“Tradtional” or “Natural” family? A revealing look at language in the culture war

1 Nov

I once had a student suggest that his peers and instructors dispense entirely with the term “natural family” and forever replace it with the “traditional family.”  The term “natural” is offensive, it was said, for those students who were not raised in such an environment.  I can appreciate that.  However…

Language is a telling thing.  How it evolves indicates the underlying changes in cultural norms and mores and understandings.  We no longer use the term “negro” to describe African-Americans (preferring that label instead) in order to reflect a society where racial equality is the norm and goal.

We see this in other places as well.  When sexuality was socially and morally expected to be confined to the marital bedroom, a man and woman would only “court” prior to marriage.  Romance and affection were seen exclusively and properly as preparatory for marriage.  But as romance and affection devolved into recreational activities, not tied to marriage, we began “dating.”  And when recreational dating gave way to the cultural preoccupation with sexuality — when the knot tied between sex and marriage was entirely undone — we stopped dating, and started to “hook up” since the interest that men and women have with each other is less about marriage or even innocent fun, but primarily about sex.

Likewise, a child born out of wedlock is no longer a “bastard” or “illegitimate” (both implying a moral standard someone failed to meet), but is instead simply designated as a “birth to an unmarried mother” (morally neutral language).

So the labels we use may or may not reflect the permanent nature of things.  They may or may not reflect the metaphysical reality of a thing.  That is they may or may not accurately capture or fully describe the essence of the object we are trying to capture or describe.  If they do, then changing the label is problematic.  If they do not, then changing the label may be quite appropriate (negro to African-American, for instance).

The refusal by many to use the term “natural” to refer to families where children are reared in the context of an in-tact conjugal marriage is telling as well.  The growing preference is to use the term “traditional” or even “conventional.”  Why?  Because we all know traditions and conventions change and evolve.  Moreover, the term “natural” refers to the order, design, permanence of things (nature).  But tradition implies that the marriage or family structures are arbitrarily determined by human conventions or customs, and nothing more.  Indeed, the very use of the term “natural family” is met with serious offense, since “natural” attempts to capture a metaphysical reality and ontological essence, of the family (whereas “traditional” is simply a nominal label for a certain, past, family arrangement; purely a heuristic label).  It is said, assumed, that those who insist on using the label “natural” are basically backwards irrational knuckle-dragging cavemen, or worse, fundamentalists.

But let me ask, which term, natural or traditional, is the most rational?  Attempt, if you can, to arrive on planet Earth with only the powers of reason at your disposal.  What will you observe about human families?

You will observe that, biologically, children are produced exclusively by men and women engaged in procreated sexual intercourse.  Other sexual activities fail to produce human offspring.  They appear to be, err, less natural in terms of sexual reproduction.  Moreover, you observe, err, out in nature, that other species, particularly those of mammals (you are told this is the order to which the species of humans belong as well) produce all of their offspring in the same way.

You will observe that, sociologically, these men and women virtually everywhere regardless of language or geographic location, for as far back as history records, organize themselves into families where children remain with and are raised by a mother and father.  You will further observe that deviations from that familial arrangement tend to turn out poorly for the well-being and even survival of children.  For their own survival, so it seems, they organize themselves this way as both evolutionary theory and earthly theological understandings explain concerning the, err, nature of things.

You will observe that, politically, societies everywhere, even if they briefly experiment with other arrangements, quickly construct legal systems designed to promote and protect that biological and sociological most basic unit of family structures and discourage or under-privilege others, for the well-being and survival of the society.

You, as a reasonable person, having never thumped a bible in your alien life, might use a word to describe what you are observing concerning the family arrangements, reproductive patterns, developments, behavior, of humans.  For biological, sociological, and political reasons, you might use the word “natural” to describe what a minority of earthlings now want to call “traditional” families.  Reflecting on all you have observed, it would hardly occur to you that this arrangement is artificial, arbitrary, unnatural, purely conventional; it is rather quite permanent, most helpful, and so you surmise it to be clearly natural to the species.  You might even say that such arrangements appear to be present in the very nature or essence of humankind.  The existence of other sexual arrangements wouldn’t lead you to conclude otherwise about the natural family arrangement.  Deviations do not displace natural orders, you know.  You will be quite puzzled that some seemingly intelligent earthlings have changed the way they refer to family arrangements, despite the evidence you have so easily observed.  You are astonished that some earthlings today (at least those in one corner of the globe who ironically pride themselves as the most reasonable men on earth) are concerned far more with offending others than rationality or human flourishing.  You consider saying something about this, suggesting that the label “natural” is not only empirically well-established but also socially beneficial.  But before you do, my alien friend, you had better say it and disembark for your home planet as quickly as possible, cause them’s fightin’ words today fella!

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