Collie Creating
Codex Firestarter

Holiday wishes!

Okay, I'm still working on this, and I may modify it later -- I'm terrible at remembering what I've said I wanted, through the year. However, due to peer pressure (you know who you are! ;), here's the most current version of my wish list.

I also love sending holiday cards to friends. If you post your snail mail address in the Comments section of this Live Journal entry of mine, they will be "screened" or hidden from anyone but me -- and I'll happily send you some holiday best wishes! For those of you too shy to do so: May all your holidays be wondrous and all your families warm and loving!

And now for our regularly scheduled Firestarter article:

What is a family?

by Collie Collier
December 2005 Firestarter column

Short answer: who your immediate family is should be defined by you and your family members, according to your collected needs and wishes and without legal constraints -- since no one can know better than the family itself who its members truly are.

Long answer: yes, unfortunately a longer explanatory answer is needed. I'll be looking here at three pertinent questions regarding family:

  1. What do I suggest?
  2. What did we have?
  3. What do we actually have?

What do I suggest?

Historically and culturally, people define family to answer their social and personal needs, and to cope with the surrounding environmental pressures. In the past, generational family bloodlines were considered critical for "correct" property transferal or physical protection of the group.

Nowadays in the Western world, however, we increasingly consider only our immediate blood relatives when we discuss the term "family," and the immediate family itself has become more important as the main source of personal nurturing, support, and love for individuals. I suggest we continue to define family based on our social and individual needs. What does an actual, successful family look like? The simplest and most basic answer I can come up with is:

Family: a small group of individuals, usually sharing living space, who have chosen to pool their resources and efforts in order to support and nurture each other through life.

That's it. That's all a successful family really is: mutually caring for each other. Wouldn't it be nice if we recognized that was the most critical part of what a family truly was? Wouldn't it be even nicer if that definition informed our definition of society? Notice there's nothing in the description which puts strictures on the ages or religious beliefs or blood relation or internal plumbing or whatever of its members, nothing which demands a particular number of members in order to better satisfy the consumption needs of an excessively corporately influenced culture; nothing which insists it's not a proper family unless there are offspring.

As is always the case with "real life," messy reality contains a staggering array of different forms of family: immediate families, blended families, extended families, fictive kin, step families, generational families, separated families, yadda yadda yadda -- the permutations are almost endless. Obviously, having more than one family-creating option for a society has been demonstrated throughout history to work well for us as a species -- although curiously enough you never hear about that in history classes.

Why not let folks pick what's most applicable to their own individual needs, and set it up as a shared contract between them all? We're not clones, after all, so the concept of "one (ideological) size fits all" doesn't apply well in reality. Let people create the families that suit their emotional needs.

To make such a definition of family work across the subcultures of the US is not such a formidable task as it might initially seem. The process is already well underway, as the current public furor over the definition of marriage clearly demonstrates. So what else needs changing?

A family is recognized religiously, socially, and legally. The religious angle is not one I'll address deeply here, since it is entirely dependent on your religion of choice. Suffice it to say a religious community which will not accept your family of choice is probably not the right religious community for you and your family. Socially speaking, the job of changing the definition of family will be slow but relatively straightforward, especially since cultures and their rituals are in a constant state of flux in order to answer the changing needs of society's members.

Instead, the main cultural forum which will need changing in order to allow people to personally define their families is the Law -- and the views of the State which creates and enforces it. Alas, there are always legal hoops to jump through in order to make the structures of society serve its members, rather than it shaping us to its convenience. So how should we go about accomplishing this goal of allowing people to define family for themselves? What might this process look like?

First of all, we should divorce religion from the creation of a family -- by making the ritual called "marriage" unnecessary to the creation of a family. We do not require baptism for citizenship, after all. In the US we are fortunate enough to live in a country where freedom of religion is a desired standard, and marriage is supposed to be a religious ceremony. Therefore instead of diluting religious faith by making it a legal requirement for creation of a family, let's strengthen all religions by making marriage truly an act partaken of only for religious reasons. We can still have the flashy party to publicly acknowledge the union and creation of a family -- but we don't need priests for that.

