There’s a phrase that gets tossed around a lot these days. “Traditional Family Values”. It’s guaranteed that you will here it said at least once in any speech by someone whose fighting against changes in the social order. Whether issues about sexuality, schooling, or even health and welfare are even relevant doesn’t seem to matter. It’s an emotional catch-all that can be used to pinpoint a speaker’s place on the political map.
Three words that actually mean very little at all but that say a lot. Through inference they imply that what is being spoken against will somehow harm you and your children. Without even having to define how or what the damage will be, an emotional trigger is pulled to make people rally round the flag and pull up the drawbridge.
“Traditional Family Values” translates into, “The Barbarians are at the gate.” Hide the women and children because they’re coming to rape, pillage, and burn. Visions of your teenage daughter being sold into white slavery, your son being ganged raped by rampaging homosexuals, and your wife and you being forced into acts of depravity dance through your head. You thank God for the N.R.A. and head for the bomb shelter out back with the Uzi and AK47.
What are traditional family values anyway? Just whose tradition are we talking about? Well, it’s a safe assumption, given the gender, race, and class of most people who use the phrase, that we’re talking about white male protestant family values. Sure there are the occasional women who have been heard saying those words, but they’re usually the ones who mistook feminism for the right to act like a man instead of the freedom to be a woman.
I’m sure for most of those who hear those words and are philosophically allied with the speaker, they bring visions of Mom, Dad, two kids, a minivan, and a house in the suburbs to their head. Dad goes to work five days a week and on Saturday works around the house mowing the lawn and doing other Dad stuff. Son is older and plays football, has a steady girl who he holds hands with and takes out for a burger and Coke on Friday nights, while younger sister has giggly friends she talks too much with on the phone. Mom stays at home cooking and cleaning and whipping up meals from Campbell Soup labels.
Every Sunday they all climb into the minivan and go to church where they are filled with words of praise for their way of life. They hear warnings about the depredations of the world and count their blessings for the wholesomeness of brownies and milk. Depending on the time of year, Dad may try and get in golf after church, or he and son will toss around the football, while Mom and sister do whatever it is they do.
The only minorities they know are the jovial fat black women who comes and cleans house once a week and the Mexican who does the yard work. You have to keep your eye on them because they may steal, but as Mom tells daughter “It’s because they haven’t had the same advantages as you and they don’t know any better.”
Dad and Mom will have martinis after work and maybe cocktails on Saturdays if the neighbours come over. Sometimes there’s even beer at the neighbourhood barbecue. The Dads gather in a group around a side of cow charring in various chunks over kerosene induced flames. Moms stand around a pristine kitchen making salads and dissecting those not there with knives of Christian spite. Teenage sons and daughters stand around in groups talking about each other and school, maybe the boys will throw the football around at the foot of the garden.
A life right out of a Norman Rockwell painting from the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, or a 1960s sitcom come alive. In this ideal world of theirs there are no drugs, no unemployment. Illnesses are never serious and the friendly family doctor is always there to make house calls in case of flu or a cold. Everything is in its place, and all is right in the world.
The post World War II economic boom that hit North America gave rise to the first real middle class. Prices were low, jobs were plentiful, and housing was cheap as the suburbs around major cities were developed. It was the beginning of the end of life in the city for all but the poor and the very rich.
As the fifties and sixties progressed more and more money and people moved out of the cities leaving services to degrade from lack of a strong tax base. Disparities in education and health care began to develop, and as new housing starts slowed in the inner core the cost of rents began to soar. Those who couldn’t afford to move out to the havens of the suburbs were forced into worse and worse housing and confronted with fewer services.
Those traditional values that are so extolled refer to that brief flicker of time when the white middle class were kings. The effects of migration from the cities hadn’t yet put demands on the economy by increasing the welfare rolls and unemployment insurance payouts. The war in Viet Nam was just starting and not yet dividing the nation or depleting its young people and financial resources.
