Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Family, and the Conservative Inability to Conceptualize Change

Okay, so the Vanier Institute's study about Canadian families was just released, based on census data that, according to the Globe and Mail, "suggests the profile of the typical Canadian family is undergoing some surprising changes." Of course by "surprising changes" they mean, "the same changes that have been taking place for a couple of decades now, and are not surprising at all."

About 42% of Canadians 15 and older are single, though half of them were previously in a long-term relationship, and either the relationship ended or their partner died - a result that makes sense considering how long people are living and our aging population. The aging population also explains the fact couples with children are now the minority.

Couples are getting married less and living in common-law relationships more - often hypothesized to be the result of ebbing religiosity. On the other hand, the report notes that most couples see cohabitation as prelude to marriage rather than a substitute. Common-law couples with children are the fastest growing type of family - nearly 15% of children under 15 live with common-law parents, when twenty years ago that number was less than 5%. Meanwhile, around 66% of kids live with parents who are married, down from 81% twenty years ago.

You can find the entire report here. I haven't had the chance to look it over in detail yet, but it seems very interesting. But then, I'm one of those people who loves looking at statistics and charts. Especially when it comes to the changing nature of the family, I find it really interesting to observe the broad movements in our society, and examine the impact of generational change, waves of migration, economic factors, and law. Good stuff.

Anyhoo, the way that I heard about this study in the first place was that I recently cyber-sauntered over to a Canadian (C)conservative blog that I troll sometimes (called Searching For Liberty, run by a Mr. Harvie), and lo and behold saw a post topped with this image:

And that's when I knew that I was in for some laughs.
I guess congratulations are in order for our Supreme Court of Canada (with credit to decades of Liberal government).
The "Family" is dead.
So much glorious FAIL in two short sentences.

First thing to note is that Harvie didn't actually read the study, just the brief article that I summarized at the beginning of the post. If he had quickly consulted the table of contents of the study, and flipped to the relevant page (26), he would  have noted that more than eight in ten Canadians live in families - families which themselves are mostly couple-based - a statistic that has remained relatively stable over the past twenty years. Far from being "dead" the family is alive and well.

Which is not to say that families are not changing - families are always changing. They have taken a variety of forms over the course of human history depending on the needs of societies, and will continue to do so. Which brings us to the second element of FAIL: the assumption that social arrangements ought to remain static, and that any changes to those arrangements are cataclysmic - that is, the definitional basis of the conservative mindset. So, no surprise there.

There is yet a third element of FAIL, which I chalk up to Harvie being a lawyer - he attributes these apparently catastrophic developments to the failings of the Supreme Court of Canada. Because court rulings are the seismic force which drive social change. Not demographic changes or economic necessity - court rulings. With only partial credit to the legislative body which actually makes the law that governs our legal relationships, and has supremacy over the courts. Right.

So, there's the skewed understanding of how societies develop and change. Lets get down to a misrepresentation of the facts!
According to a study released from the Vanier Institute of the Family, reported in the Globe and Mail today, most Canadian adults are unmarried - for the first time in our history.
Of course he fails to acknowledge that most Canadian adults (58%) are in relationships. One assumes because two people can't really be committed to each other unless they're married.
As also reported, "Twenty years ago, 81 per cent of children under 15 were living with parents who were legally married, but by 2006 that proportion had fallen to just below 66 per cent."
Well done Supreme Court.
Well done Ottawa.
We have assured that a growing number of children will grow up without really knowing both of their parents, most likely their father.. and more importantly, we have assured that fewer children will be born at all.
Again, leaving out an important statistic: an additional 15% of kids live with both parents, who remain unmarried. Which brings the total number of children living in two-parent homes back up to 81%. Not being deprived of the companionship of both their parents. The implication of Harvie's lament is clear, however imagined it's cause - it is a horrible thing if children do not know both of their biological parents. Sorry lesbians! Sorry gay men and infertile couples who arrange for surrogate mothers! Sorry adoptive parents! You thought you were creating a family out of love, but as it turns out, you're really just damaging your so-called kids who aren't even yours biologically anyways.

Of course the changes that are occurring are Very Bad Things, which must be blamed on someone or something! Harvie blames the Supreme Court and Ottawa. Not, you know, ebbing religiosity, the increased financial independence for women, the inflation of credentials needed for decent employment and the resulting prolonged adolescence, and other such systemic factors.

The weirdest thing is that Harvie blames the courts and the government for the low fertility rate in Canada. Again this demonstrates that he didn't actually glance through the report, otherwise he would have noticed that 2007 saw a small upswing in births. However, that's more likely a blip than the start of a trend. More to the point, Harvie blames the Canadian government and courts specifically for a trend that is seen throughout the developed world. It's generally accepted that fertility rates are low, not because of any provision of family law, but because women are educated and have opportunities in the workplace. I thought this was common knowledge. Either I was wrong, or Harvie is actually upset with the courts and government for ensuring women's access to education and employment. I guess it could go either way.
Why do people NOT get married?
Again, he's not reading the study or looking at demographics.

