Chipping away at the family.

Chipping away at the family.

Families come in all shapes and sizes” , a common saying and one which is largely true. However, as I watch adverts in the run up to Christmas (such as the one for frozen chips below) I realize that there is a problem; we are so keen to promote one thing that we lose sight of something else. Our recognition of what constitutes a family is being eroded and chipped away.

These adverts obviously celebrate the diversity which exists in our culture and we are happy to see such differences welcomed and minority groups presented in a positive light. However, the idea that “differences” are what make a family is clearly wrong. Family, if it means anything, means similarity and relationship. Families, as we are all aware, are not something we choose but a non-optional group into which we are born. We choose our friends, our colleagues, our partners but not our family.

Left and right political thought has been chipping away at the idea of the family for some time. The family is an awkward social unit for both sides of the debate.

On the right, the desire to maximise economic growth sees the family as an inefficient unit – much better to have two adults working than only one and the other staying in the family to rear and nurture children. Even better, if this childrearing and nurturing itself can become an industry and profit gleaned from the labour of others by providing childcare and rearing services. The right matches the approach of economic freedom (we are all free to make money as best we are able) with individual freedom (our relationships are only valuable in as far as they make us happy). Ideas that duty and responsibility could be superior to profit or happiness are an anathema to those of a neo-liberal or libertarian inclination. The right undermines the family by promoting greater material wealth and promising greater individual choice.

On the left, the family is seen as a reactionary unit and a bulwark against the influence of the state. Families protect and support themselves, a task increasingly seen as a job for the welfare state. Even worse families educate and instruct their children; in the state’s eyes this tends to be seen as indoctrination, and that is better done by them. The left’s understandable desire to tackle such problems as gender inequality or religious intolerance lead it to see the family as largely in negative terms; something from which we need to escape!

These views ignore that facts that for most of us the family has been our greatest support and protection. During our evolution the family group has allowed us to avoid the limitations of our weak and limited bodies and provide a structure which keeps our infants and children safe and provided for at their most vulnerable time. Families also unshackled us from our genes; by being able to teach our children and pass on the wisdom that adults had gathered we were no limited to a knowledge set that was hard-wired in at birth.

This doesn’t mean that we have to look at families askance if they don’t have the traditional make-up of mum, dad and kids; but it does suggest that we should promote the basic idea of the family. That is, of a group comprising parents and children bound together in a permanent, mutually loving bond. This unit is formed by the decision to have and rear children and to take care of each other. It is not formed simply by desires; you may love who you will, but simply loving someone does not make them family – family is a much deeper commitment. Fortunately our nature helps us here, we have literally evolved so that we have innate love for our children and family we don’t have to work that hard at it – usually.

Permanence is key here, the contract is such that it takes major steps (and usually death) to leave the unit. To all intents and purposes, once you are a member of a family, that is it, for good. No matter how much you may wish it you can never stop being a son or a brother or a mother. These roles are non-optional. Even though we may stop being husband or wife we do not stop being mum or dad. It is because marriage is the traditional first step in family formation that it is an interpersonal contract very different to all the others we may make. Now that we have decoupled sex and reproduction we need to give more thought to this area. There is still a need for a special contract, essentially permanent, which we need when we intend to create a family but do not require when we simply seek mutual pleasure and happiness with another person.

With our current progression we may manage to replace the family with material abundance and a benevolent welfare state. We may hope in doing so we also find greater happiness as we have greater individual freedom and more choice. However, it is not how much choice we have that matters most but whether we are able to make good choices. For ourselves, for our race and for our planet it is probable that our best choice would be to eschew the desire for more and better, and aim to find our pleasure in small groups, adequacy and fairness, mutual respect and toleration or, put more simply, in family life.

In times of crisis, our instincts are to try and return to our families. In essence this is what families are. They are the place we feel safe, where we are tolerated whatever our differences, and where we can be forgiven whatever has befallen us. They are the place we will be cared for regardless of our wealth or ability. They are our refuge when the whole world seems to be rising up against us. A family is not simply eating chips together, nor is it a place where we eat together with a familiar group, that is a usually termed a canteen. We may manage to replace the family, but if we do, we should prepare to spend our emotional lives in works or community canteens eating chips. We may be adequately fed but this may be much less satisfying than we hoped for.

Do you want adjectives with that?

Do you want adjectives with that?

We pay a lot for our adjectives. I agree that sometimes these “describing words” are quite helpful but increasingly they seem to act more as financial multipliers rather than as any aid to understanding. Well at least in the world of commerce they do. In the real world they are still valuable, I still want to be able to distinguish between the large, angry rabid dog and the small, friendly puppy dog and it is useful to know that the red mushroom is poisonous while the crinkly orange one is edible. However, in the world of commerce the adjective serves a much less reputable function.

