Thursday, October 30, 2008

Scripting the new family

What do liberals think about the family? I have recently read two commentaries on the changing family by liberal writers. Here is the start of one of these items, an editorial from the Melbourne Age newspaper:

Until the 1960s, the script for family life was predictable, says David de Vaus, professor of sociology at La Trobe University. "The script was boy meets girl, fall in love, get married, set up house, woman stops work to have babies. Then he retires at 65 and one of them dies." Since then, slowly but steadily, Australians have been tearing up the template.

As Professor de Vaus documents in his statistical analysis Diversity and Change in Australian Families, the norms once imposed by one's family, gender, class or ethnic group have largely fallen away. What remains, for better or worse, are individual choices.

The editor is here taking a negative view of traditional family life, on the basis that it is "predictable", based on a "template" or on imposed norms, and that it lacks individual choice.

Why take this view? The answer is that liberals believe, as a first principle, that to be fully human we must be self-created by our own will and reason. Therefore, a consistent liberal will think that our freedom as humans depends on choosing our own life patterns.

But for this to happen there needs to be individual choice about something as basic as family life. We can only be "self-created" if there exists a diversity of family types to choose from, or, to put it in liberal terms, if family structures are "fluid" enough to be individually "negotiated".

Therefore, liberals don't like the idea that there is a single, ideal family type - that of the traditional family of father, mother and children - which individuals will naturally aim for. If this were true it would mean that there was an impediment to the liberal aim of the self-created, self-defining individual.

Note too that the liberal principle has wider ramifications. The liberal idea is that to be fully human we must be free to be self-created. But it's not only the ideal of the traditional family which limits the choice of life pattern or self-identity. So too do things basic to human life which we are born into, and cannot choose for ourselves, such as our sex, our class and our ethnicity.

That's why the editor so readily links the "imposed norms" of family life, to those of "gender, class or ethnic group". All four are basic to our identity but are illegitimate in terms of liberal principles. They are closely linked together as problems to be overcome, or oppressions to be liberated from, in the liberal mind.

Humanizing the future

Which brings me to the second item I've recently read putting the liberal view of the family. It's a discussion paper titled "New Families for Changing Times" published by The Australia Institute.

The author, Pamela Kinnear, begins with a quote by Suzanne Keller (who I believe is a professor of sociology at Princeton University):

Ultimately all social change involves moral doubt and moral reassessment ... Only by examining and taking stock of what is can we hope to affect what will be. This is our chance to invent and thus to humanize the future.

I'm not sure that the quote would mean much to the ordinary person. It seems senseless. For a liberal, though, the ideas expressed here are important: we are made human when we are free to "invent" our own destiny.

The implication is, though, that if we accept what either nature or tradition has bestowed we are dehumanized. To use a common liberal term we have to reject nature and tradition and come up with our own "script".

As you might expect this doesn't leave much room for the traditional family of dad, mum and the kids. Pamela Kinnear makes it clear from the very first paragraphs of her discussion paper that she, as a social progressive, supports the breakdown of the traditional family:

Throughout the Western world, the changing nature of families has led to a highly charged debate. Conservatives view family change as a wholly negative phenomenon and attribute 'family breakdown' to a wider decline in moral values and the unhealthy dominance of selfish individualism over more traditional values of responsibility and obligation. They believe that the primary objective of social policy should be to protect the traditional nuclear family from the forces of change.

By contrast, social progressives reject the notion of family breakdown and argue that we must accept the transition to a new diversity of family forms. They regard the idea of family as an evolving social construct.

For Pamela Kinnear the new diversity of family life is part of a positive historical trend toward people realising their "self-identity" by which she means their self-created identity. She writes,

Western societies in the period of late modernity are characterised by an emphasis on personal growth and self-identity ... While conservatives understand this process as one of the growth of selfish individualism, it is more accurately understood as a process of individualisation, one in which the social categories of the past (gender, class, race and so on) no longer serve as the framework for individual behaviour or cultural beliefs.

In the age of individualisation, previous modes of behaviour and expectations have been disembedded from society, and we are now in the process of re-embedding new ways of life in which individuals must invent and live according to their own biographies. With respect to family change, the problem with 'conservative wailers' (as Ulrich Beck calls them) is that they see only the process of disembedding without paying heed to the process of re-embedding.

