September 19th, 2006

ozarque figure

Models for family, from James Ault and Doug Muder...

I want to say just a few things here about Doug Muder's "Red Family, Blue Family: Making sense of the values issue," at ....

Like Doug Muder, I think George Lakoff's "Strict Father Family/Nurturant Parent Family" (SFF/NPF) dichotomy was a breakthrough for U.S. political discourse, giving people a rhetorical framework and vocabulary for talking more efficiently about a set of concepts that they hadn't been able to talk about efficiently before. I also think that although SFF/NPF was a necessary and important first step, it was flawed, and that one of its consequences was to get everybody stuck at that first step. That is the nature of metaphors -- to get human beings stuck; suddenly, for every U.S. political issue you want to examine, you're only able to examine it through the lens of SFF/NPF. Muder, using a 2004 book by James Ault as a springboard, has provided us with a way to get loose from SFF/NPF -- not a way to abandon it, but to step outside it and have an opportunity for a different perception. For James Ault, Muder says, the important distinction is not between "strictness" and "nurturance," but between "the Given and the Chosen." And, Muder says:

"With Ault's distinction in mind, I have constructed descriptions of the Inherited Obligation family and the Negotiated Commitment Family. Consider them not as replacements for Lakoff's Strict Father and Nurturant Parent family models, but as envelopes that contain them. Lakoff's two family types each exist inside a much wider context."

Muder's "Inherited Obligation" family model is the family composed of your relatives -- the family that has been given to you by accident of birth, without your having any choice in the matter; it brings with it a set of obligations that are associated with each of its relationships. That is, there are lifelong obligations you have just because you are the daughter of X, and the cousin of Y, and the sister of Z, and so on, no matter how inconvenient or unpleasant those obligations may be, even if you just plain detest X and Y and Z. His "Negotiated Commitment" family model is the family composed of those human beings you have freely chosen to make a commitment to; it also brings with it a set of obligations associated with each of the relationships it includes, but they may or may not be lifelong, and they are not just "the luck of the draw." That is, everybody has a Rock to lug up the hill of life, but there's a difference between being born with a Rock already on your back and having the opportunity to pick out your own Rock.

There are many things I like about Muder's proposed models. I appreciate the fact that they don't focus just on the parent/child relationship but offer a structure that makes room for all the family relationships. And I appreciate the new answers they offer to some questions that have puzzled me mightily. For just one example...

With the Lakoff models, the "Strict Father" family's opposition to the federal social safety net -- welfare, Medicare, food stamps, Medicaid, and so on -- just looks mean. Intellectually I understand that those for whom the Strict Father metaphor is dominant do not want other human beings to go hungry; intellectually I understand the thing about teaching people to fish instead of giving them a fish. But emotionally, I have a hard time not seeing cuts in food programs for little kids as simply mean.

With Muder's model, the Inherited Obligation family's opposition to that same social safety net is based on the fact that it's a grave threat to the network of mutual obligations. If adult children can count on Social Security and Medicare to look after their aged parents, they are likely not to feel that that's a Rock they have to carry up the hill personally. If grandparents can count on food stamps and subsidized housing and Medicaid -- and even government-subsidized foster care -- to meet the needs of their grandchildren, that ceases to be their Rock. They can spend their money to buy a nice RV and travel the country in it, having a good time, secure in the knowledge that the grandchildren won't starve. People confident of a secure social safety net may just up and abandon their "family obligations," and those obligations are the very core of the definition of the Inherited Obligation family. And for me, suddenly, their objections to the safety net no longer seem mean -- now I perceive them as self-defense, and as a defense against the destruction of the family itself. That gives me a very different, and very welcome, perspective on this particular issue. It removes the conflict between my intellectual perceptions and my emotional ones, and resolves the cognitive dissonance that was troubling me. Shazam!

Personally, I have a mixed model. I start from the Inherited Obligation model -- no question. [Which is no doubt why I went through such a rough period of culture shock when I first started this journal.] But now and then I add people to my family on the basis of free choice, and once I've done that they're family forever; I feel the same obligations to them that I feel to a relative, and I do my very best to meet those obligations. If members of my family fail (or just refuse) to meet their reciprocal obligations to me, so be it; that doesn't excuse me from my obligations toward them. There is an intellectual distinction for me between "kin" -- family members by birth -- and "family" -- family members by birth or by commitment; but there's no emotional distinction. I am as fiercely attached to my honorary grandchild as I am to my biological ones. And so on.

I'm grateful to James Ault and Doug Muder for fitting me with new glasses, a better hearing aid, and whatever the tactile equivalent might be -- for providing me with more efficient perceptual tools.