Secondly, let us trust our populace. Just as the best person to determine when a woman is ready to bear and raise a child is the woman herself -- so too are the potential members of a family the best to tell if they're ready to commit to uniting in a publicly recognized family unit. This means the State may define the legal benefits of being a family, but only the society's individual members may define who their family consists of. Further, if the State wishes to encourage truly strong, mutually committed families, it will deliberately forebear from attempting to define a family, for otherwise there will always be those who will do their best to hack the system for personal gain.

Thirdly, it's a good idea to set up the civil "bennies" (which are currently considered part of marriage) as an integral part of a contractually organized grab bag of personal choices for creating a family. Tax code provisions, mutual responsibility for and ownership of property, hospital visitation rights, automatic inheritance, insurance cost breaks, gym family memberships, etc. -- these benefits and many more are currently tangled up legally with marriage. Frankly, I don't believe secular goodies should be standard and accepted bribes for participation in any religion.

So how to fairly and secularly parcel out these social benefits? If family is going to exist to make sure we're all taken care of and the kids (if any) are raised well, then it's been my experience extended families do a better job of raising kids than one frazzled and over-worked couple. Further, we don't want to penalize someone who chooses to live alone. Therefore instead of assigning the civil benefits based on marriage, or even on a legally recognized entity called a family, let's assign the benefits to individual adults. Should two or more adults choose to become a family they could pool their personal resources or not, as per their choice -- but this way there'd never be a situation where the departure of one partner would leave the other without insurance or access to bank accounts.

Finally we should dismiss the concept of adult family members automatically equating to sexual partners. A family can (and often does) consist of multiple adults who are not sexual partners, such as a woman, her daughter, and her grandchildren; or an older couple living with their grown child and her/his marriage partner; or two women (occasionally sisters) and their offspring; or an elderly man and his son who is taking care of him, etc. -- the permutations of family are as varied as human experience.

As these examples show, we already have this concept, but we should more strongly make it part of our societal definition of family. Sexual interest may ebb and flow, but we don't want family members to come and go quite so cavalierly -- especially if children are involved.

We have always been able to see people individually defining family for themselves just fine -- it is only the laws of the State, and the corporations who follow the word of law while ignoring the intended spirit of their legal agreements, which harmfully constrain what people and their families may do in a secular society. Why is this? What gives anyone the right to tell other families who may or may not be a member?

What did we have?

To answer this question we have to take a quick look through history. I've written a more extensive review of the history of marriage in a previous "Firestarter," where I refute the assertion "marriage is the cornerstone of civilization," which I hope the curious will peruse. For now, however, I'll simply do a quick overview -- since, surprisingly, most folks today are completely unfamiliar with the history of marriage and family outside their personal experience.

Though we nowadays politely ignore the fact, marriages were originally created simply to assure property transferal along patriarchal bloodlines. Family used to mean the males of an entire bloodline -- their wives and offspring were simply more of their property. Later religious justifications for how men should marry and treat their wives, take mistresses, and divorce wives they were tired of, are just that: theoretically palatable religiously-based excuses to treat women like breeding cows and property. It should not be surprising the priesthood of such religions is usually uniformly male.

Consider: a woman does not need to capture or imprison (either legally or physically) a man in marriage to be sure her children are her own -- she gives birth to them. Only an anxious man with personal issues needs to so imprison a woman, to soothe his ego with children as physical expressions of his virility and supposed strength.

More self-assured or pragmatic men and cultures recognize children as gifts to be cherished regardless of whose sperm went into their creation. For example, the Inuit of northern Alaska practice a form of group marriage in which two couples swap sexual partners, and children born to either couple consider each other siblings. The four parents do not live together, but rather are establishing a mutual bond of reciprocity that ensures aid and assistance in what is a harsh and unforgiving environment. This bonding extends through the children as well, which beneficially increases the group any one of them may call on for potential support.

Consider further: a woman does not need a single man married to her to help her raise those children. If anything, both the above example and history itself shows it is multiple other people (usually other women and/or servants) who help raise children. Unlike the belief in ritualistically imprisoning women for life in marriage, mothers and families do not need marriages or religious justifications commanding them to raise their children.

Most successfully and dramatically separating family and marriage are the "Moso" of the Country of Daughters, in China, who have traditionally never had marriage at all. Instead, children are raised by their grandmothers, mothers, and mothers' siblings in extended blood-related families living together for mutual support. Men may make overnight visits to women they are romantically interested in, but the men do not move out of their family homes and it is their sisters' children they consider most closely related to them.

