Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Introvert Disadvantage, with Flip-sided Morality


When I was substitute teaching, one lesson plan called for showing a science class the 1999 Joe Johnston film “October Sky” about the teen rocket scientist Homer Hickum in the 1950s. Growing up in a coal mining family in West Virginia, his father insisted that Homer follow “in his footsteps.” When the father got sick, an older brother insisted that it was his “responsibility” to drop out of school and go to work in the dangerous underground mines to support the family. I don’t think that point really registered with the kids.

I call to mind a second data point for today’s discussion. Around 1975, in the time of New York City’s financial crisis (“Ford to City: Drop Dead”) I stood with a “trick” on the subway platform at some elevated station in the Bronx, I got into a conversation with him about how “technology” made our newly discovered free adult lifestyles possible. This was almost thirty years before Myspace.

In a couple of episodes of my life (the William and Mary episode being discussed on a Nov. 28 2006 posting on this blog) others care very much about my values and tried to intrude in a way that modern western society would see now as morally inappropriate. I understood ideas like, if you bring a child into the world, you’re responsible; but if you’re gay, why is that morally even a bigger deal. I felt I was entitled to an intellectually logical explanation that no one could come up with. There was, of course, “religion,” and in 1961, the remnants of McCarthyism stalked our lives.

The baseline experience for families when I grew up was that the “family” determined the frame of reference for all of life. Fathers, mothers, and the children (and elders) all had duties and “roles” that expressed a great deal of complementarity. There was no pretense or concept of “equality” as we grasp it today. It was crucial that every person step up to the plate when necessary and “do his part” for the welfare of everyone else in the family (as Homer Hickum’s, above). At the same time, it was not the business of the individual person to question the “unfairness” of things; the right to do that resided higher up some familial or political chain, perhaps with a labor union. Religious faith accepted the idea of external unfairness and limitations on the individual to earn his place in the world without the mediation of others; it’s an irony that the socialized life of early Christian communities would one day be capitalism, although very structured for a long time.

In exchange for active monogamy, with its tremendous and deferential social supports, married parents had tremendous power and authority over family members, even as adults. Parents could have more children – to increase the odds for the family as a whole – and demand that older children support younger siblings. Such was the power of legally approved marital sexuality. “Right and wrong” were connected to duties within a closely knit family or community, and not just to modern notions of autonomy and harmlessness. But the idea was hard to articulate, and (whatever the pronouncements of the religious right about Biblical moral absolutes) morality was actually a very layered concept with plenty of flip sides.

What changed a lot of this was “globalization” – but that process started long before broadband became a buzzword. Maybe Renaissance man Leonardo Da Vinci was the first “world citizen” in a sense that we relate to today. Generally, the arts (particularly music and literature) became a way for relative modestly born people to achieve global and permanent fame, if their works lived forever even if sometimes they did not reproduce biologically. Beethoven had no children.

Then, after World War II, the standard of living rose, and individual young adults (especially singles without children) became more mobile. The Civil Rights movement and then Stonewall in the 1960s made us look people more as diverse individuals than just as family members, even if the process would be gradual. With the rise of the Internet in the 1990s and now social networking in the 2000’s, we’ve created a culture where people “seed” themselves in non-biological ways, hoping that their presence or ideas or work take root.

With women’s rights and then gay rights, equality became a monolithic concept, that seemed to reduce itself to relatively simple ideas (harmlessness, the right to be left alone) that eventually would take hold even before the Supreme Court (Lawrence v. Texas). Ironically, the instantaneous globalization of binary information, publishable by anyone, now may be changing the moral tenor of how we perceive fairness and equality and bring some old fashioned ideas back. This concern particularly applies to the “sustainability”, fuel shortage and global warming debates, where some people (as those who made the “End of Suburbia” films) maintain that we may have to get used to living again in a decentralized, family- and community-centered way with more involuntary social intimacy with others.

The recent controversial NBC reality series “The Baby Borrowers” ended with all the teens saying they were not ready for parenthood yet and maintaining they needed to get their educations and careers well underway first. The last episode of the program ended with an exercise that many of us may not be able to make a choice about – eldercare. We saw the flip sides of the modern “family values” debate in the show. It’s interesting: the technology that has enabled ordinary individuals to seed their thoughts globally related to medical technology that is prolonging lifespans with acceleration. This is a development – longer lives and fewer children in many populations – that is setting up unprecedented ethical problems (filial responsibility) with moral and legal dimensions yet unexplored.

That takes us back to the expectations of the family. It often seems to me now that the prohibitionistic rules of the past (as Andrew Sullivan calls them) were a ruse to get everyone to share the responsibility of raising the next generation. But there probably was not enough “globality” for people to even think that way. Families just had to survive. We don’t want to bring back that climate today. But there is a genuine concern that a lot of family responsibility occurs without the “voluntary choice” of making babies. It’s especially difficult for an introverted person like me, who prefers to work alone a lot and seek out social contacts on my own terms. I may not get away with it.

It’s possible to connect “family responsibility” to “fairness.” In a competitive world where some people “have” more than others, it may seem logical to some people that openness to participating in family obligations (marriage and procreation, including the unpredictable risks that babies bring) should come with the territory. Part of the deal is emotional receptiveness to the needs of others who may not have the same access to the “outside world”. There is concern that some of us “world citizens” depend on the unseen “sacrifices” of others like the Hickum family in the movie mentioned above. That can stir up a lot of indignation, a favorite angry emotion of the far Left during the Nixon era. Many of the anti-gay arguments from the Vatican are embellishments of this style of thinking, but they apply to a world where awareness of things is much more “global” than it was a half-century ago. But religious teachings now often maintain (not wholly convincingly) that "family centeredness" should be demanded even of the childless all the more to make things personally "fair" in the face of globalization.

On an ideological level, some of the issues that surfaced in the nineties (gays in the military, same-sex marriage and adoption) can be seen in terms of sharing common responsibilities (national service and intergeneration responsibilities). And in the nineties, workplaces gradually learned that the “lifestyle”-related family obligations (then seen as strictly a matter of personal responsibility going with choice) had an effect on availability for overtime and productivity. Sometimes the childless were seen as cheating the system and competing “unfairly”, a point not discussed that openly (outside of Elinor Burkett’s book “The Baby Boon: How Family-Friendly America Cheats the Childless” in 2000).

Still, the new “flip sided” moral debate creates some consternation indeed. Most of the time in the past couple of decades, we’ve gotten used to “Dr. Phil” kind of presentations about the immorality of bringing babies into the world without being prepared to raise them. But we’ve also seen conservative claims that the expressive permissiveness of our modern culture (as well as welfare policy, which probably matters more) makes it very hard for people to get and stay married when they have babies. Our culture is also, in many quarters, making it very expensive and sometimes unattractive to have children and raise them at all. We’re used to thinking about monogamous marriage as a social invention to tame fathers and nurture mothers, practical necessities among people born “unequal” but only in various dimensions – particularly to harness the normal genetic and Darwinian biological incentive of males to plant their genes as wide as possible. But some of the incentive to plant oneself, especially for persons like me, can be informative and non-biological – yet it still comes from male mentality, at the deepest levels.

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