November 24, 2021   6 mins

As Britain is only a distant province of America’s soft-power empire, it’s been relatively easy to turn the volume down on Kyle Rittenhouse discourse. Even so, it’s been unsettling to watch the same events assembled into two irreconcilable stories.

In one, a white supremacist shot anti-racism protesters in cold blood, and was acquitted because of his skin colour. In the other, a teenager tried to defend a community from violence, and ended up shooting two criminal lunatics in self-defence.

But why are these stories so irreconcilable? It’s a good rule of thumb that where people find it impossible to agree, it’s usually because there’s a fundamental difference in their assumptions about the world.

The Rittenhouse argument is just such a case. It’s powered by a profound disagreement about human nature: one that fuels many of the most intractable modern culture wars, from Mumsnet bunfights about babycare to arguments about classroom discipline and what the police force is for.

Are humans naturally good given the right circumstances? Or are we flawed and in need of threats and guidelines to keep us on the straight and narrow? The split is a legacy of radical ideas stretching back to the revolutionary 18th century.

Perhaps the most famous proponent of intrinsic human goodness is Rousseau, who claimed in Emile (1762) that children are born virtuous. As Rousseau sees it, we only need freedom, love and the right environment to spontaneously come to an understanding of what’s right.

When Emile was first published, it stood in stark challenge to the then-dominant view, emerging from the Christian tradition, that humans are tainted by ‘original sin’. From this vantage point, we’re naturally flawed, and must always struggle against our less virtuous instincts. Rousseau’s claim so appalled adherents of this then-dominant view that copies of his book were burned in the street.

Today, though, the boot is on the other foot. The high-status view among contemporary elites is unmistakeably Team Rousseau.

At the tiniest scale, it’s expressed in the school of parenting that believes it’s wrong or even cruel to teach children how to live. I’ve written before about the currently popular ideas of ‘attachment parenting’ and ‘gentle parenting’, which emphasise self-discovery in a loving environment over routine, authority or punishment — and about how these views skew wealthy and liberal.

In education settings, the same idea appears as ‘child-centred pedagogy’, an approach that emphasises individual pathways and discovery over rote learning and teachers as authority figures. And at the biggest scale, it crops up as the claim that all the root causes of crime are external to humans: poverty, trauma, discrimination and so on. From this perspective, if we could only replace policing with tailored community services that eliminated these root causes, there would no longer be any crime.

Even outbreaks of mass public disorder are treated by Team Rousseau as an unfortunate-yet-understandable response to bad governance: when BLM protesters in Baltimore toppled a statue of Christopher Columbus last year, the Democrat politician Nanci Pelosi responded by shrugging it off as a natural expression of that community’s wishes. If the community doesn’t want the statue, she said, “the statue shouldn’t be there”. From this vantage point, public unrest is something akin to the weather: a naturally-occurring phenomenon in which leaders must strive to create the conditions for goodness, or else “people will do what they do”.

If angry 18th century moralists burned Rousseau’s book on education, today the moral majority is more likely to dogpile people who disagree with the belief that we’re all born good. Katherine Birbalsingh, headteacher of ‘Britain’s strictest school’, Michaela Community School in London, recently faced demands that she be fired after she referenced ‘original sin’ in the context of teaching. From the Team Original Sin perspective, as Michaela’s deputy head Jonathan Porter argued last year, providing empathy and interesting lessons won’t guarantee you good classroom behaviour. To Porter, children aren’t so much naturally good as capable of being habituated to the good. But that, he suggests, means making clear statements about what you believe to be good, setting rules on that basis, and enforcing them consistently.

This might be doable within a single school with a strong leader, such as Michaela. What happens, though, when a sizeable proportion of the ruling class think this approach is not just misguided but immoral?

Last summer, rioting broke out first in America and then worldwide —prompting US Senator Tom Cotton to write an op-ed arguing that order was important in and of itself and suggesting the army should be deployed to quell the riots. The ensuing shouting-match between Team Original Sin and Team Rousseau ended the career of the NYT’s comment editor.

Implicitly, then, for Team Rousseau, disorder is understandable when people are oppressed, while order is a nice-to-have, and only attainable if you create the right conditions to draw out people’s natural goodness. In schools, we can only expect pupils to behave if the teacher’s doing it right. And in the public square, we can only expect people not to riot if we abolish systemic oppression.

Applying this model to policing means diverting resources from enforcing order to addressing social issues. San Francisco, for example, voted last year to redirect $120m of funding from policing to community projects, with the aim of eliminating the causes of crime rather than simply punishing criminals.

But there’s always the nagging worry: what do you do with people who persistently refuse to have their natural goodness drawn out? And here, perhaps, we find a clue as to why Team Rousseau tends to skew wealthy: it’s easier to believe people are naturally good if you’ve led a sheltered life.

As a child, Rousseau himself wasn’t allowed to play with other children. And it’s conceivable that more daily rough-and-tumble with his peers might have tempered the rosy view of natural childish virtue presented in Emile. When people who have led sheltered lives apply Team Rousseau beliefs in less rarefied settings, the result isn’t always as salutary as hoped. Even innocent experiments and self-discovery can impact negatively on others — especially where the experiment (innocent or otherwise) is in how far you can push one of your classmates.

For Team Original Sin, Birbalsingh advocates dealing with such schoolyard conflicts by imposing norms of public order: that is, ‘tight behaviour systems’ and ‘high expectations’. For Team Rousseau, though, it’s less clear what to do.

Research suggests that empathy-based ‘restorative justice’ approaches to school discipline yield mixed results at best. And when applied to law and order, Team Rousseau likewise runs aground on the problem of those who refuse to be rehabilitated. In San Francisco, as the focus of law and order has shifted to rehabilitation, incidences of burglary are rocketing — a fact that seems down to a minority of repeat offenders.

What can be done about this, especially where police no longer get involved? One plausible consequence is rising vigilantism. We can’t know definitively what motivated one teenager with an assault rifle to travel to a riot zone; perhaps he really was just attracted to the mayhem, and looking for a reason to join in. Or perhaps he thought he was making a last, heroic stand for order and in defence of those unable to defend themselves.

For when public norms of order collapse, or are undermined in the name of empathy, the only law that remains is that of brute strength. In San Francisco, even previously committed opponents of gun ownership are now responding to the disintegration of public order with talk of buying weapons.

Most of the Rittenhouse culture war boils down to an argument over whether Rittenhouse was the bully, or the one who stands up to bullies. But what this argument ignores is the fate of those who are neither bully nor challenger. The weak, the old, the frightened or otherwise defenceless.

Perhaps the empathetic elites of Team Rousseau are simply secure enough in their leafy suburbs or gated compounds to ignore any unfortunate side-effects of treating order as secondary to freedom. But this raises the troubling possibility that sacrificing public order for empathy and individual freedom is, in practice, less high-minded than a dereliction of care to those that can’t defend themselves.

Worse still, the lesson from Michaela is that at root this isn’t really about scruples at all. It’s about a crippling lack of moral self-confidence. For you can’t set clear rules and form habits unless you have a clear idea of the good — and it’s this vision of the good that is the true missing piece.

Team Rousseau insists that human goodness is natural rather than ordered and enforced, and this in turn affords its believers the right to withhold judgement, and avoid making clear statements about the good. In practice, then, this amounts to an elite right — a duty, in fact — to shirk the central responsibility of elites since time immemorial: moral leadership.

And in the absence of clear moral leadership, the alarming prospect is that instead we’ll witness a proliferation of Rittenhouses: self-appointed individual guardians of a public order abandoned by the elites whose responsibility it is to uphold.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.