History has clearly shown the absolute best person to tell when a woman is ready to bear and raise children is... the woman herself. Why is that so hard for some people to see? Indeed, were women not historically so consistently refused financial independence in the western world, we might have seen a more kind and egalitarian division of labor, with occasional men raising children just as much as occasional women choose to work in ordinarily more "male" professions.

We certainly see this in other cultures; it takes a peculiarly narrow-minded view of the world to ignore such evidence. It exists in the history of our lands in the US also, where we can find cultures which recognized the existence of a third gender (sometimes called a "two-spirit"): a person who was physically male or female, but behaved and considered themselves to be that gender they did not physically resemble.

This kinder solution to evolutionary variation allowed for what we today might consider same-sex marriages, when the third gender person would marry someone who was both physically and mentally the same gender. Frequently these pairings would also have children by adoption. Most commonly they were third-gender males who behaved in all ways as female, but depending on the culture, third-gender women were also recognized and acknowledged as peers with the other men.

As the above clearly demonstrates, the words family and marriage have had ever-changing meanings across the world, even here in the lands now occupied by the US. So let's take a look at what our society currently seems to think family is, and how that belief is defined and influenced by state fictions and religious myths concerning marriage.

What do we actually have?

For the last year or so in the US I've been somewhat bemusedly watching the public hysteria over marriage and family. I find it curiously puzzling that our society's "ruling elite" seem to think they have the right to legally and morally define family and marriage for everyone else.

They also seem to feel their definition of marriage should extend to how society itself should be structured, with a rich white male daddy/leader and everyone else "naturally" subordinate and dependent by degree of how poor, ethnic, or female they are. These foolish and intellectually inferior folks should, of course, both supplicate the dominant male to care for them (against bogeymen of the male leader's creation), and be whimperingly grateful for whatever societal crumbs he may deign to drop them. Right?

Umm... no. Hell no. If our ruling elite based its power on providing shining examples of marriages, families, and lives based on love, commitment, and egalitarianism -- or even just on public service and good works, like some of the ancient Greeks -- I might give their opinions some weight. As it is, their obvious and embarrassingly salacious greed for ever more power and money causes me to disdain seeking out their self-serving drivel on any issue of morality or sensitivity.

Unfortunately we see their duplicitous garbage getting passed off as reality all the time. Just the other day I read an article equating "traditional marriage" (the 50's ideological style of marriage in the US with one female and one male united monogamously for life in order to raise their offspring alone) with what a family actually was -- and thus by "natural" extension, what a stable society had to be throughout history.

It's true the author was a spokesman (never a woman or person) for the religious far-right, and thus will of necessity have a narrowly focused viewpoint. Nevertheless, his pathetic axe to grind regarding his own religion's historically tragic view of marriage was outdone only by his staggeringly bigoted ethnocentrism.

The ultimate goal of most major religions is to encourage enlightenment, through careful reflection on the meaning of life, and consideration of the examples and teachings of the deities. This person, however, was treating religion like an ad for toothpaste! His personal desires were presented as unquestionable fact, a vaguely threatening alternative was presented, a smattering of feel-good candy coating added to make it easier to swallow, and presto! Just buy his product -- just believe! -and everything will be aaall better. It was simply frightening to read such smugly apocalyptic drivel -- and worse, to realize this poor man actually believed the self-righteous ignorance he was spouting.

How dare they?! How dare this man, how dare his petty religion, treat the lives of uncounted others as worth no more than consumer points in their religion's score card of success? How dare he lie so to us, spout such unmitigated, demonstrably laughable nonsense -- and try to pass it off as reality? Who does he think he is, to treat us like sheep or children?

Religious ideals are good to have, but please, let's never let them blind us to reality. Simplistic equating of family with "traditional marriage" flies in the face of human behavior throughout known history. Marriages are rarely (if ever) only one male and only one female for life, and repeated anthropological studies clearly demonstrate it is monogamy which is the cultural abnormality. Nor does such a marriage automatically create a family even when it exists, as far too many abused children and abandoned wives can attest.

How did this happen?

