Saturday, June 28, 2008

Sustainability: what old fashioned mores really demanded, especially from the childless

As I noted last Sunday in discussing a recent op-ed, occasionally we see social conservatives apparently arguing the case that having and raising children is a moral responsibility, and that gay marriage will make a mockery of the social and emotional commitment that such efforts require.

The recent discussion in the media and in books about “sustainability” could be linked to ideas that reproduction is a basic obligation, to tie one to concerns for one’s progency – even if such social mores didn’t create a “sustainable” world in the past.

I came of age in a social system that seemed to think this way (call it the “Marty” mentality, from the 1955 film). It’s important to parse what this really meant. Because it indeed invades our modern sense of individual rights and responsibilities that go with the exercise of these rights, as well as our aims at “equality,” the notion doesn’t seem credible, but people generally don’t understand what drove this kind of thinking, beyond religions conviction.

The socially conservative world of the 1950s did understand that many adults do not have children. Unmarried older people (both men and women) were common. Many couples had an only child, and many had no children. Unmarried women became teachers or stayed home and took care of the elderly, a need which is much greater now with longer life spans and fewer adult children. Unmarried men (outside of Catholic priests) were perhaps more problematic. There was respect, if limited, for the idea of control of one’s body and for not having unwanted intimacy. However, there was considerable social pressure that those without children (especially unmarried adults) remain socially, politically and biologically loyal to their blood families, and interface with the outside world only in a manner that represented the family’s interests. Such an expectation might sound laughable to a generation raised on the Internet and Myspace, but it was breaking down even three decades ago as young adults (Baby Boomers) became more mobile and were tasting the “me generation”.

This sort of expectation was reinforced with the “Vatican morality” of no experience of sexuality outside of marriage with possibility (and risk) of procreation. That was a simple way to put it in those days. The intention was to reinforce marriage and parenthood with an elevated social position and access to sexuality so that it would be attractive, with the proviso that the families so created would take care of those who were less inclined to reproduce themselves, but with the expectation that those would also remain loyal. It was thought to be a system that “solved everything.” Therefore, respecting its mores became as essential a part of morality then as fidelity would be today. It was a whole system that could not tolerate violation of its process of socialization. The integrity of the motivational foundation of the family as as granularity of society was essential to ward off totalitarian schemes (notorious in history -- those "isms") that forced "equality" or weeded out people by some philosophy of elitism.

There were other issues, too. The system, with some confusion at times, tried to make most “average Joe type” men comfortable with the idea that they could have and raise families. True, that set them up for class exploitation. But it did not tolerate outside cultural expressions (male homosexuality) that could be seen as making fun of some of them who were already more marginal. The end result was a social system that people thought was “sustainable” and – as we know – it wasn’t. It started to break down in the 60s.

I often wonder, when I read a story like former New Jersey governor McGreevey, a particular riddle, even if intellectual in nature. What would the Vatican say his greatest “sin” was – infidelity, or some sort of disloyalty to his own social and biological destiny. He did have children, but one could imagine that his behavior, or inclination, suggests he was more interest in his own upward affiliation than his own progeny, setting up a paradox that would make it hard to justify what he “has” in life. The Vatican would probably be more concerned about the latter from its view of “sin.” It’s a least a philosophical question. His ex-wife claims that she was deceived from the beginning since he didn’t tell her he was gay. The Vatican way of thinking probably would not care about her point.

We can imagine, of course, a world with gay marriage and adoption, where having formal custody of children gives the same sort of emotional and social perks. What some would miss is the management of intercourse itself, enough to give it the rewards they need. The notion (as expressed once on the WB "Seventh Heaven" show) that "sex is only for married people" conveniently encapsulates the problem of how you get people to provide for one another beyond the parameters of their immediate choice; mainstream society doesn't want that, so you have to come up with other models (not predicated on manipulating sexual intercourse into using it to provide a layered society that hides relative "competitive" abilities) of how to get people to share risks, burdens and responsibilities and still deal with the logical consequences of disparaties responsibility -- the "second class citizen" problem.

All of this is troubling, as we keep hearing about calls to give up our own sense of personal sovereignty because the world is spinning out of control, demanding more emotion, more interdependence (which we always had but didn’t recognize it). Maybe some emotion and feeling, not welcome in an atmosphere of psychological defenses, are what is needed to keep freedom going when it is challenged.

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