heron61: (Heron - about me)
[personal profile] heron61
I was talking with my friend Aaron recently and he made a fascinating observation. According to him most people from white, upper middle class, non-academic families that he's talked to about their families report that their relationship with their parents is approximately as dysfunctional as mine is, in almost exactly the same manner – highly conditional love, excessively controlling behavior, unrelenting pushes for "success" (meaning in almost all cases solely financial success), combined with harsh and often vicious dismissal of any alternative views raised by the teen or young adult. Aaron has recently encountered quite a number of these reports from different people, and was both surprised and appalled at how many of these reports closely resembled the same description of my own family life that he's heard for years.

In any case, I don't know if these observations are in any way a general reflection of the lives of many people or merely the result of Aaron running into several people with similar backgrounds. However, the idea that my own experiences might be common caused me to reflect on another factor that might not be idiosyncratic to my own family – the way I was taught about honor and honesty.

I was taught that family honor was very important and was largely defined as what other people thought of you. This is much of why the idea of being considered "weird" or not "normal" was such a bad thing, but it went far beyond that, and had to do with being known as someone who was honest and who did not commit crimes or otherwise perform actions that caused people to think badly of you. This sort of thing was a major part of my growing up and was frequently trotted out whenever I did anything my parents didn't approve of.

However, there was another half of this, which was spoken of less often, and never in the same context, which was all about success and "getting ahead". A lack of concern for others, or at least others who were not family or very close friends was regarded as a positive aspect of being successful, and any such concerns were considered "soft". Moreover, if someone made a mistake that benefited you, which could range from a clerk giving you too much change, a bank error in your favor, or a corporate report that credited you with some positive action that you did not do, doing anything other than accepting this as a pleasant windfall was considered incredibly foolish and self-destructive. The basic mode of thought is that everyone is out solely for themselves and that life was a completely zero sum game - someone gain is always your loss, at least for people of a similar social and economic class in your environment.

The basic idea seemed to be that if you helped others in any way other than offering charity to people much poorer and less well off than you, the people you helped would use this aid to "get ahead" of you, which would result in you losing out due to the help you offered. I was taught this both by example and on the few occasions that I faced such a dilemma and mentioned it to my parents. This general attitude is clearly at least somewhat related to how consistently rude by parents are in certain situations, but also extends to many other areas of life.

In any case, result of the mixture of the focus on honor and the emphasis on "getting ahead" and the result was very clear – doing anything that did not physically injure someone else was largely acceptable if it allowed one to improve their social or (especially) financial position, but getting caught doing something illegal, immoral, or even something that most people would disapprove of was considered to be exceedingly shameful. Thus what you had was a situation where various nasty behaviors were perfectly fine – as long as you didn't get caught. Getting caught was exceptionally shameful and was considered so because of some combination of being someone who performed dubious actions, being someone who was insufficiently clever to avoid getting caught, and letting people see the dirty underside of their world. Thus, actions like writing a bad check was always considered wrong since getting caught was fairly inevitable. However, actions where one was unlikely to get caught and where you got away with what you did were considered some mixture of perfectly fine and worthy of acclaim.

I don't know if my friend Aaron is correct about the various parental dysfunction I deal with being common, but when he talked about this, I was suddenly reminded of the moral lessons of my growing up, and it occurred to me that the rules that I was taught match of disturbingly well with the behavior of various rich sleazebags involved in events like the Enron scandal of 2001, the banking scandals of the last few years, and many similar events in business and occasionally politics. Given that I come from the lower end of the same social class of most of the people who committed these various crimes and offenses, I wonder if they were taught the same things as I was. I have no idea how to gather more data about this, but it seems like possible theory.

Date: 2011-03-22 01:38 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] seika.livejournal.com
Interestingly, I come from a white, middle-class, academic family-- and I have the exact same parental relationship except that the "success" factor is less pronounced than the "family honour" part. However, this may be because I am female and the youngest child, and my parents just wanted me to either marry a nice boy or be a successful career woman so they could get me off their hands. Even my dad, who understood that I was nerdy by nature and certainly encouraged that where he could, believed that since I was a girl, I might be best contented with a happy marriage and children (although he left all that "girl stuff" to my mom). My oldest brother was already wealthy and established by the time I was a teenager, which may also have made a difference.

In any case, result of the mixture of the focus on honor and the emphasis on "getting ahead" and the result was very clear – doing anything that did not physically injure someone else was largely acceptable if it allowed one to improve their social or (especially) financial position, but getting caught doing something illegal, immoral, or even something that most people would disapprove of was considered to be exceedingly shameful. Thus what you had was a situation where various nasty behaviors were perfectly fine – as long as you didn't get caught.

In my case, it was slightly different. Morals were emphasised and firmly believed in, but they were dictated specifically by family honour. Things that society would disapprove of were just plain wrong, unless it had a serious foothold in mainstream society (so, being gay was all right-- "whatever makes you happy"-- but being poly, having green hair, or being a shoplifter was not. About the hair, we had a big argument about it when I was a teenager).

