Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Quasi-mandatory socialization and gays: what families want: "emotional karma"


We often hear a lot of whining about “secular humanism” (maybe not as much as we used to) and a desire to see simple standards of right and wrong, based on faith, and expressive of the idea that individuals are not themselves the ultimate judges of themselves or of others – that some sort of self-surrender (to faith) is necessary for “Grace” to work. The surrender is emotional in nature, and so are the ties that generally are supposed to bind families into social units. The practical (and secular) moral concern is that sacrifices and responsibilities within families are not shared, when many people won’t even make, let alone keep, traditional marriage commitments. This quickly funnels into the view that homosexuality (as experienced) is sinful, and, even through desertion, detrimental to the vitality of a stable family unit. That’s not the same problem at all, but the complexities ought to be looked at in detail. And, yes, properly constructed, I think gay marriage (if recognized and paired with filial responsibility) could actually make burdens within families fall more justly. The underlying problem is: just how much should individuals be socialized to put the emotional needs of others (especially family members) ahead of their own expressive interests, even before they have kids or enter committed relationships? One could call this concept "emotional karma".

One process that is common in the gay male community is upward affiliation. The person is turned on by another man who is more competitive or “better” than he is. George Gilder wrote about this in the 1980s in his somewhat forgotten book, Men and Marriage (in what he characterized as the “perils of androgyny”.) Fortunately, by no means everyone in the community acts this way, or many people would never find partners. But it provokes discussion of a difficult moral dilemma.

The person becomes emotional only when around a more “powerful” person or when experiencing his own sense of aesthetics in art. It seems to reject commonly understood gender complementarity, although at deeper levels it expresses psychological polarity. This all may be associated with what Rosenfels calls an unbalanced feminine personality, and may serve some good purposes. The life model is to be his own person and be individually productive and attract persons who would value his “truth-seeking” and love out of extreme voluntary selectivity. When there is sufficient freedom and resources, a life like this can be interpersonally successful without biological family in the usual sense.

However, he disdains emotion for “ordinary” people. If someone in a position of public trust behaves this way and then refuses to come down off his emotional high horse to meet the needs of others, big time harm can occur. Sometimes, even when there is a productive outcome, the sexual interests have developed in a complicated reaction to one’s own sense of competitive shame in the conventional world of heterosexual values. One develops the idea that one can pass judgment on the “masculinity” or others and one might (as a psychological defense) take sadistic pleasure in seeing other males made aware of their own shortcomings. There is a paradox in that this process reinforces the idea that some males are more “competitive” than others and that a pecking order is necessary in the moral order of things, even (again a paradox) a necessary inequality that goes with freedom (to the indignation of some). A body of “literature” deep within the world of adult gay magazines and websites deals quite candidly with “shame,” the desire to be free from the “responsibility” of “initiation” (intercourse), the “lose it all” message boards (not really related to transgenderism) and the notion that this “shame” can become contagious even to straight men (so no wonder they perceive a threat). In extreme cases, if such a person becomes something like a head of state in an uncontrollable political climate, totalitarianism or eugenics could occur.

Families try to get around this problem by socializing boys who see themselves as “different” and by forcing them to find some genuine emotional satisfaction in carrying out normal responsibilities for others in the family – sharing chores (especially gender-related chores that connect to expectations of meeting the parental responsibilities that the child would then experience in his or her own adult life), respecting and experiencing the body of the family unit. Many times they will try to create situations to force the boy to show responsiveness even when there is no objective need. They try to instill the idea that one should be accountable to other people before becoming too public about one’s differences.

In adulthood, curiously, interests of “political correctness” may inspire efforts to make the boy-man demonstrate that even though he is “different” or “less competitive” he can still be a “role model” for disadvantaged young people of a newer generation. Again, that seems to make things safer, to make the person give up his own judgmental sensitivity and empathize with others in ways he would not have accepted or that society would not have wanted from him before. The underlying theme is getting the person, if he is not socialized by his own marriage and family, to accept subservience to the institutionalized sexual intercourse of others. Priests are supposed to do that, it used to be that abstinence was the price of difference. When someone persists in self-expression without giving in somewhere to this, he can easily make enemies and be perceived as daring other people who have less.

Mandatory emotional socialization probably doesn’t make gay boys straight, but it might make them more able to respond emotionally to other adults in need, beyond those who can provide the obvious turn-on (hence solving the “bad karma” problems); it may also reduce the appeal of idealistic "fantasy". It may enable someone to maintain "interest" in a parter for a lifetime ("in sickness and in health", etc) unconditionally, with heart, and therefore enable the person to share hardships of others even-handedly and flexibly. For some men, it may integrate the process of "protecting" others into the personality, a reassurance that families and community seems to need. The loose term for this forty years ago was "aesthetic realism," not much used today. Mandatory socialization comports with the older (but not as often articulated today) idea that family responsibility for blood pre-exists and don’t just fall on the shoulders of those who make babies. The non-conformist wonders why he can be left alone, and others say he has no right to be; putatively he has no rights to his own expression until he proves his efforts can take care of or “protect” others in the family (or tribe or community) in need. The childless may well bear disproportionate responsibility for eldercare in the coming world of longer lives and fewer kids. And this sort of responsibility goes beyond financial (filial responsibility laws will eventually become hot topic); it suggests an obligation to maintain emotional connection and social position that is “protective” of others in the family. If this idea comes back and develops legal traction, it could well reinforce the belief that one really needs to have children in order to carry out responsibilities for others that go beyond personal choice. That possibility maintains the idea that social policy should encourage as many adults as possible to get and stay married and have children, whatever the competitive pressures men (and women) perceived before marriage or outside of it, and that to do so, cultural distractions should be discouraged. If you look up to other men too much, so the "reasoning" goes, that means you don't like yourself enough to want a biological legacy of your own, and have therefore renounced your rights to public respect.

A shorthand for this in my experience: I started out by valuing my ability to select and feel for those who are "good". But it seems that the world demands that I also empathize and lift up those who would not be good without my effort, or else we get back to that "forbidden fruit" or "knowledge of good and evil" problem.

Indeed, older “prohibitionist” ideas (as Andrew Sullivan characterized them in the 90s) about homosexuality and any sexual “noncomfority” can be understood as a logical “double take”; if you eliminate lifestyle options as allowable, you are left with the notion that conventional marriage is the only viable life pursuit and therefore (paradoxically) one doesn’t “fall in love” just to meet social expectations. You could say that it is (or was) a proxy way to make procreation (or otherwise assigned responsibility for members of the next generation) a "requirement" for first-class citizenship, whatever one's innate capabilities. Likewise, in the more modern debate, traditional marriage is a way to institutionalize a new relationship as a privileged “blood relationship” so that it can be favored and produce mandatory pressures on others. Of course, this view leads to tribalism and often to economic injustice among groups; hyperindividualism, however, leads to many people who depend on family and collective identity stranded.

We need to take heed of what is happening.

An August 12, 2005 letter by me to The Washington Blade “Gay marriage may teach gays some ‘family values’" appears here.

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