`Are Families Dangerous` by Barbara Ehrenreich
In her essay, Barbara Ehrenreich claimed that American families have developed into dangerous social units that need to be reformed if not disbanded and abandoned altogether for the sake of those inside it. Her argumentations toward this ultimate conclusion were the following: 1.) women are at their most unsafe position when at home, 2.) the family is a barrier of human progress, 3.) there is no such thing as a “functional family”, and 4.) families are dangerous for children. This paper presents counterarguments and rebuttals against the four points that Barbara has made and constructs an alternative situation for each of the said ideas that were put forward.
Women and the family
Barbara argued that women were at their most vulnerable when staying at home. She supported this by building on instances of domestic violence often portrayed by the media in the local news. She also presented legal cases on domestic violence victims that accounts for a good number of criminal cases happening to women, with filed charges that vary greatly from assault and battery to capital murder.
On the first level of rebuttal, media’s portrayal of the supposedly typical American household could not be depended on when gauging the frequency and gravity of abuses happening to women at home. This is partly since media has a fixation on violence altogether and would sooner present bloody reports on the latest crimes committed than feature stories about satisfied families living in comfortable homes behind picket fences. (Lannister 250) This tells us that although women are often reported as abused by domestic violence on the evening news, it is not enough for us to generalize that all women in American households or even a majority of such are suffering the same fate. Also, violence as portrayed by the media is rampant across different social denominations and not merely restricted to the family. (Lannister 255) In fact, there are more thrice as reports on street crimes than there are on domestic violence.
On the second level of rebuttal, despite there being several legal cases from assault and battery to capital murder that occur to women in the household, this is again a negligible statistic compared to the number of American families. (Lannister 253) Also, it can be argued that several other factors take precedence to the setting of the crime in determining why it happened. Factors such as psychological imbalance, rage, drug and alcohol use, among others can be accounted for as being present in cases of domestic violence, but they are also the same factors that play significantly in crimes that occur on other venues, where women are just as likely the victims.
Thus, the presence danger for women is not justified by media portrayals of domestic violence and the existence of cases involving heinous crimes committed to women in their homes.
The fact that crime rates have been on the rise in the country over the last couple of decades cannot be denied. But on the contrary, women who stay in their respective households end up being safer than if they didn’t. Crimes such as sexual harassment are almost exclusive to women who spend long hours at work and end up going home very late. Their late habits make their movements predictable to would be harassers who are even more tempted by the opportunity of there being a lot fewer people in offices during late hours.
Also, these are the same office women who are more likely to be the victims of mugging and other street crimes on their way home. On the other hand, the typical housewife hardly needs to go out on a daily basis and even lesser so would she need to come home late at night. This makes it less likely for her to be the victim of more pronounced crimes that usually target women.
Family and Human Progress
Barbara relied on the theories expounded on by Charles Fourier which forwarded the conclusion that “the family is the barrier to human progress.”. Ehrenreich portrayed the family as a downside to our society instead of a positive aspect of our lives. This was supported by reasoning how close relations within a family are resistant to change. Thus, maintaining a family weighs people down such that they would have less time in building their careers. Furthermore, this burden is supposedly especially heavy for women who are perceived as designated homemakers and have to stay at home.
If we look at Barbara’s portrayal, we see that it is insensitive to the current trends in society where wide scale liberalism and technological advances have made a healthy coexistence between career and family. Women have been placed upon the corporate pedestal, with a good number holding high positions as executives in different companies. Also, high technology has made this work-family coexistence even more lasting, with state-of-the-art communication equipment coming out every season, a corporate board meeting is just a video conference set-up away. Parents can find spare time in family vacations to attend to pressing work matters with ease. Barbara was also unable to substantiate how having
100% of one’s time devoted to career is necessarily a good thing. In Japan for example, a
current social movement is lobbying for government action against its workaholic culture of employment. These lobbyists claim that this culture is damaging families and consequentially, reducing public satisfaction and happiness. Japanese employees who work tirelessly for years often lose touch with their family members, becoming divorced to their wives or estranged to their children, they spend their retirement days in regret of the family they had lost. (Kido 33)
The alternative situation is that families are actually bastions for human progress. They complement work and provide greater incentive for people to strive on their jobs. On the first level, it is the family that is first to celebrate achievements made by its members. If a father is able to earn a promotion, it is his family that he shares his success with. It is also the driving force that makes him do his best in the first place. In other words, the parents’ role as providers for their children grants them the unique motivation of working for other than themselves. This gives them a clear direction of why they are working, which translates to fulfillment at the end of the day.
