In this summer issue of the magazine, you have more than beach reading: Lilith asked seven women alert to differences — differences in circumstance, differences in access to power — to suggest what we can do right now to mend the world. I have a small suggestion here. It has to do with language, and my own reflexive response. Maybe it’s idiosyncratic, but I don’t think so. I suspect that many of you react the same way: Every time I hear the word “family” out of a politician’s mouth, I cringe.
Why? First, obviously, there’s the hijacking of “family values” by the right wing. Everything from the declaration of how sacred life is, and therefore that abortion should be banned (though no care for those babies once they’re born), to denying funds for day-care programs (at the same time refusing to increase parental- leave benefits) to high praise for marriage (while denying its benefits to same-sex couples). Cringe.
But it’s not just right-wing politicos and pundits who use the word “family” cavalierly. Proclamations like “Rising gas taxes will have a terrible effect on American families” make me want to holler back at the TV or computer screen, no matter what the party affiliation of the speaker or blogger. A statement intended to indicate empathy signals instead — for me at least — out-of-touch-with-reality. Today, more people in the U.S live alone than in any configuration we might label “family.” Nevertheless, the labeling and the rhetoric persist. This strikes me as especially bizarre in a culture that has valued and privileged individual achievement over the collective.
Why does it matter? Because the language we use, and especially the language we hear from those in positions of power, shapes thinking. And the chronic use of the term family is a kind of manipulation by terminology. Here’s an example that may feel closer to home: Jews are more likely than non-Jews to live in single-person households; nearly one-third of all Jews live alone, compared to about one-fourth of other Americans. When Jewish community leaders ignore this reality by using exclusionary language, even if unintentionally, they turn off, turn away and disappoint the growing number of Jews, young and older, living in a household of one.
Here’s a suggestion for how we might speak about people when we do want to refer to family life. The same way that we’re conscious of speaking about “a person with a disability” rather than “as disabled person,” we probably should speak of “individuals in families” rather than “the family.” Perhaps then we — including politicians — would empathically take note of individuals, understanding the truth that that not everyone suffers the same consequences, or reaps the same benefits, from the dictates of legislatures. Example: Individuals who are young and poor are affected directly by the war in Iraq in ways different from the middle-class and middle aged; the former are the ones drawn into voluntary military service for its wages and educational benefits. Example: More women than men are made desperate by an economic downturn, because, inter alia, they earn less to begin with. These simple and obvious differences get lost in the blurriness of the catchall term “family.”
“Family” as a generic trope has got to fade from use as a substitute for the term “individual.” Not only does it remind us of the right-wing, and cuts off people living alone, but it’s usually intended to honor only one configuration of household, and resists taking into account our diverse realities.
When you hear the word “family,” what image springs to mind first? Mom and Dad, two kids, requisite pet? Dad and Mom, one baby, requisite Bugaboo stroller? Sepia portrait of the ancestors, requisite potted plant? The “classic” nuclear family — a married heterosexual couple and their biological children—is a minority among all families. Individuals who are sharing their space with others are living in so many different arrangements that the very idea that all can be classified with one term strikes me as ludicrous. If you look carefully in your congregation, your gym, your neighborhood, you’ll likely see one mom, no dad, and the kids; two moms and the kids; two dads and the kids; a couple (any gender) and no kids; blended families of all sorts; older women and men who choose to live together unmarried so as not to unsettle their grown children.
So here’s a thought. We’ve all been struck by the energy and glee of women this political season. Perhaps in response to Hillary Clinton’s historic primary run, we even have more female heads talking and more female brains blogging than ever before. Maybe this season’s combination of female visibility and racial diversity will have its effect on language, too.
In our liturgy we now often routinely add “foremothers” (both in English and in Hebrew), in prayers where a generation ago “forefathers” would have had to signify, inadequately, both male and female. We now routinely say “he and she” in our discourse, and we try to make sure that children’s books, even in Hebrew School, are more inclusive of diverse populations. It’s time to extend that consciousness into the language of politics as well.
Happy summer reading, and thinking.