Friday, October 05, 2007

"In sickness and in health": what about those who don't sign on to this? It's not just GLBT folk. But do we all share family responsibility?


In the current debate about “culture war” issues, it’s valuable, to me at least, to lean back and figure out what really goes on in the minds of other people who don’t experience life or relationships the way I do. And I particularly want to unravel the “romantic” idea of the family, marriage, and the whole social infrastructure.

When most people marry (and I start this with traditional heterosexual marriage), they feel they passed through a major gateway in life. They sense a “before and after.” After all, what do they say at the altar? “In sickness and in health, till death do us part.” That’s a profound commitment. “You” are going to spend the rest of your life with this person, sharing the same bed, every night, essentially. The welfare of that marital partner, and of the children you have, and to some extent other relatives around the family, will always be your highest priority in life. Many families carry this to the fullest, creating the “family bed” with young children and attachment parenting. Soap operas love to capitalize on these kinds of emotions, as if there were nothing else. (As in “Days of our Lives”, “family conquers all”.)

The demand for fidelity “no matter what” is quite absolute. It asks for more than faithfulness; it expects both partners to remain sexually interested in one another no matter what, as both age, over many decades. The visitor is encouraged to use imagination as to what “sickness and health” can entail, as well as what is expected of the marital partners, especially men. As for the perils, there is war, for starters. All kinds of diseases with the obvious consequences for appearance. I don’t want to use language that is too graphic on a public page like this. Modern liberal individualistic society answers with progressiveness: personal responsibility (smoking, STD prevention, diet, etc) and saner public policy (don’t get involved with dead-end wars like Iraq) can prevent these perils. But not every misfortune can be prevented, and people are living longer, meaning marriages can last longer if the culture supports them or if they are psychologically committed enough.

Back in 1992, Barbara Bush (first lady for the first president Bush) told ABC 20/20 just before the Republican Convention, “you don’t have to be married ….but if you do choose to have children, they have to be the highest priority in your life.” But the moral calculus doesn’t seem that straightforward any more.

Now, we have a substantial population of individuals, including many GLBT folk and some others, who do not want to sign on to this kind of life. (I’ll get back to gay marriage.) They want there lives to be expressive of themselves, and not a reflection of others around them. And the experience is that many families feel that the “expressions” of non-family people create a distraction that make it difficult for families to function.

Gay people (among "singletons"), of course, create perhaps the most obvious distraction. The “moral” objection (beyond simple obedience to supposedly authoritative religious texts) comes down to the idea that it is not “fair” that we experience sexuality without incurring the same risk of family responsibility, through openness to procreation (a very Vatican concept). That argument obviously “begs a question.” Isn’t having kids it’s own reward? Don’t people have kids because they want the experience of raising them, of feeling proud of them when they are grown, of having a biological lineage? I certainly will take personal responsibility for the fact that I did not.

Philip Longman (“The Empty Cradle”, 2004) and other critics of our declining birthrates in western countries have pointed out that we make it just too difficult and expensive to raise kids. But even that practicality seems to miss another major point. People often “change” as they marry, and the creation and nurturance of a biological lineage becomes part of who they perceive themselves to be. It goes beyond the execution of a “choice” in the normal sense of libertarian responsibility for one’s own actions. In a way, it creates an odd parallel to gay arguments that sexual orientation is immutable and not chosen. It accepts the idea that people have a sense of what they must do with their lives, and one's own "chosen" family responsibility can sometimes make demands on others.

In this regard, marriage becomes an umbrella not only to raise kids but to give meaning and shelter to other family members when they need it, particularly the elderly and the less able. Conservative and even libertarian political theory says that this is better than expecting government to take this responsibility and have an excuse to intrude. But, then, to work, it seems to many people, marriage needs the emotional shelter of all of the concepts of social support and focus built around it: the legal recognition and preferential benefits (not always so preferential with the "marriage penalty" in the tax code), the ideas of public morality centering around abstinence outside of marriage, social notions of virginity, consummation and "blessed event". This emotional carapace tries to incorporate childless people in a family, include them in obligations, and create a common interest and identity that outlasts the merit of its individual members. Marital sexual intercourse (and the ability of women to "tame" men, as George Gilder wrote in "Men and Marriage") rules a lot more than just the couple and its own kids. A couple often sees the appearance of grandchildren (hopefully from every child) as evidence of the success of the marriage.