As far as I can tell, there are two modern social institutions which attempt to define family -- usually to their own benefit, of course. Note I do not say they have the right to do so, merely that they attempt to arrogate that right unto themselves: the State, via laws (specifically contract law and laws regarding marriage and other social institutions) -- and Religion, via ritual and tradition (including the threat of their hell should you not be a member of their religion, or should you diverge from their traditions).

Why should the State or Religion be allowed to define family and, should we choose to allow them to do so, how should they arrive at those definitions?

Unfortunately there are many examples of what a bad idea it is to allow the State to excessively interfere into private lives. The biggest example I can think of at this moment is the falsely-named Patriot Act. Currently it is being used to intrude unnecessarily into the lives of US citizens by justifying pointless searches at airports, and puffing up petty officialdom into making illegal demands for papers from citizenry -- all in the name of combatting a nameless, ill-defined, and officially fearsome foe. Frankly, the Patriot Act is a very bad thing if it turns our society into precisely the type of repressive regime we're supposed to be fighting.

Fortunately there are (of course) also beneficial examples of us, as a society, following the lead of the State. For example, the State builds and maintains the roads we drive on, and sets certain basic standards of speed allowed. We do this because we know damage to the road will usually be promptly repaired by the State, and so that people who have had accidents will be swiftly aided by those trained to do so.

We also allow the State to define what is food, and how it should be prepared and served. For example, the State does not allow restaurants to offer rat or dog meat, or to spice with opium, or to maintain filthy facilities. Also, raw meats and dairy products must be kept fresh and disease-free according to the rules set by the State. We allow the State this ability because, as the examples show, a common, trusted, and hopefully impartial source to make rules we all must follow can be a good thing for the public health.

So how does this apply to families? Currently, due to unnecessary legal wrangling, we are allowing hospitals, of all things, to be the ones to define what a family is. They allow only "immediate" family to visit the patients there, and they define immediate family as the spouse, and maybe the blood parents. Worse, many hospitals are religiously based, and thus have yet another agenda they serve.

Frankly, the hospitals go too far in this; it is not well considered. For example, if someone's "immediate" family actually consists of their grandparents-in-law, or their siblings, or an unmarried lover who has been with them for decades, shouldn't they be allowed to visit their family in the hospital? Further, if an immigrant arrives here from, say, Nepal -- where a woman marries all the brothers in a family, in order not to split up the family's very scarce resources -- should they all be arrested the moment they step onto US soil? Should any of them be allowed into a religious hospital? If the wife is hospitalized, why should only one husband be allowed to see her?

I can understand the desire of the hospitals to avoid litigation, but this is not right, and they should not have the freedom to define family for us. In this case and in any others where family becomes a legal issue, contract law should prevail, as per the rules of the State. Family should be what the affected individuals have contractually defined it as, and contract law should be used to legally establish those family unions. To my knowledge this is successfully being used already today in the US, although it's currently a difficult and time-consuming process. We need to streamline and facilitate it for the citizenry.

But enough about the State. The other social institution which attempts to arrogate the right to define family into its exclusive purview... is Religion. While specific views on marriage and family vary from religion to religion, I feel here again the State should hold sway: just as we have the freedom to practice (or not) the religion of our choice, so too should we have the right to define our families ourselves.

Nevertheless, Religion will attempt to impose its view of family on its constituents, and it will threaten those who do not comply with damnation in the afterlife (if any). I can't help but wonder sometimes, though, at what sort of deity or deities would create wonders as widely varying as the microscopic but still mysterious powerhouses that are mitochondria -- all the way to the mind-boggling immensity of the far-flung galaxies... and then get all deifically pissy simply because someone started having sex before the priestly starter flag was waved!

More seriously, Religion has a long and tragic history of coupling secular political aims with supposed deific approval, all the way through and including religious descriptions of what social constructs should exist. Thus we have rape defined in the Old Testament as nothing more than the rapist having damaged a man's property, with no consideration for the woman whatsoever. In Islam we traditionally have: polygamy for the wealthy, women either confined to the man's house or heavily veiled when in public, and only men able to initiate divorce. In Hinduism, the women of a family are supposed to never do anything independently -- they are subservient to their fathers, then later to their husbands (whom they should consider their Lords and deities), and on the death of the husband a woman's sons are supposed to rule her.

