Family Ties That Bind

I haven’t written much here in the last while because of my other commitments. I chair a Museum board of directors and we’re very busy right now with governance reviews and all kinds of other activities. I’m also involved in an affordable housing nonprofit and other community organizations. It’s funny, but, on the one hand, when I don’t write for a while I feel restless and more anxious than usual. On the other hand, when I do write or draw or paint or sculpt, I often feel guilty for being so self absorbed. It’s not rational to feel this way, but that’s the way it is and I’m not about to get psychiatric help for it. At my age, I’ve learned to accept some of my more irrational feelings knowing that my frontal cortex is not completely in charge of my feelings and behaviour.

Besides, there are great alternatives to psychoanalysis or psychiatry, family time being one of them. I know that family time for many people means tension, pain and sorrow. That’s not true at all for me. My family is the glue that holds me together. We don’t always agree on everything as a family but on the important things we do agree. We absolutely all agree in the healing power of family connection. As a sociologist, especially one influenced by Norbert Elias, Thorstein Veblen, and Emile Durkheim among others, I understand the power of human connections. The absence of closeness, touching (physical and psychical), and interdependency can lead to early death in children and lifelong stress and anxiety in adults. We need other people, it’s as simple as that. Elias goes so far as to say that we as individuals don’t exist. We exist only on the social level. Everything beyond our most basic physical, tropismatic activities like peeing and pooping are social and even those activities are shrouded in social valuation. We don’t exist in society only in the present either. Our social connections go back a long way and often in ways obscure to us in our current mindscapes.

All that said, for two weekends in a row now, I’ve spent time with family. We don’t live close to our daughters and their families so if we want to get together we have to travel or they have to travel. It takes a substantial effort and it costs money. This past weekend my daughters came over from Vancouver with their families to where we live on Vancouver Island. We have three grandchildren under the age of ten and they make great house guests. One of our daughters and her husband also brought along one of his brothers and his wife. They all came to help us old wounded elders get a new porch built on the house and do a lot of gardening and related work. Without them our acre of gardens would soon revert to a natural state and we would be compelled to seriously consider downsizing. I’m just not yet ready for that.

The weekend before, Carolyn and I travelled to Vancouver to stay with one of my daughters and her family so that we might all attend a Mother’s Day Brunch event that one of my older sisters puts on every year for the family and friends. The whole family was not in attendance (I still have thirteen brothers and sisters as well as countless nieces, nephews, cousins and assorted other relatives) but it was well attended. My sister puts on a spread fit for kings and queens. Lots and lots of great food on offer. So much love goes into that event. My grandchildren had never experienced it before so this was a first for them.

I could go into more detail about each event, but the point is that on both weekends the spirit that reigned was one of helpfulness, caring and sharing. I’m not the most effusive guy out there, but I know that even if we’re not always on the same political wavelength, we know the value of family solidarity and togetherness. I’m also not given to maudlin outbursts. This is as close as it comes. However, I need to acknowledge my deep-seated need for human connection and love. That need, my family fulfills to my heart’s brim all the time, every day but especially on weekends when they come to help build a new porch! I pity people without family support no matter how one defines family.

Unfortunately, when our natural families do not or cannot provide us with the love and support we naturally crave as humans, we sometimes turn to other types of family in the form of gangs, politically or religiously extreme groups or we turn on ourselves and die inside like children in orphanages who literally died from emotional deprivation, neglect, or suffered hospitalism (See Rene Spitz’s study of Hospitalism). That’s the downside to our craving for connection.

Quality and Morality

 

Quality Foods. Quality furniture. Quality trucks. Quality, Quality, Quality. Shite. Robert Persig some time ago wrote a book about quality. It’s called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. As Persig writes, his book has little to do with Zen and not much to do with motorcycle maintenance either. This was a very important book for me as I grappled with certain philosophical concepts in my youth. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the main protagonist goes catatonic after getting caught in his self-made vortex of contradiction around the idea of quality. As a fellow college instructor, I can relate to his descent into catatonia, although I was never able to quite make it all the way to its deepest reaches as Phaedrus (the eventual name of his protagonist) did.

 

The way we use the concept of quality these days drives me a little crazy but I’m not going to go grammar nazi and chastise all the unfortunates among us who constantly misuse the term or simply use it as a synonym for good. These days, quality stands for good. We seem to have lost the ability to qualify quality. Does Quality Foods refer to mediocre quality foods, poor quality foods or high quality foods? Well, that’s a silly question, isn’t it? Of course, the owners of Quality Foods mean it to refer to high quality foods. Any other conclusion would be nonsense. I presume that if we want to point out that a product or service is of poor quality we have to include the adjective ‘poor’ to qualify quality. Quality used by itself now means good. Any reference to any other kind of quality must be qualified with an adjective. Still pisses me off because it’s such a denial of the potential poverty of quality but I guess that’s just the way language evolves.

 

So, now I want to apply the concept of quality to morality. Can we talk about the quality of moral precepts? Can we come up with a hierarchy of moral precepts that go from good to evil or are all moral precepts supposed to be good. What does it mean to be a moral person? To what does ‘morality’ refer? I turn to this last question now, the others I deal with later and in subsequent posts.

 

The dictionary that comes with the Mac operating system defines morality as ‘principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.’ The Miriam-Webster Learner’s Dictionary gives a “Simple Definition of morality [as]

  • beliefs about what is right behavior and what is wrong behavior
  • the degree to which something is right and good: the moral goodness or badness of something.”

 

Fair enough. That seems straightforward, but is it? Are we born knowing the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? If you believe that you probably also believe you were born knowing how to speak English. Not likely. Good and bad are social constructs and can only exist socially.

