(I took the header picture of a Common Loon resting on a pond in Utah on its way north in June of 2015. It was in transition from winter to summer plumage.)

Translate - I dare you. Then make a comment on the funny errors the translator made.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Some thoughts on work and the family

At a recent stake conference there was a lot of emphasis in the talks on the value of education and other things that got me reflecting again on the culture of privacy and sentimental domesticity that so many North American members of the Church adhere to.

Like anything, there are truths behind this ethos. Reading Stephanie Coontz’s The Way We Never Were and then Laurence Stone’s The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800 I still had nagging doubts: well, don’t people like to live in nuclear families when they can? This is what Ferdinand Mount argued in his book The Subversive Family: An Alternate History of Love and Marriage. I don’t remember seeing in any of these books any consideration of the scripture in Genesis that says a man will leave his parents – it seems to me that is probably the strongest scriptural support for the concept of the nuclear family unit.

I have become very dissatisfied and suspicious of any tendency to cast nuclear and extended families as opposing units. Talk of the nuclear family as a historical anomaly or artificial creation seems simplistic unless one makes clear that they are talking about an isolated or privatized ideal of the nuclear family, set up as a self-contained unit independent from its extensions, which I would agree is artificial and I believe carries the seeds of the disintegration of even that nuclear unit.

To say that the Industrial Revolution eroded or broke apart extended families strikes me as largely correct – and in fact I believe it began the breakdown of the nuclear family as well. To say that it created the nuclear family I think is a gross misunderstanding of how those who benefited from industry jealously guarded their nuclear families and began making a bigger fuss about them, in order to protect them from the family-destroying forces they were unleashing on the world.

Of course the losers in the new industrial system tried hard to keep their families together too, as Mount shows, and naturally the nuclear unit would have been easier to maintain in an era of footloose-ness than extended relations, especially among immigrants. But maybe the newly created industrial working classes remembered better than others that nuclear autonomy does not have to mean isolation, that nuclear and extended families do not have to be in opposition like so many have suggested.

In any case, many who wished to keep their families together and worked hard for that goal did not succeed, and were blamed. Or, families did stay together, but at the expense of accepting new ideas and standards (the cult of idle feminine domesticity, for example) that changed the family, made it less natural, or one might say, more natural in the King Benjamin sense: more selfish and insular than families had been in the context of cultures that retained more balancing wisdom?

I don’t want to be taken for a nostalgic believer in a pre-industrial golden age. But I do believe that when a culture changes suddenly – as the Anglo world did in the 18th and 19th centuries – then good things tend to be lost just as good things may be gained. And I believe that there were innovations in the middle-class concept of the family introduced in the Victorian period which led away from a healthy and true understanding of what families should be like. And since in the USA at least, the middle class ideal has been held up as the one all should aspire to, these perversions have taken deep root in our culture.

It is easy to interpret the Proclamation on the Family as reinforcing the Victorian middle-class ethos (maybe as easy as it is to interpret the Book of Mormon as vindicating the claims of the John Birch Society). But I have looked at the proclamation after rejecting that ethos, and found that the proclamation fits my dissident view just as well or better. I want people to be able to do that: to feel free to reject the Victorian model for the counterfeit that it is and still see the inspiration behind the proclamation. Otherwise, what is a thoughtful LDS to do but reject the proclamation in part or in whole? I don’t accept every word that comes from the General Authorities as binding doctrine (certain apostles’ opinions on politics for example), but when something is composed and presented like the proclamation was I’m inclined to give it the benefit of faith.

I think a lot of unnecessary heat is generated in many exchanges about women's "place" at work or in the home - in fact, being at home is work, and hard work at that – and I think that although much energy that went into women's liberation, etc. was misdirected (towards getting women to seek the same unjust power that a lucky few men had), it was/is vital that the Victorian middle class double-standard of womanhood be done away with and that work of all kinds be given the dignity it deserves.

What does it mean to say that the home is a refuge from the world, in a culture where common foundations to prosperity are hypocritically denied, where a myth of individualism has not only been exaggerated, but cynically manipulated to sell more stuff, to enrich powers that are not only unaccountable and authoritarian, but often unacknowledged as true powers?

What does self-reliance mean in a culture where personal convenience for individuals of one class of people is constantly pushed as the most worthy goal, and the costs of that personal convenience are pushed so far away as to be not only easy to ignore but difficult to actually find out? Industrialism has actively sought to make self-reliance impossible while at the same time creating a seductive illusion of it.