Ehrenreich asserts that we all, healthy or dysfunctional, need guidance from friends, relatives, and our community so we do not implode; as quoted from her, “Even healthy families need outside sources of moral guidance to keep those tensions from imploding—and this means, among other things, a public philosophy of gender equality and concern for child welfare. When instead the larger culture aggrandizes wife beaters, degrades women or nods approvingly at child slappers, the family gets a little more dangerous for everyone, and so, inevitably, does the larger world”. Here Barbara asserts that there is no such thing as an independently functional family, and as thus she questions why families have to exist in the first place when the satisfaction of their needs are derived from outside support anyway.
Firstly, the assumption that families cannot stand alone is exactly just that, an assumption. If we try to perceive the context in which Barbara places this assumption, it is on the idea of a grand society that encompasses families altogether. Given that context, it can be conceded that family members would interact with people outside their families and to some extent seek guidance elsewhere, but this doesn’t mean that an isolated family cannot stand on its own. In fact, indigenous families in places like Jamaica, the Philippines, and Australia often live secluded, independent lives. They have very minimal interaction with other families and yet they are able to survive and progress on their own. Thus, the concept of there being no such thing as a functional family is a farce. The tendencies of families to collaborate and seek guidance from other families and social constructs are dependent on the fact that society is growing and the necessity of coexistence makes it inevitable for families to interact, this is not necessarily an urgent need that families cannot do without.
Families are functional units of society. In fact, they are the smallest functional unit. Societal units are functional when they effectively perform actions that lead to societal goals. These goals are generally characterized as those being for the good of all. (Geboren 58)
Loosely, these can be taken as upholding harmony, strengthening common beliefs, and protecting the environment. The family acts as a conduit that brings these values from society to the parents and from the parents to the children. It is this dynamic that allows for the convenient transfer of values since the endpoint which are children are found to be most predisposed to parental influence. It is also a known fact that a majority of juvenile societal deviants come from orphanages, foster homes, or are otherwise absent of family role models to shape their values. (Geboren 75) This is what leads them to deviate since they have no clear idea of what the society expects of them and why these expectations are necessarily good. These are things that they could have best understood under the care and guidance of a family.
Families and Children
In the same way that Barbara characterized dangers for women within the confines of the household, she also notes that the home is also the place for grave physical, emotional and even sexual abuse for children. She uses the findings and insights of British anthropologist Edmund Leach to substantiate a history of inferiority that children face at the hands of their respective families. She also claimed that families constantly bombard their children with emotional pressures that greatly damage their self-esteem. She contextualized these bombardments as high expectations and low appreciation.
Barbara’s first point on children and domestic violence can be similarly rebutted as that of the same point as pertaining to women. While the fact that such heinous crimes do happen to children at home, they are a lot more prevalent in other social constructs that they are exposed to. For example, the emerging problems in local public high schools on bullying and racial violence claim a lot more children victims than domestic violence. (Lannister 271) In fact, it’s hard to image racial violence happening in the home.
Barbara’s last point seems to send the message that families are not equipped to take care of their own children. While this may be the case for some families, it is important to consider that there is no bearing to such a generalization. Factors such as poverty, drug-abuse, among others are grave detriments to the survival of any social construct including the family. Also, problems in child appreciation and overly high expectations have psychological root causes that are hardly present in every household.
With the emerging trend of multiple intelligences in the education sector, parents are becoming more and more aware about the different ways in which their children learn. Parents are now knowledgeable of the learning and evaluation values outside the traditional “pen and paper” and are more than willing to give their kids a pat on the back for doing well in any endeavor. This supports the idea that the home is a haven for children to express their joys and ails about school and society, where parents are more than willing to listen and give comfort.
Are families really dangerous?
We say no. Families are essential social constructs that make up the basis for society. While we acknowledge that families aren’t perfect, we also say that families are in a consistent evolutionary process for improvement, hand in hand with technological advances and breakthroughs in childcare and learning development. This basic unit of society is inviolable and essential and thus could not be done without.
Lannister, James. Media Trends in the United States of America. New York: N. Y. Press, 2003.
Geboren, Trenton. The American Family in the Modern World. New York: Vintage, 2001.
Kido, Otto. “Japanese Work Reforms: Restructuring the Kairetsu.” The Asian Economist 78
“Dysfunctional Family Summary.” Bookrags.com. 22 Jul. 2006, 11:55 UTC. 18 April 2007 <http://www.bookrags.com/Dysfunctional_family>.
“Famous Quotes.” Enotes.com. 13 Aug. 2004, 2:15 UTC. 18 April 2007 <http://history.enotes.com/famous-quotes/even-healthy-families-need-outside-sources-of>.
“Are Families Dangerous?” The Huffingtonpost Blogs – Barbara Ehrenreich. 26 June 2006 2:15 UTC. 18 April 2007 <www.huffingtonpost.com/barbara-ehrenreich>