 

Obviously any judgment of behaviour can only be made when more or less discrete behaviours are compared with one another. The concept of morality cannot apply to an individual’s behaviour divorced from its social context. ‘Good’ or ‘bad’ are inherently relative concepts. There are no behaviours that I know of that can be universally and consistently viewed as good or bad. You might argue that killing and rape are universally and always bad. If you did, you’d be wrong. Killing is only bad in certain contexts particularly when it is unsanctioned by the state[1]. In certain cases, such as in military combat, a soldier may be court-martialled for not obeying a direct order to kill an enemy combatant. In many contexts, killing is expected of one, so killing is not a universal bad. In fact, it would be considered morally reprehensible not to kill if it meant putting innocent people in danger. No matter how strongly we may be repulsed by it, rape is also morally ambivalent and in certain contexts is considered a duty. The Bosnian War was the scene of mass rapes perpetrated by combatants who were given direct orders to do so by their commanding officers.[2]

 

In Emile Durkheim’s work, morality is a word that describes how to measure the intensity of our connections to our societies. I add that it’s used to judge the quality of individual behaviour as it aligns with overall social (including sexual), political and economic values. It stands to reason then that in a class based society[3] moral judgments of behaviour will need to be made in a context where, as Marx noted, the ideas of the ruling class are the ruling ideas.[4]

 

To be continued…

 

Up next, morality and sexuality. I touched on this briefly in my last post, but I want to consider how important moral judgments are around sexuality.

Following that, I want to explore the politics of morality or why poor people are considered to be moral degenerates and made to feel shame and guilt for their situation.

________________________________________________________________

[1] The ‘state’ is one of those words that elicits controversy. I once did a graduate course decades ago now where the only task we had was to define the state. Not a simple task as it turns out.

[2] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/bosnia-war-crimes-the-rapes-went-on-day-and-night-robert-fisk-in-mostar-gathers-detailed-evidence-of-1471656.html

[3] I won’t question the popular unquestioning definition of society here. I’ll leave that for a future blog post. Harold Adams Innis is a masterful critic of the conventional definition of society. I wrote my Master’s dissertation on Harold Innis’ work and it’s available on my blog.

[4] Of course, the ruling class is not homogeneous, it evolves over time, gaining and losing power in times and places. Still, there are some basic precepts and expectations of behaviour that we find are fairly ubiquitous in societies where the capitalist mode of production predominates.

We’ve got this all wrong. (Part 1)

We’ve got this all wrong. (Part 1) OR: What criteria would you use to determine whether your society is ok or not?

 

One of the most popular perspectives in sociology from the 1930s until the late 60s was structural-functionalism.  Some people are still functionalists but they’re usually pretty quiet about it these days.  Functionalism has a long history in Western thought but structural-functionalism is of more recent American vintage.  Functionalism was an early European anthropological perspective that was adopted enthusiastically by the American sociologists Talcott Parsons and Robert K. Merton.  Functionalism or structural-functionalism are often uses interchangeably but it’s not my aim here to discuss the distinction or the similarity between these terms.  I have ulterior motives.

 

I start this with a reference to sociology and functionalism and that’s because I’m a sociologist, at least according to the document hanging on my wall in my office.  But functionalism has counterparts in all scientific disciplines.  Some disciplines seem to still embrace the concepts at least at an elementary level and use the perspective in teaching.  As far as I know in human biology classes there is still talk of anatomy and physiology, that is, of the structure of human organs, cells, systems, etc., and their functions.  I know that in anthropology there is still reference to the various aspects or institutions of cultures and their function or role in the lives of those cultures.  In fact, in sociology, that is also true.  Most introductory texts break up society into parts, education, religion, family, economy, polity, art, etc., and the role they play together to keep a society functioning properly or in equilibrium, which is the ideal social state according to sociological functionalists and other scientists too for that matter.

 

There is some validity to the structural-functionalist perspective, but it’s limited.  The perspective has been overwhelmed by much more relativistic perspectives such as the so-called interactionist perspectives but I’ll explore that some other day.  It’s certainly true that human bodies have organs and they function more or less well.  Emile Durkheim (1858 to 1917) actually referred to sociology as social pathology or the study of what goes wrong with societies or how they get out of kilter.  He also referred to sociology as the study of morality but I’ll also leave that for another day.  The point here is that in sociology a major perspective sees society as being composed of parts, which serve a function more or less effectively.   The family is supposed to serve the function of socializing children and providing a warm, emotionally supportive environment in which children grow up.  Religion is supposed to look after our spiritual needs.  Education has the task of preparing each generation of people to undertake their adult roles.  The economy is supposed to take care of our biological needs for food and other material things we need to live in a particular society at a particular time.  If all the parts of society are doing their job, everything is cool and society is working as it should.  Of course, I wrote earlier that this perspective has limitations and it does.  One of the main limitations is that it treats society as an organism that stands by itself and is, in a sense, sui generis (self generated).  I’m being somewhat unfair to functionalism, but not essentially.  But that’s not the only problem with functionalism.  It wants society to be balanced, but it often isn’t and some institutions or parts of society don’t always do what they’re supposed to do in the way that they’re supposed to.  Robert K. Merton understood that and came up with the idea that some things like families are sometimes dysfunctional and the task of the sociologist is to show how things can be put right again.  Well, today I want to look at dysfunction in ‘the economy.’

 

First, I want to be clear that I’m not a functionalist in the least but that doesn’t prevent me from writing about ‘society’ from that perspective.  It’s a simplistic perspective because it’s basically ahistorical, but for the moment just pretend that you’ve gone into your doctor’s office and she’s trying to figure out what’s ‘wrong’ with you.  Pretend that you’re a doctor of society trying to figure out what’s ‘wrong’ with your society.  What criteria would you use to determine whether your society is ok or not?  This is not a rhetorical question.  I’m interested in your answer.  Write a comment.