For some time now, scholars across the academic world have focused their questions on the cause and nature of changes in family structure and its function. They have identified several events, such as industrialization, urbanization, science and technology, and mass media, as key factors in initiating these changes. With few exceptions, the transition from hunting to agriculture brought with it basic changes in the life-patterns of simple nomadic peoples throughout most of the world. The Industrial Revolution that began in England two hundred years ago, had the most profound effect on traditional farming families in the West. And in our own era, scientific and technological advances, along with the growth of mass media, have further changed North American family patterns.
Like the industrial and technological revolutions of the past, the sociocultural Revolution that characterizes the present post-modern era has altered the face of the “nuclear” or middle-class family. It was the cultural and social revolutions of the 1960s that brought profound and truly enduring changes in traditional societal values, and thus accelerated the “patriarchal nuclear” family’s demise, as described in both social sciences and feminist literature, touching on the very basis of our definition of self and others in the context of social and religious values. Even the concept and definition of motherhood has assumed three versions in the current sociological and feminist literature. We now have genetic or biological motherhood, uterine or surrogate motherhood, and social motherhood as in blended and reconstituted families.
Normative family definition and structures have come under intense scrutiny and criticism from modern and post-modern feminist schools of thought. Feminists claim that the low status of women within the family in different societies and cultures throughout recorded human history is due to a traditional “patriarchal” structure that reaffirms the concept as presented in religious texts (such as the Jewish Torah and the Christian Bible) that women, beginning with the archetypal “Eve,” were created as morally, spiritually, and intellectually inferior to men.
In her article “Oikos/Polis Conflict,” Kauser states that post-modern neo-Marxist, or gender feminists, believe that as long as the family is part of human society, women will not achieve equality, because all institutions, including motherhood, are politically based entities that serve to institutionalize male control over women and children. They also believe that the respective status and roles of men and women are constructed socially and are subject to change, and suggest that even heterosexuality is not natural, but is rather a social imposition. Similarly, homosexuality, lesbianism and all other non- marital sexual relationships are considered legitimate to this view of feminism.
Thus the gender feminist theory seeks to “deconstruct” the family as a natural unit, and reconstruct it as a social one. The logical consequences of this epistemology, based purely on social constructionism, will be to delegate parental responsibilities to the state and eliminate the natural social relationships between men and women. A specific consequence of this ideology will be to further weaken human bonds of kinship and interdependent relationships by promoting a narrow preoccupation with one’s own desires and wishes; this in turn will create purposeless human personalities.
On the other hand, in her article “Family and Democracy,” Berger argues that ” family is the culture-creating institution par excellence and incontestable argument can be made that the family, and not the individual of the economist’s paradigm, is the most basic building block on which all other social norms rest.” A wealth of data collected over the past thirty years supports the fact that a nuclear family consisting of a biological father and mother and their children living together, actively involved and emotionally supportive of each other, is still the child’s best guarantee for success in school, society, and ultimately, in adulthood.
The current conflict of family-versus-state is not a new phenomenon. Kauser points to its historical roots that run deep in Western philosophical thought and religious ideologies. “It originated from Greek misogyny and can be traced to the Oikos/Polis conflict. This conflict has been an inescapable phenomenon of Western society, particularly since the sixteenth century,” she writes. If the Western medieval period was characterized by ongoing conflict between pope and emperor, the post-modern era may rightly be described as one of conflict between family and state.
In 230 BCE, Plato’s Utopian state proposed to dissolve the private home and family so that women could achieve equality, and the state would assume total control over the collective mind, body and soul of its citizens. In this Utopian society “children of the highest type will be bread and reared by eugenic methods used in breeding domestic animals,” and the family would be replaced by the State, which would perform all the family’s former duties. “Having equal rights in education, politics, and economy, [women] must also be freed from the duties and obligations of rearing children,” Plato wrote. Women were to be given equality in all aspects of society, with one crucial exception — they could not be allowed to rule the state directly, but could assist rulers in managing the state’s affairs.
George Bernard Shaw once described the North American family as “an Augean stable, so filthy that it would seem more hopeful to burn it down than to attempt to sweep it out.” In this, he was not alone. Freud also believed that the family is nothing more than a repressive, undemocratic system in which physical, emotional, psychological and sexual abuse is sanctioned by its head, namely the father, or “the patriarch.” In Freud’s view, the root cause of emotional, psychosocial and behavioral problems lay in family dynamics; i.e., parent-child interaction, gender relationships, and society’s repressive religious and moral values.
Writing in “Civilization and its Discontent,” Freud concluded that as civilization develops, family ties and emotions must be sacrificed. His view of the human being was as a relatively isolated individual in conflict with frustrating others, driven by uncontrollable desires and raging aggression. He was very much influenced by Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection, in which the ethical, moral and rational human being of Renaissance and religious traditions became a mere ape. This “mere ape” evolved into its present physical form through genetically driven natural selection, with the single motivation of transmitting and preserving those genes, and without any knowledge of a moral self, or God-consciousness.
This, according to the evolutionary psychologists, as reported in Time Magazine (Aug. 1995), is a proof enough that a monogamous relationship, reflected in current conservative nostalgia for the nuclear family of the 1950s, is hardly a “natural” and healthful living arrangement, especially for wives. They also add that it is “natural” for both men and women to commit adultery because of the “animal in us.” They see in humanity nothing more than socialized chimpanzees, thus humanizing the ape and animalizing the human being.
Berger points out that nearly a century ago, Emile Durkheim argued that at its core every human society is a moral community. Conversely, he tried to show that in the absence of shared moral values, a society inevitably begins to disintegrate, because in the absence of moral consensus, coercion remains the only effective means to maintain social cohesion. However, such coercion cannot co-exist with democracy. Thus the family, today as always, remains the only social system in which a great majority of individuals learn as much as they can about morality and individual responsibility. This has a great significance for democracy, in which there is an ongoing need to maintain a healthy balance between the rights of individuals, and the needs of society.
In 1997, Samuel Huntington wrote his infamous “Clash of Civilizations.” I believe that if such a clash ever occurs, it will be one between different family systems and the ways in which they are able to integrate the properties of human nature — a moral self with God-consciousness, and human existence with the requirements of the post-modern world. Any society or civilization that ignores this fundamental reality does so at its own peril.
Mrs. Wahida C. Valiante is a family counselor and national vice-president of the Canadian Islamic Congress.