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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, April 6, 2004

Forget phony 'family values' and embrace brotherly love

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By Keiko Ohnuma
Advertiser Staff Writer

When I was single, I thought talk of "family values" was just another way to make people feel rotten for not having children.

But since I've joined a family of my own, I notice this set of values has very little to do with families themselves. I'm not sure it includes my family, for example.

Apparently, the phrase points to a set of ideals held in common by all decent people, and if you don't hold these values, well, you should.

The "family" part plays on the uncertainty most everyone feels about not being quite good enough — as parents, as children, as citizens — not measuring up to the glowing, happy families on television and the three-bedroom, two-bath achievements of middle-class suburbia.

If you're a good family — a real family, according to this image — these are the principles that guide how you act.

But what are "family values"? We hear about them all the time, but can anyone list them?

Being heterosexual isn't enough — though it is a requirement. You can get away with being a working mom, but you'd better be "pro life."

In fact, "family values," if you turn the concept over and over, seems to define itself less by what it includes than by what it leaves out.

It's another of those divisive rallying points, like patriotism, that pretends to be about common cause, while busily drawing dividing lines about whom to love and hate.

America "stands tall" in response to an imagined enemy, in the same way that certain churches excite a following by assigning a vivid face and name to sin.

In both cases, change is the threat perceived to the things we hold dear. Faced with the confusing, different or new, it is comforting (if primitive) to locate an agent and pin the blame on them. It's certainly simpler than assuming we all have the same basic wants and needs — that "there but for the grace of God go I."

Take the 9/11 terrorists: They thought they were defending their own family values against the corrupting influence of American materialism and imperialism. And it was to the great benefit of the people who controlled them to play to the desire to protect their own and buy their loved ones a seat in heaven through martyrdom.

Pitching the promise of eternal, uncorrupted safety makes it easy to control the multitudes. Through appeals to side-taking and enemy-making, ambitious groups disguise their goals even from their members, couching it all as a private matter — a question of heart, feeling, "family" — rather than a means to consolidate social and political power.

Nowadays, when I hear the term "family values," it calls to mind the Family — the Mob — and how a man can be a warm, loving father to his suburban brood while remaining brutally indifferent to anyone outside his inner sanctum.

That's why I favor the more traditional, maternal ideal of 'ohana, which sounds like family as a project greater than the sum of its parts. In this laboratory of love, it says, we learn to extend even to strangers the compassion we grow to feel for those who, by no less accident of fate, happen to be related to us.

This isn't circling the wagons, but unlocking the door. Not "family values," but brotherly love.

Reach Keiko Ohnuma at kohnuma@honoluluadvertiser.com.