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The Polyhedron of the Family in Latin America. From toxic individualism to the larger, common home

The Polyhedron of the Family in Latin America

From toxic individualism to the larger, common home

Gustavo Beliz[1]

 

“The family is the first school of human

values, where we learn the wise use of freedom…

In the family, we learn closeness, care and

respect for others. We break out of our fatal

self-absorption”.

Francis, Amoris laetitia

 

Summary

This article describes different forms of expression of individualism and the multiplicity of dimensions of the family that act in opposition to each of them. It asks what the State can do to strengthen the bonds of family life and limit the influence of the individualistic vision at home, at work and in the community. It also describes different initiatives and public policies that, in light of the current crisis of the family in Latin America, can contribute to integral development based on greater equity and social inclusion.

 

I. Individualism and Family in Latin America

Pope Francis assures us that “radical individualism is a virus that is extremely difficult to eliminate, for it is clever. It makes us believe that everything consists in giving free rein to our own ambitions”.[2] The family is the first dose of immunity against this lethal virus that people receive even before they are born. Its protection is multifaceted and protects us from a danger that infiltrates different aspects of our lives, in the relationship with our loved ones, at work, and in the coexistence within a community.

That natural shield against individualism that is the family is going through a deep crisis and through its cracks penetrate selfishness, ambition, envy, and feelings that do nothing but separate what should be united. The problem is greater in poorer and more unequal societies, and for this reason we must pay special attention to Latin America, the most unequal and violent region on the planet.

There are at least six aspects of individualism that cause substantial damage to people and the environment.

1. Individualism as poison for the environment. Latin America concentrates 30% of the planet’s fresh water, but almost 1 out of every 3 citizens of the region receives a discontinuous daily service of drinking water.[3] Insufficient access to water leads to environmental degradation, hunger and malnutrition, desertification or devastated lands.[4]

Climate change and depopulation of the countryside lead to the forced displacement of farming families and the disintegration of communities. Pollution caused by fossil fuels has extremely harmful effects on health and life when greed takes primacy over respect for nature.

2. Individualism in a throwaway culture. In Latin America, 1 out of every 3 people is poor. Moreover, 13 out of every 100 suffer from hunger.[5] In Argentina, almost 6 out of 10 children under 14 years of age live in poverty. The precariousness of living conditions and the lack of jobs create difficulties that sometimes favor the increase of drug addiction.[6]

On the margins of the system are those discarded by an individualism that holds them responsible for their supposed failure. This installs the cliché of individual success guaranteed by a good idea and access to a garage, and at the same time condemns, ignores and despises these disadvantaged people.[7]

On that contempt emerges aporophobia, fear of the evidence of our own fragility, which is nothing more than our own humanity,[8] the fear of the collapse of the glass castle built with material goods to give us an ever-unstable sense of security.

3. Technocratic individualism. 30% of internet use in Latin America is for education, health or commerce, while the remaining 70% is for leisure activities.[9] The proportion in OECD countries is almost the opposite. The same is true for any technology; its real value lies in the way it is used. Sometimes, new technologies such as artificial intelligence or robotics are used without an ethical sense and responsibility towards people and the planet, guided exclusively by the narrowness of the technocratic view. Without an ethics of innovation, technology only amplifies inequality.

Just as big data can contribute to food production through precision agriculture, it can also be used to viralize fake news, or to misinform, distort facts and weaken the institutions of democracy when it serves the interests of a few powerful groups instead of the common good.

4. Individualism as an engine of social violence. The Americas are the most violent region in the world, accounting for 37% of all murders.[10] The crime rate is linked to drug use and alcohol abuse, since 4 out of 10 crimes are committed under the influence of these substances. Francis (2020) tells us that “consumerist individualism has led to great injustice” and when others become mere obstacles “we end up treating them as annoyances and we become increasingly aggressive”.

The link between individualism and violence becomes closer in the face of scarcity and poverty when the values transmitted by the media and commercial marketing respond to greed, to the prevalence of the material world over the spiritual world.

