Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Another thought experiment: conclusion: keep your laws off my life (and my body)


Here goes another “dangerous” thought experiment, maybe through hypnotic regression. I go back to the era of my “coming of age” – the 50s and 60s – as a young male who was “different” and not terribly competitive in conventional terms. Looking back, and pretending to live in a parallel universe (or another “dominion” as novelist Clive Barker would call it) I can imagine that there could have been a different outcome. Suppose I had bought in to the emotional demands of others, to see “people as people” and focus less on my own fantasies and my own self-defined place in the world. It’s probably possible that I could have entered the emotional conundrum of the heterosexual world, with all of its pampering social supports (especially for “protective” and adaptive gender roles). It’s even possible that I would have married and had children. A willingness to accept faith more literally (as it is often promoted by pastors – salvation though Grace only) could have been a factor. That would have meant cutting off a lot of thought patterns, denying some of my own aesthetic judgments of people. (There is an archaic term for this process that sometimes seems to accompany the ex-gay experience – “aesthetic realism:”). And it might have resulted in my harboring all the anti-gay beliefs that were imposed on me in those years myself. Indeed, I do understand how some people can view "abstinence" outside of "potentially" procreative marriage (however "Catholic" an idea) as an essential social virtue to protect less "competitive" people from becoming eventually marginalized in both global and family contexts.

So, how can this be? What is the basis of these beliefs? I could imagine getting far enough to have children, and then rejecting a child (especially a male), if he were gay. And, of course, the question is a great big Why.

On one level it’s easy. People naturally want to see others go through the same hoops they did. They want to see others pay their dues if they had to. If they practiced self-denial (even out of religious discipline) they want others to have to do the same. This comports with an old fashioned idea of “fairness.” Perhaps it sounds just plain petty, but it’s human nature. What I see more of, though, is a need for an “absolute” moral value system that justifies the results that happen (with the inequalities that always result).

One potentially appealing “moral absolute” derives from the “right to life” – specifically, a special reverence for human life. This gets extended to an intrinsic belief in an existential responsibility to procreate. Everyone must honor his parents by continuing the lineage, or, if really unable, become supportive of those in the family who do have children. Gay men often come into a process of upward affiliation (unless they can move to really committed “polarized” partnerships), a process that, while generating aesthetic energy that can provide serial satisfaction for years even when spending time alone, creates a certain contradiction with the idea of being a role model taking responsibility for other people, a worthiness that men normally often ratify by becoming fathers themselves.

Modern, open society with globalization and communications technology provides people with the idea that they can pursue their own personal goals in life regardless of family obligations or limitations—developing the modern notion of “individual sovereignty” that undergirds libertarian thought and notions of “fundamental rights”. Actually, this has always been true. Technology has, at various times over many centuries, given “average” people more reach, and arts, music and painting have always affected the way other people perceive their world – and has always progressed in various steps correlated to history and technology. Consider, for example, how musical composition is usually an individual activity, and how relatively few composers (most of all, Beethoven) have an enormous effect on how most people perceive their world, at various points in history.

At the same time, many people grow up with an ingrained ethic of filial responsibility, and this drives all their interaction with the outside world. The movie “October Sky” provides a good example of how science and technology, and individual efforts in those areas, interact with pre-existing family responsibility. Typically, many parents in close-knit families perceive the emotional bonds of family as something they “grew up” into. They are profoundly disappointed, even angered, when one or more children do not want to continue the psychological, emotional and biological lineage.

I do recall, shortly after the William and Mary debacle in 1961, that my father said that therapists had said “you don’t see people as people.” That is, I am not responsive to their needs in a normal way, only relative to a world constructed in my own mind. Call this “fantasy” if you like. This was seen in those days as a central moral point. A more modern word for it would be “socialization,” the ability to share the emotional goals of the family or larger community. In those days, the “moral view” was that family responsibility always pre-exists, rather than coming into being by conceiving a child (after all, (in subjunction) Mary was a virgin, so there is a religious precedent). Parenthood is a result of family responsibility, not the cause of it. This view of “'family first' responsibility” coincides in moral terms with socialization. Families pass this on to their kids, particularly in conservative religions. Consider the Mormon “family home evening,” for example.

