Thursday, October 6, 2011

Polygamy (4): Each sack had seven cats

[This is the fourth of a series of posts on polygamy. The first - simply an intro - is here. The series is collected under the category “Grim Polygamy”.]

Grim started off by proposing that if a woman wanted to marry a man who was already married, why shouldn’t she? His argument seems to be that it’s better for a woman to be one of many wives of an alpha male rather than the only wife of a beta or gamma or, I suppose, omicron or - Heaven forfend - omega male. Maybe all women won’t think so but why prevent those who do from following their bliss?

In comments to a responding post by Cassandra, Grim talks about his unease with the feminist’s invocation of “false consciousness” and the implication that a woman who chooses polygamy does so because she doesn’t know what she really wants:

The argument is that someone who is being oppressed cannot see that they are being oppressed because they are trapped in their circumstances. The only way to prove you are not oppressed is to demonstrate your liberation by adopting the correct opinions. Thus, the Marxist would say, the opinion of the worker in a factory who wants to overthrow the government is legitimate and should be heeded; but the worker who was proud of his job, his role in society, and so forth is simply to be ignored because he is too oppressed to know better.

You can see why this approach bothers me: it is a violation of several principles I hold dear. Thus, in the present instance, [a Saudi Arabian woman] who did choose polygamy would be in a trap. Simply by virtue of having made the choice, she would be said to have given evidence that she wasn't truly free and equal; the only way she could prove her free equality would be to reject polygamy.

Cassandra replies that one’s culture and upbringing always shape one’s view of the world and oneself: a woman who has been taught her whole life to want to be one of multiple wives will almost certainly want to be one of multiple wives. That doesn’t mean it’s a good decision for her and it certainly doesn’t mean it’s a good decision for society.

These two views of false consciousness - that it’s patronizing, that’s it’s simply a recognition of the power of nurture - bring into focus something I’ve been thinking about for a while: what does it mean for something to be wrong? Or, more accurately, do I have the right to simply say, “This is wrong” - or even, “I think this is wrong” - without being required to offer reams of justification for it? To me that is the interesting thing about false consciousness: it assumes there is a right way and a wrong way to think about things. In a lot of areas, I reject that idea. But in this area, it’s impossible for me to believe that any woman who had not been socialized into it would choose polygyny - and perfectly possible for me to believe that women who had been socialized into polygyny would choose monogamy if they could. I believe that polygyny is always a misinformed choice for an individual woman. So sue me.

What about for society? Cassandra offered a list of reasons for society to prefer monogamy to polygamy; I believe they are all answerable but in my gut I think polygamy is a really bad idea. In my last post, I came up with a reason to think polygamy would never be legalized. It was essentially a technical reason, however, and offered no particular support for the idea that polygamy is wrong, just for the idea that polygamy would be too big an upheaval for society.

The idea that some things are simply wrong (by which I mean “a really bad idea” rather than a moral judgment) ties in turn back to the idea of how societies develop their institutions. Nobody wakes up (or sits down) and says, “Let’s figure out how marriage, child-raising, education, medicine, etc. is going to work in our society.” Instead, people try things, some work, some don’t; the ones that work are kept, the ones that don’t are discarded or if they aren’t discarded, the communities, cities, societies that hang onto them go out of business. So messing with basic institutions seems like a very dangerous idea. The Abbess in Rumer Godden's In This House of Brede talks about changing who holds what offices in the monastery and says:

It’s like pulling stone out of a carefully balanced stone wall. Much of the wall comes tumbling down.

And yet. Surely one of the big stones recently pulled out of the wall of society was feminism, which I support whole-heartedly. My hope, expectation was that feminism would leave the basic structure of society intact and simply give women a chance to participate in all arenas of it - while giving men the opportunity to participate in arenas where they did not do so traditionally. That doesn’t seem to be what has happened. And yet to me the way things were was simply wrong. (And here I mean wrong in a moral sense which gives you some idea how confusing I find this whole topic.) After all, the aforementioned Abbess made her comments in the context of reshuffling almost all the officeholders in her monastery because it was the right thing to do, for the individuals and for the community.

The bottom line for me is that polygamy - in any form - is a really bad idea for individuals and societies. I can’t justify that bottom line rationally; I can see holes in arguments against it; but there it is. I feel oddly uncomfortable being so convinced of this, as if I’m not allowed to think something anyone wants to do is a bad idea unless I can provide chapter and verse on exactly what specific harm will be done to some other person by the desired action. I have to resist the notion that my not wanting to live in a society that permits certain behaviors is not enough. This is odd because it seems to me that for a very long time wanting a particular kind of society was more than sufficient as a basis for opposing changes. I'm not sure when or why that changed, how a society that has become less and less Libertarian in most senses has become more and more Libertarian in the "do whatever you want" sense.

Anyhow, in response to Grim’s question:

Is there some fundamental reason to prefer monogamy, or is it just what we're used to seeing?

my answer is, “Yes”.



Reconsidering sexual repression - from Armed and Dangerous. Language warning.

This is probably worth a post of its own - and I wish Cassandra would write it. I mention it here because it touches on the organic growth of societal institutions:

... sexual repression and the double standard weren’t arbitrary forms of cruelty that societies ended up with by accident. They were functional adaptations. By raising the clearing price that women charged for sex, they actually increased female bargaining power and raised the marriage rate.

and it formalizes Grim’s point about women wanting to marry alpha males:

Women are hypergamous. They want to marry men who are bigger, stronger, higher-status, a bit older, and a bit brighter than they are. This is massively confirmed by statistics on actual marriages; only the “a bit brighter” part is even controversial, and most of that controversy is ideological posturing.