Is this really what we want? How far back are we willing to go in order to find and implement so-called "traditional" marriage in this country? Bride kidnapping, rape as engagement, public deflorations of the new bride, divorce permitted to the man only, organized concubinage, religiously sanctioned physical abuse and sexual coercion of women, female infanticide, women regarded as disposable chattel... this is what "traditional" marriage truly is. Do we really want to keep and enforce these horribly repressive traditions? The religious history of marriage is, perhaps unsurprisingly, markedly different from the claims we hear today.

From what I've been able to tell, the current belief in the US is that "traditional" marriage is necessary for there to be a family. Interestingly, this cultural myth is based primarily on propaganda and media images from the post-WWII era. Unfortunately it appears there are a tremendous number of well-meaning but uninformed people in the US who haven't been taught this form of marriage is neither traditional nor necessary for a family -- nor even standard practice! While it is a comfortingly simple and charming idea, "traditional marriage" in the US hasn't really existed for the last 50 or so years, and statistically never did for the majority of Americans.

This false "Father Knows Best" myth is instead reification of a commercialized ideal, in order to fuel an artificially created need for a consumer-based lifestyle. After all, what works better for the corporations?

a) large extended families which can afford to purchase one nice, big house, whose members will share the one refrigerator, one washer-dryer, one dish-washer, etc. and which have enough members that there are always enough folks to care for the kids while others work, and to allow the adults to carefully choose which jobs they want, or...

b) many, many individual couples alone in their expensive little houses with their own individual appliances, with both parents working in a desperate effort to earn enough money to successfully raise their kids, who are forced to take whatever job offers itself in order to never fall behind on the payments.

Further, if there are only two adults in the family, and both parents are required to work in order to make ends meet -- then who's taking care of the kids? It's time to take the pressure off. People can define their families themselves just fine -- it is only the law which harmfully constrains what they may do. What gives anyone the right to tell other families who may or may not be a member?

What do we really need?

Considering how often bigots insist the supposed breakdown of marriage will herald the immediate breakdown of the American family -- and thereby the utter ruin of American culture itself -- you'd think people would start asking for some damned proof! We saw the same empty, apocalyptic trumpeting about the end of all that is good and wholesome in the US when the slaves were freed -- and again when women got the vote -- and yet again when the schools were integrated, and once more yet again when the anti-miscegenation laws were repealed and cross-racial marriages were allowed. Frankly, considering how invariably wrong the bigots are, I'm surprised anyone listens to them any more!

Sexual love does not equal marriage, and marriage does not equal family. Separating marriage from family allows the adult members of that family to wisely share resources and abilities, and means no one is forced to take a job they don't want -- whether it's raising kids or working 9 to 5. Also, if men want more input into how kids are raised, they need to get in there and do it. Arranging families in this way is an excellent opportunity for men and women to arrange times within their families where they are the main caretakers of the kids.

Society needs to stop perpetuating the damaging and unattainable myth of the "traditional" marriage. Let us instead try to evaluate what families truly are and need, then provide the cultural tools to help support and encourage this goal. We need healthy, happy, productive families, not blind, rigid adherence to an atavistic or corporate worldview.

Partial Bibliography

If you are interested in the history of marriage, or the ever-changing nature of family in the US -- what it is, how it developed, how it affects us -- I recommend the following books as starting points. You can find more suggested books on marriage in my Firestarter titled Why not same-sex marriage?

Please, though, don't let either religious conservatives or myself be your sole source of information! Marriage has changed and adapted over the millennia; it's fascinating reading and well worth deeper understanding.

Coontz, Stephanie, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (Coontz is a well-regarded social historian; I have not read all her books yet, but this one was chock-full of fascinating information I'd not previously been aware of).

-----, The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms With America's Changing Families.

-----, Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage.

Claassen, Cheryl & Rosemary A. Joyce, editors, Women in Prehistory: North America and Mesoamerica (I've not read the book in its entirety yet, but the article I was required to read for a class was fascinating, and I look forward to reading the rest).

Graff, E. J., What is Marriage For? The Strange Social History of Our Most Intimate Institution (this is a more scholarly review of marriage and how it influences our views on sex, money, procreation, and personal happiness).

