Humanity has a problem of clinging to extremes, as I’m quite sure you’ve noticed. They love the Reds and hate the Blues, or they love the Blues and hate the Reds. They believe deeply in God, or they consider belief to be insane. And once they’re on one side or the other, they instinctively repel any modification of their opinion. Their polarization jumps to defend itself automatically. Facts for its defense are assembled afterward, as a subsidiary process.
Discussions of “family values” have stood on this kind of battlefield for decades, making them hazardous at best. Nonetheless, I think that it’s time to remove this topic from automatic polarization. And I do think that many people are ready to let it go.
So let’s give it a shot.
The Gulf Between Beneficial and Mandatory
There are two big obstacles to letting go of this polarization, and both involve the difference between “beneficial” and “mandatory.”
These two obstacles are the political and the cultural. We’ll go through each.
Problem #1: The Political
The problem with anything politicized is that all political decisions include threats of violence. That’s what laws are, after all; without physical force standing behind them somewhere, laws would merely be suggestions.
So, when we politicize something, we mix it with violence. That violence may stand at the end of a long process, but it’s always there. For this reason, politicized family values polarize people, and understandably so—no one likes having a gun pointed at them.
Both “you must” and “you must not” are mandatory statements, and they are also threats. If you do not comply, something bad will happen to you. As related to values, this is nearly the worst foundation imaginable.
Even if we could pick a “family value” that nearly all us would agree with, forcing people to comply with it removes their judgment—their agency—from the equation. By doing that, we minimize them, degrade them, insult their consciousness.
So, political solutions, regardless of which side of the polarization divide “wins,” damage and degrade far more than they can fix.
Problem #2: The Cultural
There are strong and enduring reasons why certain “family values” persist, but they’re not always the best of reasons. For example, the majority of humans have an instinct to reproduce and to see their offspring reproduce. Whatever we may think of this, we cannot deny that it’s built into the race.
Common or not, this instinct, while probably necessary to the continuance of our species, is not something that we should force on others. And that’s precisely where the debate on this subject goes off the rails. By pressuring people to conform to our instincts, we move perilously close to violating their agency.
I happen to think that having children is generally a good thing for adults to do. But it would be wrong of me to pressure others to live by my desires. I might make my case for childbearing to someone close to me, but even then, I should be careful not to pressure him or her.
My opinions on the beneficial should not be made mandatory for any other person.
I have a moral right to require that others do no harm, but I have no right to make them live according to my instincts. That would make them a slave, not a free being with agency over his or her life. However important I think childbearing may be, I have no right to enslave people to my way of life… or even to try.
The problem with cultural pressures is that they arise from instincts with or without clear reasoning, and are often delivered without reasoning. And applied often enough, their pressure approximates that of force.
Christians and Parents and Gays, Oh My!
Now let’s look at some of the “hard cases,” the ones that drive people to wild reactions:
Christians. I am not unsympathetic to Christianity, and certainly not to Jesus. I understand people who want to live according to their book, and I think they have every right to do so. If they think homosexuality is a bad thing, that’s their right. And they should be able to discuss their opinions openly, so long as they do it politely. (Not that I agree.)
What Christians should not do is force others to live by their book; they should not try to enforce their values. And the primary reason they shouldn’t is their own belief in free will. (As Jesus said, “Whosoever wills, let him come.”)
If a Christian believes that God gave man free will, compelling other men to live against their will is to fight against God. Furthermore, it voids the concepts of faith and of “cleaning the inside of the cup first.”
Parents. The most instinctual part of the family-values divide hits parents. Those who are traditionally minded are likely to be upset with grown children who wish not to have families. This is part of the current human condition and will probably remain so for a very long time. So, it will continue to be a sore spot.
Children who don’t wish to have families will have to understand that their parents feel differently and try not to be overly sensitive on the subject. Parents in this situation will simply have to overcome their instincts. Yes, they can ask occasionally and even make their case for family life once in a great while, but parents should be the more mature party in this conflict of opinions. They should not push their children.
