The Rhetoric of Values
by Jan Baughman

I am ruminating over the meaning of family values. When various parties and religious groups use this slogan, they undoubtedly use it differently. So I consulted Webster's dictionary. Of course, this terminology has not been officially adopted as of yet, so I took apart the phrase.

Family: 1. parents and their children, whether dwelling together or not. 2. the children of one person or one couple collectively. 3. the spouse and children of one person. 4. any group of persons closely related by blood. 5. all those persons considered as descendants of a common progenitor. 6. approved lineage, esp. noble, titled, famous, or wealthy ancestry. 7. a group of persons who form a household under one head, including parents, children, servants, etc.

I share a house and a life with a person of the opposite sex, to whom I am not married nor of a common progenitor. I do fit the first definition; that is, I have parents with whom I do not dwell. Definition 7 comes close to my present situation, but there is not one head under which I live (but for that of the gargoyle on the roof of the house). There was one definition I could identify with:

12. (math.) a given class of solutions of the same basic equation, differing from one another only by the different values assigned to the constants in the equation.

And there appeared the word "values."

Values: I'll skip the monetary definitions to ..... 10. (sociol.) the ideals, customs, institutions, etc., of a society toward which the people of the group have an affective regard. These values may be positive, as cleanliness, freedom, education, etc., or negative, as cruelty, crime, or blasphemy.

So one can conclude that family is relative and values are only pertinent to the group from which they originate. The Democratic, the Republican, the liberal, the conservative, the Christian Right, the atheist, all bring their own definition of family values that they impose on society; society as a whole cannot impose one all-encompassing definition on each group. However; for the sake of continuing this little analysis, I will proceed on the assumption that the objective behind the various groups' use of the phrase "family values" is to relate to the manner in which children are raised. From this center, one can impose "values" such as the number, religious affiliation and sexual orientation of the parents to project what is best for the child; yet, immediately, the focus on the child is lost.

If we value children, that is to say, believe in their worth as human beings and accept their reliance on us to take care of them, their worth should be independent of values. A child is a child, regardless of the attributes of their parents over which they have no control: ethnicity, income, citizenship or lack thereof. Yet, the same groups that promote "family values" vote to cut education and health care to children of illegal immigrants; accept a medical system that denies prenatal care to the impoverished and is therefore burdened by the short and long-term consequences of high-risk pregnancies; and they turn their backs to the quality of education in this country (see Swans' article of September 19 by Gilles d'Aymery).

So-called "pro-life" groups fight for the rights of the voiceless "pre-born;" yet, their commitment to the well-being of these children does not extend beyond ensuring their birth. There was a recent case in England in which a poor woman pregnant with twins sought to abort one of the fetuses because she could not afford to raise two children properly. Many found this appalling; yet how can we condemn her difficult decision in the face of the circumstances in which we allow her to live? Her action was instinctual and not unlike that of animals in the wild who reduce the size of their litters in times of environmental hardship. Perhaps her decision was the ultimate expression of family values. And perhaps, as individuals, we should take a hard look at whether we would accept to live the reality of those we impose our values on. In the meantime, we should not accept the political rhetoric behind a phrase whose meaning is unsubstantiated and ambiguous, at best.

Published October 02, 1996
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