One reason, as I have mentioned, is declining religiosity. While the causality isn't clear, there is circumstantial evidence in the case of Quebec. Quebec used to have the highest rates of marriage, but now has the highest rate of cohabitation. This change coincided with the Quiet Revolution and the dramatic loss of power of the Catholic Church in Quebec. This information isn't in the study, it's just an explanation that I have come across many time in my readings.

What the study does say is that most Canadians forming families through cohabitation will eventually marry (42). Which means the answer to Harvie's question is: they're waiting. It probably has something to do with the inflation of credentials that I referred to earlier. Or, if it's an older couple, they've been married before and don't want to go through the whole rig-a-marole again.

But see, Harvie - a white, conservative, professional dude - has special knowledge. Knowledge that he didn't need to read the study to obtain!
As a Family Lawyer, I can tell you.  They have the mistaken idea that if they aren't married, they can leave the relationship at will.  They seek to remove themselves from the shackles that our courts and legislators have imposed upon marriage.  
Again, so much FAIL. First, being a family lawyer, Harvie should realize that his experience probably has a sample bias towards those with failed relationships. Second, people do have the ability to "leave the relationship at will." What they don't have the ability to do is forego division of property without a separation agreement, or walk away from their child support obligations, or their spousal support obligations (although, in my admittedly limited experience, most individuals have a realistic understanding of the financial resources of their exes and don't apply for spousal support).

I have to laugh at Harvie complaining about, "the shackles that our courts and legislators have imposed upon marriage." Considering how much easier it has gotten to get a divorce over the past century; not to mention the fact that women now retain their individual rights within marriage... and he's thinks "shackles" have been "imposed"... it's a perfect example of how privileged dudeliness allows guys to languish in their ignorance of society and history, even in the context of their chosen field.
In the never ending liberal dream of securing the "I", we have assured the demise of the "We".
I don't even know what that means. I'm just sick that this guy is advising people in their family disputes.
But, as they are learning very quickly, the legislators and our courts have done a great job of assuring that the option of cohabitation is no less onerous than marriage.
It's ironic that a conservative is bothered by this. The increased offloading of support obligations onto family members is correlated to the shrinking welfare state. If the state were able to support individuals who are vulnerable after the breakdown of a relationship, then courts would not have had to balance two competing purposes of family law - they would not have had to choose between protecting the vulnerable and honouring individual choice.
And, as that message permeates the masses, two guesses what the net result of that realization will be.
Fewer committed relationships at all.. married, common-law, or otherwise.
So, as people who wanted to avoid the obligations of marriage realize that common-law relationships still give rise to legal obligations, they'll be less likely to form committed relationships. Which works out well for them, since they were seeking to avoid such relationships in the first place. I'm failing to see what the problem is here.
Because normal human behavior militates against slavery and socialism.
The idea that you can be forced, against your will, to provide for someone who doesn't give something back is anathema to most human beings.
Wow. Married life is "slavery and socialism". An individual's obligations to their spouse are based not on equity, but on thin air - something for nothing. Harvie believes that he knows why people don't get married - and he is broadly incorrect in his conclusions on that point - but I don't think he's ever considered why people do form relationships - that is, they care about one another.
And so, with that, more and more people will decide that safe sex, without children, while both adults live in separate households will be the only choice for a thinking person.
This is a fearful dystopia that Harvie is painting. And it's totally likely. Because people don't form relationships for companionship, and no one actually has a desire to start a family. No couple decides to form an economic unit together, in which each values the paid and unpaid labour of the other.

If the current conditions mean that only individuals with that high level of care and respect for each other are entering into economically dependent relationships, I'd be okay with that. That's nowhere close to what's actually going on, but if it was the case, I'd be okay with it.
And, as the stability of family relationships disintegrates to nothing - two guesses who will be asked to pick up the slack.
The tax payer. Through senior homes, through daycares (can you say, "Universal Daycare Program"?)
Again with the irony. The reason why the justice system comes down hard on former spouses to meet their support obligations is so that as few people as possible end up on welfare.

Then Harvie goes on about immigrants for a while, how they have good traditional values which are soon laid to waste by the implications of Canadian family law.
They learn that their spouse can choose the end the relationship...
Wait, I thought people were "shackled" into marriage in this country? Now the ability to end a relationship is a bad thing?
...leaving them without a home and without an ability to rent, let alone buy, accommodation to allow them meaningful contact with their children.
Oh, it's a bad thing  because the caregiver (read: wife) is the one who's making the choice! And having been in a "traditional" marriage, the rationale for spousal support applies, although she probably won't ask for it anyways! And the poor guy is saddled with having to pay for his kids (so unfair).

There are good hard-working parents who for whatever reason have a hard time meeting their child support obligations. But the money either has to come from that parent, or the government. So until I see Harvie making a case for government support of single primary caregiver parents, I have no sympathy for this argument.

