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9 July 2012

On getting married to yourself

Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later. In this age of individualism, a few individuals are pushing the idea to the limit by getting ‘married’ to themselves. Here’s an example from America and here’s one from Taiwan. Let’s wish these happy, er, singles the best of luck, because if things don’t work out, the divorces could be messy.

Self-marriage maybe a rather unusual response to rising levels of singleness in western societies, but there’s no doubt that the underlying issues are of much wider relevance. Of course, not everyone who lives alone does so by choice. Yet, according to sociologists like Eric Klinenberg, growing numbers are making such a choice – a phenomenon he not only documents, but welcomes, in his book Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone.

In an excellent review of the book for the American Interest, Benjamin Schwartz starts with facts: 

  • "Going Solo bases itself on relatively new data showing that more than 50 percent of American adults are single, and 31 million—roughly one out of every seven adults—live alone. This is a significant increase from 1950, when only 22 percent of American adults were single… Put another way, people who live alone make up 28 percent of all U.S. households, which makes them more numerous than any other domestic unit, including the nuclear family."  

But though he praises Klinenberg’s scholarship, Schwartz objects to the book’s conclusions – especially a passage in which the author speaks of "the virtues of living lightly, without obligation": 

  • "Klinenberg’s use here of the word virtue is especially jarring…. Clearly, virtue requires moral reasoning, so how is it possible to conceive of ‘virtue’ ‘without obligation’?" 
  • "Klinenberg’s answer, citing the demographer Andrew Cherlin, is that ‘one’s primary obligation is [now] to oneself rather than to one’s partner and children.’ The basis for this assertion is found in Klinenberg’s introduction, in which he invokes German sociologist Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim, who claim that, ‘For the first time in history the individual is becoming the basic unit of social reproduction.’" 

Schwartz describes this notion as "utter nonsense": 

  • "Individuals don’t transfer values from one generation to the next. Individuals are biologically incapable of producing a next generation except in the crudest possible sense of the term. Socialization—the process through which a person internalizes what is good and bad, meaningful and meaningless—is shaped by one’s relatives, the friends and associates who surround a person, and typically a canon of texts that is revered and consulted for guidance." 

Schwartz is articulating a deeply conservative view of society and the place of the individual within it; libertarians, however, may be more attracted to the idea of a culture in which individuals are unfettered even by the traditional ties of family.

But can a culture of unfettered individualism sustain itself? Schwartz doesn’t think so: 

  • "…the chief distinguishing feature of a free society is that it maintains order through the self-regulation of citizens living together rather than by dint of the authorities of state, the internalization of civic values being the central bulwark against the deformation of liberty into license and chaos." 

Certainly, the lesson of history is that where family and community shrinks back, government rolls forward. In loosening our ties to others, we succeed only in chaining ourselves more tightly to the state.


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