Hodgkinson, Liz, Unholy Matrimony: the Case for Abolishing Marriage (a fiery review of the institution, including a creepy review of the marriage industry and how it pushes us all to be good corporate consumers -- all in the name of "true love." The author, being English, focuses more on the United Kingdom, but it's still an enlightening read).

Namu, Yang Erche & Christine Mathieu, Leaving Mother Lake: A Girlhood at the Edge of the World (semi-autobiographical story set within a culture which has no native institution of marriage. The depictions of that society are utterly fascinating).

Sanday, Peggy Reeves, Women in the Center: Life in a Modern Matriarchy (delightful reading, and another much-needed antidote to the absurd claim that only men can run a society).

Solot, Dorian & Marshall Miller, Unmarried to Each Other: the Essential Guide to Living Together as an Unmarried Couple (the authors are the founders of the "Alternatives to Marriage Project," and tireless advocates of both marriage reform and familial reform).

Spong, Retired Bishop John Shelby, Living in Sin? A Bishop Rethinks Human Sexuality (a kind and timely book for the religious who are struggling with rigid or repressive societal and religious views on humankind).

Tannahill, Reay, Sex In History (gives a very broad overview of how various cultural customs and beliefs on sex and marriage developed).

I hope to eventually have book reviews of them all, but for now one will have to suffice. Most of all, I hope you enjoy!

Reader comments

03.12.05: Greg's thoughts

(and my replies)

Nothing useful to contribute to any of this... you pretty much seem to have said it all, as usual.

Aww, that's sweet of you -- thank you for the lovely compliment, Greg! Nevertheless, I'm sure there's much I've missed or forgotten or not yet learned. More learning -- mmmm! ;)

The one thing I might add is that, reading this, the quote came to mind: Those who do not know history are doomed to endlessly repeat it. I might add a corollary to this: those who do not know history are doomed to intellectual stagnation.

Hm... I'm not sure intellectual stagnation is a given for those who do not know their history. I think the determinant is more something along the lines of those who refuse to learn are so doomed?

Most of this information you've provided isn't taught in schools (at least, not till college level). The history taught to kids in grade school is this sterile collection of names and dates, most of which is not interesting or engaging to the average kid. I suspect that if they started teaching things like this as part of history, they might not only find kids more interested and engaged, but we'd be turning out a crop of much more intelligent people, even for those kids that never make it past high school.

I was actually extremely fortunate to have teachers such as those you describe, Greg. If one person's anecdotal evidence is of interest, then I'd say you're quite right. Teaching history (or anything, really) as something alive (rather than something dead and sterile and worthy only of bored memorization for the next test so it can be forgotten as soon as possible) means yes, you do end up with students who learn to love learning, and who continue to enjoy learning throughout life.

13.01.05: Trey's thoughts

(and my replies)

WRT: Religious ideals are good to have, but please, let's never let them blind us to reality.

You may want to consider that, to those who hold them, 'religious ideals' do not blind them to 'Reality' -- they represent 'Reality'. From their perspective, it is those who do not share said ideals that are 'blinded' (or 'deaf' -- you may choose the appropriate sense as you will) to how things 'really are'.

Hmm, good point. I am, perhaps, a philosophical pragmatist -- when I see social conventions which harm none and benefit many, and which do not match religious determinations, I feel it is the religion which must give way, rather than the society. However, I base that decision on my belief that cultures create their deities, rather than the other way around.

As you've doubtless noticed, I'm not really sure how to talk to someone who fervently believes otherwise -- especially when their beliefs are based on obviously fallacious and often self-serving interpretations of their own religious texts. If they're not willing to listen to secular reason, I have no faith in which to appeal to them.

It is tempting to reserve 'Reality' exclusively for the empirically verifiable, but that is, itself, an aspect of personal faith. And, when you project that onto others, you are as guilty of what you decry as they are.

For myself, I agree that segregating matters of Faith from matters of Government (and I agree there is a different definition of 'family' for each, as you put forth) is likely to be a good thing. And it would probably be well if the Government definitions restricted themselves solely to the empirically verifiable. Certainly less contentious.

But, bringing in the term 'Reality' undercuts your argument. (Even if it does highlight your ire. ^_^)