Tuesday, May 16, 2006

What Do Americans Mean When They Say "Family Values"?

Jaska has asked some really good questions in the comment box:

Chris, could you give me some short explaining of a 'conservative family and values' in America or direct me to some good net source? Not being an American it's sometimes hard to get an idea of what you are meaning with some terms like 'conservative' etc. You have a very interesting blog, it's been a pleasure to read it. Although sometimes I completely miss the point because I'm not familiar with American (christian, conservative, liberal) culture.By the way, what do you mean by 'big family'? Four children or ten? Does it include more generations than two?

This is something I've been wanting to write about for a long time. As I've mentioned here already, I think not only do a lot of non-Americans not understand the American scene, I think a lot of Americans don't understand it either, because so much of our political conversation is conducted through terms and texts that have no meaning in the American context. I could go on about this for a while, but let me try to cut to the chase:

The dominant understanding of the American family (and despite the fact that large chunks of American society challenge it, I would argue it is still the dominant understanding) is structured around

1) nature (understood as the idea of sexual intercourse producing children),

2) self-determination (understood as abilities to control one's own desires), and

3) mobility (understood as the freedom to move to a new situation to better one's own life)

as the key values. Understand how these work and you understand how Americans think about the family. One of the sources of the enduring strength of the Hamiltonian / Whig / Republican / conservative tradition in America is that it is "tuned in" to this tradition in a more integral way than any other American political tradition. In that sense, any American living what we mostly define as a successful family life has a kind of "inner Republican" trying to come out, although of course not all allow it to.

But note what this means: that the American (and Whig/Republican) family ideal cannot be treated as being "conservative" (in the sense of purely traditional) or "libertarian" (in the sense of purely individual or autonomous). People who write often make the mistake of trying to situate American family life along a continuum with a "medieval" "tradition" on one had and a purely individual life as a single, sexually liberated unisex person on the other, with only the two poles being actually intellectually consistent. This way of thinking makes it impossible to understand how most Americans really think about families.

Let me illustrate this with an example: are you one of the people who find it outrageous that a single woman in her twenties would have an abortion and then talk about it as if pregnancy just happened to her without any will on her part? And are you also outraged that in many foreign countries, girls in their early teens can be married off by their parents? The continuum idea suggest that this is contradictory: if you are a conservative (i.e. secret Taliban supporter) outraged by abortion, you must actually secretly wish all women to be barefoot, pregnant, and illiterate, while if you are against child brides (i.e. secret radical feminist), you must actually support sexual liberation and full individual autonomy. The fact however that half or more of Americans are quite sincere in (in theory) abhoring most abortions and also child marriage suggests that this does not actually track the way we think about family issues.

Let me unpack this with reference to nature, self-determination, and mobility.

I. Of these concepts nature is the most fundamental. The American family operates (and here I'm borrowing heavily from David Schneider's American Kinship: A Cultural Account, which I've already discussed a bit here) with certain implicit ideas of what is "natural." (Some of this understanding is contested today, but let's not deal with that for now. The complex of ideas I am describing will appear very familiar and coherent even to those who oppose it.) Sexual intercourse is natural, as is the fact that through sexual intercourse children are produced. The children by nature share "blood" with their parents and with each other. Sexual intercourse naturally goes with conjugal love (which unites opposites, and is expressed by kissing on the lips), while sharing blood naturally goes with cognatic love (which unites likes, and is expressed by kissing on the cheek). Both forms of love are joined in sexual intercourse, that expresses conjugal love and produces cognatic love; those two loves conjoined make a family. Nature also makes men and women different. The primary difference lies in the genitalia, which fit men and women, as "opposites," to engagein sexual intercourse (i.e. be a husband or a wife) and procreate (i.e. be a father or a mother). But there are other, less distinguishing features: men are stronger, women are weaker, men are active, women passive, men are aggressive, women more nurturant, men are mechanically minded, women are verbal. But one can be an aggressive woman and still be a woman, a verbal man and still be a man: genitalia, not personality, are the distinguishing mark of sex.