This is a more expensive car than it first appears

In many areas of trade there are multiple vendors who are selling essentially the same things. The differences between their products is miniscule and often imperceptible. In the world of car sales there are some adjectives that are helpful – big, four seater, diesel powered, red, etc. However, many of the differences are so slight as to be unnoticeable. Even when differences are real often people aren’t aware of them. People who buy a 12-valve version of the car have paid extra for these ‘extra’ valves, but did they really compare the car to the its poor 8 valve sibling. Probably not. Indeed, this kind of difference is not really perceptible so one ends up spending money on something you (and importantly others) can neither notice nor appreciate. In this case the adjectives can come to the rescue. The vendor will probably affix a badge, with the adjective, saying “12v”, or “twincam” or “turbo” to your new purchase so that you, and others, know that you spent well over the odds for your vehicle

I’m glad my bacon comes from Staffordshire

However, it is in the world of food that these adjectives really prove their worth as earners. The more adjectives that precede the item of food, the more you will be expected to pay for it. Rarely do these adjectives tell you anything of value. If you buy bacon you will probably have to pay double for “Black Country Staffordshire Bacon”. How do I know if Staffordshire is better than Herefordshire or Lincolnshire ? It really means very little. Once you add a few more adjectives ‘Farm fresh’ or ‘hand reared’ we can soon have easily tripled the price. There are few things that can’t be made more expensive by a judicious use of adjectives. Fried bacon is all very well, and cheap, but ‘pan fried’ bacon is obviously a bit more costly. In the world of fried food adjectives can not only increase the price but can also change the health and class status of food. Deep fried vegetables are obviously unhealthy working-class food but a dish with a side of tempura vegetables is clearly healthy and quite suitable for the middle-class palate.

So, I am going to try a new diet and attempt to steer clear of unnecessary adjectives. I’ll have bacon, egg and chips for tea tonight (£3.50) rather than ‘Sweet cured, hand-reared, Black Country Staffordshire bacon, with free range, organic, farm fresh eggs and a side order of hand-cut, chunky, artisanal, triple cooked, Ayrshire potato chips’ (£9.50) . As it seems £6 is a lot to pay for chips that are of uneven lengths and I can use the money for a ‘tempura‘ Mars Bar in lieu of dessert. That will be healthy and help me keep up with the Joneses

Betting in your smalls.

Betting in your smalls.

I find the increasing numbers of television adverts for on-line gambling depressing. It seems that, during the day at least, there are more adverts for this than any other product. Presumable they are targeting those at home, the unemployed, the retired, the housewife or househusband, who they see as their biggest market. I know that now this is a huge market and I should hardly be surprised to see their marketing presence is large. It is estimated that about half of all betting is now undertaken online and in the UK it is thought £1.85 billion is spent on on-line gambling yearly and, of this, people spend £164,800,000 on on-line bingo. This is a lot of money for a frisson of excitement and the chance to see some flashing lights and it is no shock that they advertise heavily to capture this market.

I have ambivalent feelings towards gambling. I can understand the excitement that it engenders and I have no wish to unnecessarily restrict people’s choices but I have known those to whom it has become an obsession and have lost everything, their homes, their families, and their lives, to it. I’d wish that any advertising would be honest in portraying the pleasures it offers. It would probably be too much to expect them to portray the risks other than minimally.

I find the on-line bingo particularly upsetting. Bingo was once a massive pastime in the UK and every medium sized town would have its Bingo Hall, In addition bingo would be played in clubs and associations, indeed everywhere where a large enough group of people gathered bingo was played – old peoples homes, working men’s clubs, village halls, and so on.  At this time Bingo was, in addition to gambling, a social event. One went out to be in a group of people to play Bingo and have a drink and a chat. It was, at one point, the most popular pastime for working class women. I can recall vividly my mother, and my grandmother, going out with groups of friends for a “night at the Bingo”, and it was “a night”; you bought your books and played a number of games, with intermission for snacks and drinks, and chatted with your friends. The possibility of winning made it more fun but the prizes were much more modest. I can remember the joy when ‘my Bingo-players’ came home with a set of bath-towels. Their success was the talk of the street.

This is the unfortunate change with the move to Bingo online. No longer is it a social event it is simply playing a game of chance. The organisers know this and therefore try to suggest, in their adverts, that this is not the case. This is why I dislike their adverts so much, they are fundamentally and deliberately dishonest. In all the on-line bingo adverts they stress the “community” and “togetherness” when it is precisely this which has been lost. They show people in groups chatting and sharing jokes. There are people dancing and playing games, or making music, together. Every advert has people eating and drinking together and enjoying the company.

This is what bingo did, in the past, offer. But that was then before on-line bingo. That was before 2005 and the Bingo halls started to close.  I remember the Friday night smell of hair-spray as the women of my family bundled their hair high on their heads, and got into their best outfits, before heading to the bingo hall. What they got, in addition to a chance of bath towels, was a night of communal fun at a modest price. On-line bingo has none of this. It is a solitary affair, a way to give money to an anonymous corporation for a short lived, isolated shiver of anticipation. There is no need to get dressed up, no need to leave your home, no need to talk to anyone. Other than through the very unlikely event of winning it adds very little to your life and the adverts need to conceal this.

If they were more honest their adverts might be more valuable. If instead of showing happy, healthy, men and women gathered together for social interaction they showed the real deal people might think twice. An advert of a lonely man, sitting in his untidy flat, in his underwear, prodding his tablet in the vain hope of winning some cash, or a short ad of a women sitting in the cubicle of a W.C. hopefully thinking that this game on her phone will reward her enough to deal with her debt, might be more honest and more useful. Just as buying a particular car will not make us a rebel, nor wearing certain clothes make us an intellectual, neither will solitary gambling make us part of a community. We need people to put their pants back on, to go outside, and meet their friends and neighbours again.