When Kinship Doesn’t Work

I am not one to quote from unz.com posts, especially ones on biology. (I visit the place mainly for Phil Giraldi.) The site is home to too many authors who see a genetic or biological determinism in human difference, and while they may not label some people as morally superior to others, a lot of what gets posted there on the subject seems to lean in that direction.

Whatever value that kind of thinking (and talk) may have (from a scientific perspective), it still tells us little about what public policy should look like in an ethnically diverse society. And it says absolutely nothing about obligations we have to each other.

But this piece, which is a complex look at the some differences between cultures that grow rice versus cultures that grow wheat (it’s not simple determinism, but expression, and it’s a fairly measured piece at that), has a fascinating beginning. In part, because I’be been spending a great deal of time lately thinking about kinship and how we express different ideas of kinship in modernity.

Kinship is the organizing principle of small human societies, such as bands of hunter-gatherers or small farming villages. This is seen in their notions of right and wrong—the same behavior may be wrong toward kin but right toward non-kin, or at least not punishable. Morality is enforced by social pressure from fellow kinfolk, which in extreme cases can lead to ostracism and banishment.

This kin-based morality breaks down as societies grow larger and as the circle of regular interaction spreads beyond close kin. Wrongdoers are less easily brought into line because they and their victims no longer share the same kinfolk. Wrongs have to be avenged through vendettas: my clan against yours. Since vendettas can go on indefinitely, causing much more harm than the initial wrongdoing, a society cannot be both large and orderly unless it can resolve disputes between unrelated individuals. Hence, the development of codified law and justice systems. Hence the prohibition of violence as a means to resolve personal disputes.

In much of the world, this is as far as cultural evolution has gone. The circle of trusting relationships extends no farther than one’s kinship ties; beyond, morality is enforced only by the force of law, and court justice is expensive, time-consuming, and not always impartial. So dealings with non-kin are kept to the minimum necessary. This low level of trust restricts trade, keeping it bottled up spatially and temporally in marketplaces and family businesses. A true market economy cannot self-generate.

Kinship ties. Particularly the morality that derives from understanding and expression of kinship, especially in what Frost describes as “notions of right and wrong—the same behavior may be wrong toward kin but right toward non-kin, or at least not punishable.”

There are, I think four different real expressions of “kinship.” (Think of this as an analog scale.) There’s real kinship, in which we really are related to each through some common ancestor (“gentile” comes from a latin term gent, which supposed shared relationship through some male progenitor); and a host of fictive or imagined kinships: confession, in which we are related to each other because we confess a common faith; citizenship, in which we are related because we belong to the same polity; and universal, in which we are related because we are human beings. That last is the most abstract and the most difficult to actually sustain, and the first — real kinship — is the most concrete and the hardest to overcome.

In-between, there are various different levels of imagined kinship. Who can be trusted, and why. Who is owed an obligation, and why. (Much of the problem of the world in which we live focuses on the collapse of trust, and of trustworthiness. Who can you trust? How can you trust them? Why should they be trusted?) For example, at root, the dilemma of race in America is really a dilemma of citizenship, and thus of a kind of kinship. For some white Americans, blacks represent an “other” who can never properly be kin. For many others, blacks can if they assimilate to white norms — that is, do the work of becoming kin. And for some, white Americans need to do the bulk of the work of accepting black kinship. People are owed because they are Americans, versus people aren’t owed anything unless they become Americans. Differing notions of what being an American means.

It doesn’t help that central to the construction of American identity — perhaps foundational — is the denial of black citizenship. (Law, culture, and custom were built on this, and so it’s difficult — perhaps impossible — to untangle or deconstruct and meaningfully remake it.) Society could make certain claims on black lives and liberty, especially in wartime (though only with great reluctance on the part of whites), but mostly blacks were not entitled to the same kind of citizenship as whites were (given that whiteness was not always a static thing either).

This wasn’t intended as a discussion of race so much as it was a consideration of Frost’s statement on right and wrong — things that can be done with impunity to non-kin that cannot be done to kin.

What happens to those for whom kinship does not work?

I’m thinking here of the fictive kinship of citizenship (though given my experience of the last few years, why not confession as well?). What happens when there are people who are abused and not protected, but citizenship is ascribed to them anyway? How is this morality — this notion of right and wrong based largely on the identity of who is doing and who is done to — supposed to work for those who find themselves labeled as kin BUT are without any effective protection from other members of the in-group? How are they supposed to understand this fact that things can be done to them with impunity and there is no one to avenge the wrongs done to them?

Because yes, this is about me. I think of what I wrote in my book, The Love That Matters, about Upland, the miserable place where I more or less grew up in:

What was worse, after all this, after eight years of brutality and abuse, this community could turn around and demand my love and loyalty. And act as if somehow they were the injured party when I was something other than fervently in love with them.

They got neither my love nor my loyalty. They hadn’t earned it.

I wish I had a better answer than this. I’m somewhat still in this place, though nowhere near as angry, not as perplexed, and not as alone either. And that may end up being the best I can ever expect. But otherwise, I do not have an answer. I think it’s an insoluble problem. Kinship does work that way sometimes — think of the story of Joseph in Genesis — though I suspect few overcome it as well as Joseph did. (And few tormentors are probably as subject to the mercy of the one they once tormented as Joseph’s brothers.)

I have long believed we are wrong when we tell ourselves that history is a story told by winners. History is a story told by survivors, and that is not the same thing. Often times, I suspect history is told by the losers, simply because those with power — those who win — don’t think they have to write anything down. (Here I am reminded of the words of Lubavitcher Rabbi Menacham Schneerson, I think, who said that the kings may have ruled, but who remembers what they said? It’s the words of the prophets that we kept, not the words of the kings.) Many of our stories are likely told by those abused and discarded in kinship relations (whether real of fictive), especially quests and adventures where someone leaves home or finds themselves among strangers or in a far-away land (or both).

Because really, who else is going to leave home and go on adventure looking for his (or her) fortune — or place in the world — in the first place?