Apologies for the abstract and non-snarky nature of this post, but there’s no good source material to shred here, just some thoughts I’ve been having inspired by our continuing discussion of Harpy House and other forms of personal support.
I like to consider myself a good friend to people, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I think the obligation has to be reciprocal. I can’t afford to be that selfless about it, because for me, friendships are a primary means of support. I don’t live close to home, and for that and various other reasons it isn’t realistic for me to rely on my family for things like hospital accompaniment and emergency cat care. As I’ve spoken about here before, too, I’m an only child. And I’m single, possibly doomed to be so in perpetuity. (Note: I’ve been working so hard I have no dating updates to bring you… yet.) So when my parents go, it will not just be unrealistic to rely on family for all the things we hope our families will do for us: care for us when sick, help us out when we are in need. For me, such reliance will be impossible.
I say all of this by way of identifying my personal bias against bonds forged of blood, so to speak, in discussions here and elsewhere. Because I will also say that I think it is a primary responsibility of a feminist to develop relationships formed outside the boundaries of traditional family structures. Why? Well, I’ll let MacKinnon say it:
Family and kinship rules and sexual mores guarantee reproductive ownership and sexual access and control to men as a group.
Now, I know that some recoil when they hear this kind of thing, because it is drilled into our heads, and quite often reinforced by experience, that family bonds just deserve priority. That family should be unassailable. This belief can come from indoctrination – your kin may have drilled it into your head – but it can also be self-imposed. You watch a family-based drama on TV, and you think to yourself: I want that. You go to supper at a friend’s house, with all her raucous siblings trading in-jokes as they set the table, and the refrain starts up in your head again.
But let’s unpack this a little bit. It is demonstrably not the case that a blood or genetic relationship to someone necessarily leads to a bond forged of mutual respect, mutual interest, and mutual caring. There are hundreds upon thousands of adoptees and children in the foster system who can tell you that. It is demonstrably the case, by the testimony of these same people – nevermind those who marry and couple off with people they are not related to – that one can feel more loved and cared for by someone not related to themselves.
I am nonetheless aware that for people oppressed on other bases than gender, the family can seem like a refuge from the daily grind of being devalued, ignored and generally treated as something less than human. For better or for worse, the way we construct families in this society means that there is a strong possibility that one can find those bonds in family.
So let me be clear. I am not calling for an end or a devaluation of family and kinship. I am calling for a destabilization of the rules that surround who we can and should be able to rely on in this culture. That, like it or not, does involve removing the family from its current position at either the top of the pyramid or the center of the Venn diagram (take your pick of visual metaphors) of your treasured personal relationships. And I think the best way for us to encourage this is to advocate the changing of the law to allow people to choose anyone, regardless of affiliation to themselves, to enter into a legally recognized relationship of mutual support. That’s right: I’m running straight for that slippery slope the anti-gay marriage conservatives talk about. I’ve got a toboggan with me.*
Not only would this resolve the incredible human rights abomination of the refusal to recognize gay marriage in one fell swoop, it would immediately force people to ask themselves: who can I rely on? This is an immensely scary question in a patriarchal society, because often the people we are told to turn to for support, who we are told have some obligation to us – men, politicians, doctors, lawyers – do not actually feel driven to respect that relationship. Oh, they may understand it as a matter of theory, professional ethics, but it isn’t the kind of thing they feel when confronted with someone with whom they have forged a bond based on nothing stronger (or weaker, one might say) than mutual interest and respect who is in a tight spot and needs their help.
Moreover, wouldn’t it mean that we all start regarding responsibility for each other as something we have to take on, as something chosen and carefully constructed, instead of the passive way we all currently regard each other?
* Shut up, I am Canadian.