Thursday, April 12, 2012

How are we taught about Right and Wrong? Family perspective means everything. It's about social capital


So, it’s time again for a sonata on “right and wrong”, or where our moral notions come from.  In my own experience, moral priorities seem to come from circumstance, and seem to depend on what’s visible before the horizon.  And when we're growing up, our parents usually "see" the "social capital" issue for us before "personal responsibility" looks meaningful. 

I can see I’ve worked variations on this issue, like a pitcher throwing sliders around home plate, many times before. But I feel pumped up about it again, because in recent years I have come under a lot of pressure to adopt group goals chosen (for me) by others.  And I must resist.

I also have come across the “moral” questions about homosexuality, as some other people see them. They overlap the issues regarding personal autonomy, but they aren’t the same.  I’ll come back to that.

In modern “western” (and “classical liberal”) culture, moral values depend largely on personal responsibility to own up to choices that are made, and the “right” to do something depends on the consent of other (competent adult) people involved.  The “common denominator” for calculating “right” is (fiat) money.

 Some particular activities are understood to have major potential consequences, such as “risking” having a (possibly unwanted) baby.

But that’s not the focus when one is growing up.  One must prove oneself competent in a number of areas, which often relates to academic performance in school. One must also learn good work habits, and to deal with a certain measure of self-discipline and regimentation.  Up to a point, all of this comports well with individualism, because later one will need to take care of oneself and then to get and hold down a job.  But, at least in my own experience, I came to sense that a lot of this  had to do with being able to contribute to “social capital’ and to take care of other people.  And the context of this expectation, even giving as much credit as possible to the good intentions of social conservatism, gets complicated.

The “truism” that we hear so often these days is that it is imperative to accept the goals of something larger than self.  What that is, get’s complicated. Sometimes it’s “family” (and future lineage). Sometimes it’s community. Sometimes it’s religious faith amd sometimes nation.

It’s the “motives” that are served that makes this interesting. The purposes that we associate with “common good” (a favorite catch-phrase of Rick Santorum) often have to do with long-term “threats” to the survival of a family and larger concentric social bodies. When I was growing up, the main issue seemed to be war (as well as the fact that the economy seem to depend on getting many men to do dangerous jobs, like firefighting or coal mining).  In earlier times, it might have been surviving on the Great Plains as a pioneer or homesteader. (How I remember “social studies” dealing with “The Pioneers” and “The Colonists” in fifth grade.) These challenges tended, in the past, to require that people perform differentially and with “complementarity” according to their inborn biological genders.  Boys were expected to take risks fighting to protect women and children, and women took risks in bearing children, even though by the time of my boyhood (the 1950s) that peril had become largely insignificant.  For a boy to fail to do his part was evidence of “cowardice”, one of the most “mortal” of sins in my day.  (Remember “women and children first” in “Titanic”?) It made him seem like a “mooch” (like the infamous Ayn Rand character), freeloader or parasite.  All of this went up in a world supported by a male-only military draft, with deferments, at one time extended to married fathers and later only to “good students”.

But the “wartime” mentality (which would carry into the Vietnam war, and which would come back after 9/11, with Iraq and Afghanistan, and with some calls to resume conscription) tended to comport with a world that saw things in terms of “us” and “them”.  You had family and country, but you also had enemies, at different levels.  If you were a man, or even a grownup at all, you learned that you might have to protect (or “immunize”) others in your family or group from the “not self” some day.  Gradually, “self” became equated to “family”, even (and most especially) for those who did not beget their own kids. "Eusociality" became part of the moral landscape for everyone.  All of this lived against a backdrop of slowly (perhaps stubbornly) declining racism – from the slavery of two centuries before, to segregation, and the changes brought about with the Civil Rights movement, not even complete today. Family life meant “you take care of your own”.  Conservative political though stressed that, if government  (and taxes) could be made less, people had to take care of each other in families and sometimes through other forms of social capital.

Of course, in Christian churches you learned something else.  All persons were potentially brothers and sisters.  (Music taught us that, too: look at the words to Beethoven’s famous Finale.) You had a responsibility to reach out to people not in your cohort or herd.  So moral teaching, for young people, became an exercise in learning how to draw a line, that you can’t define but “know it when you see it”, between self, family, and other groups in the rest of the world.

