So I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the quiverfull folks and the quiverfull ideology at No Longer Quivering. I think I’ve finally figured out what this natalism thing is all about. But first, let me make an analogy with atheism.
I was not raised religious, so I had no experience of that mindset. I started on this whole subject by realizing I was part of this whole ideology called atheism. When you first become an atheist explicitly, the first thing you tend to grapple with are the formal arguments. Arguments are very accessible: they are basically self-contained units, universal in language, and they can be directly analyzed using the tools of logic and reason. So there’s a lot of interest in debunking Christian arguments. It’s very substantial; there’s a lot to talk about and, of course, there’s the whole area of theology to deal with as well.
But once you get familiar with the whole religious system well enough, you realize that the arguments are a big red herring and that theology is a system of rationalizations. They are ad hoc, fictional attempts to provide a bridge between beliefs and actual observed facts. You come to realize that people are religious for a whole other set of reasons.
That’s a much harder issue because it’s not self-contained. It’s part of people’s life experiences, from their first memories onwards. To really understand it, you have to understand people’s progression in life and how our beliefs are formed and change. That’s not something that’s easily accessible, even if you’ve been religious yourself.
But beyond that, we can still identify some basic principles which underlie a person’s present beliefs. For example, the belief in the inerrancy of the Bible. Or the belief in some kind of original sin, that we are born evil in some mysterious way. Things like that. And you can address these points and try to undermine them, for those who are curious enough to consider opposite viewpoints.
I think natalism follows this same structure. At first, I thought I should address Bryan Caplan’s arguments. I thought, he must be the real deal, this is what natalism is all about, these idiotic arguments must be refuted. Obviously I still think they must be refuted.
But I’ve also come to realize that they are ad hoc rationalizations, that they are ultimately red herrings. When you look at what actual people who have as many children as they can really believe, the quiverfull (QF), you find that all these arguments have really nothing to do with it. What you do find, however, is that there seems to be a single principle which underlies these actions: the objectification of women.
(slightly modified from this For a Lack of a Better Comic comic)
The QF ideology is predicated on the male being the head of the household and giving the orders, the female obeying the male in all things (basically, engaging in the same relationship as a worshipper to God), and the children obeying both parents in all things. The female is to have no values apart from those of her husband. In that way, she is very much objectified at a fundamental level.
She is also objectified through the ideal and pseudo-worship of motherhood. I say pseudo-worship because while QF people claim to glorify QF mothers, who are said to be “worth far more than rubies”, they have a very strange way of showing it in practice. Mothers in QF families basically have no freedom of their own, and are virtually possessions of their husbands, which the rubies quote ironically illustrates very well. The ideal of motherhood is an integral part of that, since no living person can live up to an ideal of perfection, and therefore all QF mothers must be alienated from their own role as mothers.
Finally, she is quite literally objectified as basically a walking uterus through the QF policy of constant procreation. Pregnancy is a physically demanding and medically dangerous biological state. A woman who is constantly pregnant cannot operate as a normal human being; she has been reduced to the state of being centered around her uterus.
These means of objectification are, I think, the basis of QF natalism. The children seem very unimportant except as a means to an end, that is to say, as the way the mother can express her motherhood and the way the father can extend himself (because the children, like the mother, are his possessions). What I mean by this is that QF people really don’t care about the kind of arguments Caplan and others present as to why having children is good for society (they hate “the world” anyway) or why having children is good for you (as their ideology is one of self-sacrifice, at least for the mother). Rather, they only care about children because they represent the product of motherhood. They see children as “a quiver of arrows,” tools used to attack “the world.”
Some may argue that, while objectification may be at the core of quiverfull, it is not at the core of natalism. Surely natalist men like Bryan Caplan do not deliberately objectify their wives. Surely they care about their wives very much.
I would say, first of all, that I don’t believe any man who has children cares about his wife very much, if at all. Any husband who would inflict a physically demanding and potentially lethal condition on his wife for his own selfish sexual desires (for PIV) is hardly worthy of the title of husband. And yes, I know some of you will say that the wife often (but not always) agrees to have children as well, but that has nothing to do with the responsibility and vow of the husband to protect his wife. Besides, to blame the victim’s indoctrinated agreement is despicable and vile.
Beyond this, I would answer that whether they know it or not, their ideology is still predicated on some objectification. All support of procreation is partially a support of the objectification of women as well (in the same way that Christians support a homophobic ideology, even if they are not themselves homophobic). Insofar as the woman is seen as a baby-making machine and her values or needs are not taken into account, she is objectified to that extent.
Indeed, if you look at the natalist arguments, health considerations or value considerations don’t even enter the picture. A woman is an abstraction that produces children for the good of society, for the good of “the economy,” or for the good of the State. It really does not matter at all how many women’s lives are ruined or ended in this process. And like the QF, natalists still see children as a means to an end.
This is really, really important. When we talk about the draft (which was, until very recently, a purely male issue), moral issues immediately come up: the draft is a form of slave labor, the draft is justified by utilitarian rhetoric and that’s wrong, and so on. When we talk about the war on drugs, again we talk about moral issues such as civil rights, the harm it causes, and so on. But when we talk about a topic that has to do with women… the moral arguments are completely evacuated. Men are very, very, utilitarianism-minded when they think about social policies concerning women, but not about social policies which do not have a gender or sexual component. The same is true of any issue that has to do with the Other, such as “immigration,” neo-liberalism, war.
So there seems to be a pretty strong link between antinatalism, where the opposition relies on the objectification of women to take hold, and radical feminism, which fights against the objectification of women in our societies. It seems to me that antinatalism cannot be a really effective force in society if we keep ignoring the objectification of women and PIV-worship. To do so would condemn us to keep attacking rationalizations forever without addressing the real causes of natalist belief, like an atheist who only talks about theological arguments.
All heterosexual men objectify women, so there will always be antinatalists who objectify women. That’s a fact we have to live with. That one cannot be a natalist without objectifying women in some way doesn’t mean that antinatalists cannot objectify women as well. But we must be aware of the fact that this objectification is our opponents’ fundamental premise, and we must proclaim that women are not to be made slaves to the species, that they should be equally unyoked to this slavery as men are.
I realize this is problematic because many antinatalists support pornography and prostitution as ways to distract men from procreating. It is true that pornography has been linked with decreasing libidos. Of course this, in itself, is a great thing. But keep in mind that this is a problem only for people at the extreme of pornographic consumption, and that pornography is not a main cause of libido decrease. Promoting safe alcohol or antidepressant use in men would actually be a lot more effective, if that was the goal.
The fact that pornography and prostitution gets men to treat women like shit is rather more relevant to natalism. Only a man who is either completely ignorant of pretty basic medical facts, or accepts that he should treat women like shit, would subject his wife to regular PIV and pregnancies.
The distraction tactic only works when you can implement it on a society-wide scale, a la Brave New World or a cult environment, where there’s basically no escape. Some have theorized that an all-consuming virtual reality might do the trick (imagine Second Life, but experienced in as real a way as we experience reality itself). That’s fine, but we’re not there yet. Until then, we need to hack at the root of the problem and not fantasize about easy solutions or fantasy omnicidal buttons.