Friday, April 10, 2009

Should every adult be prepared to become a role model?

One way that I seem to have gotten myself into trouble during recent years is saying very publicly something like this: “I am not effective as a man in protecting women and children.” Or, really, it is more like “I am not able to compete to bring other people under my control for whom I will be responsible for protecting.” Or perhaps something like, "If I were a dad, I wouldn't be better than your dad." It is somewhat, but not entirely, gender-based.

Gay men sometimes say things like this. Sometimes if seems as if we “brag” about our “impotence” (a very metaphorical word here). This sort of thing sometimes takes the form of an expression of “relief” from the competitive “pressures” of manhood. You can go to chat rooms or forums and message boards on the Internet and found it said with language too explicit to be repeated here.

And this has gotten me in trouble before, as in the public school systems, when I was substitute teaching (yes, parents and administrators use search engines). Call if part of “reputation management” if you will. I was removed from some schools for being “unwilling or unable” to implement sufficient discipline (“classroom management”). Of course, a sub doesn’t know the students as well, and this is not really “fair”. But in a few cases I was perceived as unwilling to step into a situation where authority is valued for its own sake, which (starting with the military) is sometimes necessary in life. It’s the “because I said so” problem. A school administrator, in one case, actually said he had to sit in on a particular class to “protect” a particular female student. He really used the word “protect”. Unbelievable!

Okay, then, we get to some double and triple entendre. I can say I can act like a role model when on my own turf, when I have home-field advantage, can lay down the outfield walls to my choosing, and bat last. But we all have to spend half our lives on the road, don’t we. I could say that I am simply rejecting the idea that masculinity is about performing as a patriarch, leader of the tribe. It can be a much more private thing that comes out in a relationship – as it does in dreams. You can call it “creative”.

But the cold hard fact is, that during a critical period of my own development, I did not fare well competitively when pit against other boys. I wanted to live life my own way, based perhaps on my music, piano, composition. In the Cold War scramble, amplified by the “moral” value placed on competitive success, I lost the opportunity to do that (and I hope my story is instructive to younger people who have followed me). But I found that I was required to do certain things (chores) certain ways when “it really didn’t matter”, when “it was irrational” and when all it proved was that I could live according to other people’s rules. Society changed in the 1960s and I reached a kind of truce, with a way to live, in large cities, in a kind of urban exile, as if on another planet. But my speech took on a putatively dark side: if I didn’t “cut it” by the rules set up by others, then so didn’t a lot of other people. Certainly there were plenty of men with no more athletic ability than me and no more external trappings of manhood, and yet they somehow married and reproduced, sometimes. I had every emotional incentive to remind them that they shouldn’t, if I shouldn’t. It could turn ugly.

So, why do I put all this out now? I can call it irony, and it is, and there are those in the “sustainability” movement who say we can no longer “afford” irony. We need generativity from everyone.

One point of all this is to note that some people indeed do quite well at everything. If you are good at the academic stuff and the physical, athletic stuff both, there is a very good chance that you will do well in life despite economic ups and downs. You will always be in demand, in bad times sometimes more than in good. That’s not to say that bad things don’t happen to good people – crime, disease, and so on. And that’s not to say that there hasn’t been real abuse and exploitation of people. In fact, such an observation drives us to want to see more justice, to see everyone “pay his dues”, to see everyone “serve” before taking advantage of asymmetry and stumbling into wealth or success. Again, absolute “justice” is “incompatible” with personal freedom, we say (just look at Chairman Mao). But personal success, relative to others, is very real, and quite variable. Adam Shephard proved with his experiment in deliberate homelessness as in his book “Scratch Beginnings”, trying to answer the lefty whines of Barbara Ehrenreich. Success depends on ability. But there is one more catch. “Ability” and the self-discipline to make ability pay, depends on family. You don’t have successful, self-actualized individuals without families to produce them. And those families usually depend on adults in committed, beyond-fantasy permanent intimate relationships, usually of the opposite gender.

So then, you come back in a circle, to what “marriage” demands. Some of that seems to be not just social approbation and economic benefits, but outright deference from others, most of all other family members before they are married themselves. Much of the “form” in housekeeping chores, after all, seems related to honoring the “marriage.” Procreation, within the “rules of engagement” of marriage, was a seen as a validation of your own biological will to live; however tied to “loyalty to blood”, it was seen as a prerequisite to legitimate access to the world; homosexuality was often seen as a rejection of one’s own family and one’s own biological potential and claims. Our culture has changed a lot since the 50s and come to view marriage (and children) more as a private choice, with responsibilities that are supposed to depend on that choice. But what we are finding is that this experience of hyperindividualism is running itself into instability, as sustainability and demographic pressures force us to reexamine all our precepts about the individual and family again.

In previous generations, parents often viewed the “family” as an entity of value in its own right, something that their marriage creates or builds on, and that others can depend on when they can’t “compete” as well. (Hence, the concerns over “existential integrity” in the post last Sunday). People, especially in lower income families, accepted loyalty to the family created by the sexual intercourse of others (parents) as a moral absolute. Remember the scene in “October Sky” when the oldest son says it is his duty to give up school to work in the mines to support the family when the father is ill with black lung? And, you got it, we changed a lot of that with our focus on individual fairness in the past few decades. And we came to play much more emphasis on individual effort and less on social manipulation as a way to organize surrounding economic activity.

With parents living longer and, outside of blue zones, at least, likely to become frail and dependent for some years, and with more radical medical procedures to save lives available today under the cooperation and sacrifice of other family members (even compared to ten years ago), we’re having to rethink family responsibility again. It’s about a lot more than “choosing” to have children. Anyone may wind up having to provide for and even “protect” others. That’s why the “irony” in the statements I alluded to at the start of this post has become so disturbing to some people in the past few years, even as social networking sites have grown. True, we need to work on how teens feel about themselves and deal with the bullying and put-downs when it happens (and hence the whole problem of cyberbullying becomes so acute socially). The “moral” wild card is “alternative” family structures, including those formed by gay marriage and adoption, and surrogacy. These developments do undermine the monopoly or hegemony exercised by traditional marriage over family responsibility.

I do have my own particular set of wishes as to the medical care that I would want and not accept as I grow older. Personally, the idea of becoming dependent some day is repugnant, whatever the moral philosophy. I will not be willing to make a spectacle of having my life saved, no generous Medicare is (and I expect it to become less so). There are some procedures that others would want that I would not want. There are other procedures that would be acceptable in some circumstances and sometimes with certain preparations. I won’t be more specific than that right now.

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