Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

May 19, 2011

Flourishing is hard, but not impossible

Filed under: Culture,Does Momma Still Wipe Your Butt?,Society — Razib Khan @ 11:29 am

In the comments to Zach’s post The Joy of Extended Families I left some vulgar and intentionally humorous assertions in regards to the “joint family” which is so common in South Asia. There are two aspects to this. First, I have a particular cultural bias having grown up in the West amongst mostly non-browns. Cousin marriage is an illustration of the nature of my values. I assumed it was strange. Why? I don’t know, someone must have told me it was. But among South Asian Muslims it isn’t abhorrent at all, and not incestuous (though it is not common among Bengali Muslims from what I know, especially not to the first degree). Presumably Muslim brown Brits who grew up in that community would be less averse to this practice because of the nature of their norms and expectations. I am conscious of this in part because I recall reading a conservative Muslim cleric in England arguing against homosexuality and homosexual marriage as against nature, and immoral like “incest.” I put the quotes here because the cleric, despite speaking to a non-Muslim audience, was obviously not explicitly aware of the fact that many non-Muslims view marriage practices amongst Muslims as condoning incest! The semantic value difference here is very significant, and inter-cultural communication necessitates conversion of the meaning appropriately.

But there’s a second issue, and that is the nature of eudaimonia, “human flourishing.” This is cuts across societies in a very broad sense, and I use the pretentious Greek term because too often we may conceive of the ends in a culture-specific or individual-specific manner (e.g., for the religious, to glorify God or attain enlightenent), or, reduce it to hedonic utilitarianism evaluated on the individual scale. Man is in a deep way plural, and I think the latter is too rationalistic in extracting in the individual from the social order. The former often lacks the character of commensurability, where what is the end of one society or individual is naturally the end of the other society or individual.


I make the individual vs. society distinction because what may be fitting for one individual may not be fitting for another. People have different dispositions, and they flourish contingent in part on the dispositions. But, we must also acknowledge broad human universals. I recall recently reading a piece about an Indian social activist whose goal was to alleviate hunger. He observed a poor old homeless man picking through his own feces to find edible bits to reconsume. Imagine that this man believed that this was his lot, that it was just, for it is as God, the gods, or karma, willed it. That he was at peace. Also consider the possibility that society agreed upon this framework. Would we accept it? Should we? I think at this extreme level when may wonder if there is a sickness in society and individuals in terms of false consciousness where they would see this and think that a man could flourish in such a state. No. Man was not made to consume his own feces. That is against his nature, though the exigences of life may make it so that that is what must be done.

I think the same issue applies to arguments about the nature of families and social order. First, we need to move beyond stark dichotomies between an atomistic Western individual who lives alone and has weak social ties vs. thick embedded family life among those from “traditional” societies with “joint families” where three generations and siblings live together. There is a lot of space in the middle, and also exploring other dimensions. I will immediately grant that some people would benefit from the joint family circumstance. In the reductio ad absurdum those with forms of social dysfunction are clearly stabilized by the natural familial “dampeners.” But, I would suggest that those of more normal psyche are often prevented from flourishing to the fullness of their individual being in these circumstances. When it comes to “moving out” and living alone the nature of the Western economy does lead some to extract themselves from all moorings. The focus on wealth and professional status for many is the process of them losing the forest from the trees, they confuse the means for the ends. This is a caricature, but it does fit some people, and fits many to some extent (including me). The mobility of life in America in particular (Europeans are far less mobile, especially southern Europeans, in part due to culture and also because of greater density) produces destabilization of social networks. This is not all for the bad, some argue that it results in greater creativity. But I think it does come at the cost of some amity and generates anomie.

I would also suggest that the South Asian joint family is an artifact of its time. In the pre-modern era grandparents did not live into their 80s very often. Huge extended sibling cohorts in adulthood were not common because of high infant morality. Additionally, the Malthusian parameters of bare subsistence was probably the reason for concurrent residence, not some cultural ideal (this is the usual rational for polyandry which occurs between brothers in some Tibetan societies; they can’t afford to support one wife on their own).

We must seek the Golden Mean. I myself wonder at my distance from my family. Some of that is structural. I live on a continent far from others. But some of that is the nature of shock and dislocation which is part of the immigrant experience. Even those individuals who lack the will or capability of shucking off ancestral superstitions are still affected by their altered milieu, which enforces a rupture or alienation across the generations which is not the norm across societies. On the other hand life is a journey where the landscape should change. You change physically and psychologically. There is a deep human insight in the model of Ashrama. The major downside, which does not always occur, but seems to quite often, is a sort of infantilism of mind. This is especially true in patrilocal South Asian societies for males, whose relationship to their mothers is natural, but like indulging a sweet tooth can become destructive to their own development and have serious consequences for their wife.

In any case, this is a huge domain, and requires a lot of exploration to approach with nuance. There is for example a difference between grandparents coming to live with the family at the end of their lives (this is not uncommon for Westerners), and the system where young men bring their wives to live in their father’s house, where their own grandparents are also still resident.

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