America, and Canada for that matter, were in an artificial economic bubble caused by the lack of any real competition from other industrial states. While France, Germany, and Japan were retooling and rebuilding industry, North America was the major supplier of manufactured goods. Every free market in the world was supplied with items made by the hands of workers here, and most of the dollars were floating back this way.
But by the early sixties that all started to change as both Germany and Japan entered into the fray and began mass production of high quality, cheap, in-demand products. As North America’s market share decreased and the cost of materials rose, profit margins slimmed. Wage growth slowed while the cost of living increased. By the 1970s it became harder and harder for one wage to pay the way.
Simultaneously, social changes and liberations were underway. The children of the middle class left their homes for school and became aware of the inequities in the world. They looked at the lives of their parents and rejected those values as being one of the causes of injustice. This led to experimentations with alternative lifestyles and an embracing of a more accepting belief system.
Sexuality long repressed became open, and issues such as birth control and abortion became relevant. With the new openness, the closet door on what were formally considered deviant behaviours swung ajar a crack. Gays and lesbians took their first steps on the long road to acceptance.
Young women realized the limitations that their mother’s lives offered them and wanted something more than simply serving men as their role in society. Equally educated, they saw no reason why they should not be equally employed. With those demands came calls for new definitions of the relationship between a man and woman.
If they were to no longer be servants, then men could no longer tell them how to live and what to do. This should extend to control over all aspects of their life including their bodies. If someone else could dictate whether or not they could have an abortion how could they be considered free?
In the space of twenty-five years, huge social upheavals caused earthquakes in the status quo. Even while some people of colour remained trapped in the inner cities, others managed to ride the crest of the civil rights movement and establish beachheads in business, politics, and education from where they have worked to enable a better life for themselves and other blacks, Hispanics, and Asians.
It is no longer unusual for both husband and wife to be working or to see a single mom raising a child. Sometimes the latter is a choice, often though it’s forced upon her. But at least her opportunities are no longer limited by stigma and lost job opportunities. Day care centers offer some easing of the burden for a single parent. Far from sufficient, at least there is something offered that wasn’t years ago.
Those who call for a return to “Traditional Family Values” know today’s realities and are scared of them. The erosion of values they’re talking about is their position of power in the world. They know that they can’t turn back the progress that has been made in the last decades, so all they can do is hope to repress it as much as possible. They may be able to change laws and temporarily steal rights that have been fought for and won, but they can’t change the way people think and feel. Too many people out there have tasted freedom to let it be taken away on a more than temporary basis.
They play on the fears people have of things that have nothing to do with the issues at hand. Spurious claims are made about drug usage and crime to scare people into believing that a nuclear family will solve all society’s problems.
The values that have been lost with the dissolving of the family unit are to blame for society’s ills. The values of intolerance, repression, ignorance, and xenophobia are certainly ones that are sorely missed by people like the Klan and other neo nazis.
There are no guarantees that a good Christian home of Mom, Dad, son, and daughter will produce anything better then another home with a single mother or father. It’s families just like these where the wife is beaten by the husband, or sexual abuse happens and is gotten away with because nobody looks beneath the facade.
How do I know? Because I grew up in one just like it and my father raped me for eight of the first eleven years of my life. When I tried to tell people, they wouldn’t believe me or threatened me with reform school (that was my mother). In 1960s Toronto who was going to believe that a little boy was being raped by his father?
Now in this morally lax age we live in, if a child were to tell the same tale people would listen and investigate. Which is the better world to live in? The one where because people pretend stuff like that doesn’t happen it continues unchecked, or the one where people accept that it happens and try to deal with it.
The people who preach for a return to “Traditional Family Values” want to turn back the clock on progress and hope. They want to pretend that the past twenty-five to thirty years haven’t happened. The world has changed and they are unwilling to change with it. Let’s not let them destroy what we’ve tried so desperately to build.