In practical terms, “globalization” and technology have, in the past few years, called more attention to the urgency of “family responsibility.” Stories abound in teenagers forced to raise siblings, and in adult careers ended by eldercare responsibilities. It’s covered a lot in movies (“One True Thing”, “The Savages”). This has happened as a bit of a rebound from the “me-generation” culture that encouraged urban enclaves, fewer children and smaller families, and valued “blood loyalty” much less. It is easier to take care of people and give them "meaning" (without government bureaucracy or taxes) in larger families. This leads issues with the birth rate, and the eventual possibility that states will enforce filial responsibility laws, mandate long term care insurance, or both. Particularly with small families, childless people may find it hard to “go to bat” for needy relatives (or live as "part of a family") with the same fervor that people with kids can.

I put this posting in the main blog rather than the GLBT blog because the issue really is not just a gay one. It is really about the change in moral focus. I came of age in a time and community where “responsibility for one’s own actions” was a given. The moral focus was on how burdens are shared. This was reflect in issues like the draft, student deferments, and how “less competitive” people should be treated within the family (as well as publicly). The buzzword was “public morality,” which was communicated with “irrational” sodomy laws and police raids on gays, bigoted practices that make no sense in modern individualism but that to older generations sounded like a necessary measure to tether “waverers” to biological family loyalty that is “owed”. “Don’t ask don’t tell” is a modern vestigial appendix to that kind of thinking, trying to at least respect personal space (“hands off”! or “laws off”) in a society that globalization and the Internet has suddenly made much less private. .

Our society gravitated toward individualism and “personal autonomy” in part because it believed it could afford to. It may seem inevitable but it was not; with the Civil Rights movement, we had wrenching debates about shared responsibility and wealth redistribution that at the time seemed like the fundamental moral issues. A number of “externals” jeopardize our experience of individualism now, and can force people to accept more interdependence again, especially within the family. An interesting issue is the way free speech has migrated to self-broadcasting or self-promotion that is seen as harmful to those with more family responsibilities – the ramifications of this (like with the “Myspace problem” or “reputation defense” issue) are just now starting to be grasped. The open speech itself has called new attention to these problems and the “unfairness” of the way burdens fall on people. In some circles, that argues for stricter notions of family responsibility and biological loyalty.

Another observation about the “seeing people as people” problem is that, while the mental health world used to see it as related to the ability to grow into the capability to marry, stay married and raise children (that is, fundamental to the complementarity of heterosexuality as the Vatican describes it, or as Freudian psychiatrists talked about it with some sniggering – remember all those horrible old books like “Growing Up Straight”), it probably relates more to the ability to have any lifetime intimate partner (of the same or opposite sex) with the emotional legitimacy of a psychologically (if not necessarily biologically) polarized committed relationship. So it does sound like a fundamental “moral issue” but not just quite the way social conservatives want. It can actually support the idea of gay marriage and gay adoption in the long run. But it also raises questions about the way a lot of people conduct their “harmless” lives. A central concept is taught by the New Age movement: karma.

Smaller or contained religious cultures make a lot of “mandatory” socialization. (Look at Israel, and look at the Mormon Church.) They see it as a way of sharing need and keeping the outside world at bay. Mormons, especially (as do other religious conservatives) see it as a way to bridge the contradiction caused by expecting young males to “compete” but then “helping” those men who really can’t to marry and father anyway. Open global society values individual expression a lot more that social expectations, but then has to deal with the reality that many people are left out. While we want to embrace individual sovereignty and a simple "consequential" idea of personal responsibility, we will have to accept that hyper-individualism can have a down side, of sometimes leading to contempt for less competitive people that can become politically dangerous in sufficiently asymmetric circumstances. It's understandable, then, that, even if it could have a more modern understanding of some personal characteristics as biological and immutable, "society" would want to "connect" those who are "different" to the mainstream expectations of social empathy and commitment. On the other hand, one can pretend to follow all of society’s “moral” rules (particularly those starting with Catholic or other religious-based ideas of procreation and marriage) and “protect one’s family” and turn around and use this ability to manipulate people just for self-promotion and eventually oppression (effectively becoming "disconnected"), excluding whole suspect classes or groups of people. History is the story of that. There's something about "reproductivity" that begs for it to become competitive so it is more "exciting." Personal values (of any kind) to tend, when taken to excess, to lead to the “ism-s” – communism, fascism, religious fundamentalism and extremism – once personal caring gets replaced by a need to rationalize or transform experience with a “perfect moral order.” (Catholicism is far from perfect, given it’s record over centuries, but it did help bring about the fall of Soviet communism.) But morality comes from within. The thought experiment comes full circle.

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