December 5, 2002 (Ira Pilgrim)

Family Values

All happy families resemble one another; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)

When you hear people talk about the disintegration of the family and the need for family values, it immediately strikes a chord. That is because when you think of family, you usually think either of your own family, or of some imagined family that you would have liked to have been brought up in. The word associated with this is "happy." And we all would like to have been happy and to always be happy. Consequently a return to family values is what we all want. We fill in the blanks with what we want to fill the blanks with.

I think that everyone would agree on the goals of a family. It would be a unit whose members care for one another, and who watch out for their mutual welfare. There would be a good deal of love, laughter (with the exception of a few dour Christian sects), feasts and general good feelings. The children would be protected by the whole family from disasters brought about by the death or disability of one or both parents. There would be ample mutual support, which is the basis for almost all cultures. That is the ideal which is attained by some, and for others for a brief period of time.

There are as many different styles of family life as there are cultures and subcultures. Let me describe a few and you tell me whether these are the family values that you would like to permeate the world.

The European Jewish culture has very close family ties. It is based, to some extent, on a fear of persecution and a strong fear of strangers. The father is the boss of the family and his word is law. In most cases, he is a benevolent despot. The mother is the keeper of the house and cares for the children. As with their parents, the children's marriages are arranged, often when the children are young. How well this works depends on who you ask. Suffice to say that a large percentage of American Jews have abandoned this culture, either for other cultures which seem rosier, or for highly modified Jewish sects, one of which is almost indistinguishable from the Unitarians or the liberal Quakers.

There are cultures where sex is taboo before marriage. In others, attitudes about sex are more casual and a marriage takes place when the bride is pregnant. In some cultures the bride and groom go off to live by themselves, in some they live with one set of parents, and in some the entire family stays together. Just about any possible system that you can think of exists somewhere in the world. Most work fairly well, but of course most people will tell you that the system that they were brought up in is the best of all.

Some of the people who are talking about returning to family values are talking about Christian values. I have been unable to find out what Christian values are because every Christian I know either has, or practices, a different set of values. In the British Isles, which is a Christian nation, the practices are different in different regions and different in the various Christian sub-religions. Within different economic classes, customs can be as radically different as between different religions or nationalities.

Consider some of the following practices, which are considered as the cornerstones of some cultures. Would you like those values to be intrinsic to your family?

Surgical amputation of the covering of the penis. In some cultures it is done in infancy and in some at puberty.

Surgical amputation of the entire clitoris of females.

Forbidding sexual contact during a woman's menstrual period.

Sewing shut the vagina of women.

A man is permitted to kill his wife and/or children if he wishes.

In divorce, the children belong to the father.

In divorce, the children belong to the mother.

These are only a few of many customs which are fully accepted in some cultures. They are viewed by other cultures with the same disgust as the English view French culinary customs, and the same disgust that the French view English food.

So, when those who talk about family values define what they means by family values, I'll be glad to tell them whether I agree that they are sound values, or not.

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