Travelling over the weekend, I stopped in a cafe in an airport waiting for my train. Up on the screen there was the BBC News, with subtitles (which aren’t always the most accurate and seem as if they were written by someone who flunked stenography school). There was a report concerning the canonization of Mother Teresa.
“Wait for it,” “wait for it,” “wait for it” …
I was telling myself this when they were recounting her work with the poor, the esteem she is held in by Catholics, the respect non-Catholics had for her, her meetings she held with people like Princess Diana (Teresa died the same week as Diana but didn’t get nearly the same press coverage as someone with a scandalous love-life and interesting eyeballs), and of course her Nobel Peace Prize.
Sure as Donald Trump publishing an off-colour tweet, the BBC got around to it.
“She was against abortion.”
“She was against contraception.”
The modern-day version of shame. “You are against …what???? You freedom-hating, backward, misogynistic, stone-age” … yeah, all those usual boring platitudes.
You see, you can’t ever broadcast any story about Mother Teresa without introducing ‘balance.’ There was a panel of 3, one pro-Mother Teresa, two against. By this time, I stopped looking at the news report. Seen this a million times. Probably could have written the script for what was going to be said with my eyes closed. It might have also been time to get moving for my train.
Mother Teresa’s sin in the eyes of many throughout the world, and in the eyes even of those who might admire her charitable deeds, was that she had convictions. However, she was not a ‘freedom-hater’ as such. She didn’t see it as her place to impose family limits on the Indian poor she worked amongst. She didn’t want to plan their lives or import a Western-centric agenda of birth-control. Have as many babies as you want, she said, and it is up to us to help you in your poverty.
The cackle calls come from those who have these sweeping, world domination type plans for birth control. Everyone should have less babies, and you sometimes hear everyone should give up on having babies!! (Where did you come from???) Why? There will be more for everyone. Planet Earth will be able to survive. We can give more time and affection to less people.
Now, I am sure many people from low-density countries with small families have travelled to poorer countries where there is a higher density of population and larger family sizes. Most people, if they’re being honest, would say that they go from a place where there are cold personal relations, where many people are often too busy for everyone else (unless there is something ‘in it’ for them), where you don’t know the next-door neighbour’s name, where many put off marriage until their late 30s, where children are an optional extra, where there is little generosity and much consumerism. There go to places where these trends are often reversed.
Of course, there is a rationale for this and it is a rationale which can even be understood even if we assume people are self-centred. If there are larger families, there is a greater need for neighbours to pool their resources, to lend help to each other, to at the very least feign friendship, to struggle together to surmount the difficulties of raising a family. A person raising one or two kids can face greater difficulties than someone raising ten if the former is isolated and the latter can rely on help and support from neighbours.
There is then the economic argument against having large families. There really is no link between the size of the population of a country and the consequent wealth. Japan is a high density country, for example. What really determines the economic fortunes of a country is the level of organization. Better organized countries can feed large populations, poorly organized ones struggle to even feed small numbers.
From my experience, what really motivates criticism of Mother Teresa is racism. But first, we need to identify what racism really looks like.
Charges of racism are bandied around a lot and the charge has lost much of its value, accordingly. I don’t believe that many of those regularly accused of racism are necessarily racist and that many of those who would escape charges of racism are bereft of racism. What do I mean by this?
For example, I would argue that anti-immigrant protesters are not inherently racist. They might be so, but it is normal for there to be limits on non-nationals entering a country. Many non-European countries have limits on, or regulations concerning, immigration and that is because new arrivals can displace the old. It’s simply a matter of practicality. To accuse every anti-immigrant campaigner of racism is to actually practise reverse racism! People in non-European countries can limit non-nationals; people in European countries have to open their doors.
I accept though that there are many aligned with anti-immigrant campaigns who do see the ‘other’ as inferior. This is racism.
A manifestation of another type of racism is relevant to critiques of Mother Teresa. A good example of this racism concerns nuclear weapons. Non-European countries are not allowed keep nuclear weapons unless there is approval of this by the powers-that-be. Nuclear technology can be availed of fully by white people. It’s use is restricted when it comes to non-whites. This is racism.
In my experience, many people who criticise Mother Teresa claim – when you get down to it – that she shouldn’t be encouraging the Indians and others to breed. They can’t afford to look after children, either in terms of money or in terms of time. But this supposedly rational argument really conceals a fear that if Indians have more and more and more children, then they will have a huge population and this huge population will ‘spill over,’ so to speak.
And of course, ‘we’ control our populations so why can’t ‘they’ do the same? Well, we don’t really control our populations. We just are too lazy to commit to loving relationships, too lazy to have kids, too lazy to raise kids, too lazy to have neighbourly relations. We then expect other places around the world ‘not to cheat’ by growing their numbers at the same time as we deplete ours. We believe our way to be inherently superior. We don’t want the darker-skinned to do what they have to do to make it from one generation to the next. We are afraid of ‘them.’ We are racist.
This is how I understand the criticism of Mother Teresa. Of course, many critics will say they are not racist, they want what is best for people of all colour, for all humanity, they have friends from different countries, there are also critics of Mother Teresa in India, etc …
Yes, I agree many proponents of contraception and abortion would never even contemplate using a racial epithet, would never behave inappropriately in front of people from another race and would condemn insults hurled at darker-skinned people. But they still see the ‘darker’ world as a problem to be managed and they see themselves as the enlightened leading the unwashed.
And the fact is that real racism isn’t going to announce itself to the world. It will claim to be open-minded, it will claim to respect everyone, it will claim immunity from diseases of the heart that can afflict all of us. But you can see racism in action. You can see the way that there is concern that some child in India may not get to school, but if some child in the Netherlands grows up without knowing their father it’s ok. After all, we are ‘enlightened.’
People living in countries like India can’t do what we are doing. No matter how poor they are, they can’t stop generating, they can’t stop raising kids, they can’t throw in the towel and expect the next generation to clean up their mess.
All I can say to those fixated on Mother Teresa’s principled stand against euphemistically-named ‘family planning’ is this:
Get over it!