Caretaking also gave the family (especially) another major social purpose: giving everyone value, including, as Santorum often specifically says, “the least of us.”  (This plays at least indirectly into the debates on abortion and even contraception: to have children at all, parents have to risk having kids born with major disabilities.  But it also points to the unwillingness of many people to “care” about someone who doesn’t “turn on”.)  I got my share of this in recent years with eldercare for my mother, which lasted many more years than I expected.  I had to deal with the “moral” aspects of hiring help or possible institutional placement instead of carrying out the "physical" and emotional aspects of filial responsibility myself. Today, medicine can do a lot more to extend life than it could when I was growing up, but the do-ability of many of these life saving or enhancing therapies may well depend on the support of an entire family (including those without kids).  In earlier times, people couldn’t live as long, and there was less public attention to raising support to fight diseases ranging from breast cancer to Alzheimer’s.  Still, the unmarried or childless (usually women) were expected to stay home and take care of their parents, whose years (of helplessness) were probably not as long as they can be today. (Today we have a derogatory term for such a person, “family slave”.) Families tended to be bigger then, and older children were more likely to have experience learning to babysit or care for younger siblings – responsibility created not by their own but by their parents’ “choices”.  I was an only child and missed out on this, although at one point I recall that my parents considered adopting a sister for me when I was about nine.

My life as a child and a teen was eventful and I have great, detailed memories of this time in my life.  It was troubled because I fell behind in the “manly” pursuits.  I was teased and sometimes bullied, but not as badly as many of today’s kids (as in a particular upcoming film).  I had the impression that others regarded me as a potential “drag” should some calamity happen to us all during those Cold War days. I got the impression that family was supposed to take care of the “weak”, but persons in such a position (yes, I had to face being regarded as “the least of us”) had to accept our dependence on the authority of others.  So my world was not free the way my adult world was (when I worked dependably for decades and had my own resources) but it was still eventful and interesting. But it was a bit authoritarian. It’s obvious that this societal and political arrangement can be abused by “those in power” and history proves that it often is.   People in earlier generations could not envision that values really could change some day. Hyper-individualism is indeed an effective counter to political corruption, even if individualism doesn't always "protect" everyone or get big collective goals met. 

I also developed a motive of “upward affiliation” (to borrow a term from George Gilder, perhaps comporting with the idea of a “subjective feminine” personality in Rosenfels’s polarity theory, honoring Goethe’s idea of “The Eternal Feminine”).  I tended to regard people as having a calculated “value” which could lead to their being ranked sequentially, in a mathematically well-ordered fashion. Those who were “weaker” had to live, but relating to them would not seem intrinsically rewarding. So my own mind developed a feedback loop that seemed to express authoritarian, hierarchal values.  I saw people in strictly moral terms (as I thought I had been viewed) and I believed I was supporting (physical) "virtue", and this ought to be a good thing. 

I recall those grade report cards that reported “progress of the pupil as an individual” and as “a member of the group”.  I could excel (in a labored way) at academics and particularly with my music (piano, and a good ear), but others were forcing me to support their ends.  I built, in my own mind, a lot of fantasy life about what made other people desired partners.  And in the 50s and early 60s, the psychological world equated early socialization (with peers and family) with success in starting and keeping marriages in adult life. 

I’m aware of the whole line of thought espoused by Rick Warren, that “it’s not about you” (his “Purpose-Driven Life” philosophy), and I understand that generally people have held a position that loyalty to your own immediate family and community group is a primal moral value, to the extent that you’re ready to sacrifice your own purposes for the greater good if called upon to do so. What if that “common purpose” designed by the group turns out to be wrong?  According to Warren, “that’s not your responsibility”.  But in the Internet age, where an amateur can change the whole world, that no longer sounds like a reasonable statement.  But perhaps one can stipulate, “you shouldn’t put yourself out there, for the whole world to see, until you have people you’re responsible for.”  That is, you have “your own family.” I’ve called this, “the privilege of being listened to.”

That is somewhat how people reacted to me.  Once I had made myself public with my own 15-year battle about “gays in the military”, others constantly approached me to join their causes, and took “neutrality” as not just behavioral aloofness, but as indifference, lack of compassion, even hostility. I was seen as lacking real "emotion" for real people. 

The talk about “sustainability” that has grown since 2000 or so, with the concerns over energy and particularly climate change in the physical environment, and “demographic winter” in terms of low birth rates and long periods of disability at end-of-life (along with the debates over social security, Medicare [“entitlements”] and “retirement”), certainly applies to the concerns over declining social capital and weaker families.  A future society could indeed become one where people must live and interact much more “locally” than today. So, those who advocate the “natural family” and group-driven personal priorities can make a case that involvement in raising future generations (and in caring for past ones) is an inherent responsibility for everyone, not something that just starts with heterosexual intercourse resulting in a baby. "Generativity", and a real personal stake -- having "your own skin" invested in relationships with people in other generations -- becomes seen as a moral imperative. 

