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Real Family Values January 3, 2008

Posted by Dwight and Lynn Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Political Philosophy.
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As the election season begins, we are likely to hear a lot about family values from the Republicans, which usually means preventing gays and lesbians from forming them.

Throughout much of Europe, “family values”  means actually helping families flourish.

Ingrid Robeyns at Crooked Timber has an interesting discussion of paid family leave for fathers.

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1. Moriae - January 5, 2008

There seems to be a curiously repetitive phenomena in this blog that anything we can associate with being “republican” we also connect with something objectionable and laughable. I’d like to think too, out of simple fairness, that there are also liberal positions that are ojectionable and equally risible. It would seem that in the idea proffered here (gay families), that one critical reason a philosopher might note quickly is that these people object to “gay families” because they refuse to regard them as “families” at all in any ordinary use of that term today. Should they be faulted for that?

For instance, if you were told to be on the look-out for a “family” coming over to visit you, please, in all honesty, even granted you might be “liberal,” how likely would it be that you would think of two grown men holding hands with a three year old approaching you as “prime candidates” for being that very family? I have no doubt that thinking that way might very well be the case sometime in the future, but trying to be as honest as possible about it now, I don’t think it has even happened yet in California. And it it hasn’t occured here as yet, why would we be so quick to fault “conservative” people in Kansas or Tennessee for not accepting such an idea either? I can think of lots of things to fault conservative people for, but the use of specious objections against these people is unfair when one’s own ilk is liable to the same putative flaws.

Obviously the terms we use in current ordinary settings really do change over time. But if you come from an area where this change hasn’t happened as yet, to what real extent can they be faulted for accepting a condition that really is a commonplace in their environment? Aren’t liberals noteworthy for making these very same kinds of excuses for people and cultures they DO like? So if it is ok to defend, or pretend to not see, certain cultural behaviors (such as the many ‘honor’ killings in Britain monthly) from people who you wish to have no emnity with, why pick on people (who admittedly don’t know better too) who have notions much less lethal, and are also your fellow citizens? I don’t get it.

Is it simply because ‘republicans’ make such easy strawmen as long as your audience is completely liberal? We tolerate insults to ‘conservative’ tastes daily–and here we seem to invite it.

Does anyone remember the New York Modern Art show of about ten years ago, where they had exhibits of the Virgin Mary made in dung, and a crucifix in a jar of urine? Obviously it was free speech, but it seems clear that ‘liberals’ have their own personal limits on that as well. It seems (I think to many) that as long as an expression denigrates a position liberals don’t personally like, they’ll eagerly show up to defend it. Yet what would ‘liberals say if a show opened at that very same museum with a Koran in a jar of urine?

Any honesty about this would clearly suggest that we would instantly be inveighed with appeals for “sensitivities’ for the people (or culture) feeling offended by such spectacles (we saw this with the Danish cartoons too, remember?). It seems that ‘liberals’ (in general) simply specialize in picking on people who can’t, or people who won’t fight back, and conversely curry favor with people inclined to unthinkingly strike back. I understand why that position is the safer one to accept, but I see no honor in it.

2. Moriae - January 6, 2008

I don’t wish to be taken for one to spot flaws in foreigners, but not in my own neighborhood. Britain certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on ‘honor killings.’

Please check out the case Yaser Abdel Said who found his ‘honor’ in killing his two daughters in Lewisville, Texas this past Tuesday. It seems that Mr. Said’s late teenage daughters had the unexampled gall to enjoy dating. After being shot and looking for help on New Years Day one of the daughters tried to phone in her location through 911 but didn’t know where she was in her dad’s taxi. She subsequently died.

No doubt we’ll have to investigate Mr. Said’s culture first to see if such shootings are consistent with Islamic New Year’s festivities. So it seems we’ll be expected to withold any judgements about Mr. Said for many years until we’ve had sufficient time to read more books about Islam. Happy New Year folks!

3. Dwight Furrow - January 7, 2008

Moriae,

The derision I “repetitively” express toward conservative ideas is not curious–it is richly deserved. In a blog post, I have no obligation to be “fair” toward ideas I find ridiculous. I have disagreements with some liberal positions as well, but because liberals have been out of power for about 40 years I don’t feel compelled to air them constantly.

It may be that gay families are not typical or familiar to many people but that is not a reason to engage in a concerted effort to legally prohibit gay marriage. The issue is not what counts as a typical family or how we use the word “family”; the issue is whether persons should be denied an important civil right. Since there are no compelling arguments against gay marriage, their prohibition is product of bigotry or thoughtlessness and I see no reason why such attitudes should not be criticized.

