How to Structure a “Bill of Rights 2” Event


My three books declare a great emphasis on individual rights, and the last chapter of my first book proposes strengthening the Bill of Rights at the constitutional level. As this dates back to 1997, it makes an odd comparison to proposals to amend the Constitution today, to define marriage as heterosexual only and to protect the flag.


There was a great focus in my early writings on individual privacy, which got equated to the notion of private choice.  Since then I have watched private choice grow a public component, through the political battles so well expressed on the Internet.  We are seeing that private choice and personal autonomy are related, but the degree of autonomy offered by a modern, advanced technological (but possibly fragile) civilization poses ethical and practical problems for many people. In short, many individuals get left behind in this kind of culture. Of course, many people were shortchanged in other cultures, but more because of their birth circumstances than because of their own efforts.  


Therefore, one could suggest that a “bill of responsibilities” would accompany a “bill of rights 2.” Every participant would develop a concept of how his/her activities impact others with respect to these various ethical issues, in a feedback loop view.


To see how this might play out, I want to sketch the overriding “problem,” and then suggest a way to structure the debate in such an event so that all of the major issues are covered and their interconnections are seen.  Of course, a participant has to agree that there is a "moral problem," particularly about the way risks and hardships are shared. One has to go beyond objectivism or simplistic rationalism in moral thinking, even if one, as I am, is very skeptical about proposals for government regulation and is wary of the unintended consequences. One has to take seriously the notion that there is some kind or relationship or balance between individual rights and responsibility for others. Sometimes, one might need to become one's "brother's keeper." 


What is the “problem”?  I think that for much of our modern history we have lived under The Unwritten Rule: That is, you only earn personal autonomy (that is, you only promote yourself) when you can prove your self accountable to other people in a social hierarchy. Particularly, only when you prove that you can provide for a family. Personal socialization through the family will normally be mandatory. The “family” provided the moral bridge between self-servedness and taking care of others. "Family" and heterosexual marriage and parenting will provide the one scenario for emotional partiality, and the suspension of the idea that one can always know what is right; it will put Faith over "the knowledge of good and evil."


Of course, this Rule is particularly relevant to lesbians and gay men, who pretty much invented their own culture and separated into a separate urban world around the time of Stonewall in 1969. Family responsibility was shunned, first as “bourgeois” and then as anti-individualistic. After the AIDS crisis erupted and then issues like “don’t ask don’t tell” and gay marriage developed, and could be debated publicly on the Internet, the “gay world” could no longer live in an unreconciled state, faced with fewer children and increasing population of aging parents.  


The nuclear family is not as important in today’s pluralistic culture as it was before. There is a modern, almost neoconservative belief that you should “make your own mark on the world” in your own way before starting a family. That sounds egalitarian, because it emphasizes personal achievement instead of the advantages or disadvantages of family circumstances. So, curiously, this notion appeals both to libertarians and to some elements of the political Left, especially in the 1960s when there was a great deal of talk about the injustice of inherited wealth.  Corporate employment policies, in a global market, with its short-term focus tend to favor individuals who can act independently of ties and social or family commitments. There are definite downsides to this idea. One is that it would encourage someone (like me) to go through an adult life without a sense of family responsibility. Another is that it strands ordinary people without individualized expressive talents, people whose best “achievement” would be raising the next generation. This can be a profoundly divisive point. “Working class” people and many immigrants often have no special skills to “define themselves” outside of family, and frankly sexual or gender-related roles. Of course, one way to practically guarantee that you will have some people carry on your family is to have enough children, or to adopt if appropriate.


Hence we have the appeal of “family values” style of moral thinking. I often think we should challenge the religious right to articulate honestly what it really means. I think, if you get beyond watered down, lowest common denominator Biblical rhetoric, it comes out like this, if applied to someone like me. (I don’t want to be too personal here. I just want to make a point.)  Everybody has problems growing up and performing. So “you” should show some faith and learn to like people as people. In time you will find the opposite sex and having your own family interesting, even if you feel at a disadvantage when compared to others. Then you will do your part in raising the next generation and taking care of the generation that brought you into the world. The whole philosophy of  putting sexual intercourse on a pedestal and reserving it for “married people” (“abstinence”) builds on this idea.


Many people, especially those from earlier generations or conservative religious cultures, do not accept the "rationalization" of sexuality with surface debates on equal rights. They believe that the "abstraction" of the family, releasing many people (like me) from the obligations of any socialization, lead to a world in which people simply cannot raise children or take care of the elderly and disabled. They believe that family matters should not be looked at as individual "performance" the way work and school is. Instead, family is intrinsic. This view lost credibility in previous generations because the nuclear family did shield so much social injustice, especially class and racial. But today pundits of debate often overlook that many people still think this way. 


