Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Those intangible moral standards of decades ago -- we should understand where they came from


So, pastors like Rick Warren (the “Purpose-Driven Life”) say “It’s not about you.” Secular philosophy professors talk about the difference between the individual and a real person. I understand the need for fellowship and the religious idea of salvation, but I also believe in the idea of karma. One’s own personal track record does matter.

I grew up during the post WWII era (with McCarthyism, unfortunately) that had a particularly stinging sensation about personal morality. One of the most important notions was to be able to “justify” that you “deserve” what you have in relation to what others have – whether money, social position, or limelight. Often, given the gross collective injustices of the time (segregation), the moral ideas do sound like so many rationalizations. The “Left” took over this notion in the late 60s with a communized idea of “deservedness,” and then the Moral Majority tried to replace this with a religious notion in the Reagan years.

The “deservedness” relates to interpersonal values that transcend the usual legal expectations of playing the free market by the rules and within the law – doing your job, and taking responsibility for your own choices. It presumed that one owed some loyalty to family and to others in terms of emotional conformity even beyond just proving you could support yourself as an adult.

One of the “qualifications” expected of young men was to prove they were capable, in a competitive sense, of providing for and protecting women and children. This notion supported the military draft and started to come undone in the 1960s with student deferments, leading to great protests about social injustice. But families had another expectation: having a family yourself once you were grown was a way to prove your worthiness. This fit into ideas about sexual morality. In a world where technology was opening opportunities for expressive lives for the more introverted, it was important to be receptive to intimacy in the family context, to be open to taking the “risk” of having children and raising them. Family responsibility existed even before one had one’s own children, and this notion was as important in terms of “public morality” as was marital fidelity itself. For an only child like me, childlessness was perceived to have permanent, "metaphysical" consequences. Married people believed that they were entitled to monopolize sexuality and control the emotional lives of their children, as part of the marital experience. The supposed “breakdown of the family” that would develop later then was partly related to economic pressure on families from extreme capitalism, but also to the privatization of relationships and the reduced cultural importance given to “meaning” derived from social supports. In many countries and in some segments of American society, there is resistance to the psychological pressure on the nuclear family placed by “hyper-individualism” (accompanying capitalism) and the culture of self-expressiveness and relationship selectivity built into the modern culture of the Internet and online social networking.

As I’ve related on past entries, I had a lot of trouble with these “gender role performance” expectations, especially in the later elementary school and junior high school years. If one could replicate me today maybe a medical explanation would be more apparent, but at the time the pressure and taunts took on a moralistic component. I was not doing my share; yet at the same time I had picked up on the competitive, "Darwinian" nature of competition among men (for their "families"). I was supposed to sacrifice for others, rather than let them sacrifice (as in war) for me. Some of the bad things that happened in the early college years do relate to this. I would actually try to redeem myself by getting myself drafted, but only after finishing graduate school and being finally safely tucked away and castled, as in a chess game (after a protracted “book opening”).

Today, I do face pressures to be more emotionally receptive to others, and not always on my own terms. Sometimes (as in the school systems) I found myself in situations where I was expected to pretend to be a false but temporary "male role model." This is very touchy, given the meaning that I attach to what happened in my own coming of age, and to the urban social segregation that I experienced as an adult for several decades. I maintain that I need a better “political climate.” As did many “me generation” people, I invested a disproportionate share in taking care of myself (avoiding “mistakes”), and stayed away from learning to provide for others, a capability that now needs to be expected. Barack Obama talked about all of this in a recent commencement speech, and his comments were appropriate. We do owe something back for where we are, and what we owe is a bit intangible, but transcends the norms of adult independence.

Will I pick up a hammer and head to New Orleans, or some place similar? It’s not that easy. I know this is an issue. I do talk about the movie I would like to make (call it “do ask do tell” or the like). One of the points of making it would be to convey an understanding of the moral notions that people took for granted a couple of generations ago. I don’t want to go back to them, but it’s important to understand where they came from. (Real need, and survival, and external threats, in large part.) I do think that a more consistent idea of service obligation (the kind Obama talks about) would help depolarize some of the issues that stir up so much emotion today – issues like “don’t ask don’t tell” and gay marriage.

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