It’s clear to me that many people do make my sexual orientation their business, or its expression: they certainly did so in the past (my 1961 William and Mary expulsion, discussed often in the blogs). In the 1980s, some more extreme conservatives tried to make arguments that people like me were endangering everyone with AIDS; but that concern as a practical matter never was credible, and the public health aspects came to be seen as manageable. Now, post Y2K and 9/11, the concerns are much more existential. "Social conservatives" obviously believe that my expressive existence disrupts their world and the support structures that they believe in. A libertarian sees this need for social supports as an “admission” of weakness; after all, freedom depends on adults taking care of themselves and creating their own lives. Many women have become and want to be economically independent, seeming to mitigate the economic and social complementarity of supporting families. But a more "collective thinking" person sees gender and sexual complementarity (raising kids) simply as social reality and as a component of public morality.

There is, indeed, something about male homosexuality that can pose certain disturbing questions and paradoxes if one chooses to follow them. If one enjoys "upward affiliation", idealization and “submission” and did not have enough self-confidence to beget one’s own children, what does that mean about others who may be less competitive? Is the homosexual setting himself up as the “judge” of who among men is “best” and therefore the best ancestor? I honestly think many people react to the social phenomenon as if that is how they felt. They see threats, but what they forget is that there are (compared to the lessons of history) no aggressive intentions behind these “threats”. The other side, of course, is that some homosexuals simply want to enjoy relationships for their own creative potential within psychological polarity.

Recently, the media has reported that a number of single straight men have announced that they don’t want their own children, and have undergone vasectomies. Wouldn’t this raise a similar level of resentment of indignation in some people?

What seems underneath this is not just sexual orientation or sexual practice, but the attention it brings upon the self-worth and social cohesion of people in groups, many families. In specialized settings, the military knows this well, and we have the controversy over the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy for gays in the military. It is the “telling” that seems so challenging and disruptive.

Yet, we have developed an open society, and people are “telling” (now, often enough, in social networks on the Internet). The media has, for decades, parade before us images of who is “desirable” and who is competitive. Production codes of the past made these seem less intrusive. Today, the images seem to frame self-worth for many people, even when presenting favorable role models. Families find themselves having to cut out media, focusing on dinner hours, “family home evenings,” social interactions among family members for their own developmental benefits, and now new information that suggests that fast moving images on televisions and computer games are bad for very young children, who need to be sheltered from them by families.

This all leads back to the question of what “moral standards” really should be expected of people who are “different” and who eschew more “normal” means to socialization through the heterosexual family. This may be true of many GLBT people, or it may happen for other reasons (Asperger’s). It is becoming more acute as people live longer, and the adult childless may find themselves having to take care of aging parents without the social combativeness it takes to raise one’s own children. It’s likely that some states will start enforcing filial responsibility laws, making this problem even more real.

Many people (even relatively “normal” heterosexuals) operate out of a modality where they do their own life’s work first, and attract the people they want. That works, and they maintain a psychological balance between “work” and family that protects them from undue pressure set by the public examples of others. Others are less able to do this, and very dependent on all the meaning that the activities in the family bring. They expect everyone to accept the idea of experiencing life through the family as a social unit ("family first").

Is it morally appropriate to expect everyone to accept some kind of mandatory socialization, to prove that he or she can support others besides the self, even without having one’s own children? Should everyone accept the idea that he or she should prove that his or her "work" produces visible advances in the lives of specific others with real needs? Eldercare can affect everyone, and the pattern of need seems to suggest that many more people need to be involved in child care than just those who intentionally have children. Yet the social changes of the past thirty years have driven many people away from such responsibility, which it seems needs to be shared much more fairly, and which can provide culture shocks when it is suddenly expected, especially from someone without the "benefits" of having built his or her own family.

If this is all so (and this is certainly the tone of a lot of conservative papers railing against same sex marriage – it defeats the “sex” as the driver of commitment, mind you) , it sounds like an argument for gay marriage, not against it. A small minority of people do form same-sex couples that can conform to the “in sickness and health” expectation. It's hardly supportable that their activities present a numerical or even conceptual threat to traditional marriage and families -- the empire building in "Days" shows that straights can make a mess of things on their own. Events of the past few years are teaching us that individuals may have to accept more interdependence: the family is the most stable source of cooperation, and making gays (and sometimes practically)legally second class citizens certainly does not encourage them to participate in community preservation. The argument for including same-sex couples in the institution of marriage (regardless of what others believe was "meant to be" before) becomes more credible if we accept the idea that filial responsibility can be expected of everyone. But at the same time, traditional couples need to be more confident in their own relationships even when the outside world provides more distractions.

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