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(This is the post I had intended to write yesterday before it all went pear-shaped. Thanks to [profile] alamark for the idea!)

At the recent election, Family First came in last on my ballot paper. Not just because they stand for the kind of 1950s ideal of "family values" that most sane people realise was a propaganda piece for capitalism and a thin veneer over the repression and exploitation of women; but because of what I found to be the deeply offensive implications of their giant billboard over the West Gate Freeway proudly declaring, "This election, I'm putting my family first!"

Why would I find such a thing offensive?

Well, for one thing, it's clearly not a socialist idea. They're not talking about the whole human family here, obviously, but the very narrowly specific concept of the nuclear family - a man, a woman and their children. There is much I could say about my feelings with regard to the nuclear family and the pernicious belief that it is the "natural" state of human relationships; but that isn't quite the direction I'm taking in this post. There's something wider and deeper going on with the insidiously reactionary sentiment expressed in the Family First billboard and it's been going on in our society for some time - the attempt to contain the definition of 'family' within a small, manageable, capitalistic box.

For several years now I have been adamantly and openly child-free - that is, I have no children by my own choice and do not feel that by making this choice I am missing out on anything that I actually want to have in my life. I am very fortunate to be married to someone who is of the same mind on this point but I think it's fair to say that [personal profile] japester and I would thus not qualify as a family by Family First's standards. Moreover, there still seems to be a sense in wider society that it's children that make a family. I want to talk about why I don't believe this to be the case and why I think the concept of family should be more expansive.

What seems to be at issue is really how we define relationships and what makes us attach greater importance to some than to others.

"Blood is thicker than water" is an old and well-known saw expressing the belief that those to whom you are related "by blood" - or genetically, as we'd now say - are ultimately the most important people in your life; even if you don't get along with your relatives, you'll still be there for them when they need you. All well and good but in practice, many of us have friends, unrelated by blood, for whom we'd drop everything if they were in a crisis - even if we haven't so much as spoken to them for years. Why do people not more generally consider such friends to be 'family'?

The point might be made that there's a biological imperative to advance the interests of those who carry one's own genes and that therefore your relationship with your own children is the most important connection you can have in life. It seems reasonable to suppose that there's something to this argument but again, in practice there's much that runs counter to it. Some parents abuse and even kill their own offspring - not exactly a means of advancing one's genetic contribution to the next generation. Do they still get to be called a 'family'? And what about adopted children? Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's children are not all their biological offspring but they are all collectively referred to as a family. So it's quite apparent that the notion of children making a family is only loosely related to our biological drives.

How about other animals? I am very much a dog person and I've observed that amongst those who readily identify themselves as such - including many of my friends - dogs really are part of the family. I might be laying myself open to charges of profound weirdness in this, but I genuinely cannot imagine being more devastated by the death of a child than I was when I lost my dog, Bosworth, to cancer in 2011. He was very much family to me and home just hasn't been the same without him. Our cats are part of the family too. Unfortunately, society in general hasn't yet caught up to this more enlightened embrace of our fellow mammals. It might, however; at the 2012 Global Atheist Convention, Peter Singer gave an excellent speech about expanding circles of ethical consideration. It seems, from research done by Steven Pinker and others, that humanity has been gradually, over its history, becoming less violent and more broadly altruistic; progressing from kinship bonds through to caring for people of other groups, other countries, other races, even through to caring about the interests of nonhuman animals - recognising that ultimately, we are all family.

I think that is why, in the end, I found the Family First billboard so offensive. So narrow and selfish in its scope (and yes, I am alive to the irony of being called selfish myself for not having children of my own) and so closed to the possibility of a broader concept of family than man, woman and 2.4 children, all tucked up in their cottage behind the white picket fence, it offers no understanding to those of us who want something different for our lives and our relationships.

I may not fit the little model of the family so vaunted by conservatives but I do have lovers, friends and nonhuman companions whom I count as my own; I also have the consciousness that the interests of my brother and sister humans - and my nonhuman cousins - matter as much to them as my own do to me; and so if anyone is ever foolish enough to ask me, "When are you going to have a family?" my response will always be, "I already have one."

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October 2013

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