All of this material – on moral challenges to individual sovereignty and hyper-individualism, overlaps a discussion on sexual orientation.

Today, we often hear “gay rights” discussed in terms of “equality”, which is an abstract social and political concept (however desirable) that does not reflect reality at the “street” level or even within a family, where the applicable concept is “complementarity”. The same applies for gender-independent rights (women’s issues).   “Equality” appears in issues like gay marriage, gay parents, and gays in the military, with the recent repeal of “don’t ask don’t tell”.  A moralist would say that equal rights is a logical corollary of equal responsibility, including the capacity to share common responsibilities, such as fight in the military and raise families.  "Gay equality" also seemed to react to another reality: those who enjoyed marital intercourse were subsidized by those who did not or could not. 

In fact, the gay marriage debate does ponder committed relationships and escape from living in “fantasy” or upward affiliation.  What it denies to some people is ratification of male initiative in marriage, a concept which some people link as equivalent to healthy social capital in families.

I lived most of my adult life without “full equality” but, after the early 1970s, able for the most part to live my “private life” the way I wanted -- although that took a great deal of focus just on my own needs (tuning out other people) just to handle the logistics of "coming out" twice!  That capability (for privacy and independence) was most challenged in the 1980s with the right wing’s political response to AIDS (as a chained “public health threat”) which has subsided with medical sanity.  But in times earlier than that, as with my William and Mary expulsion in 1961 and my “reparative therapy” at NIH in 1962, it was an issue on its own.

Why did society used to have a prohibitionist (to use Andrew Sullivan’s term) toward homosexuality?  Why did this “happen to me”?   After all, I was not a threat to create an unwanted pregnancy or compete for someone’s wife.  Why was my issue seen as an even bigger threat?

Again, we pay attention to “problems” that we can actually see (in a particular person).  I was an only child. For me to take myself out of any chance of continuing my parents’ lineage could be perceived as a profound insult to the family and to their marital relationship, an idea I could not have grasped when I was much younger. The feedback from my WM roommate in 1961 and then the course of “therapy” at NIH in 1962 give some good clues.  My roommate feared impotence merely after being around me.  Such an admission sounds self-deprecating today, but people play “victim” all the time.  At NIH, the staff (despite insistence that the problem was not “just” sexual orientation) became preoccupied with the existential nature of my fantasy and ruminations, and what would happen “collectively” if I induced others to believe them.  They were very concerned about what I "noticed", what turned me on and what didn’t, and why.  They seemed to believe that, perhaps as a response to earlier physical shame, my "intellect" had shut down any procreative instinct.  I know this from reading all my patient records, which I secured in 1996 under the FOIA when I was writing my first book.  But in the 1970s, Paul Rosenfels, at the Ninth Street Center in NYC, would characterize this tendency for reenactment with titillation as the “sadistic” aspect of psychological defenses in his book “Homosexuality: The Psychology of the Creative Process”, book review blog, April 12, 2006).

I want to note that I did serve in the Army (1968-1970), after graduate school, without incident. I was in the company of relatively well educated men so talk of homosexuality tended to amount to comedy  (Tiny Tim’s butterflies) and light entertainment, and wasn’t perceived as threatening.  (Randy Shilts had made that point in his book “Conduct Unbecoming” in the early days of debating gays in the military).  In fact, the military in my case wasn’t as hostile to homosexuality as a lot of the civilian world.  But we weren’t in combat or in a situation where we shared much physical risk or sacrifice together.  (Back in the 1970s, some of the arguments advanced against gays in the military in 1993 with Clinton's proposals had been made in other civilian areas, like firehouses.) 

It’s very striking to me: I was “punished” for refusing to “join” “their” world, and trying to remain an expressive oddball, kibitizing from a distance.  I avoided their entire world of “soap opera” passions for my own, based somewhat on imagination.  In fact, I’ve never experienced jealousy or had someone jealous over me.  Have I missed something? Does that mean I haven’t “lived”?

