Thursday, January 08, 2009

On Our Culture

The discussion here has got me thinking (for real!), and I figured I should get those thoughts down before they escape my sieve-like mind.

One of the things that really bugs me is when conservatives claim, with no evidence, that "liberals" are comfortable with various elements of our culture - from teenage sexual behavior to the general moral nihilism of much of our popular cultural products - when, speaking only for myself (which is all any of us can do), I am not. In order to be clear, I will deal with the latter first, then move on to the former and related topics.

I make the point in comments that we have not had cable or satellite service in our house for years, and quite deliberately. With the explosion of Hannah Montana, High School Musical, and other televised commercials aimed at girls my older daughter's age, I can only cheer this decision ever louder each day. In fact, though, we stopped for a couple reasons. First, we found that we were paying through the nose for something we did not use. We avoided "sitcoms" because all the jokes centered on sex, in the crudest, most vulgar way. We didn't watch because we didn't want our children exposed to it. Dramas, for the most part, lacked that particular quality. Our kids spend their time reading, using their imaginations, and enjoying a wider variety of things life has to offer because the boob-tube isn't there to sap their energy and their brain cells.

More generally, I think our culture is full of tricks and traps, not just for children, but for anyone not wary enough to avoid them. I do not know, and do not think it possible to determine with anything like accuracy, whether or not people are having more sex and at a younger age, than in previous generations. I remember quite well when I was in Junior High and HS there were those who did, and it was not something we thought was a good idea. I can't remember if folks were ostracized for it, but I do know most of the talk was that people who engaged in such practices were not so much "bad" as they were pretty stupid. By the time I was a Junior and Senior in HS, that had changed slightly, because, of course, all HS students know how adult and sophisticated they are, but there is a vast difference between a sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen year old and a thirteen and fourteen year old, too. How we deal with it as a society, however, is a difficult question, fraught with all sorts of problems. I don't know of any parent who cares little for the behavior of his or her children; I do know that many parents, trapped by the need for multiple jobs just to keep from drowning financially, plus the various pressures of life in general, sometimes feel incapable of dealing with their children, which doesn't make them bad parents. It only makes them emotionally and physically drained and frazzled. That a child, looking for a way to act out, can use this to his or her advantage is something everyone knows, but no one, as yet, has a cure for.

The difference between the kind of response to our various cultural and social ills we see from liberals and conservatives is not so much either acceptance or at least tolerance on the part of liberals with a more traditional refusal on the part of conservatives. Rather, the difference lies in how we understand these problems, and how we approach dealing with them. In the linked post, Marshall posts and update on the state of MS and some of its troubles. I do not think one can place "culture" on the list of reasons for Mississippi's woes. There are issues of racism, poverty, the malign neglect of the underclass in order to do things like build casinos and give handouts to the wealthy who lost coastal homes in Katrina, rather than do what is necessary to support young people and working families that are far more important than some kind of general cultural acceptance of bad behavior. Dealing with these might be far more productive in terms of reducing social deviance, or alleged social deviance, than passing all sorts of laws, or creating a general social atmosphere, in which there is a re-emergence of social and cultural backlash against moral turpitude.

I think a fine example of this is how the question of "abstinence-only" sex education is discussed, at least in my own experience. Because I see and read about studies that show it not only ineffective but actually counter-productive to its stated goals, one might consider developing a curriculum based on comprehensive education, including information on conception control, but that would also include information on abstinence as well, perhaps with the addition of creating support networks for those who might wish to make such a commitment, after receiving enough information and doing so willingly. In other words, it isn't that we liberals, or at least this liberal, is against abstinence. It is the whole "only" addition, and the way it is used - poor and even incorrect information, a refusal to put abstinence in a larger developmental context, social context, etc. - that is the issue. Precisely because the curriculum as currently formulated is not only inaccurate, but does not work, it might be thought wise to do something that might work. Yet, we are accused, inaccurately and often screechily, of promoting underage sexual activity when nothing could be further from the truth. There is no guarantee that comprehensive sex ed would be more effective, and the first line of defense is always the home - in this as in pretty much everything else - but it seems to me since we have tried something that is a demonstrable failure, it might be socially responsible to try something that many people think would work.

For the sake of emphasis, I think it is important to repeat that moral instruction begins not in school, or in peer groups, but in the home. There is absolutely nothing society in general can do to enforce proper moral instruction in the home. We can encourage families to come to church, synagogue, or mosque, and that children receive religious instruction, although that really doesn't have a bearing, in the long run, as a general rule, on how kids and adults turn out. We can be attentive parents, open to discussing and especially listening to our kids when they have problems or questions. I just don't know how effective social coercion, or worse, legal coercion, would work to deal with certain social ills, if for no other reason than they have failed in the past to be effective, so it might be thought wise to avoid such failures in the future.

How we bring up the next generation of young people, in the end, is something each family has to address in its own way. We can support one another, commiserate with one another, but I just don't see where creating new structures of social or legal remonstrance would deal with underlying socio-economic conditions on the one hand, or the reality that there are personal, biological, and peer issues that cannot be dealt with through simple ostracism or worse. These are not easy issues, and I do not believe there can be easy solutions for them.

Virtual Tin Cup

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