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

On 2006-09-06, Sydney Freedberg wrote:

I. The Polygamy Thing

But the issue is not unmarried: it's unmarriageable. There's a big difference between being single well into your 30s, or 40s, or forever, and being able to date around and find romantic and/or sexual partners, and living in a society where there are significantly more single men than single women (or vice versa) and every man knows that there's a good chance that, when the music stops, he's going to be left alone for the rest of his life.

Polygamy, in practice, is likely to be a way for high-status individuals to accumulate two or three or more mates, sucking those individuals out of the dating/mating/marriage pool. It may allow for all sorts of other, better things as well, but it's hard to imagine a society of people so pure that the wealthy and powerful don't end up with more spouses, on average, than ordinary people.

Now, I've been carefully using gender-neutral language so far. But let's not kid ourselves. Vincent argued that "The theoretical construct, where we unlink polygamy from those authoritarian power structures, is precisely the one under discussion." But, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, you undertake sweeping social change with the society you have, not with the society you'd like to have. Granted, the United States and Western Europe (where I reckon almost everyone on this board comes from) have gone dramatically farther towards equality between the sexes than any prior civilization I've ever heard of. But I'll laugh out loud at the first person who tries to argue contemporary Western civilization isn't still pervasively sexist.

Which means that if you legalize polygamy in the United States any time in the next 20 years, what you're going to see is a significant number of rich, powerful men marrying two or three or four wives, a much smaller number of middle-class and poor men (probably from certain cultural subgroups) marrying multiple wives, and a negligible number of women of whatever social status marrying multiple husbands. That in turn will mean an increase in the number of middle-class and low-status men who are single by necessity for prolonged periods—as in, no dates, no longterm relationships, no sex except with prostitutes, for years and years of their lives.

I don't see how this is in any way good for either the women involved as co-wives or the men who are denied partners. I don't see how this is in any way good for society as a whole. It may not be Boxer Rebellion-bad—apparently a lot of the rebels were lower-class single men denied a chance to marry by widespread female infanticide in 19th century China—or al-Qaeda-bad—suicide bombers are mostly single men, often drawn from the large pool of 20-something Arab men who are unemployed virgins living at home. But it'll be bad enough.

Crucial caveat: Specific individuals are no doubt able to enter into polyamorous relationships that are stable, egalitarian, loving, and beneficial for all individuals. I'm sure there some people who fit that description reading this post. Good for you; be happy. I'm not coming for you with my six-shooter, my Bible, and my long embroided coat. I just don't think society as a whole is ready for it, anywhere near. Go look up some of the legal workarounds that Ralph (Valamir) mentioned above, because it's not wise to change US law to recognize the functional polygamies if in the process you give Donald Trump, Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, and Dick Cheney (remember how rich he is!) a chance to play King Solomon.

I value nothing in this world more highly than individual human freedom. (I'd make a strong argument that God values nothing more highly, either, given that He apparently is willing to allow humans to be horrifically evil to one another as the price of allowing humans to be free). But the only way to protect everyone's freedom is to limit it: my freedom of speech doesn't include the freedom to shout you down, my freedom of association doesn't include the freedom to join a country club that does not admit blacks or Jews, my freedom of action does not include the freedom to whack you upside the head just 'cause I feel like it, my economic freedom does not include the freedom to dump all my factory's pollutants in your garden because it's cheaper than disposing it properly, my reproductive freedom does not include the freedom to marry ten women, even if they're not my underage cousins.

II. The Religion Thing

And this is where I get back on my high horse about "scripture, tradition, and reason":

There's a dangerous tendency among a small cadre I'd call the "internet intelligentsia" to think their own capacity to reason is sufficient to solve any problem, personal or societal, and nothing from the past (scripture or tradition) is relevant. Here you get a lot of self-proclaimed Libertarians and victims of what I'd call "Robert Heinlein disease": Sure, we can legalize heroin, privatize law enforcement, and conduct free love orgies with our own reversed-gender clones—we're smart enough to avoid any bad consequences!

There's a much more dangerous tendency, among a much larger group of people dating back to at least the Reformation, to think that all that matters from the past is the original scripture, and that their own reason is sufficient to interpret it without reference to the traditions of how past generations interpreted it.

Thus you get all sorts of Christian fundamentalist groups haring off after literal interpretations of Bible verses taken out of context. (Salafist Islam, whose extreme forms include Saudi Wahabism and al-Qaeda, returns directly to the Koran with a very similar disregard for centuries of Islamic jurisprudence and scholarship). Mormonism is to some degree an outgrowth of this kind of radical Protestantism, but since it brings in its own, hitherto unknown scriptures with which I'm not personally familiar, it's really beyond me to classify it.

The other major form of reason+scripture without tradition, ironically, is radically individualistic syncretism. Here I'm talking about all the people in the "what's your religion?" open-house thread who say something to the effect of, "well, I went to church/temple/whatever a few times, but I don't adhere to any organized religion, but I consider myself spiritual, and I've come up with my own belief system based on a mix of Christianity, Hinduism, paganism, etc." My reaction to this is similar to my reaction when I hear someone say "well, I took a few chemistry classes, but I consider myself a chemist, and I draw on different manuals I found on the internet to mix up plastic explosives in my bathtub."

Religious belief is serious business. Reengineering basic social norms, like monogamous marriage, is serious business. Human beings have struggled with these issues for thousands of years. And you don't get to say, "well, it's my business what I believe and how I live." It's not. It affects everyone around you. Setting aside whether or not you have an immortal soul (and one of my friends once told me, wonderingly, "you're the first self-proclaimed Christian I've met who seriously worried he was going to Hell"), what you believe affects how you live your life, which affects whether you're happy or miserable, and whether you make other people happy or miserable.

If your avowed beliefs don't affect how you live—then, guess what, you really believe something else that you haven't articulated: Common examples are "I take what I want," "I'm a bad person who must suffer," "anyone dumb enough to love me should be punished," and "the more stuff I have the better a person I must be."

BIG WARNING: And if your avowed beliefs include casually mixing and matching mythologies and rituals from different sources you don't particularly understand, you're playing with fire. Those symbols and processes have lasted this long because they have tremendous psychological power. Please go look at Meg Baker's discussion of ritual "containment" in the specific context of roleplaying games ( and learn how to put on some metaphorical gloves and eye protection before you hurt yourself or someone else. (Vincent, could you please link that?)

If you look at stable, functional societies—ones that preserve everyone's freedom over a long time, rather than giving a few individuals the freedom to screw over everyone else—they tend to have strong mechanisms in place to enforce traditions. Great Britain has its constitutional monarchy, House of Lords, and unwritten constitution; the United States has its almost-impossible-to-amend Constitution and its unelected, appointed-for-life Supreme Court justices. Apparently irrational traditions often make a lot of sense.

A last, personal note:

The Episcopal Church of the United States—which I clearly gave the wrong impression about in my prior post—is a good example of this apparently irrational yet practically functional traditionalism. On the authoritarian side, new priests have to be consecrated by bishops, and new bishops have to be consecrated by the laying-on-of-hands by prior bishops ("apostolic succession"). But any Anglican tradition bishop anywhere can consecrate priests and bishops for anywhere else—the first Episcopal bishop of the independent US was consecrated in Scotland because no English bishop would lay hands on a rebel colonial—and the members of congregations have the right to "call" (hire) and, in dire circumstances, dismiss their priest(s), as well as to send elected delegates to the church's national legislature. This is frankly mind-numbing even to a lifelong Episcopalian like me, and you can see from recent headlines about the consecration of gay bishops that it's hardly prevented dissension and strife within the church, but on the whole it keeps us on a middle course.


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