During my adult world, I did function pretty well “living in my own world” as a computer programmer.  I would know what it is like to be depended on to be perfect in work, but the whole world of families and children would appear to belong on another planet.  I lived in urban exile. Trips home were rather like “greater than the speed of light” space travel.  They had their world and we had ours.  All of that would start to change in the 1990s, after HIV calmed down, with th debates over the Equality issues (ENDA, DADT, marriage, and parenting).  As I faced eldercare, and then a “forced buyout” effectively ending my stable I.T. career, I would have to return to the “real world”.  I would understand how many people face regimentation and forced hucksterism in the workplace. I would find myself, after some coercion, in interpersonal situations where caring and compassion were demanded from me (even in the substitute teaching environment) in a way that had never happened before.  This was a taste of what my (late) mother called “real life”, which requires the capacity to live in close quarters with other people and full permanent intimacy with one.   I found it very difficult to enter the intimate spaces of others' lives (even when asked to and "needed" to make things "all right") when I hadn't built my own first.  And that sort of thinking sets a real trap -- "I can do that only if everyone else has to." 

I was also struck by how “moralism” had taken over the political debates early in my working life.  The Far Left, in the late 60s and early 70s, was demanding “equality” at the gross level of “The People” – the elimination of high salaries and inherited wealth, and even, in some talk, of Maoist-like cultural revolutions where everyone took turns being a peasant. Social conservatives simply brought all this idea of “paying your dues” back into the family. Today’s debates over higher taxes on the rich seem like a shell of how these arguments were fought in the past. 

Recently, I saw the film “Undefeated” (movies blog, April 9) about an inner-city football team.  The point was made that most of the boys didn’t have fathers at home, and that the boys tended to feel that this was a sign of their worthlessness, that their dad’s had rejected them as not good enough.  I felt I was “physically unworthy” of becoming a father because I hadn’t “competed” well enough in masculine pursuits as a boy. (The right wing sometimes says, “Masculinity is an achievement, and my own head admits that is true.) I developed upward affiliation, which in a paradoxical way ratified right wing values. I traveled full circle. So I must ask myself, am I partly responsible for the fact that some of these boys don’t have fathers?  The right wing (in Santorum-talk) seems to point to the “no fault freedom” of someone like me who went down his own path, paying his bills (according to libertarian values) but not paying his dues.

I recall a line in the WB show “Seventh Heaven” where Pastor Camden says, “sex is just for married people.”  I suppose that in a “perfect moral world” imagined by social conservatives (and by the Vatican, in particular), no one would experience passion or sexuality until after marriage, when it is suddenly discovered and ignited by consummation on the wedding night, after all the rituals of doting and courtship.  That might prevent unwanted pregnancies from the majority, but of a minority (like me) it would send a message that family responsibility is expected of everyone.  If so, it all sounds like a canard, a mere artifact of deductive logic. Perhaps a perfect world like that would have high social capital and little inequality because there would be little opportunity to take advantage of it, and maybe it would be stable and crime-free.  (In fact, one of the disadvantages of a hyper-individualistic world is that losses tend to be absolute, even if caused by someone else’s wrongdoing; you can’t make everything whole by money.) On the other hand, it might be a static world with no innovation, no art, no inspiration.  The Neanderthals survived 70000 years but finally failed because they could not create much on their own.  

So what is the answer for my riddle?  I don’t need the Sermon on the Mount.  At an intellectual level, it’s unsolvable, rather like a polynomial with only imaginary roots (it’s like “x**2 + 1” rather than “x**2 – 1”), or maybe like Godel's "incompleteness".  What seems important is that everyone needs to contribute to social capital to give his own voice real meaning.

As I finish a seventh decade, I'm indeed struck by my attitude that "good" pre-exists and is to be found, rather than nurtured by emotional commitment (to the immature or "far from perfect").  Indeed, a lot of the debate today about "family values" apparently relates to finding and maintaining passion for others when it is needed rather than when it satisfies fantasy.   I'm also impressed by how I never saw a need for progeny as anything that could generate passion.  (I can recall a particularly testing moment decades ago when a female date's father teased me by offering a sandwich.)  I always felt that the "buck stops with me", with what I produce myself, with my own content. So I must now finish it.   Yes, it was "about me" and I became and remained aloof. Yet I know that many, perhaps most, people don't have the luxury of losing their place in line.  

Update: July 4, 2012

See International Issues blog (July 1) for a discussion of "fairness" around the world. Yes, conservatives think that "mandatory socialization" somehow addresses these questions -- everyone has to be responsible for someone else to get somewhere.  But gross inequality has always existed, even in earlier times when only a heavily locally socialized life was possible. Stay tuned. 




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