be my valentine
Let me be clear: the media bombardment of hearts and roses and hetero-normative (yeah, I went there) hand-holding/PDA and the colors red and pink occurring for the past two weeks has been an outrage. But then it’s an outrage every year, because it’s part of the hegemony of mass media attempting to answer for all of us where to find meaning in life and how to be happy. To forget the difference between the average and the individual, or between the trend and the present– that charge can be laid at the door of more than a few folks infatuated with statistics. But to go out of one’s way to aggressively promote a manufactured norm of relationships out of the above offenses– that is truly shameful.
I confess that, among other things, I like models of labor supply, I like knowing the average rate of return to a year in college, and I love generalizing about people based on their age (especially the geriatric population). But I do realize that the labor market is way too complicated to explain fully in a graph, most college-goers don’t get the average rate of return, and there are lots of lovely, open-minded elderly folks (I’m sure). The world is simply easier to grapple with when one makes gross generalizations about its workings. The trouble, as I see it, is when individuals think they should conform to the average. That’s taking statistics to a highly suspect normative arena where it feels dreadfully uncomfortable and awkward, poor thing.
Take this book Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage, which won me over in the end despite being a work of history. Historians, being wiser but nevertheless more muddled than economists, don’t contend themselves with trends and averages, feeling the need to pick up on all of the exceptions thereto and contradictions therein. That’s always bugged me, I won’t lie to you. However, Ms. Coontz takes the words right out of my mouth when she remarks that “there are those who believe that because married people are, on average, better off than divorced or single people, society should promote lifelong marriage for everyone and lead a campaign against divorce and cohabitation. But using averages to give personal advice to individuals or to construct social policy for all is not wise.” Tres true.
Perhaps because I’d been concerned with the average vs individual idea whilst reading Coontz’s book, I read the key change in the institution of marriage that left us where we are today as being a shift away from marriage being an institution at all. That is, marriages are less defined by strict gender roles and stereotype-engendered assumptions and general trickery between the sexes than by a highly individual relationship based on communication and equality and whatnot. Score one for individuals, we might say.
And if individuals can conquer an institution like marriage, then surely individuals can also conquer Valentine’s Day, by subverting its connivingly couple-y connotations to proclaim love for oneself and others, regardless of relationship status. Yes, it was a long walk from there to here, but that’s my way of asking all of my blog readers to be my valentine. As Biddy so aptly remarks in Great Expectations, I am not over-particular. Of course, if you’ve stuck with this highly irregular blog long enough to read this post, you are no ordinary valentine, and I’m lucky to have you. In lieu of roses, here’s a parenthesis bouquet, a la Salinger: ((((((()))))))).