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The New Egalitarianism and the Death of Deference

Humanistic Judaism, Autumn 1984, Vol. XII, Number III

The family isn’t what it used to be. Almost every social commentator has noticed that fact. 

The traditional family was a survival and reproduction unit. It provided food, shelter and protection to every individual member. It also demanded work, cooperation and loyalty. Virtually all important social activities were encompassed by it. Education, entertainment, friendship, and religion were usually conducted within its walls. 

The structure of the traditional family was authoritarian; the male chauvinist father was the ruler and demanded obedience. If wives and children exercised power, they did so deviously, never openly admitting to the privileges they enjoyed. 

As a social reality, the family was universal. From England to China, from Norway to Timbuktu, in a world of pastoral nomads in agricultural villages, the family dominated. Outside the family, the individual had no real opportunities for survival and safety. 

Urban industrial society has changed all that. And it continues to undermine the foundations on which the traditional family rests. 

The urban environment deprives the family of its major functions. Work, leisure, education and entertainment all take place outside the home. The most efficient unit of labor in the industrial world is no longer the cumbersome extended family. It is the mobile individual free of ties to spouse and children. 

The urban environment also provides alternatives to family protection. The emergence of the welfare state, with its myriad agencies and clinics offers another way to deal with poverty and disease. When the family cannot or will not help, the government will. 

In the urban world, children have a negative economic value. Unlike farm children, who provide free labor to their parents (as well as old age security), city children are parasitic and costly. When they grow up, they leave home and are not readily available to take care of their aging parents. Instead of being a workplace and social center, the urban home is a dormitory, and disappointed parents discover that they are merely caretakers. 

In the urban world, education is no longer short and pragmatic. It is long and theoretical. The consequence of the new schooling is an increasing self – awareness, which questions traditional authority and heightens individual identity. 

In an advanced industrial society, the emphasis on work shifts to an emphasis on consumption.  Affluence breeds at consumer culture. Increased leisure affords the individual the time to think about personal satisfaction and personal happiness. Duty and responsibility become less important than discovering the requirements for self – fulfillment. 

The New Egalitarian 

The post-agricultural world undermines the old authoritarian structures and sponsors an environment of greater social equality. 

Money and education replace land and pedigree as the vehicles to success. For the ambitious, social climbing is easier than under the old system. Earning and learning are easier to arrange than having the right ancestors. 

Mobility gives people more options than ever before. If one boss is no longer satisfactory, another can be found. Where bosses are transient, they tend to be treated with less respect. 

Affluence rescues the majority from the struggle for survival and allows them time to pursue the good life. Leisure skills which were, at one time, confined to the small minority of the rich and powerful now become universal. The middle class replaces the lower class as the dominant chunk of contemporary society. The upper class struggles to keep its lifestyle one step ahead of the masses 

Family behavior patterns have changed.  Husbands and fathers are less authoritative. Wives and children are more assertive. 

Work opportunities for women reduce their dependence on their husbands and make them less deferent. Female liberation reflects female economic power. Women who are free to provide for themselves find husbands less intimidating.  

Science discredits the wisdom and the knowledge of the old. What is more vulnerable is no longer necessarily truer. In fact, new discoveries and new evidence may make the young wiser than their parents. Under these circumstances the authority of elders vanishes. 

The decline of religion in a secular age produces a decline in worshipful behavior. As displays of reverence to the gods fade away, so does reverent behavior toward human authorities. 

The anonymity of the big city removes the surveillance of familiars. The disapproval of strangers is not as effective in restraining provocative behavior as the disapproval of long-time neighbors. 

The consequence of all these changes is a change in family behavior patterns. Husbands and fathers present themselves in a less authoritative way. Wives and children have become more assertive.  

Personal autonomy is… an earned privilege. Children need parents who prepare them for responsibility.  

Under the traditional system, husbands and fathers strove to be intimidating. Wives and children were deferential. This difference was expressed in three ways. The first way was use of a special language of courteous appeasement. Lavish praise and gestures of subordination defined its style. The second way was obedience. The master’s commands were seen as legitimate and irresistible. No public challenge was appropriate. The third way was service. Subordinates expressed concern about the needs of the master and sought to satisfy them. In many ways, the behavior of wives and children was indistinguishable that of servants. 

To say the least, that sort of behavior is now a dim memory in egalitarian America. 