The “fallacy” is, of course, that this typically leads to patriarchal behavior, to unethical competition, selling oneself to the superficial schemes of others, intellectual shallowness, “get rich quick” schemes to promote your own family, and situational ethics. In short, it promotes what David Callahan calls “The Cheating Culture.” It also feeds on generational injustices. Finally (and worst of all), the demands of loyalty encourages people to give deference to the irrational opinions of others, to protect family members from the prejudices of others even if that requires irrational or "unethical" behavior in its own right.


To their credit, some religious cultures have tried to address these injustices, and these cultures would include the Vatican. The Catholic Church believes that personal autonomy normally should be tied to The Family, but that some men (“priests”) can be given special jobs in such a way that they will not compete with or disturb the socialization of the family. The Church would often support large scale programs to redistribute wealth to the poor or reduce consumption by wealth people. Of course, as we know from simony and all of the scandals, the Church is hardly able to live up to its own teachings.


There are troubling paradoxes in all this. Modern culture wants people to build romantic relationships and marriages as their own rewards, but in certain career and accomplishment areas experience in caretaking or childcare is essential and most often is achieved in "normal marriage" so it comes to be seen as "achievement." One who operates outside of family accountability might be challenged why he is not "good" enough to continue his family (and why he is credible if he isn't), and the only answer is that an individually chosen path is the only valid calling for him.


I guess as to following The Unwritten Rule, I have to say I refuse. I defy, I rebel. I disobey. I cannot be paid to be a public pawn for someone else’s agenda, however well intended. There is no honorable way for me to achieve anything without developing and publishing my own voice first. I am aware of the implications one can draw out of this stance if one insists, and it can lead one into ugly confrontations if allowed to.


How to structure the debates


One of the things I have tried to achieve with my websites is to show how issues are linked. But I would group the discussions, somewhat as follows:


(1) The family responsibility problems.  Should everyone grow up with the idea that he or she will owe his blood family responsibility even if he or she does not have his or her own children? That would be the heart of filial responsibility laws. It’s a different twist on the usual question of making the children you “choose” to have your first priority (and staying legally married for their good). But I can see that gay marriage and gay adoptions become more credible in a world where filial responsibility is taken seriously. In this group of issues goes the falling birthrate in advanced cultures and taking responsibility for eldercare, as well as eventually questions about universal health care. Eldercare, like abortion and stem-cell research, provoke profound questions about reverence for human life and the sacrifice potentially required by that deference. Could health care be tied to family responsibility?


One observation is critical: "Blood loyalty" and "family values" are a critical source of moral support for people of earlier generations who accept unjust political systems (which they thought they could do nothing about) and accepted "family" as the only moral focal point. For many people, a sense of preferential moral social approbation is an essential expressive component of their own personal experience of sexuality. "Loyalty to blood" is a necessarily obligation to pay back a moral "debt" for having been raised oneself.  The social maturity that allows sharing of family emotions an essential prerequisite for being able to share the burdens of others in an equitable matter. This whole notion came under attack because of gross social injustices (racial) and the intellectual dishonesty that old fashioned marital "spontaneity" seemed to require. However, a more flexible idea of "equality" in our legal system might facilitate the sharing of burdens and family responsibility. The other areas below will feed back into this problem. 


(2) The national service issues.  These actually came to a head with the “gays in the military” debate that President Clinton ignited in 1993. Freedom can not be taken for granted, and military service and alternate national service are part of the paradigm. We should recognize that current policies in Iraq amount to a “backdoor” draft, and that many disadvantaged people see military service as the only practical way to start a career and pay for their educations – again another form of draft. And what happens to “don’t ask don’t tell” if we ever actually have a draft? Similar arguments can be made about immigrants. Finally, the terrorist threat (as would threats of huge natural disasters or pandemics) remind us that we cannot take our “autonomy” (apart from family and community connections) for granted.


(3) The environmental and foreign policy issues. I think we have heard a lot about how our consumptive habits fuel global warming and other ills (such as dependence on foreign oil). Can we engineer, innovate and produce our way out of these? Can we come up with an infrastructure with sugar-cane powered or hydrogen powered cars? Can we shake out our pharmaceutical industry of liability problems and become good at producing vaccines? Or is this a question of over-implemented personal autonomy? Of course, we know that our dependence on foreign oil feeds much of the current terror threat and contributed indirectly to 9/11. But so does our assessment of the moral balance in the Middle East. As much as Israel is our friend and as horrible the lesson of the Holocaust is, the fact is that Israel has taken away a lot of land and property from individual Palestinians, casting on them an unacceptable sense of personal shame, a most unacceptable emotion at a personal level. That does not comport with our values.


