Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The "do ask do tell" showdowns: Part I: Principia


One of the major points in my first two books of my 1997-1998 glory days was promotion of the idea that the “choice of a consenting adult significant other” should be a fundamental right. Along was this was, “the right to be left alone.” This whole dichotomy was thoroughly rehearsed in two famous Supreme Court cases: Bowers v. Hardwick (1986) and then Lawrence v. Texas (2003), regarding sodomy laws and public morality. Of course, what starts out as a private, emotive experience has a subterranean influence on the lives of others, in the values that are conveyed and that, in the Internet age, have become much more public.

In fact, the private v. public dichotomy, so well known in software engineering, seems to lie beneath a lot of today’s moral debate. One can become a public “citizen of the world” without even continuing his own biological family. Except in rare instances, this just wasn’t conceivable for many people until the modern age.

That is pretty much the case with me, and at various points in my life (including the William and Mary Expulsion in 1961), others have certainly tried to interfere with what modern constitutional thought (at least Lawrence v. Texas, whether “judicial activism” or not) asserts is my fundamental right.

Keep in mind, the modern idea of sexual and expressive freedom has developed to be commensurate with a very pointed idea of personal responsibility. One is accountable for his own actions (and sometimes the law comes down today in draconian fashion when people cross the line), but has rather nebulous responsibility for the indirect psychological influence he or she has on others (with the exception of one’s own minor children, who become an absolute responsibility).

Why do people do this—impose themselves on people like me? Why won’t they get off my back? I mean to pose this question with a research, textbook tone. I’m going to try to emphasize principles on this particular post, and go into specific personal stuff to the minimal extent necessary.

I can, however, enumerate some specific items of social and motivational conformity that many people would like to see from me before I make myself visible on the public stage. The central expectation seems to be that I would become emotionally receptive to people “as people” rather than as “part-objects” – manifestations of my own ideas or ideals. Sometimes this expectation comes across to me as a request for deference or even sacrifice. I am supposed to develop my self-concept by responding to others in an immediate local environment (whether blood family or some kind of assumed neighborhood community) before I develop and publicize my own ideas. A corollary was that, as a boy, I was to learn to do my chores, often when they weren’t objectively necessary but because I need to learn to develop the manual and protective skills demanded of men (relative to women and children) in our society as it was then. We had the draft then, which accepted the idea that men offer themselves as sacrifice before they have their own lives (even their own families). Rhonda Byrne glazed along this problem in “The Secret” when she criticized the notion of “sacrifice”, which she sees as contradictory to the idea of “giving”, which presumes one has cultivate one’s own talents and has something to give, massaged by his own volition. What good, they ask, is an idea unless I use it to make some specific person in need better first?

The Gospels seem to call for this kind of other-centeredness, even to the point of making it evidentiary of Faith and receptiveness to what we know as Grace. A couple of the most controversial parables – the Rich Young Ruler (if you can call that a parable), and the Parable of the Talents – play on this kind of problem. Early Christians lived a highly socialized life with communal property and great loyalty to one another that transcended the direction of the individual as we know it today. It’s not so much that the individualism is “wrong” is that it has to account for a culture that created it.

What do people want from this (or sometimes from me)? Some people do see the social and religious supports for their position in the family as indispensable. It’s not just that society says “you are a better person because you are a married father.” It’s that the possibility of measurement or comparison to others on a global scale (the psychological equivalent of a FICO score) is taken off the table as anything worth thinking about. The male homosexual, in their view, is creating an intolerable public paradox. On the one hand, his “upward affiliation” comes across as a commentary on who should have a lineage, but (on the other) he often seems unwilling (or “unworthy”) of continuing his own lineage and showing biological loyalty (essentially paying back his parents by providing "vicarious immortality" through biological lineage). That view seems exacerbated today by the ease with which people can express themselves on a global stage – where “fame” has become a new currency almost equivalent to fiat money. That concern is also exacerbated by the "fantasy world" maintained by the media, icons in a fantasy world that cannot be maintained in the "real life" of families. But this grounding in "moral collectivisim" and "the greater good" was always present, in the past implemented with laws that seem “irrational” to the believer in individual sovereignty, especially sodomy laws, which seemed like the centerpiece of public morality – a system to get most adult men to do what society needs them to do, create, raise and remain loyal to their families. Of course, this “homophobia” deteriorates quickly into patriarchal values and religious tribalism, and the extreme endpoint of this sort of thinking is something like the Taliban in Afghanistan. And competition amount intra-loyal family units can easily be exploited by politicians and unfair businessmen (indeed, a justification for the growth of individual rights and "gay rights" as an add-on to the 60s Civil Rights movement). But unfettered “fundamentalist individualism” (with excessive concern over “moral hazard”, as we see in debates about health care and disaster insurance) can itself lead into dark places.

