Karl Gallagher (selenite) wrote,
Karl Gallagher

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Marriage and Civilization

Orson Scott Card’s essay on heterosexual monogamous marriage as the cornerstone of civilization makes perfect sense to me, but I completely disagree with his conclusions. Marriage patterns have changed through history. Hunter-gatherers were usually monogamous (who had the resources to support anything more complicated?). Agriculture and pastoralism provided more resources which the men with the largest share used to support multiple wives. As more complex societies evolved the pendulum swung back to monogamy as a way to maximize the production of labor and children. Card details the mechanics of this well. That productivity provided much of the power that led to the monogamy-practicing industrial powers dominating the world.

Now we're transitioning from an industrial society to whatever comes next—-call it an information society until we get there and find out what it really is. One of the economic symptoms of the transition is an emphasis on customizing products for every buyer instead of mass-producing what the median user wants and forcing it on everyone. We're seeing that happen with marriage. It used to be one-size-fits-all. One man, one woman, multiple kids, combined property, for life unless there's a flagrant breach of contract. Not any more.

Marriage is being customized in thousands of flavors. It started simply—writing your own vows instead of using the church's ritual, children by technologically-assisted choice instead of biological default, no-fault divorce instead of private eyes with cameras. Then the bargain versions came on the market. Plain sex could be found at colleges and bars without strings. Murphy Brown could support kid and nanny by herself. Poor women were offered bureaugamy—-the taxpayers will support you and your children as long as you don't marry anyone else. "Shacking up" became a routine stage in relationships.

All of these worried the traditionalists, but if they closed one eye it looked like the institution of marriage was remaining the same.

But people are asking for the fancy custom models now. Detailed prenuptial agreements are common in some circles. Mormon polygyny is reemerging and demanding acceptance. Polyamorists are experimenting to find all the workable combinations. And same-sex couples are waging and winning a dramatic PR battle for recognition as couples, moving from "domestic partners" to "civil unions" to actual (if arguably invalid) marriage licenses.

Marriage traditionalists react to this the same way a laid-off steelworker does to suggestions to try telephone tech support or feng shui consulting. They're having their noses rubbed in the fact that the institutions they've built their lives around are being torn apart with nothing offered as a replacement except a promise of more change. This is terrifying to anyone who wants his life based on order instead of chaos. Bush's FMA rhetoric is responding to the same emotions as Kerry's "fair trade" promises.

The same fear and anger is triggered by the process that's creating gay marriage. The orderly industrial-age spirit wants changes to happen through the assembly line—-write bills in committee, elect people who support them, vote them into law in the legislature, then have the executive enforce them and the courts review them. Information-age chaos believes any path is good as long as it gets to the right place, so court decrees and civil disobedience are just as good as a majority vote (I expect this will have some drastic backfires). But traditionalists don't know how to play that game and (correctly) believe the deck is stacked against them.

Now they're fighting gay marriage as hard as they can because it's their last chance to make a last stand. America is at the tipping point, going from a field of order with some pockets of chaos to a sea of chaos with eroding islands of order. They may hold back the change for a few years but they can't reverse it. Some will take the Amish as a model and withdraw into isolated communities to hold onto the old customs.

The rest of us will create new ways of forming families and caring for children. We'll see which ones work well and poorly and stick with the ones that work (bureaugamy is already on its way out). I expect we'll wind up with a number of different family patterns because people are different and we have to work with that, not against it. Our new civilization will be held up in dynamic (not static) stability by the children of these varied families. The transition to that civilization will be terrible. Transitions always are. But the best way to get through it is quickly. The old patterns are already shattered. Stretching it out just delays finding the new ones.

(See related post here)
Tags: culture, politics
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