Ritual of Kith

Not all rituals should be holidays. Some should commemorate important one-time events. Marriage is an existing ritual, and one which we seem to have worked out a pretty decent secular variant of. Historically, many societies also had one for adoption; this is not something we have a worked example of in modern society.

These are also both special cases of a more general schema: ritual for acknowledging someone as family. Historically, this was very important, since a lot of social safety net was built on the family (and the rest was usually built on the parish church). Rituals like this are very useful, because it’s not enough to recognize someone as family, you also have to establish common knowledge in your community that you have recognized them as family. It is/was expected that family came before the rest of the community, unless your community member’s needs were much, much greater. It was a explanation and excuse for what would otherwise be considered unfair partiality, and if that common knowledge was in place, it avoided the appearance that the unfair partiality was motivated by personal grudges or vitriol.

So this seems like an excellent ritual we should have. However: copying the idea across naively, it fails as individualist ritual. Acknowledging family tends to move the local culture towards thinking of families as units, and that is unacceptably anti-individualist. What we need is something related, but different. Not a ritual marking someone as kin… but, perhaps, one marking someone as kith. In the sense suggested to modern ears by the phrase “kith and kin”; this sounds like it means the people who are as important as kin/family, but who are not family. (This is not what the word meant historically, but absent a better term, I don’t see any reason to let that get in the way of a good name.)

This overlaps substantially with polyamory; many people with multiple partners will have something more family-like with some, especially if there are kids, but remain commensurably close to their other partners. But, and this is very important, that is not transitive. If I am dating Alice and have been for years, and Alice is also dating Bob and has been for years, this does not mean I am kith with Bob. Generally it means I can at least get along with Bob at the kitchen table, or else there would be strain on Alice’s relationships, but who Alice considers her ‘inner circle’ is entirely her own business. It becomes my business only to the extent that this creates conflict, conflict that either I or Alice finds more intolerable than the prospect of ending our close relationship.

I do not have a design for this ritual, yet. But I do have other desiderata:

  • It has to be costly in some sense. Someone who declares five hundred people part of their kith has devalued the label to the point of uselessness, and damaged the viability of the label for others. A tentative way to do this is for the ritual to require the physical presence of your existing kith, or at least most of them; this both scales superlinearly in difficulty, and makes it very obvious to all observers, including your own, that this is getting a little out of hand.
  • It has to be public in some sense. At minimum, anyone in your kith’s kith should know, and ideally it should be something that polite gossip spreads. This might be possible to fudge with a website that declares a register of kith declarations. (This has some aesthetic similarities to Reciprocity.IO’s role as a conditional-disclosure hangout/dating interest accumulator. Reciprocity is not online at time of writing but a replacement is currently semi-public.) Less-fudged would be to allow (but not require) the broader community to be in the audience for the ritual.
  • It should be symmetrical. If there is an ostensibly-permissible asymmetric variant, but also an official or unofficial symmetric one, the symmetric one will be commonly-used, and social pressure will almost certainly push heavily for the asymmetric variant to go unused as ‘rude’. If this is true, it would be better for the ‘de jure‘ variant which is socially-banned to not exist, because it is largely a lie. And that’s probably true, and asymmetric variant a minority demand, so let’s skip the intermediate steps.
  • It must be reversible, but this has to be even more costly. If we provide pseudo-marriage, we must provide pseudo-divorce; covenant marriage is extremely anti-individualist and therefore unacceptable. No-fault dekithing is preferable, but it might be acceptable to settle for a model where an offense is needed as reason, though the bar must not be as high as it was for divorce before no-fault divorce became the norm.

Variants we might want to support:

  • Temporary declarations. Several people in the rationalist community have made use of handfasting, commitments to behave as married for a specified duration (typically a year and a day), and in some cases repeated that some number of times and then formalizing their relationship as a marriage. These have been, maybe counterintuitively, among the marriage-like relationships with the best track record for sticking together long-term, so there seems to be something valuable there.
  • Mutual declarations by groups of more than two people. It may make sense to have these be formally designated ‘kin’ relationships, since it is a mutual agreement by a group of people to treat each other as an inseparable unit. For an anonymized real example, two married bioparents and their roommate, who has been coparenting the married couple’s biokid. They determine that the kid would be traumatized as much by losing the coparent as either bioparent and therefore formalize this as a family unit. This took the form of a public statement on social media making clear their wishes in the event of something happening to the bioparents in regards to custody of the kid, which worked pretty well. But formalizing a mechanism for this seems desirable, and the informal method doesn’t work if there isn’t a kid.

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