I’m not convinced by the author’s conclusions as a whole for a variety of reasons - like I said, warrants its own post. In particular, though, I’m not convinced that his claims of hypergamy are valid; at least, I’m not convinced that women want all of those things. I base my lack of conviction partly on what I see in friends - an increasing number of women who make more money than their husbands and are fine with it - and partly (don’t laugh) on romance novels. Nora Roberts, for example, has had a little run of novels where women marry “down” in terms of wealth and status - while marrying either laterally or “up” in terms of size, strength, age, and that perennial favorite, hunkiness. (Intelligence is not much discussed.) This may reflect the changing reality that women must no longer rely on their husbands for money or status.

(I will grant that even women who make more money than their husbands seem to want those husbands to work - and the husbands themselves seem to want to work. The idea of a house-husband or stay-at-home Dad does not seem to have gained much traction.)

The comments to the post are worth reading as well which I don’t usually find is the case, outside of Grim’s and, occasionally, TigerHawk.

A really, really, really long post about gay marriage that does not, in the end, support one side or the other - I’ve linked, recommended, and referenced this post by Megan McArdle a zillion times but it’s worth doing so again in any discussion of the organic nature of societal institutions and the dangers of changing them.


Grim said...

I'm not questing after principles to require you to defend your sense of what is right! I am questing after them merely because I live as a knight errant, and quests are what we do.

It's OK to say, "This is my gut feeling, and I'm sure of it." I can certainly respect that. There are just two consequences that have to be accepted. The first is that the Islamic woman who endorses polygamy is equally entitled to make the opposing claim on the same grounds. If "false consciousness" prevents her from engaging your argument on the terms you intend, it's also true that your "false consciousness" keeps you from fully seeing things from her perspective as well. You also have a nurturing, and circumstances that may blind you, after all.

Or perhaps you don't. If, as I assert, "false consciousness" is simply an unfair rhetorical strategy, then we have to respect her right -- and yours -- to frame an argument. I can dispute hers or yours, but must do so based on principles rather than on emotional certainty.

The second consequence to accept is that gut feelings are subject to an internal chemistry that makes them likely to be wrong.

For example, the gut feeling you have that no woman would choose polygamy without being socialized into it seems to be undermined by this set of examples which Dad29 provides. He's just as opposed to polygamy as you are, if for different reasons; but the women in this story have indeed made that choice, in a culture that is heavily socialized against polygamy. Indeed, they asked that their real names not be used to avoid embarrassing their families at church.

The article describes these folks as "geeks," tech-oriented, the sort of people who are riding out even this rough economy reasonably well. They have options, they have education, and they come from a culture that not only doesn't suggest this to them, but would strongly prefer they did otherwise.

One of the reasons that I am a defender of the principle of Federalism is to let people have the space to defend different emotionally-certain ideas about what is right, just, and proper in our lives. I certainly want you to have every benefit of that.

Still, to ride in the wilderness and seek adventure is my way. I can do no other.

Grim said...

By the way, an article perhaps worth including in considering hypergamy is this study from Africa.

It seems to contain some important information, although I have yet to resolve any happy conclusions from it. I'm hoping that reflection, or the contributions of my companions, may help me find an illuminating element in what seems like a depressing finding.

Cassandra said...

Well, I have a 3 day weekend coming up, so maybe I will address the Armed and Dangerous post. I read it with great interest, though the main premise struck me as mistaken. It was hard not to join in the conversation over there but I had too much to do and not enough time to do it in! Will respond to your points on polygamy when I can. Glad you weighed in - I always enjoy your writing :)

Elise said...

I think perhaps the underlying question is, "What constitutes an argument based on principles?" I'm not going to claim that my emotional certainty polygamy is a bad idea is a principle but my conviction that a dyad is the best form for marriage may be.

I'm seriously out of my depth here but what about the case of a woman who asserts that she has no problem being married to a husband who beats her?

I think I'm too old to appreciate the Dad29 story. I was around when open marriage was hot the first time. Also, the underlying feel to the story is, I think, what I'm really grappling with here: the difference between making a rational decision about how institutions should work and understanding how they do work.

Hmm. I'm not exactly getting any further forward with this.

Elise said...

Grim -

I don't think the article you linked about dominant women and sex tells us anything. (I don't seem to have access to the actual study, just to the link you posted and the links in there.) We don't know if the women are getting as much sex as they want; we don't know if their husbands are; we don't know why the women are making decisions alone instead of jointly; we don't know if less frequent sex is a cause or effect of unilateral decision making - or neither. As one of the linked articles points out, the fall-off in sex may be women's choice: perhaps the women whose husbands make all the decisions also insist on sex when their wives don't want it. And, as the reference to the Florida researcher's work makes clear, we don't to what extent the results from the African study will generalize to countries with a different culture.

Plus one of the articles claims that "dominant" women are getting 100 times less sex; however the study also shows that the majority of women had sex within the last month. That seems... odd. Are the non-dominant women having sex 100 times a month? If so, when does anyone in the marriage find time to make all these decisions?

Grim said...

Elise --

Good questions. Let's talk about that, separate from the polygamy issue. I was going to do a post on principles versus 'group-derived' beliefs, including 'It's how I was raised' beliefs that often fall in under false-consciousness claims. I'll put that together this evening, and we can work through that problem together.

Elise said...

I'll put that together this evening, and we can work through that problem together.

Okay. Um. Is there going to be wine?

Elise said...

Cassandra -

I do hope you have time to write on the Armed and Dangerous post - I always like to hear your take on these sorts of topics. If your weather is as gorgeous as ours, though, I'll certainly understand that slaving over a hot keyboard may not look too enticing. :+)

Grim said...

Is there going to be wine?

How about PBR? That's what's easy to land on short notice in this particular part of north Georgia. :)

Elise said...

How about PBR?

Sold. I haven't had a PBR in probably 25 years.