Editorial: Complementarity, Culture Wars, and the Chicken and Egg Problem


The culture wars seem to come down to a particular psychological schism about how we define ourselves as individuals. Most people grow up assuming that the only morally legitimate way that they can establish their own worth in the world is to prove that they can be accountable to other people. I’ll change the rhetorical person here. This kind of belief means things like these:  You don’t get to do what you want with your life until you can take care of or go to bat for other people besides yourself. Personal accomplishments mean nothing until they actually matter to other people and make a difference for other people. It is a lesson in philosophy. The most common way we experience this is “loyalty to blood.” Persons in a family unit are expected to share common goals as their own, and show deference to the interests of other family members in matters of genuine public interest. Dependents with medical disabilities then come to be perceived as opportunities rather than as "problems."


It’s easy to see the moral underpinning of this kind of culture. It guarantees that everyone will have local value, to others around him, usually a “loving family” often based on blood kinship. It denies upward affiliation and places a premium on making an emotional connection to another person based on that person’s needs, and particularly in an area where the other person must look up to you for function. It assumes that you see "people as people," as living souls.


We could call this psychological complementarity, or perhaps emotional complementarity. In purely psychological terms, it is related to polarity, and could accept the idea of polarity independent of biological gender. Mechanisms of objectivity and subjectivity, also features of character specialization, would enrich this complementarity. But as a term, complementarity connotes more emphasis on sharing adaptive tasks with others in a complementary way as part of one's adult identity, whereas polarity emphasizes creativity and psychological surplus.  I know, complementarity sounds like a professional buzzword for "traditional gender roles." So be it. In fact, however, sometimes long-standing same-sex couples do exhibit considerable practical complementarity,


Nevertheless, religious conservatives often see psychological complementarity as a moral basis for heterosexuality (even Masters and Johnson style), leading to marriage and parenting, and all of the moral notions, like abstinence until and except for marriage, that is associated with stable families. But they also see heterosexuality as necessary to generate complementarity, and the ability to find the attachment to the “wheel of life” – parenting – on one’s personal radar screen. It requires that adolescence, which starts with an emphasis on personal performance (particularly in school) lead to a process of “change,” going through a gate or airlock that enables one to place one’s progeny as more important than one’s self, and also allows a male, in particular, to retain the lifelong emotional interest in performing intimately with a single female partner, "in sickness and in health."  Complementarity connects libido with an incentive to protect others as well as look up to them. The Vatican is a particular exponent of this idea, and the Roman Catholic Church has to struggle with how to find a legitimate place for men who do not show emotional conformity and fit in – the priesthood, which has become so corrupt. Social conservatives will always have to answer to this chicken and egg problem, about how one grows up to be "normal."  One pat answer seems to be that the lack of connectivity to people (leading to complementarity) is rooted in the "sins" of permissiveness; but science probably would not support such theories. Complementarity provides the emotional self-interest (in opposite-sex marital partners and lineage) that provides connectivity for blood relatives or kin in need, such as some of the elderly, children, the disabled (although this did not always work, as some families in the past sought to "hide" as well as shelter their disabled) Complementarity provides a moral gateway into a mindset where personal accountability is partially shared and where familial and group goals merge with those of the individual, proving a shield from shame in case of failure and a sense of positive support, particularly from adverse external hardships. But you have to grow into living that way.


This whole point of view accepts that some families are better off and others, that social classes and even royalty can be legitimate, because family still gives value to the individual. Horrible things result, including slavery and racism and all kinds of discrimination and patriarchal tribalism.  Extreme religious intolerance (sometimes seen today particularly in the Muslim world) of critical speech by others is an extension of tribal and familial loyalty. But of course the unfairness of all of this is what liberals quite properly attack. Individualism, and particularly the modern idea that one defines one’s own value before having a “relationship,” have become a way to break out of the unfairness. Therefore, in the modern world individualism and homosexuality (often in the context of political libertarianism) and even objectivism would become bedfellows.  My own perspective is that my preoccupation with looking after my own ability to "compete" with others on my own terms as a youngster encouraged me to see others as people to be "measured" and therefore interfered with emotional empathy within the family or community. Individualism allowed me to break out of certain problems, at the cost of responsibility to others; my freedom to do this means, in a broader sense, that persons have more opportunity to break out of the shackles of their circumstances, but that people who fail to take care of themselves as individuals (particularly in the face of external hardhips) will have less family support and will be worse off.


