Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Family Proclamation in a Consumer Society

Thanks to everyone for joining us for this two-week celebration of The Family: A Proclamation to the World!  We hope that you have enjoyed the posts that have been presented this year, and that it has helped you to gain a better testimony of the importance of family and of this inspired document.  

Please welcome our final post in this year's series from James Goldberg of Mormon Midrashim:

“The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.”
-Psalms 19:7

Is Fidelity Obsolete in a Take-Out World?

I recently read an article entitled “The secret to happiness? An enduring marriage and an affair with lots of sex.” In the piece, British sociologist Catherine Hakim argues that in our sophisticated, modern society stable marriage and serial infidelity should not be considered incompatible. “Sex,” says Hakim, “is no more a moral issue than eating a good meal.” She says that since we’re comfortable sometimes eating at home with a spouse and sometimes eating out “to sample different cuisines and ambiences, with friends or colleagues,” we should be willing to fulfill our sexual appetites sometimes here and sometimes there—and should shed old moralities that fail to account for the importance of “sex as a leisure activity in consumer society.”

I don’t think I have to tell you that Hakim’s “secret to happiness” is a disaster (and one more fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that “the wisdom of the wise will perish”). You don’t have to be an expert to know that one relationship grounded in trust, fidelity, and shared problem-solving is worth far more than all the fleeting romantic adventures a person could find. But I think her piece helps shed light on the basic assumptions many idiotic conclusions today rest on. And for that, it deserves our attention.

Here’s where I think Hakim goes wrong: she correctly states that we live in a consumer society, where people treat goods, services, and perhaps also spouses as disposable. But she incorrectly assumes that’s a good thing, and that we should re-align our moral systems to reflect a consumer way of life.

After all, consumer values of convenience and flexibility (as opposed to commitment and durability) are neither sustainable nor ultimately satisfying. We would save fuel and materials if we bought more things to keep and take care of and fewer to use up, discard, and replace. And we would be happier if we focused on taking care of the people around us instead of focusing on what we can get out of them. We would benefit environmentally, socially, and spiritually if we rebuilt our society around caring rather than convenience—but it will be difficult to do so, because such a trade-off is as counter-culture today as they come.

If there’s hope to be found, it starts in the family.

Because it’s a sad family story that gave rise to our empty consumer values in the first place.

A Brief History of Our Throw-Away Mentality

My grandpa grew up on a farm in rural Punjab in the 1930s and ‘40s. The only manufactured goods in his family’s home were probably things like the wrought iron gate and the cloth their clothes were made of. My grandma grew up in Mexico and the western United States at the same time. She remembers an icebox, coal lamps, and even a gas-powered washing machine her mother used during the war years, but she didn’t live in a house with running water until she was almost an adult.

In their families’ cultural worlds, domestic work was highly valued. Neither women nor men had much free time, or freedom in the contemporary sense, but everyone knew the success and survival of the family depended on their contributions. And they knew they couldn’t afford to waste what few resources they had. There may not have been many luxuries, but there was a certain balance.

In the United States, the 1940s and ‘50s disrupted that balance. In the early ‘40s, many men went off to war, and many women supported the country by working in weapons factories. Their efforts paid off—the United States and its allies won the bloodiest conflict in history. When the men came back, women left their jobs to create employment opportunities for the men in those same factories, which were largely converted from producing weapons into producing goods that went into people’s homes.

At the time, people noticed and enjoyed a huge boom in economic innovation and production. Dishwashing and clothes drying machines, once limited largely to restaurants and hotels, became common in average homes. Canned foods, which had a long military history, began to catch on at the family dinner table. Leisure time increased for both men and women, and factory-produced television sets rose to meet the new need.

What people don’t seem to have consciously noticed or mourned at the time is how all this sudden factory involvement in the home affected the cultural value of domestic work. Because factory work had won the war and increased the comfort-level of home life, work away from home began to be seen as more valuable and important. Women who had felt the high of patriotic approval when they first worked in those factories may have missed the prestige—especially since average men could, for the first time in history, get away with asking average women what they had done all day, as if there were any doubt they’d been hard at work.

The declining cultural esteem for domestic work and the rising esteem for out-of-the-home work and leisure activities put women in an increasingly difficult situation of disrespect and alienation. And so, in the 1960s and ‘70s, many of them pushed for escape.

1960s and ‘70s feminists seem to have accepted the ‘40s and ‘50s notion that real progress and respect came through work outside the home, and determined to gain greater equality by increasing their access to that world. And who can blame them? Gradually, and against significant resistance, they secured a place for their gender in the sphere our society associated with prosperity and success.