To what standard of living are men to be expected to provide for their families? Is a car a necessity? A dishwasher? A telephone? TV? Internet access? -Will dial-up do, or would a caring father insist on DSL? When a member of the First Presidency tells us not to regard yesterday’s luxuries as today’s necessities, how do we understand that? For if the purpose of getting as much education as we can is to be able to provide better, what “necessities” of the world can we really do without? How much of Thomas S. Monson’s counsel can we actually live up to, if our chosen course is to make ourselves competitive in the markets of the world? Does his advice apply only to “toys” – excesses such as boats and extra cars, or really huge houses – that are still beyond what has come to be expected?

I do not want to be impatient. But I do not see a way for me to fully live the gospel without giving up not only the “more” attitude and the world’s doctrine of progress, but also the attachment to the idea that we ought to seek to provide for our families by gaining advantages over others in a competitive, if not combative market. To accept the mindset of education = training in order to earn higher wages or salary than those poor souls who didn’t get my training: I don’t see how that can be easily separated from the ideology of progress that demands we keep up, not with some opulent Joneses across the street, but with the entire neighborhood, the entire society (or supposedly so)!

So who do I think I am, writing this as a salaried professional with a Master’s Degree? Can I diminish my hypocrisy and complicity by saying that I didn’t choose a lucrative profession, that I went into a field where nobody makes a lot of money?

Before making a labor-saving device, maybe one ought to ask the moral question of whether this is labor that should be saved, or that needs to be saved. At least we all ought to ask the practical questions: whose labor does this device save, and what is to be done in the time saved by it? Who will benefit? Will labor be saved to clear the way for more worthy pursuits for those who were overly burdened with odious drudgery, or will it be compressed to allow some to be idle while others have to perform the compressed and sped-up labor to support the idle ones?

We end up making work for ourselves – driving our cars to the gym – because maybe we’ve saved ourselves too much labor . . .

If work is a spiritual necessity and to be re-enthroned as a ruling principle in our lives, how are we to apply that in a culture that disdains manual labor and encourages us to be successful in order to support our families: in other words, to attain a comfortable height of command over others' despised but essential labor? It seems to me that as the economic system is currently set up, it is in fact very difficult for LDS families to truly live the deep gospel principles of work beyond small (symbolic?) strategies like having the kids do chores or encouraging teenagers to get jobs and do their own laundry.

Still, even such small gestures as assigning chores can help teach the reality of the economic activity that is needed to support a household, and it can teach the principle that the support of a household per se is not the province of only one family member or class of family members, but of all. To the extent that young people are given work responsibilities and expected to fulfill them – and even more, to the extent that they are persuaded that their work is needed by the family and by the household, the ideal of childhood or adolescence as holding a privilege of idleness is reduced. The ideal of idle womanhood does not seem to have survived as tenaciously: women are now expected not only to prove their virtue by earning wages – or better yet, salaries – but to keep houses clean, keep fit, and cook gourmet meals in 15 minutes while saving money.

The proclamation says: “mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children.” It does not say that they are the only ones who can nurture their children, nor does it say that that is the only work they should do. One could debate semantics on both of these fronts, and I don’t feel like getting into an exposition of it longer than to point out that the statement gives minimal prescription and has a flexible application: it does not equate to a “barefoot, pregnant, and in the kitchen” model of motherhood. Compared with the full plate expected of modern women, might a simple responsibility for the nurture of children start to seem light?

Except that of course it isn’t. The bare physical nurturing that comes from the breast might not demand too much in the way of commitment beyond time and nutrition, but the other facets of nurturing are hard work, and if such hard work were more honestly acknowledged and sincerely honored, women might not need to feel that they had to prove their virtue by being so diligent in earning wages (or better yet, salaries) – and what would it take for men to be freed from feeling that they had to prove their worth the same way?

A rebellion against overly restrictive expectations of private nuclear family work (stay in the house all day with just you and the children) could go in different directions: a movement in favor of more communal forms of childcare and housework, for example. I suggest that unexamined selfishness did in fact play a large role in much of the rebellion against the older norms, and that much of the conservative fear of feminism, though often misdirected and exaggerated, was warranted by observing this selfishness. If the work of raising children were truly valued and understood on its own terms – and separated from the work of physically maintaining a house – might the feminism of the 1960s and 1970s have looked different? Might more women have been willing to call themselves feminists earlier?

Compared to the expectations of achievement put forth by the societies of power and privilege, might a simple orientation towards the provision and nurture of children as the primary goal for mothers and fathers be a focus of welcome simplicity after all?

The societies of power and privilege despise simplicity, and will likely tell us that simplicity of purpose leads to simplicity of mind and waste of potential. If we believe that, we will follow them, because we know in our souls that wasting our potential is an insult to God. Will we be persuaded by them, or will we listen to those who try to tell us that simplicity of purpose can actually enrich our minds and lead us to fulfill our true potential?

1 comment:

E. Marlowe said...

blah! blah! blah!

Hey it's good to see your still up to par in thoroughly investigating philosophical theories.

your conrad from the PRSJ.

E. Marlowe