Religion gets involved here, too, because most of the time religious faith is important in giving comfort to people who stumble in life because of factors beyond their control. Family complementarity and outright communalism comport well with the idea of salvation through grace, although they don’t say what the saved person can really experience in the Eternal.  Religion, as with the teachings of Bonhoeffer, can become very concerned with the disruption that can be caused by even one overzealous individual when he is not accountable to the larger group. Traditional religious values assume that personal complementarity is a moral obligation, and that needy blood family members have a lien on the resources of those who have not made blood family commitments through traditional marriage and children (we see this attitude when the will of a gay partner is challenged by blood family members).  Complementarity is associated with old-fashioned ideas about gender roles and especially the notion that a man must prove himself a provider and protector (in a way linked to his sexuality) before having credibility in the public view. Complementarity is supposed to guarantee each family member a sense of communal meeting as she moves through life, a goal in marked contrast to individualism, which stresses that everyone must prove herself as an individual. A paradox, however, is that the family is supposed to provide the moral fulcrum that justifies some individualism.


As we see so often in the soap operas, there is a tremendous spontaneity of emotion in “normal” heterosexual and family life. ("Days of our Lives" is the worst offender!) But some people (myself included) are not as easily swayed by the automatic emotion that are often presumed with blood relations. Someone like me needs to create his own identity and purposes and achieve them in order to be any good for anyone else. I do have my own modes of emotion, which are probably matters of dimension rather than loyalty and permanence. Emotion for me gets tied up with the idea that I can decide (and sometimes pronounce publicly) what is good and beautiful. I am very protective of what I see as my objectivity (and disavowal of deferential loyalty) in my public writings, although it is more correct to characterize my approach as espousing the freedom to live up to certain ideals and an emotional preference for unspecified individuals who do live up to those ideals. Without accountability, this freedom (to obtain an audience) can be dangerous, and it is certainly asymmetric. I am particularly aware that some obligations to others are not chosen and, contrary to popular discussion, are not avoided simply by not causing pregnancy. People have told me that I have mild Aspergers, and I would experience that assessment as an awareness that a lot of conventional emotion is superfluous and unwelcome. I am certainly not able to practice aesthetic realism. But I can see why such an approach to tying emotion to personal value can seem not just utopian but also a step-by-step paradigm for addressing real injustices.


Religious practice varies on how it enforces complementarity. Most conservative protestant denominations and some more specialized religions (like the Mormon Church) recognize that some young adults feel disinclined to "compete" for marital partners and should have special nurturing and protective help from others in doing so--a position that, while trying to be "humane," is intellectually disingenuous with many of their other precepts.  The Roman Catholic church, however, feels that abstinence is a special calling and it's celibate priesthood tends to attract persons disinclined to compete for lineage--a practice that brings controversy. Major religions, at least conservative ones, go to great lengths to shelter the social supports for complementary marriage for "average" people. 


From a moral point of view, the common factor for proper psychological development seems to be, in part, the capacity to relate, with some emotional validity, to dependent others on their level rather than one's own. That is something one learns through family relations. It is easier to learn if one has younger siblings. That becomes a kind of "emotional complementarity." Sexual complementarity evolves as the attraction to something one does not have and would not necessarily want. When one considers psychological polarities, homosexuality as well as heterosexuality can grow out of this kind of complementarity, but any relationship is likely to be much more long term and less subject to hedonism, fantasy, or narcissism. (See the review of the small film, "Regarding Billy," linked below.) The moral questions arise when one has received this kind of complementarity as a child but has not returned it in adult life, and that is what makes some expressive behaviors in modern society morally controversial.  Complementarity, after all -- perhaps in combination with faith -- is a mechanism that protects us from the "freedom" of others to judge us just by ourselves.



©Copyright 2006 by Bill Boushka; all rights reserved subject to fair use


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