In this transition, relationships, including marriage, must be reinvented too. The downside of the 'pure relationship', freed from convention, is some instability as partners continuously re-evaluate their relationship. They ask whether it fits with their own life project to realise self-identity.

You see, for the liberal Pamela Kinnear a "pure relationship" is not a marital union which combines love and fidelity, but one which is "freed from convention". So we should aim, it seems, to be as unconventional as we can in our relationships. Being committed to a lifelong marriage, and having children, is as conventional as it gets, and therefore presumably highly impure in the Kinnear world view.

(Note too how Pamela Kinnear, just like the Age editor, places the rejection of the traditional family alongside the rejection of gender, class and race identities. The same underlying principle makes all of these things illegitimate in the liberal mind.)


I won't attempt a complete conservative response to these liberal claims about the family. However, it is worth pointing out a basic flaw in the liberal argument. We are supposed to believe that changes in the family represent a shift toward individual choice. Yet how many people really want their "own biography" to include a divorce, or single parenthood, or childlessness. In most cases, these things will be experienced as a loss and a hurt rather than as individual self-realisation.

The Age editor seems to be at least partly aware of this. He writes,

We have more freedom now - and more space to worry about the decisions we have made. The degree of comfort a person feels with the looser arrangements now in place largely depends on how well he or she is able to adapt to the present period of unpredictable transition.

To be the first person in a family to divorce, for instance, or to decide not to marry, can be a lonely and challenging experience, even if, from an individual experience, the choice was the right one.

For each one of us the future is unknown, and always has been, but for the tens of thousands of Australians who have broken from tradition - by embracing single parenthood, say, or by choosing career over family - where their trajectory will take them may also, in dark moments, appear unimaginable. Life without the script is life stripped of comforting certainties.

Again, we are presented with the idea that we have more freedom if we reject the traditional family in order to lead a "life without the script." This means that divorce or single parenthood or spinsterhood is treated as something that people choose positively for themselves.

This, to me, is not a credible view of how people really want their lives to turn out. If we could have what we truly want, how many people would really "embrace" single motherhood or divorced fatherhood? It is a natural desire for people to want to find a life partner and to raise children. When this desire is frustrated it is a matter of personal grief, not a bold choice to be liberated from a script.

At least, though, the Age editor concedes that those who do "choose" such things face loneliness and insecurity. And he makes a more significant concession toward the end of the editorial when he writes,

According to the Institute of Family Studies, more than a quarter of men and women have fewer children than they would ideally like to have. The figure indicates that a reservoir of pain and regret may surround the decline in the nation's fertility.

So at least we have an admission that people don't always freely choose their family situation, and that changes to family life (a lower fertility rate) can reflect frustrated desires and unhappiness rather than a boldly chosen liberation.

The conclusion to Pamela Kinnear's discussion paper is also notable. She wants to argue that the functions of caring and nurturing can be just as well fulfilled in new families as in traditional ones. But to prove this she is forced to make the following claim about children who have experienced a parental divorce:

Children too are fully capable of adopting an ethic of care and becoming moral philosophers adept at understanding and negotiating the complexities of modern family life.

Really? I would not have objected if Pamela Kinnear had simply claimed that most divorced parents still care greatly about the welfare of their children. But what she is doing is applying the liberal pretence to children: she wants us to believe that children can become self-creating moral philosophers who show individual autonomy by negotiating their way through complex, uncertain circumstances.

It would seem that children are to be "liberated" from the "script" of a secure emotional attachment to parents who set clear moral limits and guidelines.

A different approach

Of course, we could instead choose to tear up the script of liberalism itself. What if we really decided to be independent minded and thought outside of liberal first principles? What would happen?

Well, we would no longer be forced into a revolt against nature and tradition. Nor would we need to reject important, but unchosen, aspects of human identity and connectedness.

We could consider ourselves to be both human and free, whilst at the same time pursuing important goals, like finding a life partner and having children. We would no longer be forced to accept, as a best outcome, a combination of freedom and loneliness, or freedom and regret.

It is the convention of liberalism we need to overturn, rather than the traditional ideal of family life.

(First published at Conservative Central, 12/12/2004)

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