Saturday, November 18, 2006

Whatever that may be

Say you're a liberal who believes that to be human we must be self-determining.

One of the many things which might stop you from achieving self-determination is the traditional family.

Why? Because it's not something you have chosen. You yourself haven't determined that a family is based on a father, a mother and children.

It is a restriction on your self-determining will that there should be no choice in defining the family.

But you don't want to live alone. So what do you do?

The answer given by many liberals is to deny that the family means anything specific. Its meaning is open-ended. Often liberals when discussing the family will add on the qualification "whatever that may be".

This allows the idea of family to survive, but without any real content. Family is anything people hold it to be. It can be two girlfriends, an old person and his dog, or a household of young adults.

Family is given a multiple, fluid, open-ended meaning, to make it fit with liberal assumptions about what makes us human.

This kind of thinking is so prevalent that it has been taken up in business advertising. In a recent article I recalled a Nescafe ad which had the jingle:

You can be mother when you are a man ...
Open your mind you know that you can.

This ad was trying to make gender roles within the family "not matter". Julian David at his website remembered a similar ad campaign by Tip Top bread, described on the company's website as follows:

One short sentence is inextricably linked with the Tip Top® brand: ‘Good on You Mum®.’ In the recently launched campaign, Tip Top Bakeries has reintroduced this much-loved advertising line to relaunch the entire bread range.

These days, of course, the carer identified as ‘Mum’ can be any member of the family, a partner or even a flatmate. Indeed, everyone identifies the line as a direct recognition of a nurturing gesture. The advertising campaign uses the emotional power of ‘Good on You Mum®’ to set the scene for the new family, whatever that may be ...

So Mum can be anyone and the family cannot really be defined.

Nor is Tip Top the only large company to run this line. Golden Circle's recent advertising campaign had a similar message, as did a four wheel drive ad which when it spoke of families added on the tag "whatever that means" (or something similar).

Then there is the odd story about how The Gilmore Girls got to air. It seems that the chief marketing officers of some large American companies were concerned that TV shows weren't family friendly (too much swearing and violence). They wanted shows which the whole family could watch.

The companies (Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble, General Motors, IBM) got together to discuss what to do but immediately a problem arose:

The first meeting was almost the last. "It broke down because we couldn't define family," Wehling says. "Everybody saw it differently."

It was agreed to leave the term "family" as an unknown, so that:

From that meeting emerged the group of advertisers called the Family Friendly Programming Forum, whose improvement plan for television included a script development fund for "family" shows - without defining what "family" was. (Age Green Guide 10/10/2002)

The first show to appear from the Family Friendly Programming Forum was The Gilmore Girls, which focuses on the relationship between a single mother and her daughter. The second was Raising Dad, about a widower father.

So even a "family friendly" forum of marketing officers couldn't bring themselves to endorse or portray a traditional family of dad, mum and the kids.

So what's to be done? It seems to me that little progress will be made until the underlying assumptions of liberalism are challenged. It's not that individual self-determination is wrong in itself, but it shouldn't be ranked as the supreme ordering principle of life, nor as the defining mark of our humanity.

If we think of the traditional family as a 'good' we should defend it as such, even if its form is decided through nature and tradition rather than individual choice.


  1. Thanks for the link, Oz Conservative. I like your work.

    It's funny how it's the companies that make old-fashioned Australian staples, like Golden Circle and Tip Top, that are so eager to appear to be fashionable.

    I suspect it's the make-up of the advertising agencies and their desire to be edgy and "hip".

  2. Julian, thanks.

    You might be right about advertising execs wanting to make old-fashioned staples edgy.

    Another scenario, though, is that companies like Tip Top and Golden Circle want to continue their "family appeal" type ads, but are persuaded by advertising executives (or their own marketing officers) to modify them to include the "whatever that means" line.

    I don't suppose we'll find out what the process actually is.

  3. So Mum can be anyone and the family cannot really be defined.

    Logic is not exactly their strong suit.

  4. Advertising (and their bedfellows, Corporate business) – are a political entity who’s main goal is to get ‘everyones’ vote (read: money) – so they will be hard-pressed to come up with ‘one’ definition of a term because of a fear that they are ignoring someone. (ie. They are NOT getting their money).

    When business (and advertising) wants your money, then it cannot ostracise anyone. It has to be an open-ended definition (which is really no definition) - so as not to a) Offend anyone, and b) Get everyone’s money. Not only is it an abhorrent thought to contemplate a man as a ‘mother’, but I think we have overshot a line in the sand when it is even fashionable for liberals to call their dogs & cats their ‘children’. The ‘compensations’ of these “undefined” families is thin at best. From the attempts to find fulfillment in careers rather than family, to calling their pets ‘children’ to make up for the lack of actual children – is an extremely precarious ‘free’ liberal society indeed.

    When the very basic construct of ‘family’ is undefined (and often resisted), it is really a scary idea to posture where we will go from here. Whatever one may think of Lenin; there is one statement of his that seems relevant (and truthful in looking at the state of our culture today), where he said, “Destroy the family and you destroy society” – and society (it seems to me) is being slowly destroyed.


  5. It's overly simplistic to blame corporations for this. Corporations will only and always reflect what society wants.

    At the end of the day, they are interested in making a profit. If they can see that tthe rest of society is itself loosening the definition of 'family', they will do the same.

    Just as they have offered gay partnerships benefits etc now that these relationships have become accepted