Your attempt to draw some sort of parallel with attitudes towards honor killings is just more conservative demagoguery. Can you name one liberal (who deserves the title) who supports honor killing in the name of cultural sensitivity? Honor killing is reprehensible regardless of cultural traditions and I know of no liberal who would disgree. There are extreme cultural relativists on both the right and the left but nothing about liberalism requires such a view.

The issue of cultural sensitivity toward artistic expression raises different issues since the harm is of a different order. Most liberals support artistic expression regardless of who it offends. When they don’t it is either for pragmatic reasons (why piss off someone if you don’t have to) or because issues of inequality are important.

When Western artists offend the sensibilities of some Christians, they are attacking culturally dominant symbols that have real power over peoples lives and need to be challenged. When Western artists offend the sensibilities of minority groups they are kicking people who are already marginalized, who lack social and economic power, who are already victimized. Perhaps their ideas ought to be challenged as well, but the inequality is an important factor to consider.

That is an essential difference between liberalism and conservatism. Liberals take inequality seriously as a moral issue. Conservatives don’t. I prefer to err on the side of free expression but there is disagreement about that among liberals.

The idea that Christians do not push back when their symbols are attacked is utterly without foundation. The “push back” regarding “Piss Christ” was enormous, well funded, and largely successful.

4. Moriae - January 7, 2008

I’m sorry if I touched a nerve, but this response deserves a decent reply. Despite appearances, I really have tried to limit the scope and length of my ruminations. I will try to continue to do that. But this posting really needs a thoughtful response and I will try my best.

First, I might begin by saying that I was responding to several blog postings I’ve seen here, some very short. I wasn’t singling you out in particular. Yet there are certain difficulties here to address:

a. Is this blog for simply venting (be it fair or unfair)?
b. Or, is it what I was hoping it was: a vehicle for exchanging ideas, evidence, and sharing how these notions are being crunched (philosophically or otherwise) in the minds of those reading and trying to understand what others are saying?

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, understanding another is the hardest thing in the world even under the best of conditions. But if conditions are shifting, uncertain, and not done with an understanding that others will try their best to understand notions that may be either unknown or perhaps actually opposed, then we stand hopelessly in the face of others and their ideas.

This is where I picked up on Ms. Rosenstand’s mentioning of ‘ethics’ in regards to what happens on this blog. Obviously she had in mind those kinds of people that have no desire to really communicate or understand others, but rather exhibit only a kind of maliciousness that is indifferent to others. That is why I wrote that a certain attitude is crucial in blogs of this sort. Apriorism must simply be challenged anytime it seeks to monopolize the truth or the time of others.

I suppose the thing that troubles me most is the convenient and unquestioned Manichaeism animating many thoughts expressed here. Is the world simply a divide between the forces of ‘darkness’ (read: conservatives) and the forces of ‘light’ (liberals)? Is it really true that so many people are in the right and others are simply dead wrong? Are there no grounds for suspicions that it may be ourselves in the wrong (not meaning others are right because of that)? Here is why I use humor to notice such moriae in human use because I find it odd that people don’t look in their own mirrors first before they call out others for their own appearances. Certainity is our enemy and whenever I catch a whiff of it, it grabs my attention, but here I think I try to be a tad lighthearted about it for comsumption’s sake.

So let me deal with one strawman at a time here, and then I’ll draw this one to a close. Why this equating of Christians with Catholic views? Most Christians have no taste at all for the Virgin Mary because it plays no role at all in the iconology. Catholics protested in New York, but there was a dearth of other Christains present, not to speak of the ACLU or other liberals eagerly defending the rights of minorities. The conflation of the two falls into more incohence when one realizes how ‘liberal’ Catholics are in so many ways, even to the extent of opposing the Pope on many points of faith (abortion being just one item). Do we really want to forget that (down South) Catholics (Papists) were oppressed and strung up by the KKK with equal glee? So what makes them ‘conservative’ if they share ‘liberal’ notions on civil rights. divorce, and anti-war? Do you really think Catholics agree on even abortion? So why the conflating of the two? Is it simply the comforts of unreason rearing its head again?

