thread: 2006-08-31 : I think my expectations are screwed

On 2006-09-03, Sydney Freedberg wrote:

Emily, I suppose you could have a society where polyandrous and polygynous families balance out—where there are as many women with multiple husbands as men with multiple wives, or even multiple spouses of each gender in one family—but it's a purely theoretical construct. Every time and place in human history we've actually seen polygamy, to my knowledge, it's been one man, many women, and tightly linked with authoritarian power structures that put low-status women in positions of near-slavery (often with more abuse at the hands of senior wives than of the husband himself, e.g. Sarah and Hagar) and that relegate low-status men to cannon fodder or criminality.

And even as a theoretical proposition, I am really dubious about polygamy being compatible with equality: Sure, some multiple-spouse marriages may manage it, but in my personal experience (my marriage, marriages of people I know), it's hard enough to establish truly mutual cooperation and respect between two people. Start adding a third spouse, a fourth, a fifth, and you make consensus decisionmaking harder and the emergence of a leader more likely—and be that leader the senior wife or senior husband, I don't want every intimate matter of my life managed like that.

Which ties back to the whole Universalist Unitarian "burn a question mark on your lawn" discussion thus:

People, a lot of these funky cool social ideas have been tried before, and they FAILED. Traditions and institutions do not endure merely because they are self-reinforcing power structures (though they need to be, to exist): A lot of them endure because they work, in the sense of contributing to human happiness and survival. We humans have tried polygamy; the societies that went monogamous generally survived a lot better and did better by their members. We tried polytheism; societies that adopted monotheism generally have done a lot better. We tried communal ownership of property (the Incas went fairly far in this direction, I understand, long before the Russians); capitalist societies generally seem to have done a lot better, again not just in competition with other societies but in providing for their own people. Yes, I'm not blind to the rampant oppression, injustice, and human misery in the monotheistic, monogamous, and capitalistic society in which I live, but compared to most of human history, it's doing pretty well: "it's the worst possible society, except for all of the alternatives."

Americans, above all others, are prone to say "The lessons of the past are irrelevant! The imperfections of the present are intolerable! The future is a blank slate!" The downside of this is the whole unhappy history of communes, both in the 19th century and in the 20th, or of religious "cities on a hill," from 17th century Puritan Massachusetts to 19th century Mormons in Utah to 20th century Branch Dravidians in Texas.

I know very little about contemporary paganism, but I've studied ancient paganism, and in most of its forms it did precious little to protect the rights of women (e.g. temple prostitution in the ancient Middle East, the seclusion of upper-class women in classical Athens), or to solidify social bonds between rich and poor or between one region or another. If people want to draw on the tremendously powerful symbolic language of historical paganism to say something about the contemporary world, more power to them—I think our society needs to recapture the language of myth, which is part of the reason I roleplay at all—but there is danger in inventing new myths, not only opportunity.

I belong to a religious community—Episcopalianism, aka Anglicanism—that seriously believes in the "apostolic succession" of new bishops being consecrated by existing bishops, who were in turn consecrated by earlier bishops, all the way back to Jesus Christ. The Episcopal (i.e. "bishop-ly") church also offers a useful framework: "scripture, tradition, and reason." It's critical to return to the sources of one's faith and culture; it's critical to respect the tradition of all the generations that have gone before you trying to figure out the same problems; it's critical to apply your own power to think things out from scratch. Drop any one of these three and you're in trouble: Disregard the sources (the Bible, the Buddha, whatever), and you deny yourself the ability to stand on the shoulders of giants; disregard the tradition, and you end up repeating the mistakes of a history you didn't learn from; disregard your own reason, and you end up mindlessly repeating the patterns of the past in changed conditions where they don't apply.

There's a terrible temptation among liberal minded, highly educated, highly creative people—like most gamers I know—to say, "tradition, feh, all oppressive rot, who needs it."

That is a mistake.


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