My mother's personality may also have something to do with it-- she is exceedingly naive. She gets outraged if she thinks a politician lied to the American people, because lying is, well, just wrong.

But yes, she's said things to me like "What I just don't like about [those two friends of yours] is that they don't care what anyone else thinks of them." ...

Date: 2011-03-22 07:30 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] heron61.livejournal.com
"What I just don't like about [those two friends of yours] is that they don't care what anyone else thinks of them."

*nods* I know that line all too well.

Date: 2011-03-23 03:55 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] seika.livejournal.com
Yeah, and it was kind of the main reason I liked those friends. (There were actually plenty of real things to dislike about them, but I was a kid and didn't know the warning signs. So, that that's what my mom took issue with...)

sadly, I'm with Aaron.

Date: 2011-03-22 02:32 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] dancinglights.livejournal.com
I know the only two people I've ever been close to with similar class backgrounds have nearly identical dysfunctional issues with their families, yes. One of them pretends to go along with it all enough to be inheriting one of the successful family businesses. The other is too visibly queer (rather than a conservative lipstick lesbian who will still provide grandchildren, see [livejournal.com profile] seika's comment) to hide and in a very unfortunate medically-financially dependent hell. In the former case, the ethics as you describe are obvious from my interactions with the family. The latter is a bit more twisted, but that might only have to do with the stakes for getting caught.

Re: sadly, I'm with Aaron.

Date: 2011-03-22 05:38 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] dancinglights.livejournal.com
As a counterpoint, my dad's family who otherwise fit the class bill are all academic first-generation Americans whose ancestors had already lost everything once. They have rarely given me anything in order to attach strings to it, and are fabulously supportive of all of my strange so long as I constantly reassure them that I am financially self-sufficient in a career worth academically bragging about (and so is my husband). I think they find me valuable in terms of hip novelty status so long as it doesn't cost success.

Date: 2011-03-22 02:48 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] kadath.livejournal.com
white, upper middle class, non-academic families

This is my family, but we're nothing like what you described. However, my mother is an immigrant from Quebec and my father is first-generation American, again coming from Quebec, which may have something to do with it.

Date: 2011-03-22 04:44 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] sara-super-id.livejournal.com
Although my moral upbringing doesn't exactly match yours, the dysfunction in my family does. Highly conditional and very concerned with family finances. I required family help during my early 20's and my family both wanted to provide it and wanted to use providing it to control my choices. I did the poly thing for a few years and it made them so angry, they wanted to withhold money from me, but then they wouldn't get to control me so it drove them batty.

Date: 2011-03-22 04:46 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] sara-super-id.livejournal.com
My parents both went to college, my father in an academic field, but only for an AA (polisci) otherwise they both got more technical degrees.

Date: 2011-03-22 05:11 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] pegunicent.livejournal.com
I've never been quite sure where my family falls, white, obviously, and currently middle class although for most of my childhood were were borderline poor poor and we didn't get into a modestly comfortable area until the last ten years or so. Academic, well... again, a bit of confusion on where we fall. My father has his Masters, I have two BA's, my mom went to beauty school.

But our dysfunctions are nothing like what you've been through. Because we're largely military on both sides and my father was a Marine for 20+ years, family and personal honor were heavily stressed, as well as fitting in and being socially acceptable. But if you couldn't fit in, be exceptional. And in all cases even if it's not socially acceptable, be true and honest accept the fall out of unpopularity as long as you're in the right.

This caused a lot of stress because it's hard as a teen to know what is 'right' about anything, especially yourself, and I had these ideals and ideologies pressed into me so strongly I became my own self destructive critic. Over all though, my parents and I have a very strong bond and relationship, built over mutual understanding, love, and acceptance, and it is in the rest of our family that we have the sort of dysfunctions I've heard you and others talk about.

Date: 2011-03-27 03:20 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] rjgrady.livejournal.com
It is common, and I have spent my hours helping clients re-examine the Success Myth pervasive in middle class and upper middle class culture. Key features include emotional denial, searching for self-esteem in external measures of "success," a mindset of scarcity, and an insistence on controlling the world rather than being at peace with it.

Date: 2012-12-24 05:40 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] queerbychoice.livejournal.com
I'm not from an upper middle class family, but Susan is. I suppose her family was "academic" in a way, but not in the standard higher education way: Her mother was a special ed teacher at a school for severely handicapped children. Her father was a doctor.

Her mother, who has been dead for 23 years, does not seem to have been anything like what you describe. In a lot of ways she wasn't a very good mother, but her failings were always of the neglectful kind rather than the controlling kind. And she was very, very sick for much of Susan's childhood, which provides some excuse for a lot of the neglectfulness.

Susan's father is definitely the controlling kind, though. It's just been hard to see that in sociological terms rather than psychological ones, because he's considerably more, er, pathological about it than the other parents being described here. There's no segment of society whatsoever in which he would not be utterly reviled and condemned as a malicious creep.
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