Editorial: Heterosexism and Tribalism, the Ultimate
Pejoratives (Archive, originally published,
(Archive, originally published, early 2005)
When I grew into adulthood in the 50s and 60s, it was not uncommon at all to meet unmarried older men and women. Some of my parents’ friends and relatives never married, and some married couples never had children or had only one child, even then. Often, however, an unwritten rule persisted. If you did not marry and have children of your own (often because of medical lack of ability to do so), your job in life was to provide backup support to those who did. Your purpose in life was altruistic. You still represented the interests of your own flesh and blood as a family. To a modernist, you were a “second class citizen” but this did not matter if your family and lineage were strong enough.
Today, we would call this attitude “heterosexism” (or “heterosexualism”). This is how this kind of thinking goes. The most important function you can perform is to create and raise a family and provide the next generation. You should be given paid leave for parental duties, and others without similar responsibilities should make sacrifices for you. In the workplace, this would translate into lower pay and longer work hours so that you can have time with your family. A life without a real family is not a “real life,” and does not deserve to be respected as equal. Persons who do not bear their own children should bear more responsibility to take care of aging parents (and should be held to filial responsibility laws). And such people should not behave in a public manner as to call unwanted intention upon themselves because this would be interpreted as unfavorable reflection on their families.
Homosexuality provides a particularly galling challenge to blood family, in this view. Gay marriage, for example, would seem to encourage gays and lesbians to form families of their own. But preferring a same-sex intimate partner means, to some people, that you don’t have much regard for your own blood. You would rather be loyal to and affiliate with someone else who is “better.” Furthermore, if same-sex love is credible, then the whole process of courtship, marriage and consummation is much less important.
In the 1990s we began to see some controversy over the idea of “equal pay for equal work” (and even comparable worth for gender-based issues), particularly in cases where the childless did free on-calls (as I sometimes did) for the benefit of employees with “families,” sometimes were expected to work less favorable hours or paid less by employers (who looked at them as a working for a “discount”). I’ve coined a term for this practice, lowballing. It can backfire, if cheaper employees (and employees who demand and use fewer fringe benefits) are retained after a downsizing. Fairness can cut both ways here.
Now it seems to a modern person that the focus on the social supports of marriage and the heterosexual process would undermine the responsibility each person in a couple takes for his own “choice.” But an old fashioned person perceives the social and institutional supports and “preferences” or perks as part of what makes marriage and family exciting and worthwhile. A monogamous heterosexual married couple is expected to maintain active and exclusive sexual interest and performance for a lifetime, a result enabled in part by the large cultural supports of the institution of marriage, to the point that married people should be protected from undue distraction or competition. This gets to be extended to notions like abstinence until marriage, or the idea that sex is only for married people, or maybe even that some kinds of jobs and rewards should be only for married people. In the past, sodomy laws were justified indirectly by a philosophy of heterosexism, a line of thinking invalidated by Lawrence v. Texas (2003).
Now, the normal heterosexual mechanism is the most natural way to get adults into help meet the needs of others in a way commensurate with their adult restructured personal goals. A homosexual, as society is today, does not have access to altruistic actions through his own sexuality. A homosexual male, particularly, may feel put off by the idea that his most important priority is to “protect” women and children from external enemies (he may not be “good” or competitive at it; he may be good at his own thing and resent not being allowed the freedom to pursue his own purposes without loyalty to others). If the sharing of family responsibility and hardships is an important moral priority, some other mechanism must be found for the “non marrying kind,” and we all know what this was in the past (a subservient, submissive position in the family). That’s why the gay marriage debate is so important now.
All of this probably sounds quite galling to read. But this
is how a lot of “old-fashioned” thinking really works. We see it played out in
soap operas (like “Days of Our Lives”), where finding the right lifetime spouse
and bearing children by marriage seems like an issue of personal survival. The
attitudes described here are a kind of “tribalism,”
where loyalty to one’s own blood, religious or national group and heritage are
more important than the self. We find this quite common in many parts of the
world (like the
One important underpinning of heterosexism and tribalism is
social history. Most of the time people have lived in groups that were in
conflict. Loyalty to one’s family and tribe was essential to survival, and
loyalty to blood was more important than moral righteousness as a modernist
sees it. Family members were indeed entitled to
”preferences” at moral hazard to society as a whole.
Of course, family values are often misappropriated by the heads of families for their own self-aggrandizement. Horrible examples of abuses of family power exist all over (the worst often involve polygamy). A more subtle misuse of family comes from the generalized public expectation that most people consider blood relations important enough that they can be exploited to justify wrongdoing or to force people to keep out of certain issues or keep certain things secret. For example, sometimes a person who expresses unpopular views or exposes certain secrets might be confronted with threats to other family members (this sometimes happened when white people involved themselves with the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and helped blacks exercise the right to vote). The view is expressed that a particular activist individual should consider his own “family” first (even if he does not have his own children) before advancing his own agenda.
This all goes on because of a general history of tribalism. Generally, the world is an adversarial place, with conflicts among different groups, each of which demands absolute loyalty from its constituents for protection from “enemies.” Modern individualism is a result of technological advances that encourage individuals to pursue their own chosen ends in self-directed fashions. Family loyalty, on the other hand, accepts the notion that the world is filled with external threats that are bigger than what one person can affect. Yet, family loyalty merges with individualism to the extent (especially in a capitalist system) that men are expected to compete in adversarial fashion to meet the needs of other family members. (This is one reason why the gay rights movement had its origins with the political left.)
My own existence is a bit of a paradox, and what others see of my actions is like a mathematical projection from other dimensions. Now, being different can confer asymmetric advantage. But in some areas, I accept the idea of functioning as a second class citizen. In some trying cases (which seem to be becoming more common, when basic technical infrastructure of a society—which makes a life like mine meaningful-- is threatened) I feel that I should make sacrifices for the benefit of those with children or more family responsibilities. In some cases in the past, I have done this (not necessarily for my own family). What I resent, however, is the idea that others hide behind marriage and family, particularly persons without any particular individual talents of their own. In some cases they engage in behavior and motives (hucksterism, social aggression, or get-rich-quick schemes) that would be unethical but that are justified by the needs of “family” and dependents. I perhaps represent a threat to such persons, particularly when they want to use their needs to direct my own personal priorities, or when they do not want to respect my own freedom or desire to make my own choices. I must retain control of my own life.
The changes in the job market, despite surface advances in non-discrimination, may undergird heterosexism. As some technical jobs have gone overseas, many older people may find themselves pressured into marketing and selling other people’s work, which requires the ability to make social connections than in many areas involve the nuclear family. Life insurance and, to some extent, financial services, provide an example. And some jobs for which there is desperate demand, like teaching at lower levels or with disadvantaged students, are normally suitable only for those with parenting experience of some kind of other life experience (taking care of younger siblings) to socialize someone into connecting with another immature person. An older gay person who has attempted marriage and parenting and failed, however traumatic and costly the experience, might be more suitable for such a job than someone who had never married (“made a mistake”) and had simply escaped to his own safehouse world.
©Copyright 2005 by
See review of Elinor Burkett’s The Baby Boon.