Gays. Let me start with a note to heterosexuals: I’d like you, for just a moment, to imagine the pain of growing up gay. What if you naturally felt for the same sex as you do now for the opposite sex? How would you deal with it at 12 years old, when all the boys were talking about kissing girls, or all the girls were whispering about boys? And what if they also told “homo” jokes and looked for opportunities to insult each other? Being the only one who was different and knowing that you couldn’t escape them at school, how would you feel?
My point is that heterosexuals should have compassion for gay kids… and for older gay folks too. Their road is difficult, and I don’t think many of them simply choose it.
Now, a note to gays: Have a bit of understanding for straight folks. Yes, there are some who are simply assholes in the way they talk about you, but most straight people are not interested in hurting you and might very well defend you in a pinch.
Furthermore, you should not use the same political manipulation that your opponents use. As I noted above, laws always entail violence, and you don’t have any more right to lord it over straight people than they have to lord it over you. If you want solid, long-term acceptance, you must convince people, not force them. Yes, that way is slower and harder, but it builds with durable materials, not materials that will blow away with the next shift of the political winds.
The Case for Traditional Values
I think I’ve made myself abundantly clear that family values ought not be enforced on anyone. With that said, however, I’d like to make a case for them.
I’ve seen lots of people living lots of ways, and my observation (over quite a few decades) is that more people thrive within the traditional family arrangement than within any other. Most of us are happier and more productive living long term with a committed spouse. And most of us gain a great deal from raising children.
I’m not, of course, making blanket statements, or claiming that this arrangement is best for everyone. But I’ve known a lot of people over a lot of years, and this conclusion seems very solid to me.
Having a family is no panacea. Marriage (legal or otherwise) is not automatically easy, and raising children is long, hard, and sometimes thankless work. I’m not saying that this way of life is painless; I’m saying that it is productive and that we tend to mature and grow better within this arrangement than within others.
I’ll go even further and say that there is value in the classic arrangement of the husband working and the wife tending the children and the home. Obviously, I would never hold anyone to this arrangement, and I’m not saying that it is always the best, but in my opinion, it’s a productive way of life.
One difficulty in the usual husband/wife arrangement is that the woman is especially limited by it. Tending children and keeping house are hard. (Husbands: I strongly suggest that you try switching roles for a week.) No woman can do this full time and still have time and energy left for all her intellectual interests. That’s why this must be a choice. There is much to be gained by it, but there are real trade-offs.
Raising children is one of the most significant things that a person can do. It matters a tremendous amount, and women who choose to do it should be held in high esteem. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was a token of great respect for a man to address an older woman as “mother.” That might be a good thing to bring back.
I should add that men too bear a burden in having their wives stay home with their children; they have to work more, they need to help at home anyway, and they worry right along with their wives. The difference—and it is a difference that matters—is that the husband has outside interests and is gone from the home most days. In almost all cases, the husband’s role—which is legitimately hard—is still less difficult than the mother’s.
So, to sum up: while no one should be forced to follow traditional roles, they are very often the most productive choices for us.
Why We Don’t Have to Worry About the Family
I have, for a long time, heard people expressing their worries that “the family” will fracture because of modern changes. So, let me put your minds at ease: the family will not vanish as the preferred human grouping.
I can say this with confidence because I have proof. And the best piece of proof I have is from the Oneida colony of the mid-19th century. (I covered these people in issue 16 of my subscription newsletter.) Here, briefly, is the story:
The people of Oneida believed that traditional man/woman marriage was contrary to God’s will. They practiced—and enforced—group marriage, and over quite a long time. No one was permitted to have any sort of monogamous relationship… and there were hundreds of people involved.
Over time, however, Oneida fell apart, mainly because the children of the first members wanted monogamous relationships. They took frightening risks and suffered harsh punishments in order to be monogamous. Everything in their lives powerfully opposed and punished monogamy, yet they could not be held back from it.
So don’t worry about the family. Gay people will not eliminate it, and political stupidity will not kill it. The vast majority of us are simply wired that way, and that wiring is not easily changed. As the Roman poet Horace wrote:
You can expel nature with a pitchfork, but it just comes back.
This article was originally published by Casey Research.