"Any woman who chooses to behave like a full human being should be warned that the armies of the status quo will treat her as something of a dirty joke. That's their natural and first weapon." ~ Gloria Steinem

Thursday, May 28, 2009

In Which I Mercilessly Dismantle Sam Schulman’s “Knowledge” Of Kinship, Laughing All The While

This is a response to Sam Schulman's "The Worst Thing About Gay Marriage". I won't post a link, but fear not; google will show you the way. 

In order for an argument to hold water, you must first accept the basic premises. In this case, firstly, that we have a rigid kinship structure; and secondly, that this rigid kinship structure must be preserved. I am completely ignoring the issue of whether or not marriage does indeed fulfill the functions laid out by Mr. Schulman, because that portion of the argument is completely irrelevant. His assumptions are faulty; there is no need to consider arguments supporting a faulty assumption.

Besides, I’m pretty sure a lot of people have already torn his article apart on those grounds.

But back to my issues. To begin with, the idea of a rigid kinship structure is laughable. Clearly, this person has no idea what kinship actually means.

Kinship, like all cultural traits, is fluid. This fluid nature is harder to see when you only examine a short period of time in the history of a culture, but it is always there. Do you really suppose that the Yanomamo came into existence using ebene? This notion ignores the process of cultural evolution; it's possible that we can define the moment they became Yanomamo as the period when they began practicing the use of ebene, but it's absurd to propose that they've "always been that way". Nobody has "always" been anything.

Unless you’re a Creationist, of course. If that is the case, you might as well stop reading right now, because 1) you’re going to get annoyed with me, and 2) you are obviously unequipped to grapple with the basic rules of logic and reading this is a waste of your time.

Culture, like "nature", is continually in flux. There is no end goal; no set purpose; no state to which we are moving. Understanding of this concept has fallen into shadow with the advent of our own particular culture, as we have developed the cultural trait of seeking the "best" way to do things; but in reality, there is no such thing as “best”. Just the fact that I can point out our desire to do things "right" proves my point; have humans "always" tried to things “right”? Of course not. The Yanomamo do not run up to the U.S. and attempt to get us to use ebene. Neither do they attempt to coerce neighboring villages into joining theirs; on the contrary, historically, Yanomamo societies are more likely to split than merge. (Chagnon 82)

Because, for example, our technology trends toward faster, smaller, and more efficient, we feel that our society is also trending upwards. I will not offer a commentary on whether we are trending upwards or downwards, because to me, the issue is moot. We’re not trending up or down—but we are trending in a direction. And that direction is change—just change. Undeniably, the United States has changed radically since its inception; but there is no reason to suppose that today we are inherently better than we were on May 27, 1809. To be sure, our society had ills at that time that we have since attempted to erase, but again, there is no reason to suppose that we are “better”. We are merely different.

Our laws make more sense now; that’s all. Laws shape a society as often as they reflect it; quite frequently, a law is enacted that does not reflect the society as it is, but how [enough] people wish it to be. And it takes time for the attitudes to catch up with the laws; we don’t consider black people to be property anymore, but that doesn’t mean every individual in the U.S. is free of racism. The longer we live in a society that prohibits slavery, the more we come to collectively agree on the immorality of racial discrimination. It’s a simple, observable fact.

And so, who are you to choose an arbitrary point in our cultural history and claim it as the best? On May 27, 1809, plenty of people thought we were already the best we could possibly be. Think about that.

The plain and simple fact is that if you consider a kinship system to be so glorious that it can and should resist evolutionary (in a societal sense) pressures, you have disregarded the fluid nature of culture and placed that particular system as the end result of cultural change. Which just means that all cultures are striving to be like yours.

Do you recall the “Great Chain of Being”? The Great Chain of Being placed squirrels above insects; dogs above squirrels; dark-skinned humans above dogs; light-skinned humans above dark-skinned humans; angels above light-skinned humans; God above angels. The Chain placed creatures in this manner as a reflection of how God had ordered his creation; the position of dark-skinned humans below light-skinned ones allowed the white Europeans to consider their African peers as subhuman.

You may laugh at the ignorant people who made the Great Chain of Being, and well you should—but if you laugh unfettered, unmindful of your hypocrisy, perhaps you should go back to the beginning and read every word of this over again.

Works Cited:
Chagnon, Napoleon A. Yanomamo. 5th edition; 1997.
My degree (in anthropology).


