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.  

The Jewish Family

Winter-Spring 1977

The Jewish family is famous. Everyone touts their marvelous sense of family. Even Jews praise themselves publicly for having invented such an institution.

But the historical Jewish family is about as real as the temple in Jerusalem.

Not the Jews are unique. Every year they have here been nation is experiencing the death of the old family.

The rate of divorce keeps climbing. What was scandalous 20 years ago is now commonplace. In some areas of the United States one out of every two marriages end in divorce.

The birth rate continues to fall. Jews are aging. Jewish infants are becoming rare. Religion school enrollments falling- not through lack of interest-but through the lack of recruitable children. Childless marriages abound.

The historic family of mother, father, grandfather, grandmother, son, daughter, aunts, uncles-all living together as one unit-has vanished. It has become replaced by an ‘itsy-bitsy’ imitation of the original, in which husband and wife are condemned to eternal togetherness.

The single person is now fashionable. He is no longer a social aberration. Armies of Jewish people live by themselves-swingers, divorces, widows and widowers. When you find roommates in lovers, who may be less demeaning and less expensive than husbands and wives.

The Jewish family is still around. But like all over and families, it is beginning to fall apart.


The answer lies in the following realities.

The family is no longer an economic unit in the traditional sense. The shetl family involved a shared project. Parents and children worked together to ensure survival. They spent all their time together. Parents were the primary teachers of work skills for the children. The urban family is a ‘dormitory’ unit. Individuals with different jobs in different places-even children go off to school-come together for short periods of time to eat and to exchange money.

The family is too small to be effective. The nuclear family is no substitute for the extended family. If you are dependent on to fuel. What a man and grow the results.

Public welfare has replaced the traditional support extended by families. People do not need their families in the way they need them before. In the age of Social Security pensions and unemployment compensation, the goodwill of parents and children becomes less necessary. Indifference and abandonment are less threatening.

The most efficient labor unit of a capitalistic society is the mobile individual. Families are converse eight attachments, expensive for corporation to transport and diverting by their eternal demands.

Children are now parasitic. They no longer work for the family enterprise. They are non-productive for many years, requiring long years of education and large outlays of money. In a mobile society they may move away after high school and never return. In a welfare society they are no longer needed to care for their parents in their old age. They generally take -without giving. Unless they are both attractive and loving, they become wearisome projects which guilt never allows you to abandon.

Woman to have the opportunity to be economically independent. They do not have to be mothers if they do not want to be. They do not even have to be wives if they find wife hood uninteresting. The stability of the old family lay in the patriarchal authority and financial power of the husband. The new independence of woman gives the wife the freedom to resistant and demand equal authority and equal power. An institution with two bosses-even if they sleep together-is inherently unstable.

The age of affluence allows people to think about more than group survival. And allows individuals to turn their attention-without guilt-to their personal happiness. The historic family endured because countless men and women found sacrifice and suffering ethically appropriate. The spirit of 1976 define sacrifice as masochism and suffering as self-destruction

Love is not fashionable. Husband-and-wife snuff want to marriage to be a source of intimate friendship. And a time when children are secondary, the family unity depends on the spiritual quality of the Ryan Laois and ship between the man and the woman. Let me know no longer willing to settle for the opportunity of motherhood. When I woke no longer willing to work for the privilege of fatherhood.. It’s very hot and cold natured the demand for love makes any relationship unstable.

Contraception has separated sex from reproduction. Premarital license and extra-marital affair are now possible without the embarrassing risk of children. Sex for the middle class is no longer a family affair.

The consequence of all these new realities is a revolution in personal lifestyle. The revolution seems irreversible.

Here are its manifestations.

The revolution means that-from now on, very gradually-individual identity would replace family identity as the primary self-image of the person. In a mobile changing society for a family membership maybe both temporary and tenuous, urban survival dictates that individuals be able to see themselves as real. Marriage may come and go-children may come and go-but the continuing threat of each person’s life will be his personal identity.

The revolution means that divorce will be a regular and frequent experience in our society. If the criterion for a successful marriage is a successful friendship, the marriage will become a more fragile institution. Without the glue of mutual massages them, people will terminate what is intolerable for happiness.

The revolution means serial marriage (an Alvin Toffler phrase). More people will be married more than once. As an answer to loneliness and insecurity and as friendship as an opportunity for intimate friendship, your to continue to be popular with the majority of people. But it will be less than eternal for increasing numbers.

The revolution means more intense marriages. If people get married for friendship and not for children the relationship, while it lasts(and it might last for a lifetime)will be more exciting. And the age of female liberation women have become more interesting and men have become less rigid. While the possibilities of intersex competition have increased, the opportunities for intimacy and vulnerability also been enhanced.

The revolution means that there will be many childless marriages. Some career woman, after feeling to find meaningful work outside the home, may turn to children as creative projects. But many couples would prefer the freedom of no children. Despite predictions of future fertility fads, the Jewish birth rate will continue to fall.

The revolution means that there will be many single parent families. Because of divorce many women and some men-will have to function as both mother and father to their children. The role of stepparent will also become more prevalent.

The manifestations of this revolution are with us right now. They cannot be wished away by pious appeals to nostalgia. In fact, in terms of the individual fulfillment of adults, and maybe undesirable to wash them away. From a humanistic point of view, the new freedom, with all traumas may be superior to what it has replaced.

The ethical question is not-how do we change people back (that is futile)- how do you cope with the change? What new skills do we need to live more successfully in a new world?

These skills are skills that have no real analogies in the past. They are not traditional skills. They are new, because the urban world we live in is absolutely new.

Humanistic Jews-like all urban people-will need to be able to deal with the following situations well. These adaptations will be essential for successful living in happiness. They are the replacements for all family skills.

We will need to find value in temporary-less than eternal- relationships.

We will need to function as an individual, never identifying completely with any family connection that we cannot imagine ourselves as separate from it.

We will need to find intimate friendships outside of marriage to supplement our primary relationship. Otherwise, in the age of the nuclear family, good marriages will be destroyed by the excessive demands of husbands and wives on each other.

We will need to find appropriate ways to deal with divorced parents and with stepchildren. At present, these skills are both primitive and rare.

We will need to know how to be both maternal and paternal. Men will have to develop historic mother skills. And woman will have to develop historic father skills.

We will, above all, need to find a primary meaning in work and friendship. Investing this meaning in our children will only work( in an age when children move away)if we see child-wearing as our career.

The Jewish Family-like all urban families-is experiencing trauma.

The ethical task of Humanistic Judaism is to provide practical advice for turning this trauma into an opportunity for happiness.