Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Truth about Marriage

Once again, an issue of power/oppression is being scrutinized within the framework of human rights and functionalist social theory. The Supreme Court hearings this week are nothing more than an opportunity to rehash ideas and arguments that everyone is familiar with, but no one seriously questions. The conception of marriage exhibited in these discussions reflects both the Ideology of Progress and a latent neoliberalism, yet holds no weight against historical and anthropological evidence. I think it is important to examine some of these popular myths about marriage in an effort to understand the real history of marriage and its ideological construction in the modern era.

Throughout all of human history, marriage has been defined as a union between one man and one woman.
There has been tremendous variation throughout time and across cultures in how marriage is defined. There is no single definition of marriage that has been universally accepted. In fact, polygamy has been a very prevalent form of marriage for most of human history, even if it has been declining recently. (Thus, countering the “slippery slope to polygamy” argument.)

The function of marriage is to regulate procreation
Like the forms that marriages take, their functions are similarly diverse. However, if one really wishes to generalize, for most of human history marriage has most often served an economic purpose (which is why, in anthropology courses, the two topics are often taught in tandem). But, economics is never really separate from other aspects of the social structure, and so it would be a bit narrow to say that marriage is purely “economic” in the modern understanding of the word. However, marriage has commonly functioned as a type or realm of exchange (the basis of economic activity). These exchanges facilitate the integration of different kin groups and determine responsibility for the care and provisioning of certain segments of society. This does, of course, include children, but may also include elders and other people who cannot participate fully in the social division of labor. Significantly, the social division of labor is almost always gendered, and consequently in many instances, a woman is treated as a form of property, which another adult male can own for the purposes of extracting labor. Hence, if there is any such thing as “traditional marriage” then traditional marriage has served the primary function of exploiting and oppressing women.

But let’s get back to those children. In more communal societies, marriage may have determined which group of people was responsible for provisioning a particular child, and that group might have included kin and non-kin. However, in atomistic capitalist societies, the nuclear family has become the primary (“sacred”) means of providing for children. This concentrates and confines all of the responsibilities, risks, and expenses involved in childcare to one or two people – and it is guaranteed that one of those people (the woman) is already saddled with a larger share of the division of labor in combination with fewer resources. If the one or two people who have been charged with caring for the child do not have enough money or sufficient time or cannot provide a safe environment for their child, then that child is SOL. That is why so many children die of malnutrition, despite the abundance of available food. That is why so many children grow up without supervision, and why so many children are exposed to violence, filth, and disease on a daily basis. Under capitalism, there is no communal responsibility for the raising of children, and therefore no safety net when the parent(s) cannot handle it on their own. In my opinion, that is the most dysfunctional and malevolent social arrangement of all!

We do not know enough about the consequences for children
I refer once again to my point that the forms that marriages and families take have been and are incredibly diverse. Evidence has been accumulating for all of history that marriage in and of itself does not determine the fate of a society or the character of its children. What matters is the social structure as a whole, and structures that are severely unequal and exploitative are the most unstable. If we are concerned for our children, then we should get rid of capitalism.

Children need a mom and a dad
False. See my argument above. In addition, this idea is based on the assumption that gender is a natural trait. To the contrary, gender, and even sex (the anatomical distinction between male and female), are social constructions. Hormones and other biological factors vary continuously, not discretely, and there is a considerable overlap between male and female. Furthermore, characterizations of gender differences have varied throughout history and across cultures, and there is no evidence of any link to biological factors. What it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman today are very culturally specific. It is absurd to say that there is any innate, biological need for a child to be exposed to particular cultural constructs.

Marriage is sacred
If the historical functions of marriage, particularly in the West, have most often been concerned with the gendered division of labor, exploitation, and subordination of women, and furthermore, if the nuclear family in the context of a capitalist society cannot adequately serve the needs of most children.... why do we even need marriage? Are there not better ways to nurture loving human relationships and to provide for vulnerable segments of society? I’m not so sure that a victory for marriage equality will be a real step toward meaningful social change.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Generational Stereotyping

It seems the latest rage in the business world is making generalizations about employees based on the generation to which they belong. Some businesses have hired consultants to explain these generational differences to their employees so that they can interact with each other more effectively. This, of course, is another variation on the “personality types.” The basic idea is still the same: condense all of human variation into a few discrete catagories in order to simplify human relationships.

I have complained to my employer about such a workshop in which I must participate. My concerns were countered with the assertion that “this is a science.” It may be a science, I was tempted to reply, but science is not infallible. In fact, the worst types of science in the last few centuries have been precisely those that elaborate and solidify catagorizations of human beings, whether it is based on race, gender, age, or any number of factors.

