If you drop a penny, does it fall to the ground? Do you ever expect it might not? Cultural attitudes towards children, relationships, and religion can be described in a similar fashion. Most people don’t even think to think about these beliefs any more than they think about gravity because to even question the general flow of the cultural zeitgeist takes an enormous amount of energy, let alone break free from the gravitational pull.
A few weeks ago, Time Magazine had their cover story on people who decide to remain child free. There are many reasons that people give when they defend this choice, but the point is, they have to defend it, especially if they are white women, as Jill Filipovic points out in this post for The Guardian:
Bring up the possibility of educated white women choosing not to have children and you’ll be met with intense hostility. The desire to forgo childrearing is a “banal fantasy“; having kids is the only way for adults to avoid “destructive self-absorption”. The photo of the child-free couple on the cover of Time Magazine this month showcases “lazy yuppies” whose “matching swimsuits reek of self-satisfied, in-your-face Dinks [double income no kids].” The cover model’s smile “is supposed to communicate her disdain for her uterus and her utter satisfaction with her size-4, cellulite-free, vacation-filled life”.
That’s a lot of pressure. What kind of energy does it take for someone to decide what is best for them when the cultural gravitation is pulling in another direction?
Perhaps part of the same gravitational construct is the idea of monogamy as a cultural constant. A recent post on the MS blog for MS Magazine asks whether feminists should be questioning “compulsory monogamy” as many have come to question the assumption of heternormativity and, I would add, having children.
Filipovic pointed out the censure that child free women meet but that’s actually less than the cultural condemnation of non-monogamy. A recent Salon post by Angi Becker Stevens currently has over 600 comments, most of them condemning the woman who wrote the post for everything from narcissism to child neglect. It was even worse for Sierra Black after her Huffington Post article of a year or so ago, with over 1000, mostly censorious comments. Those are just the ones I’m most familiar with because I read all of the comments. On both. The pull being exerted on both Black and Stevens can very rightly be seen as the hands of thousands trying to pull them back to earth. They might say “reality.”
There is something, besides simply tradition, to the powerful indoctrination of “grow up, get married, have babies” that adds to that cultural gravity. As Stevens says in a post on the MS Magazine blog:
Of course one function of compulsory monogamy is that polyamorous relationships are widely condemned, by both liberals and conservatives alike. But it’s important to reflect on the root of that condemnation. Whenever a society prohibits a certain behavior or identity, that prohibition is most likely serving the interests of people in positions of power.
Finally, the report of a study making the rounds the last few weeks purports to show a relationship between how “intelligent” a person is and the likelihood that someone is atheist. Religion is one of the biggest cultural gravity wells we have in our society. America is one of the most religious countries on earth. Most people grow up with a religion and even for those who don’t, religious beliefs, attitudes, and assumptions abound. Pull a dollar bill out of your wallet and take a look. Go to a baseball game and wait for the “God Bless America” to be whipped out in the seventh inning. Even from a simply literary point of view, the assumption that a god exists underlies much of western literature.
Pulling away from that sort of gravity well takes a lot of effort. Is intelligence one of the boosters helping people escape it? As posted at PZ Myers site, the abstract of the report says:
First, intelligent people are less likely to conform and, thus, are more likely to resist religious dogma. Second, intelligent people tend to adopt an analytic (as opposed to intuitive) thinking style, which has been shown to undermine religious beliefs.
Now, as Myers points out in the link above, there are plenty of issues with the studies that have been done and none of us atheists can go high-fiving each other over our smarts. Filipovic thinks that “[t]o see some nebulous, grainy, other potential for which there are few mainstream models and say, “I want that,” takes courage and imagination.” Stevens says “We all stand to benefit from supporting relationships that serve as a model for less patriarchal, less hierarchical ways of intimately relating to one another.”
To me, these three things: living childfree, nonmonogamy, and atheism all question the dominant paradigms of our culture. As such they are incredibly threatening to those who either benefit from the current paradigm or call into question another person’s acceptance of that paradigm. It takes a lot of energy to fight against that gravitational pull.
Maybe it takes intelligence, however broadly defined, so that someone can be less likely to “conform” or more “analytic” in order to question the inherent inconsistencies within the dominant paradigm. Maybe it takes “courage and imagination” to envision a way of life different from those around one and then stick to it. Maybe we just like being nonconformist and maybe shaking the foundations of those in power, even just a little bit.
Maybe it takes affluence and privilege. The Time article talked mostly in terms of Western white women, where “an increase of 15 IQ points decreased the odds of [a girl] becoming a mother by 25%” (p41) and then goes on to point out that these women are also more likely to have had higher education. Self-identified polyamorous folks tend to be white, middle class, and with graduate degrees. As too many news articles to mention point out, higher ed costs money. There’s a safety in money, in being part of the dominant class. There’s less need to rely on institutions such as family, marriage, the church. The freedom to make one’s own way is a kind of power itself, maybe the greatest power launching towards escape velocity.