II. At the same time, self-determination emphasizes that men and women are persons, and gives them all the characters of persons. (This personhood is also natural -- all non-defective members of H. sapiens naturally desire to be persons and are most naturally treated as persons.) These include most importantly the right not to be compelled, particularly compelled into conjugal love. But just as persons have the right not to be compelled into conjugal love, they have the duty to live by and express love to those whom they are or have become connected by natural ties (i.e. intercourse or blood), a duty that is virtually absolute in the case of cognatic love and not quite so absolute for conjugal love. (Cognatic love being in the "blood" cannot really be compelled at all, since it is anterior to one's own being. This is why divorce is different from "disowning" your blood family -- the one is possible, frightening, and allowed, the other is mostly a matter of bad jokes.) Society must protect this personhood in three ways:

1) Most importantly, society or the state has the obligation to see to it that no person is allowed to force any other person into a conjugal/familial relationship. This is the basis not just behind the age of consent laws, but even more behind the abolition of slavery, which is fundamentally a type of non-consensual family relationship predicated on the denial of personhood to some, and the creation of duties of love that have no corresponding right of self-determination. You may note then that it is no accident that the Republicans, the party of "family values" today, was the party that abolished slavery. Both are/were extensions of the idea of the American family to the political realm. The literature of abolitionism was most effectively precisely when it emphasized that slavery did violence to the natural feelings of slaves, preventing them from expressing their natural sentiments of conjugal and cognatic love, which grew out of their natural -- and hence undeniable -- personhood.

2) Nature makes it so that people naturally desire sexual intercourse, just as they desire food, rest, excitement, alcohol, etc. But as persons we all have the ability (unless we are in some sense defective persons) to control and resist these urges, and hence avoid becoming gluttonous, lazy, gamblers, alcoholic, or promiscuous. Moreover, each family should be capable of supporting itself which is why "having more children than you can support" also jeopardizes the fundamental self-determination of the couple -- they become dependent on others through their inability to control their own urge to have sex. Yet nature has a kind of weakness in that certain persons can be so weak or subtances can be so powerful as to be addictive; in some cases this is so natural as to be not blameworthy. In such cases, society has a duty to fence about this personhood, to protect weak persons or all persons from substances addictive in certain degrees (children are to be protected from alcohol, but all are to be protected from heroin). Again this is why the party that abolished slavery, was also the party of Prohibition of alcohol, and is still by and large the party of the war on drugs.

It is also worth noting that this important ideal of sexual self-control makes the Whig / Republican tradition strikingly different from the "traditional" Mediterranean ethos in two important ways: a) men are considered to be capable of voluntary sexual restraint and therefore women do not need to be sheltered from unrelated men; and b) women are considered to be capable of a permanent, chaste singleness, which means there is a place for the career woman, albeit as a minority option. At the same time, the belief in the ability to control one's sexual urges also means that abortion is an unjustifiable escape-hatch from facing up to the consequences of one's actions.

3) Since personhood unites both nature and self-determination, society has some obligation to see to it that people do not attempt to go against nature by seizing rights without fulfilling the corresponding duties. Self-determination that goes against nature ultimately destroys personhood and hence subverts its own basis, by making the person no longer a self-determining unity and moral agent, but a mere passive experiencer of his or her desires. The prime danger here is to engage in sexual intercourse without the corresponding ties of conjugal and cognatic love. Politically speaking this is what "family values" today is all about: preserving the pre-conditions, seen as "natural" for the exercise of true personhood. On the other hand, neither love nor personhood can be forced, so political intervention in this sphere cannot be as direct and categorical as in the two previous ones.