Yes, many people see family “loyalty to blood” as an essential virtue, and its necessity stems from a practical reality of civilization. Until the modern era, people were largely confined by their familial circumstances (with the visible but rare exceptions, that became more common in American than they ever had anywhere else in the world). People had to find “meaning” in their family experience; there was no reasonable alternative. So any cultural change that would dilute what people experience in the family would be opposed. This was especially important to people who did not beget their own children, but stayed around to take care of other family members. In another area, feminism challenged these ideas, as the idea a woman with her own career was seen as threatening to stay-at-home moms.

Family solidarity has indeed been necessary for survival, as many episodes in history (the Holocaust, for one) will show. Some critics of the modern economic forces of globalization (like “just in time” economics) see these as going hand-in-hand with weaker families, and fear that the ability of a democratic society to hold together in certain kinds of exogenous catastrophes, such as a bird flu pandemic, is jeopardized. Once mandatory psychological collectivism and socialization is taken as given, then all of the usual political issues that one typically studies in history taken on their usual meaning: nationalism, comparative political ideology (fascism, communism, classical liberalism, capitalism), religious conflict, war, discrimination, slavery, segregation, etc.

Does all of this filter down to any useful moral principle that can be cleanly articulated? One could maintain, for example, that one should have accountability to others when visible on the public stage. I call this the “pay your dues” philosophy. This could be stated as an expectation that every adult prove that he or she can support someone besides the self. This notion could also challenge the idea that family responsibility exists only when procreates a child; indeed, one could claim that raising the next generation and caring for the previous one is a responsibility that must be shared by everyone. It seems to me like a reasonable balance between individualism and a real sense that some kind of “collective” cooperation needs to continue. At a constitutional level, this could lead (as with the recend 2nd Amendment case before the DC Circuit) discussions of when rights belong strictly to individuals or when they subsume some kind of accountability to the welfare of a family or group. One point, though, must come through. This is not the same kind of morality formulation one usually hears. It is an expectation of citizenship that goes beyond integrity, or even fidelity. It says more than just that one must remain faithful to a marital spouse if one has “chosen” to have children, or that one must not try to scam people. It is more even than morality’s “third normal form” as in my 1996 essay, orignally intended to be chapter of my first book in 1997.

Many social conservatives see the emotional complementarity of the heterosexual world or marriage and family as necessary, in a practical sense, for people to live up to such an expectation. Perhaps the mores of the heterosexual world make it easier, but we have a bit of a “chicken and egg” problem. The world seems simpler if sexuality – with its emotional release of self from normal rational concerns – is always tied to openness to having children and then providing for them as a first priority; any one who refuses to open up to this self wants to play “God” with the “knowledge of good and evil.” But, again, this is not the same moral issue as “abortion” (and, indeed, the idea that individuals have to be open to sacrificing themselves, as in war, seems to contradict absolute respect for human life) That seems to be what notions of “public morality” have always been about. These notions have been put out as straightforward even if irrational.

Where does all of this lead? I think it leads to a discussion of the social obligations of citizenship – the Part II of this post, the idea that there could be a “Bill of Responsibilities” to go with a “Bill of Fundamental Rights” (or a “Bill of Rights 2”). Specific challenges like uneven population growh, filial responsibility for eldercare, global warming, pandemics, and terrorism raise questions about how burdens are shared and how over-individualism may exaggerate resentment and problems around the world. Gay people will need to recognize that the idea of expected service and citizenship obligations can co-exist with homosexuality, and indeed repealing “don’t ask don’t tell” and supporting gay marriage could support such an idea. But then, that penetrates the emotional “black hole” that the straight world wants to keep protecting the family bed, from which no intellectual cognition may escape. We will always have a tug between aethetic culture and reproductive emotion.

I come back to myself. I still maintain, if my life is hijacked for “the lives of others,” I don’t see how Grace can save me for anything meaningful. If a freedom means anything, then being able to accomplish what one will must mean something.

Coordinated blogger entry here.

Also: COPA was struck down on March 22. Blogger entry here.

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