All categories are arbitrary. If I were born just a few years earlier, I would belong to a different generation, but there is no reason why the official “line” has to fall on that exact year. There are an infinite number of ways to create generational categories, and none is definitive. Furthermore, human variation is always continuous, not discrete. What this means is that the arbtirary categories will necessarily overlap to a significant extent. I am a Millenial, but my brother and many of my friends growing up were Gen Xers. Hence, the world I inhabited, the attitudes and views that I assimilated, were shared with people of an officially different generation. Yet, the whole basis of this new generational consulting fad is that generational differences are based on the entirely different environments in which people’s knowledge, attitudes, and values are shaped. But everyone on the boundaries – not just me – has grown up in an environment that includes people of two different generations. It’s not like in reality some big break occurs that would cause a neat, clean-cut generational divide.

People who are closer in age definitely have a larger shared cultural frame of reference, and their attitudes toward new technology will certainly dependent to some extent on how old they are (though even this generalization doesn’t entirely hold). Yet the concept of a “generation” doesn’t reflect that reality at all. For one thing, people on opposite ends of the range have far less in common with each other than they do with people on the other side of the generational divide. My experiences growing up were much closer to people born in 1980 than to those born in 2004. Nine-year-old children belong to the same generation as me! And I have a hard time relating to the world of college students!

The idea of a “generation” was originally employed in social science to describe specific groups of people at times of social upheaval - for example, the counterculture of the 1960s – in order to explain societal factors that caused a perceived rift with, and hence rebellion from, the established order. This is a far cry from suggesting that everyone fits into some sort of generational box.

I also take issue with the claim that generational groupings are at least as important as gender, race, class, etc. The latter groups relate to one’s objective place in the social division of labor and within relationships of power and dominance. To push these considerations to the background (as generational theory does) is, once again, to elide the role of power relations and the inherent dynamics of the capitalist system. The fact that, for example, generational theorists claim their framework explains Kondratieff cycles, without having any real understanding of economics, makes them all the more laughable and dismissable.

But the steady march of “progress” requires the contant elimination of complexity, as well as the management of human populations in terms of discrete categories. So, if it’s not generational stereotyping or personality stereotyping, it will be something else.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Are Boycotts Still Useful?

After Israel’s latest assault on Palestine, it seems there has been greater interest in Palestinian solidarity groups and movements like Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS). The idea of the latter is to treat Israel as the World Community treated South Africa during its Apartheid years, hoping that the results will be similar. There are two interrelated matters to take in to consideration when it comes to BDS: Israel’s role in the global hierarchy and the value of boycotts in general in the modern world.

The position of Israel is the most crucial issue, so I will start there. Not infrequently, both in unofficial forums in the U.S. and the whole gamut of “officialness” in foreign media sources, I have come across people from the Middle East (and sometimes other parts of the world as well) express the almost-cliched anti-Semitic truisms: Jews control the banks and the media, they pull the strings of Western foreign policy, there is a reason why “everyone” has a problem with the Jews, etc. Obviously there are many Jewish anti-Zionists and anti-Zionists who are in no way anti-Semitic; however, in denouncing Zionism one must take great care not to unintentionally provide support for or feed into the misconceptions of the anti-Semites. When one emphasizes the power of Israel and isolates its evil from the global capitalist system of which it is a part, then one runs the risk of reinforcing the ideas about Jews Running the World and Jews as an Evil People.

It is certainly important to call attention to the reality of the situation in Palestine, as Western media and public discourse are very one-sided. Yet, this attention should also highlight the context of European colonialism, American neocolonialism, and global capitalism. These forces are responsible for nurturing Zionism, guiding it in particular directions, using it to secure global structures of power, and of course, funding and arming it. Just like poor whites in the American South who were inculcated with racism to suit the needs of politicians, Israel is in a sense “only a pawn in the game” (lyrics courtesy of Bob Dylan).

So the question (which can apply to all boycotts) is, why Israel? It seems a bit like cherry-picking. The U.S. has enslaved more people (particularly if you include the humungous prison population) and caused more death and suffering worldwide (including direct support for the Israeli occupation). Why not boycott all goods produced by U.S. companies? In fact, since all corporations exploit human beings (and are complicit to varying degrees with slavery and poverty), why not boycott all capitalist-produced goods? Once again, to single out Israel is to make the Jewish nation appear as the greatest evil in this world when it certainly is not.

But those questions bring me to my second point. One of the first instances of the boycott was employed by Quakers and free blacks in the United States as a reaction to slavery. At that time, it probably was not possible to see the development of capitalism, and certainly the institution of slavery was (and still is) foundational to the capitalist system. In that sense, the boycott really was aiming high. The participants did not want to personally profit off of slavery; thus, it was a general, principled stand rather than a fight against anyone or anything in particular. The problem with boycotts now is that they are directed at specific actors: a certain corporation or set of corporations. All capitalists play by the same rules. If you do not want to personally benefit from capitalist exploitation, then it doesn’t make any sense to single anyone out. In fact, it may end up just putting impoverished people in a more vulnerable position (as I once heard a Bangladeshi Walmart employee say, “But we need the jobs!”). What we need is an effective way to challenge the entire global capitalist system – a way to extricate ourselves from it and call attention to the reality of its mechanisms. When we boycott these days, we are sending the message that we are just concerned about “bad guys,” but the truth is that we are fight against a bad system.