an intentional therapeutic community like, say, Cotswold, Peper Harow, and Mulberry Bush. And although this doesn’t seem to cause any problems for those who live as part of our family, it raises formidable and chronic problems for those institutions, organisations and bodies that are charged with registering and inspecting us, as well as those responsible for the delivery of services to those who in the UK are called “looked after children”.

Public, Private – or Something Else?

The essence of the problem is this: Mill Grove straddles the conceptual divide between the “private” and the “public” worlds. We care for our own children and also for other peoples’ children. Legislation and regulations assume that we are firmly in the “public world” and that therefore it cannot be our home and family. And we readily admit that, however normal life together here seems to be to us and to our neighbours and friends, there is nothing quite like Mill Grove.But the problem goes deeper than this: it does not seem possible to find words and a language that is adequate to the task of defining and describing what really goes on to those who operate in the public world. For those who are interested in this sort of challenge, the classic by Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, may come to mind. He explores the limits of professional and academic language and disciplines when it comes to trying to have a rounded (moral) discussion of that which lies within and between several or more professional worlds.

Problems In Practice

In practice this is the sort of problem that surfaces: when inspectors go through a list of regulations and minimum standards, we find that they never seem to mention (even in passing) the really important aspects of childhood: things like love, respect, trust, belonging and so on. And when we mention them, they have no way of registering them in their reports.

Take what is now called “safeguarding children” (it used to be called “child protection”): we tried saying that we cared for every child as if they were our own. (If we were being clinically precise, we might say that in reality for us “every child matters”!) Surely there could be no firmer way of communicating that we would never falter for a moment in our concentration on making sure that the children were safe.

But we were told that this was not good enough: these were other peoples’ children and so we were expected to demonstrate (or, to take an ugly verb taken from a noun, “evidence”) our child protection by showing written policies. We soon found that it was no good saying that we had spent thirty years living with the children and that we were ready to die for them if necessary. (One of my greatest heroes, Janusz Korczak actually did this.) There was no way of bridging the two worlds: that of the “private, personal family” and the “public institution looking after the children of others”.

Basic Questions

As one who has studied the English language pretty thoroughly, and written quite a few books and articles, lectured on and off on five continents for many years, you can imagine that this inability to communicate such simple concepts to those coming from a different perspective has been rather frustrating to say the least.

Which is where Michael Ignatieff came in. A young visitor who pops in to Mill Grove on most Saturdays lent me his copy of the book because he felt that I would find it relevant. As I had read it avidly twice within a week, this young man went up in my estimation very fast. He had seen into the heart of my problem. Ignatieff wrestles with two simple questions all through the book:

(i) When is it right to speak for the needs of strangers?

(ii) Is it possible to define what human beings need in order to flourish?

Now the professionals seem to see no problem: they readily become advocates for the rights of children, and agree minimum standards that attempt to ensure that the needs of children who cannot live with their own families are met in alternative settings. But Ignatieff had discovered (through personal experience, and a wide and judicious reading of seminal western texts ranging from Augustine, Shakespeare, to Adam Smith and Karl Marx, to name a few) that rights language didn’t help enough.

Put simply, “We are more than rights-bearing creatures, and there is more to respect in a person than his rights” (p.13). There are “basic goods” that are generally agreed as necessary for human freedom, and this idea of John Rawls gets us somewhere (p.15), but many of the requirements of a decent life: love, respect, solidarity with others aren’t necessary for personal freedom. “I don’t need to be loved in order to be free; I need to be loved to be at peace with myself and to be able to love in turn.”

As he follows this line of argument, Ignatieff comes to see that there is “a contradiction at the heart of the welfare state between the respect we owe persons as individuals [on the one hand], and as fellow human beings [on the other]. In the first case we must treat them differently and unequally; in the second we treat them like every other human being” (p.16).

An Unbridgeable Gulf?

The light had really come on for me: I could see how my inability to communicate between the two different discourses, public and private, had arisen. We were seeing each child as an individual known to us by name and without any label defining them for us; those coming on behalf of the welfare state were looking for evidence that we treated them (within certain categories defined by age, ethnicity, gender or dis/ability) exactly the same.

Ignatieff continued, “The most common criticism of modern welfare is precisely that in treating everyone the same it ends up treating everyone like a thing” (p.17). And this worrying thought being so obviously relevant and real, he begins to question if there were some human needs that it was not possible to satisfy effectively/fully by collective social provision.

I will leave his argument with the following quotation: “Love…is perhaps the most desperate and insistent of all human needs. Yet we cannot force someone to love us. We cannot claim love as a human right…There may be a tragic gulf between what human beings need and what their collective wisdom is able to provide” (pp.18 & 19).

It had all become clear to me. We could not find a way of bridging the (“tragic”) gulf between the private and public worlds because there is no bridge afforded by language and logic. A state that decided to gain evidence that families were demonstrating “good enough” parenting would find itself having to accept quite different standards from family to family (which would be bureaucratically and morally unjust). You can do it for public institutions by insisting on measurable minimum standards: but who would accept that minimum standards are applicable to relationships of trust, love, belonging, and loyalty? There “are human needs that go beyond the domain and competence of political action altogether” (p.19).

Why Love Is Missing

Immediately I saw why the use of the word “love” is absent from nearly all government regulations and standards relating to children. It is obviously of huge significance to every person in their private lives, but it is neither deliverable, nor measurable, by the so-called “corporate parent”. No wonder the conference launching my book, The Growth of Love was seen to be a bit risky with its title “Love: a Four Letter Word?”

And I saw that the inspectors had properly to see each child as a stranger, known to them by category, case history and initials (in short, as things); whereas we related to them by name as persons. Martin Buber’s insights into “I/Thou” relationships took on new relevance. The rights-based, child protection approach ultimately sees children as less than individuals, when they are actually people who are “Thous” with needs, longings and feelings that logic itself cannot understand.

We do not have the language or the words to bridge the gulf: that is cold comfort, but at least it helps me understand my difficulty. Ignatieff concludes with a sobering thought, “Without a public language to help us find our own words, our needs will dry up in silence. It is words only, the common meanings they bear, which give me the right to speak in the name of the strangers at my door” (p.142). Perhaps we only have the right to speak on behalf of others when we have welcomed them into our home and know them by name. And even more important when we have understood what they are trying to say, however different it is from what we hear from other individuals.

If so, we will most likely find a common language in literature and religion, not in the political and organisational spheres.

Could the state be willing to allow the space for this language to develop? If not, then Mill Grove must be content to be understood mainly, if not only, in the personal realm. What it really is and means to those of us who are part of the story will forever be incomprehensible to the state and its organs, as it is with the inside story of every family.

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.