5. Self-centered and self-referential individualism. One of the greatest problems of today’s culture is loneliness caused by the fragility of relationships, particularly digital relationships that only have the appearance of friendship.[11] They do not truly build a “we”, “they tend to disguise and expand the very individualism that finds expression in xenophobia and in contempt for the vulnerable”.[12]

On a personal level, social networks can generate lasting wounds in self-esteem when from a very early age girls and boys are harassed by cyber bullying, a practice suffered by many families. The distorted use of social networks has become widespread with instances of toxic conversations, social stoning and cruel memes.

These practices are driven by fear, by intolerance to what is different and by the objectification of people, placing them in a permanent showcase with their price hung on “like” tags.

6. Individualism as institutional indifference. Distrust in Latin America’s main institutions is overwhelming. 83% of the population distrusts political parties, 74% the Judicial System, 73% the Congress, 72% the Government, 62% the police, 56% the electoral authority and 50% the army.[13] There are not enough channels to direct individual efforts in collective institutions that have a good reputation.

The consequence is discouragement and passivity, which soon turn into complicity with the suffering of others. When suspicion, distrust or comfort paralyze us and prevent us from acting in defense of justice, we facilitate the oppression of the most vulnerable. Individualists profit from resignation, from weak institutions, from heads down and elusive eyes.

By supporting and protecting families as a relational good, we will be creating the necessary antibodies to guard against individualism and its many faces. Love among its members is the raw material that society needs for an integral development.

II. The Family as a Multifaceted Relational Good

The cure for individualism is presented to us in the different faces of the polyhedral family, in the well-being generated by the sharing of a tender, reciprocal relationship that is the basis of the social order. It is also a dynamic polyhedron whose sides can change with globalization and cultural transformations.

Governments and the international community, based on public policies of inclusion and solidarity, have the responsibility to “pass laws and create work to ensure the future of young people and help them realize their plan of forming a family”.[14] The following are areas of action to strengthen family ties.

1. Ecological family. The health of the environment has consequences on human life. In the context of the current ecological tragedy, the family needs to be constituted on the basis of the human right to healthy land, being “the principal agent of an integral ecology, because it is the primary social subject”.[15]

Territorial reorganization policies that facilitate access to land, housing and work should be a priority to improve the environmental conditions of rural areas and poor neighborhoods.

Integral ecology requires an international community determined to encourage green growth, low in emissions, respectful of nature, inclusive, and protective of the sea. The rejection of the throwaway culture must begin in the heart of the family, in the education of sons and daughters, placing value on daily activities of energy saving, recycling and reforestation.

2. Family as social capital. In order to limit the intergenerational transmission of poverty, we need to invest in social capital.[16] In citizen protection networks, we must humanize state structures that safeguard family life, such as family courts, and adoption laws that prioritize the welfare of children.

At the same time, we need nutrition programs for the first thousand days of life that guarantee state assistance to women with unsatisfied basic needs and prepare the new generations for the jobs of the future.

We also need to provide incentives to young people to avoid the demographic winter that delays the development of families for simple hedonism, [17] while we address the problem of lack of sex education and teenage pregnancy. It is the inalienable right to life, manifested in a family and social context, which challenges individualism and its inclination to discard.

3. Enterprise family. Cooperation within the work environment and the protection of families at companies represent a fundamental refuge of modern life. We need remote work laws that contemplate the new labor relations that the use of new technologies involves. And it is up to the State to build the social security network for self-employed workers by setting up a social security system that provides for them, with an adequate fiscal architecture.

The enterprise is an area of cooperation that takes care of the day-to-day needs of the family group. It cannot be seen only as a unit to do business and multiply money. It needs to act with social responsibility, with its workers and with society as a whole, avoiding monopolistic practices.[18]

The increase in productivity linked to innovation and the incorporation of new technologies make it necessary to multiply actions to contain technocratic individualism based on a conception of an enterprise family that works for the common good.

4. Community family. We need to extend the feeling of solidarity that often prevails in poor neighborhoods to the whole community and strengthen the care that comes from the large family, based on kind treatment, non-aggression agreements and respect for one’s own identity.

