A Toast to the Patriarchy

In the beginning of August, my brother was married. It was a beautiful occasion and I could not ask for a better sister-in-law. As elder sibling though, I felt my role was not so much to compliment the bride, but to give my younger brother a little ribbing. I was satisfied with the toast I ended up making, and (in all modesty) I received a few compliments for the best wedding toast ever.

Being somewhat personal, and having already elicited the highest conceivable praise, I will not threaten its legend by reproducing it here. I will, however, write more than I probably should about some things I restrained my self from including.

The seed for the toast germinated from a bit of trivia the bride shared many months ago. I nurtured it in free moments, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it began to mirror some of the other things  I was pondering. Thankfully, before the appointed hour, I had enough sense to censor a few things: a one-line inside joke and two-sentence speculative treatise on the origins of marriage.

In my opinion, the most common pitfall of honoring someone else is the temptation to talk about yourself instead. I remember realizing this at a funeral for a family friend. Nearly every single eulogy was really about the speaker, not the dear departed. It’s a very difficult trap to avoid.

An inside joke, especially a one-liner, seems innocuous, but the subtext is “I belong in an exclusive group (and most of you do not).” Thus using references your audience doesn’t understand ends up communicating more about yourself than your intended subject. Cutting that one-liner wis the right move.

But I digress.

The other bit I left out of the toast was much more substantive – and it would have been good. A mistake, to be sure, but an epic one.

The crux of all humor is the building and releasing of tension, and I think nothing has the potential to build tension at a wedding than a critical look at the origins of marriage. The bit might have killed, or perhaps totally bombed. I’d like to think I was fully ready to take that risk, but in the end I left it out, not out of timidity, but in deference to the people we had gathered to celebrate.

The subtext of a treatise on the origins of marriage, no matter how cleverly worded (in fact, especially if it’s cleverly worded), is not about the bride and groom, but about the speaker. It says “Look at me. Aren’t I a clever boy?”

A wedding toast is not the place to impose your musings on an audience. The proper place for such indulgences is your own obscure little blog.

And here we are.

Now for you, dear Internets, I will lay out the comments which were too subversive and/or self-indulgent for a wedding toast:

I think many of you would agree that marriage is about problem-solving.

Specifically, the problem of property ownership and inheritance, which became increasingly important as humans began to shift towards delayed-return subsistence strategies, and agriculture in particular.

As a system of social coercion which enables the rough estimation of paternity, marriage facilitates a patrilineal system of inheritance which, as it tends to be less egalitarian than matrilineal alternatives, provides greater incentives for males to innovate, leading to faster growth rates, and eventually the total displacement of more pleasant alternatives.

[Breath… (perhaps a few nervous titters at this point, before we try to steer the ship back into friendlier waters…)]

But I think there’s another way to look at it.

Here we have two people who have chosen to bind their futures together, despite their clear [and previously outlined in the toast] pathologies. I think this speaks volumes about the depth of their relationship.

It’s also an entirely rational decision.

There is good reason to believe that one of the single biggest factors determining the attractiveness of potential partners, both for men and women, is novelty. We are literally wired to stray.

We’re also terrible at predicting the things that will make us happy.

In a 2004 article in the Scandinavian Journal of Economics, using data from 16,000 adult Americans, economists David Blachflower and and Andrew Oswald calculated that the happiness maximizing number of sexual partners in the previous year was one. [note to the internet – I did not pay to read the full text…]

Our desires evolved to increase fecundity, not contentment.

In the year 1066, after crossing the channel from Normandy, William the Conquerer set fire to his own force’s ships, cutting off any possibility of retreat for his soldiers – and today we speak an English littered with French loan words. Sometimes it is possible to strengthen one’s own position by eliminating options. In game theory this is called pre-commitment.

Today, we have gathered to perform the same service for [the bride and groom]. Science assures us that they will want to stray, yet it simultaneously suggests that they will be happiest if they do not. Through the power of social coercion we raise the cost of infidelity, pre-committing them to the choices which are most likely to improve their long-term self-reported wellbeing.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you marriage: a crude method for estabishing paternity to be sure, but perhaps also an elegant strategy for hacking happiness.

A toast therefore, to the patriarchy, for the gift of better living through self-inflicted social coercion.


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