Anyways, Harvie argues that the state of our family law drives immigrants back to their home countries. Which, again, is in direct contradiction to the actual study, which found that Canada's immigrant population is rising (12).
It's fair to say, the "Family" is dead. Or at least we're seeing it's last gasp.. it's death rattle.
No. It's neither fair nor accurate to say any of those things.
In it's place, we have equality and freedom and independence.. and ipods and ipads and our Priuses.
Everybody knows you can't have equality and a family! We're at (culture) war! Pick a side! ... what Apple products and Priuses have to do with anything, I have no idea. Is he associating technological advancement with societal advancement? I don't know.
And what we don't have is the knowledge as a child than when I fall off the monkey bars and break my wrist, my mom or dad will be there for me when I get to the hospital.  Instead, what I have are "safe" play areas built to accommodate the reality that I'm being raised by an institution instead of my parents - and institution that needs to guard against civil liability.
What we don't have is the hope that when we age, and we become confused, someone will be there to help us find our pants in the morning and to listen to our stories about our long-ago youth.. because we can't remember what happened yesterday or even 5 minutes ago.  Instead we will have holding areas where we'll be shuffled like sheep, feeding and sleeping and nothing more - until it's time for the abattoir.
Let's examine the logical path that was taken to get to this point. The study found that more couples are in common-law relationships, and that there are more children being born and raised out of wedlock. Harvie incorrectly assumes that the kids being raised out of wedlock are all in single-parent homes. Therefore, universal daycare will result, which is just a euphamism for communist baby farms. At the same time, Harvie mis-identifies the reason why so many couples put off marriage, and concludes that fertility rates will fall even more dramatically, necessitating government-sponsored retirement homes, which are really just slaughterhouses for the elderly.

My family has been trying to get my dad into a (government-funded) retirement home. He got to stay in a care home for a while when he was undergoing a medical assessment for a couple of weeks, and was much better looked after there than he was at home, because my family has no money and none of us have the time and resources to look after him. It's baffling to me that someone like Harvie can think, "facility for giving people the care they need = a factory of death."

Obviously his paranoid histrionics have no connection to reality. But remember - this guy is a lawyer. These flights of fancy are part of his style of arguing. I just hope his prospective clients read his blog before hiring him.
What we have is some Disneyland version of "family".  An institution that is there for when it's easy and fun, but can be either discarded or passed on to the government when it's difficult or unpleasant.
Which is no "family" at all.
Just a little while ago, he was arguing that it's some sort of injustice that individuals have legal obligations to their spouses. Now he's arguing that a collection of relationships doesn't count as a family, unless there are obligations. And he seems to be arguing that if one breaks up with one's partner, one no longer has a "family". He seems to be arguing that financial dependence and support are what define family relationships, rather than care and affection. By his definition poor people don't have families, basically. Once a space at a retirement home becomes available for my dad, he will cease to be my father - our familial bond will be dissolved.

At the heart of this mess are some very conservative notions: Financial success is the chief virtue, and financial stability is what makes a "real" family. Depriving people of choice and agency - if you have the opportunity to end a relationship at will, then it's not a "real" relationship, whatever feelings may be involved. There is only one type of family. "The Family". Single parents are not The Family. Non-biological parents are not The Family. Poor families are not The Family.

This is the frustrating thing about social conservatives - their blindness to the realities that people have lived throughout history and are living today. Families take a multitude of forms - with or without children who may or may not be biologically related to either of their parents, married or common-law, lone-parents, opposite-sex or same-sex couples. The study cites a 2007 survey in which most Canadians, thankfully, agreed that, "there is no such thing as a typical family" (26).

Families will never "die." They are economic units, and have changed along with our economic systems, from hunter-gatherer communities, to feudal extended families, to the nuclear family of the industrial age. Families are also founded on a fundamental need for companionship - a need which hasn't been filled by "ipads and Priuses" (?). Technology hasn't replaced human interaction but has facilitated our pursuit of human interaction. People meet and start families with others they meet online. Families will adapt and change along with the conditions in which they exist.

These are all families...


  1. Good read! And funny! It really is scary though that this dude is a family lawyer. His arguments don't make sense in sooo many wayss!

    "What we have is some Disneyland version of "family"
    The family is like Disneyland? How so?..

    "An institution that is there for when it's easy and fun..."
    Okay, following you so far. Disneyland is fun! As are families.

    "...but can be either discarded or passed on to the government when it's difficult or unpleasant."
    ????Sooo... Disneyland becomes a government responsibility when it becomes unpleasant? Or is he saying that Disney passes problems on to the government when they're too difficult? Or is he saying visitors are the "parents" and that they "discard" Disneyland when it's no longer fun? Which doesn't make sense either, because the whole purpose of Disneyland is to have fun, so that's what we should do... it really makes no sense.

    Really, if the dude can't even grasp how to construct a metaphor, how can you expect him to grasp such complex subjects as "the family" and social change?

  2. Yeah, that Disneyland comment didn't make any sense either. LOL

  3. I'm a little surprised only 2.5% of the population lives with someone who's not related. Not sure what I thought it'd be. Guess I'm really in the minority.

  4. Oh Conservatives. It's always fun to watch them discover the world is not as they think it is.

    Great blog Marissa! And thanks for your comments over at The Beav.


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