Different River

”You can never step in the same river twice.” –Heraclitus

July 14, 2005

Moral Minimalism and the Individually-Wrapped Family

Filed under: — Different River @ 3:17 pm

A self-described political progressive attempts to understand and explain American liberalism at the popular level, and I think does a good job.

I think that many political commentators misunderstand my generation. George Lakoff, Berkeley linguist, thinks that American Liberals are motivated by “nurturant parent morality”, based on the model of government as nurturant parent who lives in interdependent community with self-actualized, free-thinking children. … But I’m afraid that Rush Limbaugh and Pat Robertson are right on this one: my generation is pretty damn amoral. We aren’t motivated by “nurturant parent morality”–our parents didn’t nurture us, so how would we learn what a nurturant family was like, anyway? No, we were raised by TV and our peers. There is a third moral system in America, based on a third model of familiy life that is neither “strict father” nor “nurturant parent.” Let us call it the “Individually-Wrapped Family.” …

Our moral ethic is Moral Minimalism. One sociologist studied the moral life of suburban America, and she concluded that prosperous children are raised in a sparse, largely amoral universe. We learned that being a good person is about minding your own business, keeping your music down, and not depending on others in any way. Here’s what middle-class American families are like. We each have our own bedroom. Good siblings stay out of your bedroom, and you stay out of theirs. Good parents stay out of your hair, buy us what we want, and don’t try to impose their opinions on us. Sometimes our family goes out for some “quality time”, at a restaurant where everyone can order their own favorite dish. When we sweep back to our subdivision in our minivan, our garage door opens automatically and closes behind us, sealing us off from our neighbors before we even step out. …

Religion, for my generation, is something that you do to make you feel good. It’s something to scratch that little itch. Awww, right there. Ok, thanks, see you next week…if I feel like getting up on Sunday. If religion makes you feel good about yourself, than that’s cool. If religion interferes with your goals, or changes your goals, or otherwise makes you weird, than that’s not cool.

For my generation, faithfulness or celibacy is way weird. Why? Because denying any of your little urges is weird. We have a right to scratch every itch, and no one should interfere with your scratching. Promiscuity is not immoral for my generation. Celibacy is immoral. Why? Because good siblings stay out of each other’s bedrooms. And celibacy implies disapproval of OTHER people’s promiscuity, which makes you feel bad about yourself, which is wrong.

When liberals my age get riled up, it’s because they think those stupid fundamentalists are going to impose their morality on them. They don’t get nearly riled up that kids are going to bed hungry, or that there are over 2 million people incarcerated in this country. What makes us mad? Our siblings are trying to boss us around! They’re coming into our bedroom! Mom, tell Bobby to stay out of my room! Tell Bobby to stop bossing me around!

Please, read the whole thing.


(I know, this entire essay is based on generalization. And, I have been cautioned about overgeneralization. Of course, not ever liberal of tis generation is like that, and I’m sure few are exactly like that. However, there is truth there, and sometimes the best way to understand something is to generalize and simplify — as long as you remember all along that you are doing so, so you don’t take it too literally. Besides, the same person who cautioned me about generalization is the one who sent me this article, so it must be OK, right? ;-) )

3 Responses to “Moral Minimalism and the Individually-Wrapped Family”

  1. Rebekah Vandergriff Says:

    I read just short tittle ,and appreciate the verbage !!!!
    I believe that part of a nutrious diet includes excercise,and
    that if probably calculated,Most people on antidepressants are
    knocking on the wrong door!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. ollie Says:

    Way off of the mark. Liberalism is about making a social compact; we willingly pay more taxes
    so the EMT’s can get to you if you have a heart attack, or so that we can have reliable public
    transportation. We like to live where there are bike lanes and sidewalks, and we think thatit
    is worth it to have good public schools.

    True: we don’t want the religion of others imposed on us; many of us agree with the late Senator
    Goldwater on that issue!

  3. Different River Says:

    I love it! Liberals arguing over the definition of liberals, on a conservative blog. Now this is the sort of thing I like to see. (No, there is no sarcasm here!)

    Now, about what Ollie said: First, I think the original was speaking “pragmatically” and you are speaking “theoretically.” I don’t mean so say that one of those is more valid than another, just that they are different (see, a conservative can be non-judgemental when appropriate!). In other words, you are speaking of the theoretical ideal of liberalism, and she is speaking of how liberalism actualyl manifests itself in people who don’t put all that much effort into developing their political theories. From that standpoint, you could both be right and neither “way off.” If you are addressing different questions, you will come up with different answers.

    Having said that, I don’t think you’ve defined liberalism in a way that really differentiates it from conservatism. Conservatism does not say all taxes are evil, just that taxes should be as low as possible to serve the legitimate functions of government, and that by that standard they are currently too high. Conservatism also does not object to, say, EMT services, sidewalks, or bike lanes, as legitimate functions of government. I support all those things.

    You may be confusing conservatism with libertarianism, which proposes a much more restrictive definition of “legitimate functions of government.”

    As far as public schools and religion: Conservatives don’t want the religion (or non-religion) of others imposed on us any more than anybody else. And a lot of that imposing goes on in the public schools. Granted, it is imposing atheism or secularism rather that a “relgion,” but I don’t see how forcing all children to go to schools and then forcing atheism secularism on them is any more justifiably than forcing a traditional religion on them. (Not all public schools do this, but quite a few do. My public-school education included one required high-school course in which Catholicism was ridiculed as part of the curriculum, and another in which “equal time” was given to evolution and creation — but the account of creation was consistent with a religion other than my own. All of this is, in my view, inappropriate for a government school.)

    As for public transportation: Why, from a liberal point of view, should it be illegal for a private company to run busses, as opposed to a government-owned monopoly? It is illegal in most big cities. I’ve never understood why.

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