Addendum on the Myth of the Happy Family

17 June 2012

Sunday


A few days ago in Myth, Ritual, and Social Consensus I expounded what I called the myth of the happy family. In that post I made a number of corollary claims that I had planned to develop more fully, but which I did not at that time expand upon.

Two unexplained asides in the following paragraph, taken that from post, in particular require further elaboration:

For every myth, there is a true believer out there (or many of them) for whom a given myth is an adequate expression of the world. By the same token, for every myth there is a skeptic (or many of them) who feel shortchanged by a myth that did not and could not be, for them, an adequate expression of life. So it was with the myth of the happy family. Some gloried in it; others despised it. Because a myth reaches only a part of a mass population on a visceral level, for the myth to have social efficacy it must be policed by social and state institutions. The myth of the happy family could only be perpetuated by the brutal suppression of any non-conforming element that defied the myth or failed to fulfill the rituals by which the myth was reenacted in the daily lives of the members of industrialized society. For example, the myth of the happy family essentially excluded social mobility.

The two items above that I want to discuss are:

“a myth reaches only a part of a mass population on a visceral level”

“the myth of the happy family essentially excluded social mobility

As for the first item, one of the important distinctions between the function of myths in traditional (non-industrialized societies) and the function of myths in contemporary societies is that contemporary societies are mass societies. Those mythologies that date to the Axial Age derive from societies in which the presence of a living god or the presence of a living prophet in the midst of the people was considered commonplace, and possibly also the conditio sine qua non of political society. The great gulf between the rulers and the ruled in traditional societies was paradoxically wedded to an intimacy born of very small societies

Intimacy between rulers and the ruled in traditional societies has been a casualty of mass society. Today rulers and ruled communicate through mass media outlets such as television, radio, newspapers, magazines, and the internet. However skilled contemporary politicians become in the exploitation of mass media, it is still mass media and it is not a personal, face to face encounter — not even from a distance.

The exponential increases in population that accompany the early stages if industrialization and urbanization (the result of improved nutrition and improved medical care) create mass society, and mass society can only be reached through the mass media. Even if a politician today preferred to meet constituents face to face, it is physically impossible for any one individual to meet millions of people; any politician who disdained the mass media would be defeated, so that the use the mass media is strongly selective. However, once mass media becomes the primary tool of political communication, it changes the nature of communication. Mass communication is de-personalized. Another word for “depersonalization” is “dehumanization.” We have all felt this, that the bureaucratic organization of mass society is depersonalizing and dehumanizing, even if we hesitate to admit to ourselves the full implications of this feeling.

A small, traditional society is dominated by personal relationships and interactions on a human scale. As we have seen, this is impossible in industrialized societies. In anonymity of mass society, social sanctions and social rewards that functioned efficiently in small, traditional societies function inefficiently or not at all. It would be extraordinarily difficult, in the midst of a large conurbation to, for example, enforce “shunning,” since a shunned individual or family could simply move to another neighborhood within the same large city. It is not at all unusual in our time for individuals to “re-invent” themselves by suddenly finding new friends, going to different places and participating in different events than those that has previously given structure to their lives. This kind of personal reinvention was impossible in the past for those who remained within their community.

In traditional societies, mythologies were coextensive with the closed social group that constituted the society. If anyone was alienated by the mythology that permeated a traditional society, they would have to leave because they could not avoid it. This is no longer true. Today, a particular mythology may be dominant, but the minorities that do not share the mythology are significant. In the early modern period, several nascent nation-states sought to purge their countries of non-conforming elements, as when France sought to expel or convert the Huguenots and Spain sought to expel or convert the Jews. For ideologically-motivated monarchs who sat at the head of the dominant mythology, there was a strong desire to “clean house,” but this strategy turned out to be economically ruinous. The practice has not entirely disappeared, as the Nazis tried to exterminate the Jews and recently several exercises in “ethnic cleansing” have sought to purge the body politics of elements deemed undesirable, but in democratic capitalism such efforts are difficult to carry out and counter-productive.

As a result of these trends, the dominant myth of a given mass society is probably only felt on a visceral level by a core minority in positions of privilege and status. This dominant minority that lives the myth might prefer that everyone shared their personal commitment to the mythology they understand to be central to their society, but such mythological conformity can no longer be enforced in fact, and an attempt to enforce it would be so socially disruptive that it would threaten the social cohesion of the society and therefore the myth itself.

As for the second item, that social mobility is largely excluded by the myth of the happy family, I suppose that some readers might find this an odd claim for me to make, since the myth of the happy family is so closely associated in the minds of many with the “American Dream,” and for many, again, the American Dream is nothing but social mobility: the you will eventually live better than when you started out, and that your children will live better than you, possibly joining the professional class and moving up in society not merely in terms of income and comfort, but also in terms of social status.

There are as many versions of the American Dream as there are hopeful Americans (and would-be Americans) dreaming for a better tomorrow for themselves and for their children. But in so far as the strong form of the myth of the happy family persists (and it is arguable that it no longer persists in its strong form at all today, even though it does persist in several weaker permutations), it excludes from under its “sacred canopy” anyone whose social status advances to the point that the rituals of domesticity by which individuals participate in the myth become impracticable or impossible. If you are always away rushing to meetings or flying to conferences, you can’t be at home to participate in daily family rituals. If you’re too busy to attend to domestic responsibilities yourself, and you hire help to clean or mow the lawn or to take care of your children, with each domestic responsibility relinquished there goes along with it one domestic ritual, and one less opportunity to participate in the myth of the happy family.

At least one of the drivers of social change in our time, which includes the process I have attempted to describe of seeking a new social consensus for the organization of industrial society, is the fact that the dominant minority who truly believe in and viscerally have felt the myth of the happy family are those who have been most successful and therefore most forced by circumstances to abandon the rituals of the happy family in order to attend to their duties to larger social wholes. Such individuals, trapped by their own feelings and beliefs, produce rationalizations and justifications for being absent from the formative events in their childrens’ lives, but precisely because they are true believers in the myth they know in their hearts that these rationalizations and justifications are just that — rationalizations and justifications.

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