The controversy surrounding same-sex marriage is the latest manifestation of a wider change in the human arrangement of daily life. Ironically, although technology has made global connectedness possible with its benefits of instantaneous communication and its perils of opaque, consolidated power, the current era is one of social and cultural fragmentation. Empires have crumbled, and nations have divided. At the local level clans have shrunk and families have redefined themselves into smaller and smaller units.
This has been going on for more than a century. The soap-opera “Downton Abbey” pretends to present an English portrait of this. Kukrit Pramote’s Four Reigns did the same for Siam. One might argue that the literary genre began with Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.
Obviously, something massive is not the result of a single social rite of passage by which young people achieve standing on their own in communities. In fact, communities are also changed by the glacial shift that overwhelmed empires and castes. Whereas, communities used to be integrated and homogeneous, now they are increasingly diverse.
In the past, church (or temple), society and spirituality were overlapping, if not concentric. Churches were expressions of ethnic culture, around which community life functioned, and within which individuals found inner growth and outward fulfillment. Now religion has shed much of its ethnic-cultural character, or perhaps adopted the culture in which it is submerged. Churches try to emulate an ecumenical model so that a worshiper in an Anglican Church in London, Singapore or New York will feel right at home. Thai Buddhist temples are trying to be the same in Berlin, Buenos Aires, and Boston. Or religious institutions have gone the other way and tried to blend into the mindset and lifestyle of people who attend, forsaking all suggestions of heritage. Spiritual development strategies have diversified as well, to include physical exercise regimens, support groups, and music, to name three.
What has happened to marriage is a result of this great shift and not, as some argue, its cause. In fact, not only has marriage not caused this mega-cultural metamorphosis, neither will conserving the traditional form of marriage prevent the shift. People are wrong who argue that maintaining traditional marriage will preserve traditional culture. It is too late to preserve the past.
Family no longer means Mother, Father, Dick and Jane and Baby Sally. An unwed mother raising two children by unknown fathers is a family. A county clerk married four different times is a family if she has registered her last marriage. A couple with 3 foster children is a family. Grandparents raising a grandchild are a family. A couple who have been separated for five years sharing children on alternate weekends is still functioning as a family, or maybe two. Two women raising a niece of one of them is a family, just as would be two lesbian women raising a child sired by a surrogate father who donated to a sperm bank. A prostitute who makes a living for herself and two children by sleeping with 3 different men a night is a family. A nineteen year old boy who has run off with his eighteen year old girlfriend and is living with her while working at McDonalds and going to community college is a family if they say so. If the definition of “family” has been opened up, the definition of “marriage” must necessarily have changed too. It is pointless to argue otherwise.
How, then, do we initiate young people into larger community life? What takes the place of traditional marriage? The same-sex marriage movement that is drawing so much attention all over the world is merely expanding the range of participants to include a more realistic understanding of gender. It is actually gender fluidity that is being virulently opposed.
In the future no marriages will have the same central role they had in the past to remove young people from their birth families and install them as perpetrators of new families in wider society. Very soon marriage between two people will be just one of many ways to define people’s role in society. The trend is for people to define themselves, in fact, rather than to allow themselves to be defined by their family structure, racial heritage, social role, economic capacity, or anything.
This, I think is becoming world-wide. Let’s look at what we can see in Northern Thailand.
I know of several families nearby that constitute a sample large enough to represent at least part of the contemporary possibilities. In generation 2 (age 50-60) of Family A, 3 children are married hetero-sexually and 1 is married to a same-sex spouse. In generation 3 (age 16-30) of that family 4 children are married – 2 formally and 2 informally, 1 is estranged from his wife whom he never married (they have a little boy) and vocal about not intending to get involved again anytime soon, 1 is about to be married with a big ceremony, and 3 are still too young. In Family B the husband had 2 wives (one of them a widely suspected secret), one son is married after not having any ceremony for a year, and the other son is gay. In Family C the husband is happily married to his second wife without a formal marriage, the first wife has a new part-time spouse, their daughter has a little son she has turned over to her mother’s parents to raise while she extorts money from one young suitor after another, and another daughter has disappeared. Family D includes one son who became a Buddhist monk, and two sons who each are married while maintaining separate families elsewhere. One son has two daughters, one of whom is married and one who may be lesbian. The other son has a daughter who is still “too young” at 37 and a son who is too happy to be a carefree bachelor to marry the woman who has been chasing him for about ten years.
In other words the traditional long-term monogamous relationship is no longer typical, and, frankly, in this culture may never have been. Certainly the public “I do” ceremony (or its Northern Thai equivalent) is not a necessary rite of passage.
Young adults these days in North Thailand describe themselves in terms of where they live. The closer they live to where they grow up the more specific will be their identification. They mention a salaried position if they have one; salary is an indicator of upward mobility into the middle class. They think of their alma mater if they are graduates or current students. And they never lose track of their familial position as son, grandson, father, uncle (maybe all at the same time) in relation to different people. Then comes their roles in the community. At the top of the list would be any particular thing that marks a person as socially remarkable or somehow elite. Young adults in N. Thailand live in a nexus of relationships, no one of which identifies the person as “now a mature, full-fledged member of society”.
Passage into society at large doesn’t have a rite. Marriage doesn’t do that anymore than it defines a family.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.