In the past week, I’ve heard a lot of my fellow liberals expressing frustration and bewilderment at the election results. I read columnists who, hearing reports of voters choosing Bush because of “moral values”, want to recast liberal ideas in moral terms. I hear my friends wondering how anyone could think that marriage equality would represent any threat to traditional marriage, let alone enough of one to pass eleven out of eleven anti-marriage-equality initiatives.I have a theory, and one that explains why our country is so polarized: the Left and the Right are talking past each other on the issue of the breakdown of traditional gender roles.
The Real Threat
Happily married gay men or happily married lesbians are certainly a threat to traditional gender roles. If there are two men living together, at least one of them is shopping, cooking, and sewing buttons on the shirts. If there are two women living together, at least one of them is dealing with mowing the lawn, changing the oil in the car, and taking out the garbage. (Perhaps more frighteningly, lacking the guidance of traditional gender roles, all the chores and decisions must be negotiated.)
The Left’s Attitude
The Left doesn’t have a problem with that. The Left sees the breakdown of traditional gender roles as an unequivocally good thing. The Left is delighted that women are no longer denied the same legal rights to and/or social acceptance of education, employment, credit, casual sex, sports, or their own name. It’s good that women are no longer as locked into abusive marriages by financial dependence and restrictive divorce laws. Since 1965, when the Supreme Court struck down laws denying contraception to married women, wives can even be less constrained by children if they so choose.
The Left tends to ignore the collateral damage of increased women’s rights, or to downplay them as well worth the cost. The Left doesn’t like to notice that there has been a huge increase in divorce in the past thirty years with well-documented damaging effects on children. When The Left does notice, it tends to seek governmental relief in some form (e.g. subsidized day care).
I have the sense that The Right is much more concerned about the side effects of increased women’s rights than about the the women’s rights. In the tradeoff between community or family vs. the individual, I think The Right stands much more on the side of the community or family. The fact that women’s rights can get trampled is downplayed as unfortunate collateral damage that is well worth the cost.
The Left is quick to denounce anybody who voices any concern about the side effects of those things as another example of women being “oppressed by the patriarchy”. I bet this provokes the same kind of “huh?” reaction in The Right as “threat to traditional families” does to The Left.
With such a mental image, I can easily imagine The Right tuning out. That image probably doesn’t correspond to the world they know. Many of the people on The Right have mothers and daughters that they adore. Many have wives they love deeply and profoundly. Some are wives who love deeply and profoundly.
Furthermore, “traditional gender roles” does not have to mean “subordinate wives”. I’ve known several couples where the division of labor fell along traditional gender lines but where the women very clearly were in charge.
It’s not that simple, however. For example, the proliferation of two-income couples means inflationary pressures on consumer goods, particularly housing. (If all dual-income couples were suddenly single-income couples, I guarantee that housing prices would suddenly drop.) Single-income couples are at a significant financial disadvantage relative to dual-income couples.
While it might seem to each side that the other is speaking in code, I doubt that there is willful obfuscation. It’s probably more that each side is so steeped in its own values that it has trouble communicating them.
- acknowledge that they have many shared goals and values: they both want
- men to be happy and successful
- women to be happy and successful
- children to be happy and successful
- acknowledge that they have different value priorities; that if unable to make everybody happy,
- The Left values equal rights for women above intact families
- The Right will sacrifice equal rights for women in order to have more intact families
- recognize explicitly
- what they are really arguing about
- that they other side has valid concerns