With strengthened community ties, women’s support networks can be formed, and possible situations of violence or abuse can be detected at an early stage, creating channels for reporting them. In Argentina, 1 out of every 3 victims of femicide had previously filed a complaint. We need a transparent and effective justice system that ensures the welfare of citizens within consistent timeframes, together with prevention and security policies.

5. Intergenerational family. It is key to promote intergenerational solidarity between young and old, creating spaces to share quality family time, avoiding excesses in the use of social networks. Exchange with others cannot be supplanted by the activity in cyberspace. The metallic substitute of virtual reality is only a temporary patch for our family life, the one that gives us a true sense of belonging.

This reciprocal respect and recognition, the backbone of homes, must be the foundational anchor of the common home of families, which are countries, and give rise to social dialogues that leave behind the nervous exchange of opinions in social networks and establish a friendly and fruitful conversation.[19]

6. Ecclesial Family. Francis (2019) reminds us that the Gospel provides us with the most radical and profound antidotes to defend and cure us from the disease of individualism. Church communities need to protect the family as part of their pastoral dimension.[20] People trust the Church more than any other institution of democracy, with confidence in the population approaching 70%.[21] We cannot remain indifferent.

The social charity of evangelizing action involves in its very nature the overcoming of individualism. We must accompany this activity with institutions that have the face of a woman, that welcome families in crisis, that assist the homeless with maternal tenderness, and with a government that has the face of a migrant, that is generous and hospitable, that acts on the periphery of urban centers, dedicated to integration and inclusion.[22]

Families must be the stem cells that give shape to States with a face of hope where there is a common principle: no member is forgotten. In this way, each family will be able to “rediscover the joy of communion with other families so as to serve the common good”.[23]

III. Conclusion: The State’s Responsibility towards the Family

Public policies in defense of families should not get bogged down in the dialectic of individualism in its different variants. Initiatives that become slaves to immediacy, short-term benefit and discord nullify their own transforming essence, which lies in strengthening family ties and their interaction with society.

Intelligent States must seal each side of the family polyhedron to make it stronger and compact. But this path to the common home will be more arduous if corruption depletes public resources and amplifies social inequity by limiting the scope of programs and reforms. The design of long-term policies, which should be the basis for the well-being of families, becomes a chimera with impoverished governments.

Any journey is more difficult if it is undertaken alone. Today, “no state can ensure the common good of its population if it remains isolated”.[24] The international community, through organizations such as the G20, the IMF or the WTO, must act decisively on problems that end up having an impact on families, such as drug trafficking, human trafficking, tax havens or environmental pollution.

St. John Paul II said: “The family is called to be a temple, that is, a house of prayer: a simple prayer, full of effort and tenderness. A prayer that becomes life, so that all of life becomes prayer”.[25]

Let us then make every effort to protect this temple, to intone prayer, to honor life. In this task we will be building, together, a common home.

References

1.     Acevedo, I., Castellani, F., Flores, I., Lotti, G., Székely, M. (2020), Social implications of Covid-19: Estimates and alternatives for Latin America and the Caribbean. Inter-American Development Bank. Washington, D.C.
2.     Bottan, N.L., Vera-Cossio, D.A. and B. Hoffmann (2020), The Unequal Impact of the Coronavirus Pandemic: Evidence from Seventeen Developing Countries. IDB-DP-785.
3.     Cortina, Adela (2014), Aporofobia, el rechazo al pobre, Paidós.
4.     ECLAC (2021), Social Panorama of Latin America 2020, United Nations.
5.     Francis (2016), Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation. Amoris Laetitia, Vatican, March 16, 2016.
6.     Francis (2019), Lectio Divina of His Holiness Pope Francis, Pontifical Lateran University, March 26, 2019.
7.     Francis (2020), Encyclical Letter Fratelli Tutti of the Holy Father Francis on fraternity and social friendship, Vatican.
8.     IDB (2017), Econintegration. Ideas inspired by Laudato Si’. Planet-IDB.
9.     IDB (2018), Broadband Development Index (IDBA), Inter-American Development Bank.
10.  Synod of Bishops (2014), Extraordinary General Assembly. the pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization, October 18, 2014.
11.  Synod of Bishops (2015), The vocation and mission of the family in the church and in the contemporary world, Vatican.
12.  Synod of Bishops (2019), Special Assembly for the Pan-Amazon region. Amazonia: new paths for the church and for an integral ecology, Final Document, Vatican, October 26, 2019.