  1. Schulman here: you have dismantled me only if you think that I believe - or said - that kinship is rigid and unchanging. It is not more rigid or unchanging than marriage has been, or the particular rules of incest.
    I say only that kinship and marriage and incest prohibition exists, period. How it exists is as I say in the article completely culture-bound and a matter of tradition etc - but in some way shape or form - in every society we know so far. And these forms change constantly, of course.
    My readers say that I say the opposite - that I propose one culture-bound kind of kinship - 1950s, Victorian, etc etc - for another. I don't want to and I don't think so and I don't say so.
    SSM is radical because it does not simply propose a change in kinship rules, but inadvertantly may do away with the connection between marriage and kinship altogether. This may be a good thing or not, but it's a much more radical change than anyone (except me) thinks it is, and the consequences I can foresee are very very bad for the female sex (gay as well as straight) and very very good for the straight heterosexual male of violent tendencies.
    My speculation of what will succeed kinship may be wrong - it may be a golden age of enlightenment. But I can't see how.

  2. I'm not talking about the Victorian era, or indeed any specific kinship. I take issue with the way you spoke of kinship in general. You may insist all you want that you aren't saying our kinship system is rigid; the fact remains that you consider it in need of protection, which implies, however much you deny it, that kinship can and should resist change--and this is very nearly the definition of rigid.

    But for now, let’s pass over the quibble of whether or not you said what you meant to say. I didn’t consider your main arguments, just your underlying assumptions, for reasons outlined in the beginning of the response. In pondering how I wanted to respond to your response to my response, I did consider those arguments.

    And I believe you have a point—it will change our idea of kinship. However, I do not see how that would be a bad thing. Your position, that it will be detrimental to society (again, this is the reason your writings indicate that we have a rigid kinship system), relies entirely on the elevated status of biological kinship. Your position relies entirely on the assumptions that 1) a biologically-based kinship system is ideal, and 2) anything that could possibly threaten this system is to be avoided. As you may have guessed, I consider both of these assumptions to be erroneous—but let’s see why.

    Firstly, our society is indeed heavily dependent on biologically-based kinship models; this is written all over the current obsession with fertility treatments and finding one's biological [as opposed to adoptive] parents. A tweaking of our kinship model would be a good thing.

    As it stands, a social stigma surrounds adopted persons; they often feel as though their birth parents didn’t love them, or that the familial bonds they’ve formed with their adoptive parents just aren’t quite the same as they would be if they were biological, that they’re different somehow from their parents’ “real” children. This attitude is reflected in couples pursuing fertility treatments (as opposed to adoption); we demand no further explanation from them than simply, “We really just wanted our own children.” As though adopted children would not really be “theirs”, because they don’t share enough genetic material.

    Thus, societal elements in our kinship system are not only present, but also badly need wider acceptance from mainstream society.

    Secondly, we will not lose our biological basis of kinship merely by introducing a wider acceptance of societally-based kinship; it is not one or the other. There is no reason to suppose that multiple definitions of kinship cannot exist side-by-side within a society.

    Plenty of cultures have kinship systems with societally-based elements. For example, the female-female marriages in the Nandi of Kenya (my specific knowledge of this society only extends to the 1970s, so I can't speak for the present) were considered male-female, lacked a sexual component, and served to establish kinship/legitimacy/etc. of one of the women's children. I'm not saying that we should adopt this practice; I merely use it as an example of what I believe is your intellectual error. This type only made up about 3% of all marriages in the group; it did not erase biological kinship, but merely expanded the definition of kinship to fill a need that biology could not.

    A trace of societally-based kinship already exists in our culture (adoption), but is still considered on the fringe of the kinship model. Anything that brings that element into greater acceptance is a good thing, in my opinion.

    I don't quite understand what grounds you have for believing marriage and kinship may break apart from SSM. Honestly. I don't get it. There's no evidence for that, especially when you consider other cultures besides our own. Just because they don't have a "legal" definition of marriage, in the sense that we do, doesn't mean that their kinship isn't based on marriage as they see it.

  3. Shulman, you live in a world where marital rape never happens, where woman have prospered from being treated like small children and/or property by being passed as a dependent ward from father to husband, where a woman's virginity should be protected (against her own will if necessary), where people getting married for love is an unncessary luxery. If you really care about women, then you can join us in THIS WORLD, where there is plenty of advocasy to be done so that women don't need dependent on men for safety and thus marriage can become what it should be--totally and absolutely voluntary and unnecessary.

    If gay marriage succeeds in breaking down what you have erroneously called "Kinship", then good riddance.

  4. Angie-I've added your blog to my blogroll forecastingrain.blogspot.com