In conversation the other day, a colleague asked whether I thought that the frightening rise in anti-contraception, heterosexist, homophobic politics was connected to larger demographic shifts or some other very large scale change that was going on in the world. Social scientists often like to do that kind of thing – pointing out that you have to zoom way out to see the very big picture before you can understand changes that are occurring in a society. I’m a more micro-level social observer, typically, so I sometimes look at community dynamics and identity construction without thinking about “the big picture.”Taking his question seriously, though, led me through this series of observations:
1. Fertility rates (the number of children being born per woman in a society) have been falling. In Europe, according to yesterday’s New York Times, they’re well below the replacement rate for the population. (If a society is to replace its population by births alone, women must average 2.1 children each). While too much population growth is the thing people tend to fear, population shrinkage is scary too: it means not enough new workers being born to support aging populations and maintain economies.
2. Arlene Stein’s recent book, The Stranger Next Door, discussed in The Nation, here: points out that Americans tend to feel “colder” to gays and lesbians than to most other minority groups (including welfare recipients). The only group they feel “colder” toward on average is illegal immigrants. While most immigrants are not in the U.S. illegally, anti-illegal immigrant rhetoric often gets generalized into anti-immigrant, “us/them” rhetoric (after all, most of the time what one perceives is an accent or a foreign language, not an actual immigration status).
3. Thus, if we are experiencing falling birthrates, and are increasingly antagonistic toward immigrants does that help us understand the otherwise irrational growth of anti-birth control, anti-homosexual rhetoric and politics? After all, same-sex sex cannot produce births, nor can opposite-sex sex if contraception is used.
Will future historians look back on this period and note not the religious-conservative objection to homosexuality, birth control and abortion, but instead note the “population-saving” trend toward supporting reproduction?
Is an unconscious anxiety about population shrinkage combined with a very conscious anxiety about “national identity” part of what is fueling support of positions associated with religious conservatism?
What are the connections here? What do you think?