(4) The speech issues. This is probably the most subtle and tricky. The advent of the Internet coupled with the search engine (making “google” into a verb) has augmented an essential asymmetry in our culture. Anyone can now make himself a celebrity without accountability (or "loyalty") to others in the sense to which we were accustomed. This may strike some people as a development that ought not to be permitted, even though at the same time it encourages much more objectivity in political and social debate (as opposed to the superficial participation that occurs when others pay others to speak for them and "given them the words"). In the past year, we have started to see this come out of the closet, as employers now say they feel free to screen employees or job applicants with Google. The individual freedom that we associate with the Internet seems at least loosely connected to all kinds of problems like piracy, spam, viruses, steganography (which could transmit terrorist threats), identity theft, pornography (including child pornography), chat rooms that cover sexual predators, enticement, and self-promotion might indirectly attract unwanted attention to others. A particular problem with the Internet has to do with the way persons with varying levels of maturity (including of course minors) interpret the context or intention of what they find provided by others. Does this lead to some kind of personal regulation or code of responsibility? Can new systems of filters, email verification and content labeling help with the personal responsibility?  Already we now have discussion of employer blogging policies.


We do have a much more individualistic culture than did our parents, because we have a technology that facilitates it and seems to make it affordable. That supporting infrastructure can, of course, become vulnerable, in which case we would find out who had “paid their dues.” More authoritarian systems of social (and religious) organization can offer utopian schemes to “take care of everybody.”  Personal freedom (aka personal autonomy) will always imply a world in which people at some point (even if infrequently encountered in practice) have to take care of themselves to survive. Dealing with that always tempts us to appeal to collective moral systems.


A Personal Postnote:


My own experience can provide some direction to this debate. Many issues are debated by throwing around slogans aiming at the lowest common denominator of understanding. I can work this one inside out, inductively.


For example, we are familiar with how “gay marriage” is being “debated” in a polarizing fashion. But the real issue is the tension between people whose lives center around biological family with child rearing, and those whose lives center around personally expressive pursuits. Persons without children can be compelled to make “sacrifices” for the benefits of those with kids. Or they could be expected to bear a greater portion of the “burden” of eldercare. Throughout my working life, I paid more taxes on the same income than people with kids (and the benefits of “marriage” come into play here), but often had less debt and more discretionary income because I had much lower expenses. In some situations, I could be expected to work more unpaid overtime for the benefit of coworkers with kids, without complaint. This is the practical space that I am coming from.


We often see debate framed in terms of providing for children one “chooses” to have. Welfare reform is often tied to the decline of marriage in making this argument. But it is becoming increasingly difficult in western culture to “afford” parenthood. I wonder, then, if the real issue is, what is everyone’s personal responsibility for helping raise the next generation and care for the previous one, whether or not one has one’s own children. Filial responsibility can be viewed as partially mandatory. We’re used to ideas like this in the past, when we had a draft and assumed everyone shared some risks. If thought about this way, the debate over issues like gay marriage and gays in the military takes on a totally new flavor, but becomes less polarized. For about three decades after Stonewall (1969), gay communities had lived in relative social "exile" in large cities, practicing their own culture and conquering their own political (and medical) problems; in the age of the Internet and new global problems, communities with very conflicting personal values about sensitive matters are compelled into reconciliation. Liberalism, objectivism, rationalism and individualism are all tested at a most personal level against faith-based social systems designed to take care of people within social hierarchies regardless of external circumstances.


This comes to the issue of my own public speech. It is true that my own ideas about what I value in other people could be seen as leading to disturbing conclusions or paradoxes. However, sometimes people talk as if my public (or, in intimate quarters like a dormitory or barracks, even private) outspokenness could become a particular threat because I lack the socialization and emotional exposure of “normal” people. My 1961 William and Mary Expulsion became my own (Smallville) Scarecrow “crucifixion,” and menial “pay your dues” mechanical tasks and group sports became my green kryptonite. It is true that some of my speech seems to aim to confront others with their own "weaknesses" (particularly distracting to people needing social stability while trying to raise their own kids) just as I must (and had to) face mine--when a quiet "coverup" would sound practical. The idea of being viewed as a “virus” that attracts potential enemies is particularly upsetting. That attitude would seem to demean those who utter such ideas, but it is understandable when I look at our entire history of tribal pressures and dealing with enemies and external threats, often beyond reasonable personal control. The possibility of future major upheavals makes socialization, and the ability to incorporate the needs of others into one’s own goals, a moral issue. I do understand that public speech in cyberspace is particularly attractive to someone who shuns forced or expected socialization to meet the adaptive or sometimes emotional needs of others.  


While I ultimate reduce all of this to "rationalism" and try to cast it in terms of fairness at the individual level, I see how many people will not be willing to take things this far and will insist that everyone be brought into some kind of reconciliation with faith and family even in a world that accepts inequities and has to give meaning to people in spite of them.  


©Copyright 2006 by Bill Boushka, subject to fair use.


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