It was put to me here: “Can you name one liberal (who deserves the title) . . .” Why the question begging definition? That’s heads you win, tails I lose. So what if I began naming examples contrary to the question begging definition you propose, then it seems they must not be liberals then? How convenient that the truth is always confirmed by definition. That’s one of the classic fallacies of logic. The alternative is obvious: one’s definition might be very inadequate. Is the desire to be right that strong that one rules out-of-hand in advance examples contrary to the position being maintained?

I hate to say this, and I’ve refrained for quite some time bringing this up, but in truth my own liberal bono fides go back a long way, and I’ve tried hard here not to use, mention or hint at it existence in this blog or in my own writings. I was with RFK on his last day in California in 68. But part of my experience of that day now leads me to oppose any presumed apriorism that tries to muscle opposing ideas with a trite wand of simply calling them ‘ridiculous.’ In that sort of milieu the only recourse for others (in their own mind) is seemingly fireams. I must confess that attitudes expressed above bother me more than gunfire, because I think gunfire is fairer. I’m sure there are more people ‘on target’ with bullets than they are with their opinions. I’ll bet on the bullets winning.

5. Dwight Furrow - January 8, 2008

Moriae,

Thank you for your thoughtful comment. (I mean that sincerely)

Regarding the purpose of a blog, the purpose is to invite discussion. Blogs are also good for venting and I don’t see why the two purposes are mutually exclusive. The medium does impose certain contraints–blog posts must be relatively short and written in a style in which the point can be immediately grasped. So blog posts are invariably glib. That can be an obstacle to understanding so part of the point of blog discussions is to hash out what the author is saying.

Regarding your substantive points, you accuse me of a Manichean approach to understanding political reality. I can assure you that I am typically not much enamored with Manichean views of anything. But after much study and thought I have come to the conclusion that politically our nation is deeply divided around two competing political/moral philosophies. [This is not an original thought–many conservatives, esp. Himmelfarb have argued this] And I think that conservatism is deeply wrong for fundamental reasons that have to do with the nature of moral authority. However, although the nation is divided regarding two philosophies, the empirical evidence shows that individuals don’t fall neatly into two camps. Individuals can be conservative on some issues and liberal on others. Nevertheless, when people are dipping into the conservative well of ideas, I think they are mistaken.

You accuse me of holding unquestioned views and of harboring a dangerous certainty about those views. I don’t know what your basis is for making such claims. My views have evolved over 20 years of research into the nature of moral authority and its role in politics (much of it has been published and more is on the way) and I have changed my mind about many things in those 20 years. Yes, I do state my views stongly because I believe they are correct. But I hold those views not because of a psychological need for certainty but because I can defend them. I quite agree with you that certainty is dangerous because it inhibits people from further inquiry. But cautions about certainty have to do with one’s willingness to give up a claim in the face of contrary evidence; not with the vigor of one’s assertion of those claims. Socrates and Nietzsche are well known for their cautions against dogmatism and certainty but both were unstinting in defending their views. (and no, I am not comparing myself to Socrates or Nietzsche.) I am not certain about anything. But all of us have to live and that means we have to make choices in the face of uncertainty, especially in the domains of ethics and politics.

When I asked “Can you name one liberal (who deserves the title)?” I was not offering a question begging defintion of liberalism. The word “liberal” means something (although its definition is contested and has evolved over the years) At a minimum, a liberal has a deep commitment to individual liberty. There are people who think of themselves as left-wing and who may call themselves liberals who are not because they don’t value individual liberty much. (Some, though not all, marxists come to mind) People who think cultural solidarity trumps liberty may defend honor killings but I see no reason to call them liberals.

Finally, I don’t understand your claim that I am conflating Catholicism and Protestantism. I am quite aware of the differences and quite aware of the diversity of opinion in both. On issues of gay marriage, abortion, sexual morality, and cultural expression conservatives of both denominations have formed an alliance. But that doesn’t entail that all Catholics or Protestants are conservative. And that doesn’t belie the Catholic commitment to economic justice that sometimes produces tension in this alliance. Again, “conservatism” represents a philosophy to me, it is not a rigid designator of a collection of individuals.

I am happy to know that you have some connection to liberalism and my derisive comments toward conservatism are intended to provoke, not insult. I guess I don’t think use of the word “ridiculous” is inclined to “muscle” anyone. But when I hear the same specious arguments over and over again I’m not sure what term I should use in a blog post, given the constraints of the medium noted above.

Usually (although perhaps I’m not careful enough about this) I refer to conservatism, not conservatives and I usually do not reference Republicans unless I am specifically refering to a political party rather than a doctrine.


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