Editorial: Family and the Psychological Safety Net
When I look around I see in many people a lot of emotion centered around blood family and kinship. Generally, blood family is something that almost any adult can establish and have regardless of his or her economic circumstances. Many people do not have much opportunity to establish their own mark on the world outside of family. Therefore, any cultural change that undermines the importance of the family becomes personally threatening. Loyalty to blood, so well demonstrated on soap operas, gets modified only with slight legal adjustments, like adoptions by legally married couples.
Modernism has brought many people opportunities outside of what comes naturally from the family and its roles. Since the mid Twentieth Century this was first true for women who became able to establish themselves outside of the home, and then particularly for gay men and lesbians. Information technology and media has made these opportunities very visible in the past fifteen or so years and sharpened “the cultural wars.”
We used to talk about erosion of the family mainly in terms of unwed mothers and absent fathers. But another major aspect is the disincentive, both cultural and economic, many people feel to have children and raise another generation altogether. This trend will reduce birthrates in higher income classes and create enormous problems with eldercare, and increase pressures on less fortunate economic classes that do not experience individualistic opportunities. As many conservative commentators point out, birthrates in less tolerant (often religious) cultures continue to rise comparatively, increasing security problems for future generations in the secular developed world.
There is something utopian about religious teachings that center around heterosexual marriage as an almost compulsory institution for everyone. The entire panoply, of abstinence, courtship, marriage, and “blessed events” use to be seen as a last great psychological leap in growing up, and in channeling one’s deepest sexual energies and emotional reserves into providing for others in an organized family structure, which not just raises the young but guarantees some sort of intrinsic human value to everyone. Though an intrusion upon the psyche, the old value system provided a certain psychological insurance policy and safety net—going beyond the economic web offered by government with social programs to share caretaking pressure that at one time stayed within extended families and was accepted with little question or personal choice by family members. You were expected to appropriate your sexuality to elevating others who would depend upon you. An important concept at the heart of this was, of course, gender complementarity, open always to transmission of life. This value system did realize that not everyone was equally inclined to parent—older generations had plenty of adults who did not have their own kids and were not “the marrying kind.” But these adults were the reserves (or, as in the Disney film “Sky High”, “hero support”); they were supposed to get their sense of self worth from the family alone and transmit that worth to other family members. “Family values” – that is, mandatory family solidarity -- came to maturity in a time that saw the world in terms of enemies, adversaries, and obstacles and that needed stability and reassurance. In a society based on tribalism, your family and your homestead were the only things you could count on having, in a world where personal mobility was controlled by power structures and turf. But your family could always be a source of self-worth.
Modernism has turned all of this on its head, or at least on a gyroscope. Sexuality, even for heterosexuals now, is a judgmental expression of one’s own developed personal values. Secularism and dense urban living offer opportunities for serial upward affiliation, a narcissistic expression which offers the benefit of expecting the best in people but sounds also like it intends to leave a lot of second-handers behind. This observation leads conservative social critics to condemn homosexuality as a vehicle to divide people and exclude them. At their best, however, modern liberal values remind us that parenting should, to some extent, be its own reward, with a new grown adult at the end of the two decades of parenthood; however, liberalism also has to ask how the risks associated with parenting are shared, and should some of the risks be assumed even by non-parents as a pre-condition for full participation in society (if not theoretical rights under the law).
The moral way out has been a conditional promise. One should settle down and have a family once one has found oneself first, and gotten an expressive career started. It sounds good. One’s relationships will be better when one is secure in oneself first. Gays and lesbians already know that this has to be the foundation of relationships that last. Set aside the arguments about biology and immutability; I think a lot of gay men have simply refused to allow their feelings to be misappropriated for the collective needs of others.
Family, then, takes care of people, but at great costs to personal freedom, and to social equality. Family perpetuates inheritance and unearned wealth and undeserved poverty. Family also provides a place for people to hide and an excuse for a lot of self-serving wrongdoing by heads of households. Where, then, is the moral truth in all of this? Is it back with individualism and personal responsibility. That looks good, but you have to accept the result that with more individualized personal responsibility, more people will fail and even not survive.
Individualism and personal strategies that put the individual ahead of filial motivation run into a certain paradox: the individualism depends on an interdependent technological infrastructure that can be attacked by enemies (such as terrorists) or can unravel with certain kinds of natural calamities (like pandemics). Therefore, families and parents feel that they have some practical ustification in requiring their kids to “pay their dues” with filial responsibility before they can credibly use their own individual gifts in the external world. Adult children who have lived years or decades in a single fashion, pursuing their own personal interests but without parenting children may find the nearly mandatory and increasing expectations of eldercare or of a changing job market (where some jobs, like teaching, require the ability to make emotional connections with and perform assertive behaviors with clients or students) difficult. Furthermore, the personal self-promotion that seems to be demanded by extreme capitalism and hyper-individualism (apart from the family) has arguably led people into dangerous and putatively unethical endeavors.
You can look beyond intellect and go back to matters of faith. Religion tends to support strong nuclear families as a way to give meaning for everyone, even at the cost of social equality. But not always. The early Christians practiced communal values that perhaps deemphaized the family, and the family came to be perceived as the right pivot point to balance individualism with the needs of community as a whole.
The culture wars, in fact, come down to a blunt confrontation. Many people believe that no one should be able to promote himself without proving competitive and deferential loyalty to his own blood first, and proving that he can create and raise a family himself or herself and carry it on. Anyone who really “can’t” should simply support the efforts of others in the family and remain loyal to family solidarity; for such a person to venture on his own can destroy others in the same family.
I do think that there is a problem when people can promote themselves ad infinitum without accountability to others. But it is perhaps well that that accountability go outside of the nuclear family. In that regard, gay marriage and gay adoption, for example, would encourage many singletons to share more family responsibility in a practical sense. Gay men, particularly, were driven away forty years ago as prodigal sons, who would then set up their own universe that, with globalization and a Internet that publishes everything, must become reconciled to the world of blood family values. All of this is quite difficult. For everyone to pay his dues and carry his weight, some old notions about the importance of biological ties will have to give a bit.
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