Egalitarian Behavior 

The most startling sign of the revolution in family life is the death of deference. Children now talk to parents and teachers in a way that would have earned them public execution only a few centuries ago 

The following scenes have become commonplace:  

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All this new behavior arouses ambivalent feelings in liberal parents. They are dismayed and humiliated by their loss of authority. But they find themselves prisoners of the fashionable new realities (often labeled “humanistic”) which justify this behavior. 

The new egalitarianism is supported by new doctrines that inhibit parents from behaving like effective authorities. The most important of these doctrines is the affirmation of personal autonomy. 

In its absolute form, the principle of personal autonomy guarantees each person the right to be the master of his own life.. All people are equal in authority. No one can justly dominate or control another. Nor, if he wished to retain his dignity, can he allow himself to be dominated or controlled. The right to command is replaced by the right to suggest. 

With such a doctrine, the old hierarchy collapses. Not only do wives no longer have the obligation to submit to the authority of their husbands, but children no longer have the duty to heed the commands of their parents. Children resist conformity to the expectations of their elders. Rebellion becomes an expected part of growing up and turning into a successful human being. 

Liberal parents who embrace the value of personal autonomy move from a posture of command to the more egalitarian one of discussion. The language of deference disappears. Reverence for authority would only impede the give and take of negotiation. 

Children’s autonomy takes up a lot of parents’ time. To keep the child from feeling intimidated and to reassure the child that they have no intention of trying to run his life, parents are compelled to use the language of appeasement. “I have my life and you have your life” is a familiar refrain. 

Not only parents, but also children, have a moral responsibility to strengthen the family.  

Since children see themselves as masters, and not as servants, they behave accordingly. Their mouths express their self-image. They view autonomy as a birthright and not as a privilege to be earned. Although they are financially dependent and even parasitic for increasingly longer periods of time, they see themselves as independent. Quickly learning the language of mastery, they use it to intimidate their bewildered parents. Many parents reverse roles and become servants of their assertive children-especially if they feel guilty about not enjoying parenthood. 

The line between childhood and adulthood, becomes very vague, except for one simple distinction: parents are the ones who have to pay. Children are the ones who never have to pay. 

With such tantalizing rewards for having children, is it any wonder that the birth rate among the educated is plummeting?  

More and more people (as surveys indicate) are regretting parenthood. They are finding their children less and less satisfying. Despite the enormous amounts of money they spend on their children (for which they can now expect no economic return in their old age), they do not even receive the small gift of respect. 

The death of deference poses a serious threat to the survival of advanced industrial societies. Mouthy, aggressive, parasitic children reduce the motivation for having children. Only the influx of young people from less sophisticated, traditional societies will ultimately prevent the new “autonomous” society from turning into an old folks home. 

Humanist Response 

As humanists, we have a vested interest in encouraging the educated to have children. Since no adequate alternative to the family has yet been devised for the production and rearing the children, we also have a vested interest in strengthening the family. 

The awareness of four important realities may help us reverse some of the damage. 

The first is the fact that the traditional family cannot be restored. And, even if it were possible to restore it, it is not desirable to do so. The freedom and creativity of the new urban world have enormously enhanced the quality of personal life. These benefits far outweigh the reproductive advantages of the traditional society.  

The second reality is the fact that the liberation of women from male domination is a positive step forward, even though the sharing of power in the family creates greater  

instability – and even though female economic power encourages divorce. As achieving adults, women deserve the dignity of equality. And society cannot afford to waste their talents. 

The third reality is the simple truth that autonomy is not a birthright. It is an earned privilege. Children must train themselves for freedom. They need parents who prepare them for responsibility and who give them knowledge and structure. Without appropriate self-discipline, autonomy is harmful. There are times when parents need to see themselves as authorities, as caring experts in long-run planning. There are times when negotiation is silly and when parents need to command. 

The fourth reality is the reality that is resisted the most. Not only parents, but also children, have a moral responsibility to strengthen the family. Children also have a moral responsibility to acknowledge that, in this age of prolonged economic dependency, they usually receive much more than they give. The normal expression of this awareness is an age-old behavior of deference called gratitude. 

It is naive to assume that the deferent children of the past are restorable. Nor would we want children who never challenge old and possibly obsolete ideas and values. But respectful gratitude is a small price to pay for enormous investments of love and money. 

Humanistic families do not aim for total equality. There are times when parents are appropriately authoritarian. There are times when children are appropriately submissive and deferent.