END NOTES

[1] President of the Economic and Social Council of Argentina. Member of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences.
[2] Francis (2020) further points out that “individualism does not make us more free, more equal, more fraternal” “nor can it save us from the many ills that are now increasingly globalized”.
[3] IDB (2017) compiles a series of technical studies inspired by the Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’.
[4] The Synod (2019) describes this phenomenon in the Amazon.
[5] Cepal (2021) highlights that without palliative social measures in the face of the COVID crisis, poverty would be 37% and extreme poverty 15%. In Argentina, poverty is higher among children: between 56% and 63% of children under 14 years of age live in poverty.
[6] In 4 out of 10 families in the region, one of its members lost his or her job during the health crisis (Bottan et al., 2020).
[7] By 2021, Latin America will lose 25 million jobs and informality will increase to 62% of total employment (Arboleda et al., 2020). In Argentina, the pandemic brought unemployment to 11% in 2020.
[8] According to Cortina (2014) xenophobia and aporophobia, fear of the poor, are two sides of the same coin.
[9] Moreover, connectivity in Latin America and the Caribbean is limited: 13% of the population has access to fixed broadband service and 65% to mobile broadband, compared to 33% and 96% in OECD countries (IDB, 2018).
[10] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) statistics.
[11] The Synod (2014) also warns that loneliness is also the fruit of the absence of God in people’s lives.
[12] Francis (2020) invites us to cultivate true friendships in a laborious way, with a stable reciprocity, building consensus that matures over time.
[13] Latinobarómetro (2018) survey results for 18 countries in the region.
[14] Synod (2014) describes that families feel abandoned by the disinterest and little attention given by some institutions, an abandonment that has demographic consequences and educational difficulties.
[15] Francis (2016) argues that “we treat affective relationships the way we treat material objects and the environment: everything is disposable; everyone uses and throws away, takes and breaks, exploits and squeezes to the last drop. Then, goodbye!”.
[16] The pandemic will push 22 million people into poverty in the region, bringing the number of poor people to over 209 million (ECLAC, 2021). Additionally, 52 million people will drop out of the middle class (Acevedo et al., 2020).
[17] Francis (2019) warns us about the temptation of living in comfortable, greedy individualism concerned only with one’s own well-being, free time and self-realization, and its consequences in terms of the “demographic winter” that delays the fulfillment of families just to possess more.
[18] Francis (2020) assures that the activity of entrepreneurs is a noble vocation aimed at producing wealth and improving the world for all, which should be “clearly directed to the development of others and to eliminating poverty... The right of some to free enterprise or market freedom cannot supersede the rights of peoples and the dignity of the poor”.
[19] The Economic and Social Council recently set up in Argentina, composed of representatives of workers, the business sector, civil society and the world of science, aims to reach a consensus on the design of State policies.
[20] They face, however, the decrease in the number of marriages. In the City of Buenos Aires alone, the number of marriages went from 13,000 in 2010 to 11,000 in 2019 (a 20% reduction), and to only 5,500 in 2020 as a consequence of the pandemic.
[21] The contrast with institutions such as political parties, which possess the trust of only 17% of the population, is notorious (Latinobarómetro, 2018).
[22] The Synod (2019) dedicated to the Amazon called to strengthen a Church with a migrant face, with a young face, with an indigenous face.
[23] In this way it will be “promoting a public policy, an economy and a culture in service of the family” (Synod, 2015).
[24] Francis (2020) recommends countries to reach regional agreements with their neighbors that allow them to negotiate as a block against large transnational corporations that prefer individual negotiation.
[25] St. John Paul II, Angelus, February 6, 1994. From the original in Spanish and Italian.

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