Marriage is whatever society says it is. Since it looks like gay marriage is on its way to being legalized everywhere, we’ve pretty much decided that marriage is no longer the union of one man and one woman; it now includes the union of any two people. There’s no reason to think that our redefinition of marriage will stop there. The success of gay marriage proponents has shown proponents of polygamy how to fight their battle and has pretty much insured their success.
I started writing about the relationship between legalizing gay marriage and legalizing polygamy as a comment to a post over at TigerHawk:
And I know that it's considered the height - or depth - or bigotry and stupidity or some other detestable "y" to raise this issue seriously but once we begin redefining marriage I truly do not understand what the logical, rational argument is against expanding it to include polygamy. There is no rational reason to consider marriage something allowed only between a man and a woman; it is simply the way we've always done things. So why is there a rational reason to consider marriage something allowed only between two people?
All of the arguments that will be made against polygamy* were marshaled against gay marriage: it is forbidden by religion; it is unnatural; it will undermine the institution of marriage; it may well have unintended consequences; it is bad for children to be raised in such a situation. These arguments failed against gay marriage and they will fail against polygamy. Let’s look at these arguments in the context of polygamy and see how their lack of validity in the face of gay marriage will render them useless against polygamy.
Polygamy is forbidden by religion: This is simply a non-starter. No argument based on religious dogma is going to gain traction in a lifestyle debate. In the case of gay marriage, it was simply thrown out; in the case of polygamy, it probably can’t even be raised given the historical acceptance of polygamy among major religions.
Polygamy is unnatural: Based on the historical record, polygamy (or at least polygyny) appears to be for more “natural” than gay marriage. As for the argument that homosexuality is biologically based*, there is no shortage of people arguing that polygamy (at least in the form of polygyny) is what humans are biologically wired for.
Polygamy will undermine the institution of marriage and thus destabilize society: Why assume that legalizing polygamy would result in enough incidences of it to undermine the institution of marriage? Those who support gay marriage scoff at this argument when applied to same-sex unions. Surely, they say, people who are currently committed to heterosexual marriage will not fall by the wayside simply because those who are not can now get married. The same argument seems just as valid with regard to polygamy: Surely those who are committed to two-person marriage will not fall by the wayside simply because those who are not can now get married.
Polygamy may have unintended consequences: Any time you change a millennia-old institution, you’re taking a risk on the consequences. And, again, the historical record shows more support for successful societies that practice polygamy than that practice gay marriage.
Polygamy is bad for children: Supporters of gay marriage take as given that homosexual couples are as likely to be good parents as heterosexual couples. On what rational basis can one assume differently about polygamists? In fact, one could argue that in an age where both father and mother work to make ends meet, having an additional mother around to do childcare is quite a good idea. Having two fathers and two mothers (or four fathers or four mothers) is even better: three adults can work and one be the primary caregiver.
Beyond that, there is the normative argument that marriage is properly a relationship between two people. But there is no reason this argument is any more valid than the argument that marriage is properly a relationship between two people of the opposite sex.
It’s not just that the arguments that will be marshaled against legalizing polygamy failed when they were marshaled against legalizing gay marriage that makes it unlikely polygamy will remain illegal in this country for much longer. It’s also the characterization of those who argued against gay marriage. Those who opposed gay marriage, for any reason, were not considered simply people who preferred a different definition of marriage, who had genuine concerns about the effect on society, who believed that a millennia old institution was altered only at great risk, or who held sincere religious beliefs. No, those who opposed gay marriage were characterized as stupid, ignorant, bigoted, shortsighted, ridiculous, not worthy of response, or crazy. How can anyone who leveled those charges at those who opposed gay marriage now argue credibly against legalizing polygamy?
I do not object to gay marriage. However, I do not consider those who do object to it to be stupid, ignorant, bigoted, shortsighted, ridiculous, not worthy of response, or crazy. Instead I respect their position, acknowledge the validity of their concerns, and couch my position in terms of my own preferences and my opinion that legalizing gay marriage will not undermine the role marriage plays - or should play - in holding society together. This leaves me free to oppose legalizing polygamy when the time comes. I realize full well that when I do argue against legalizing polygamy, I will be denounced as stupid, ignorant, bigoted, shortsighted, ridiculous, not worthy of response, or crazy. I’ll have to put up with that but I don’t plan to give anyone grounds to also denounce me as inconsistent.
* Cassandra has made a number of arguments against polygamy that could not be made against gay marriage. With one possible exception - inbreeding - I don’t think any of them will gain any traction against polygamy. I’ll address them in a later post.
** My personal opinion on the issue of homosexuality being biological, a result of environment, or a choice, is that there is probably a continuum, just as there seems to be in an increasing number of human traits: some people who are simply biologically programmed to find the same sex attractive; some who have biological tendencies which can be expressed or not in response to environment; some who have no biological tendencies but become homosexual as a result of environment; and some who choose to live as homosexuals. I may be one the last people on the planet who remembers that some Feminists explicitly choose lesbianism as a reaction to male patriarchy and resent being lumped into the “mainstream” LGBT movement.