But that transition came at a cost. We failed to understand that machines can reduce the amount of work humans do, but never eliminate the need for human care and attention—especially in the domestic sphere. Many women felt their energy and attention stretched to a breaking point as they struggled to be full contributors on both domestic and commercial fronts.

Eventually, something had to give. And in the 1980s and ‘90s, it was usually domestic work. Men and women built increasingly career-focused lives, and our broad attitude about domestic work was to minimize it through technology and trade. Processed food and even fast food became more and more prominent in our diets. The amount of time children spent being raised by machines increased drastically. Our consumer culture was firmly established.

In the 2000s and 2010s, the consensus that dual-income households are ideal remains strong. But the evidence is mounting that our society’s disregard for the domestic has made the society unstable. All our production of machine after machine is certainly polluting our air and there’s good evidence it’s begun to change the weather of the entire planet. With parents too busy to plan meals effectively and home-making skills still undervalued, Americans are throwing away an estimated 40% of their food, with significant economic and environmental costs. Studies suggest that lost family meal time is damaging the confidence and impulse control children need. And because parents often have more money than time, many children are being taught that most things can be replaced but not being taught effectively how to take care of things that are supposed to last. We’re in a positive feedback loop: the more we put our priorities around the marketplace rather than the home, the more the marketplace distorts the next generation’s priorities. The worse our consumer culture gets, the worse it is likely to become.

We are suffering from an increasingly urgent crisis of domesticity. And unless people can begin to take more interest in the role of adults as stewards in the home and family, we are going to over-produce and under-socialize our society into oblivion.

Mothers and Fathers for the 21st Century

People who are still caught in 1940s-‘50s attitudes about the value of domestic work often criticize “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” for its emphasis on the home and its advice in favor of older-sounding gender roles. These critics assume the Proclamation is trying to keep women out of the truly important work of inventing technologies and policies to solve our world’s problems. What a waste, they argue, if women are encouraged to focus on domestic work instead.

Criticism like this misses two key points:

1) The Proclamation serves to refocus both genders on the home. It doesn’t tell men to find meaning in their careers—it tells them to provide enough to support the family and to prioritize their responsibilities as fathers.

2) Most domestic work is far more helpful to society than most out-of-the-home work. This is particularly easy to see when you consider that many successful companies, like Coca-Cola, are built around products which appeal to people but do them more long-term harm than good. But even more useful out-of-the-home work rarely improves society as much as something as simple as cooking at home does.

By focusing both genders on home life, the Proclamation offers us a guide for building the sorts of families that can turn around a self-destructive consumer culture.

Proclamation-minded parents can:

-Turn around our food supply. By eating at home more and out less, Proclamation-minded parents can reduce packaging waste and fuel consumption while increasing health. By organizing their households well, they can avoid throwing so much uneaten food away. By supplementing groceries with garden produce, they can keep valuable skills alive and build local food values back into our culture. By sharing meal times, they can raise more grounded and confident children.

-Bring back durability as a value. Few companies are in the business of making durable products these days partly because few consumers expect it. We expect to use things up. We expect to throw things away rather than mending or fixing them. And as long as people stay focused on their work lives, that’s unlikely to change. But if parents can turn back toward the home, insist on better products, and take good care of them, we may see quality and durability rise and negative environmental impact fall.

-Make real neighborhoods possible again. People whose lives revolve around their workplace can easily begin to treat their houses as glorified hotel rooms. And while a hotel hallway can be a nice, quiet place to stay, you wouldn’t call it a neighborhood. As parents focus on their homes, their attention will also be closer to their neighborhood. And for children in particular, having neighborhoods with caring, attentive adults is far better than having empty streets because everyone is off doing work they think is important.

-Raise relationship-oriented children. Many modern parents emphasize success to their children. Others allow the media to socialize their children, largely into valuing consumption and self-satisfaction. But parents whose main priority is home life can help show their children the importance of relationships and can raise children who want to contribute more than they want to compete, and who want what is good for them and others rather than what simply feels good in the moment. And it’s children like these who can help turn the next generation around, and find a new kind of harmony for the society they help build.

Adapting to Individual Circumstance

Not everyone, of course, can immediately quit their job and focus on life at home. In some families, it may be necessary for both parents to work outside the home. In most families, the mother is better equipped with the complex skill set she’ll needs as she focuses full-time on the household and children, but in some families circumstances lead to a reversal of gender roles.