III. Finally, we come to mobility, horizontal (moving from place to place) and vertical (moving up or down on the socio-economic ladder). One could emphasize practical factors in the birth American social mobility*, but I think mobility is, in a sense, simply an outgrowth of self-determination. The neolocal ideal (each married couple lives separately) means that each generation essentially marks a new start, created by the fundamental act of choice of a marriage partner (as opposed to the idea of the son being a replica of the father that is fundamental to patrilineal marriage; see here). As Frederick Le Play (see here and here) put it, the joint family (all married sons stay in the family), the stem family (one married son stays in the family), and the nuclear family (no married son stays in the family) each represent a different balance between the idea of continuity and change -- one can see within continuity and change an analogous concept to Schneider's conjugal and cognatic love. The neolocal, nuclear family means each person in the American ideal creates (in part) his family, while the inescapability of cognatic ties, means that the family so created are still tied to "outside" relatives cognatically, that is on both husband's and wife's side. This "starting over" every generation is of course congruent with the American/Whig ideal of continuous upward mobility and self-improvement, although the cognatic structures of blood affiliation also allow this same system to be used to conserve and store resources in a non-market fashion, whether those resources are family trust funds, money pooled among relatives to buy a shop, or the time Grandma spends taking care of the baby while Mom works.

Such a use of family to control resources can become problematic, however, since sexual intercourse establishes ties of love (conjugal and cognatic) that are either way fundamentally different from contractual, profit-making ones. Home and work are thus fundamentally different realms, which means that even when the family runs a business, the family shouldn't be a business. The family is based on love (spiritual, indestructible, and personal), while work is based on money (material, transient, and impersonal). In work, we master nature and our natural selves, but in family we aim to be in harmony with our natural selves. This normative detachment of family and work and the relations proper to each means that American society cannot naturally be reduced to individuals in the market; no, it is (nuclear) families and the market.

Ultimately, the point of American child raising as Schneider emphasizes is to create an independent person capable of forming a new family. When that happens the relation of the parent and adult family will not be one of direct reciprocity: it would be wrong to demand that the child support the parent, although the child of course loves the parent. As a result the child is raised to be ready for some degree of mobility, although this is, more than nature or self-determination, something that differs by social class, with the upper classes and the lower classes being more embedded in persisting cognatic kin ties, and the opposition of love and work less sharply drawn and the middle classes being the most mobile and least "cognatic." It is perhaps not a coincidence that the middle classes have the smallest families (fewest children).

So in summary, Jaska, if you're still with me, here are the answers to your questions

Q: What is American conservatism? A: Most of the time it means the Whig ideal: business and upward mobility, nuclear families held together with love and self-control, and the defense of American unity and prestige. There are other forms of American conservatism, but this is the one that's built to last.

Q: What does "family values" mean in America? A: It means the social protection and promotion of the nuclear (=mobile-able) family formed by the combination of mature and responsible choice (=self-determination) within the framework set by nature. (Most of the dispute over "family values" in America centers on whether and if so in what ways nature contrains mature and responsible choice.)

Now many may be very critical of all this, may see it as wrong and bad and awful. Christians may notice that the American family is not exactly the Biblical family. I agree. But I submit, all Americans know exactly what it is when we criticize this picture of "family values," despite the fact that we pretend not to know.

*I.e. contrary to what you sometimes hear, the first colonial settlers in the 13 colonies already had a pattern of neolocal residence (i.e. when a new couple marries they are expected to set up a new household and not live under the roof of the bride or groom's parents). The joint family had disappeared from England (if it ever existed there) long before the first ships sailed for Jamestown and Plymouth. Secondly, the settlement of the USA by immigrants has meant that essentially all Americans have an experience sometime in their family's past of massive horizontal mobility. Thirdly, the pattern of constant and rapid increase in population density has resulted in a correspondingly rapid and constant increase in property values, which has meant that buying land and reselling it has pretty much always been a lucrative business -- and for those with limited means living on that land in the meantime before you sell it is a financial necessity. That means repeated (if not necessarily very large scale) horizontal mobility.

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