There’s nothing wrong with this, as long as we give full respect to work that contributes directly toward the home. We shouldn’t be considering who has the best career outlook, so much as how to arrange for the necessity of work in a way that focuses the maximum attention on family and home. The Family Proclamation can serve as beginning point by defining default obligations, and couples can move from those obligations with joint cooperation when needed.

But whatever our situation, whether of a mother at home and a family-focused father who works elsewhere to help provide or of a husband and wife still completing formal education and without children yet, there will be benefits for us and the society around us if we pay more attention to the simple decisions we make about and in our homes.

And if we follow the counsel of prophets in doing so, I believe we’ll be able to combat a consumer culture that threatens our spiritual health, our interpersonal relationships, and even the water we drink and the air we breathe.

Let’s work to build the kind of homes and families that can give us a better world.

James Goldberg is a celebrated "Caucajewmexdian" playwright and essayist, winner of a 1999 best-of-nine chess series with his little brother, pretty good cook, painfully slow dish-washer and shoe-tie-er, and a more or less decent human being.  

Check out more of James Goldberg's take on the world at his blog Mormon Midrashim...and read more about his new book 
"The Five Books of Jesus."

Be sure to check out today's other insightful posts about the Family Proclamation on the following blogs:

  Middle-agedMormonMan  diapersanddivinity


  1. interesting think we would learn from the past!

  2. Excellent article. Love this perspective.

  3. James, this was fantastic. In fact, you've inspired me to make some subtle, yet very important changes. Thank you!

  4. I love the fact that you just put my beliefs so eloquently in a way that I couldn't figure out to say. We would do well to listen to your advice.

  5. A truly wonderfully written article and one that touches on many point my husband and I often discuss. Feminism didn't bring women equality as much as, in some ways, it diminished the already valuable work they were doing.

    1. I agree that 1970s feminism did a poor job valuing the domestic. But I think it's unfair to blame that generation of feminists: the devaluing was already well underway; they were just reacting to a real problem with less-than-optimal solutions.

    2. I love how you are so fair and understanding of all sides.

  6. I often feel the pull of 'failing' because I do not work outside our home and am not the 'culturally' appropriate family situation. This article was such an inspiration and confirmation that our family is focused in the right direction (and we can always improve!). Thank you soo much! This was wonderfully written!

  7. Wish I could just memorize this whole post! Thank you so much for your articulate defense of domestic work, for reminding us all of it's importance and that human caring...the true work of parents...cannot be replaced by work or money or machines!

    I can now much more clearly see how the work of mothers and women came to be so under-appreciated, when it was once revered.

    I love this too: "as long as we give full respect to work that contributes directly toward the home." Both my husband and I try to respect "the work that contributes directly to our home," but your post gives us more inspiration to do so! Thanks again!

  8. I love the #1 and #2 key points. I don't think I had thought about them in this context before, and appreciate the insight. Thanks.

  9. Thank you James!!! It was like reading my Family Science texts from so long ago. It is very sad to me that as a society we have bought into the idea that work outside the home is more important/valuable/prestigious etc.... I am so grateful the prophets and most of our hearts tell us otherwise. Thanks for the reminder and historical lessons for perspective! Good job!

  10. It is so very sad to me that the article mentioned in the first paragraph even exists. Our homes are the most important place for each of us and I hope I can instill that in the lives of my children as they grow up. Thanks for the thought provoking post.

  11. I love this and couldn't agree more. It is interesting to note that there is a counter-revolution of people who are working less, living simply, and making and cooking things themselves, who are not even religious, just deeply dissatisfied with our throw away culture. I read something interesting once (i wish i could remember where) that talked about how housewives became dissatisfied with their lot in life partly because instead of making and working and creating things their job description slowly changed to "shopper". Shopping is very empty and hollow and unsatisfactory compared to creating your home using your skills and your intelligence and resourcefulness. This is also about the same time that depression started to be seen more and more. Now that I write this I remember I got this from the book, "Radical Homemakers": a great book.

    The other interesting thing to note is that had we spent the last 70 years using our country's vast intelligence and science and skills, etc, working toward making out-of-home-work more efficient and home-friendly I think our world would be vastly different. Fathers could be home more, and full-time would be much less than 40 hours a week and it would definitely not take 2 incomes to raise 2 kids. It is very sad that we chose to direct our energies toward consumption instead of the family and the home. sorry if I'm carrying on too long! I just love a good intelligent post like this one! It makes me think!

  12. What a wonderful post. Thanks so much for sharing your insights on the family. I agree!

  13. I can tell this took time and effort to write; it is so thorough and RIGHT! Thank you so much for taking the time! :D