Some disappointing bigotry from Adam Lee

Adam Lee has a post on polygamy and polyamory that I largely agree with, saying that adults should be allowed to do as they please with regards to their personal relationships, but marriage as a legal institution should be a one-legally-recognized-partner-per-person deal, largely due to practical difficulties with institutionally-supported polygamy. But in the middle of it all there’s a disappointingly illogical, even bigoted, swipe at polyamory:

the libertarian in me rebels against the idea that the state has any business butting into people’s private relationships. Mutually consenting adults should be able to enter into any kind of arrangement they please. I have to admit that I find considerable justice in this argument. If three people rather than two want to share household responsibilities, by what right can we deny them that? A larger family structure might even, arguably, be superior to pair marriages in terms of sharing childcare duties and other responsibilities, and more resilient against tragedies like the death of one partner.

On the other hand, these lofty principles, so clear and simple-seeming in the abstract, inevitably get snarled in the complications of the real world. And here’s one whopping big complication that atheists and freethinkers should be especially sensitive to: in the real world, one of the most common manifestations of plural partnerships is in religious cults that use polygamy as a way to keep women subjugated.

There’s a little more to the part of the post I want to talk about, but let’s stop there for a moment. Is it really true that religious cults are one of the most common manifestations of plural partnerships? I’ve never actually met anyone who was in a plural partnership because they were forced into it by a religious cult, though I have met people who were poly because that’s what they wanted. Certainly my experience may not be representative since I spent the last four years of my life living in uber-liberal Madison, WI rather than rural Utah, but at any rate Adam’s claim isn’t obvious. Well, if your list of “manifestations” of plural partnerships consists entirely of “religious cults” and “less crazy forms than religious cults,” I suppose “religious cults” could make the top two.

Also, while in those cults it may be that polygamy and subjugation of women are closely intertwined, saying that polygamy is used as a means for the subjugation of women implies the rather silly assumption that there are lots of people out there who want to subjugate women as an end unto itself. The should-be-obvious truth is that cult leaders, like many powerful men throughout history, have often wanted larged harems of women, and women generally only join large harems when forced to–subjugation of women is a means to the end of polygamy, not the other way around.

Now the rest…

Escapees like Carolyn Jessop and Elissa Wall have written grippingly of their virtual imprisonment in isolated sects like the FLDS (Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints – an extremist offshoot of the Mormons), which force girls into harem-like polygamous marriages with older males whom they’re expected to obey absolutely. (See also this article, or my older posts on Warren Jeffs.)

This is an evil that no society should tolerate – but if we legally permit polyamory, how can we prevent it? Better enforcement of age-of-consent laws would help, but even so, this would not prevent women who feel they have no place else to turn from being coerced into these relationships of subjugation.

By the end of this section, we’ve been given a vague sense that all plural partnerships suffer guilt-by-association with the FLDS, but no coherent position on the issue. What, for example, does “legally permit polyamory” mean here? It’s ordinary meaning would be “not fine or imprison people for practicing polyamory,” and if that’s what Adam means, then he’s seriously considering fining or imprisoning people for practicing polyamory. That he is considering that is also suggested by the structure of the post: “the libertarian in me rebels against the idea that the state has any business butting into people’s private relationships… on the other hand…”

Now, Adam doesn’t say any of this out right, he didn’t mean to say “permit” but rather “legally support,” and the other meaning got in there by accident. But it sounds an awful lot like he wanted to hint at outlawing private polyamory even though he couldn’t bring himself to say it outright, which is worrisome.

Whatever “permit polyamory” means, the connection with the FLDS is a non-sequitur. Better enforcement of age-of-consent laws is far from the only thing that can be done. Laws protecting people of all ages violence and coercion would also obviously help. In contrast, our legal policy towards plural relationships matters little: the FLDS did what it did in spite of the fact that polygamy is not legally supported in the U.S., and jailing people for consensual polyamory wouldn’t have affected the FLDS case. Yes, doing out best to enforce existing laws won’t prevent every abuse, but neither can we hope to prevent every act of domestic violence in monogamous relationships or prevent every case of a woman staying in bad (monogamous) relationships because she feels she has nowhere else to turn to. Certainly we wouldn’t try to prevent the abuses that occur in monogamous relationships by abandoning marriage as an institution (or worse, outlawing sex altogether!)

Generally I like Adam. Among other things he wrote a very nice review of my book. Liking him makes me reluctant to call what he wrote bigoted, and in some ways what he wrote is pretty mild as it doesn’t amount to a strong anti-poly position. But the lack of a strong position is actually what bothers me most–rather than take a reasoned if controversial position, he takes an aproach of “polyamory makes me uncomfortable, so I’m going to tar it with a vague guilt-by association.” And that’s something any enlightened writer should be embarassed to do.

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5 Comments.

  1. Even if the connection between polyamory and cults was genuine, if polyamory + religious cults = subjugation of women, how is it that polyamory is not to be tolerated, but religious cults presumably are?

  2. If someone had legitimate concerns that, long-term, polyamory might be a hurtful practice, would they, too, be bigoted? Are we obliged to say anything goes or risk being called bigots?

    We atheists are great at meta-ethics, but sometimes not so good at ethics. We’ll insist that, in fact, anything doesn’t go, but are hard pressed to put our fingers on anything that doesn’t. It would seem we’re prone to shortsightedness. We’ll condemn a practice that does immediate, noticeable harm. But if it’s something that takes a while for the bad consequences to develop, we don’t notice and often we’ll kid ourselves that there are none. That allows us to indulge ourselves and then to protest that “correlation isn’t causation” when the contrary results finally descend on us.

    Yes, I know religion often forces moral precepts on us that don’t stand scrutiny under the harsh light of reality. On the other hand, religion sometimes scrapes up a bit of wisdom as it trundles along for centuries of dealing with the vagaries of the human constitution. It might be best not to be like children leaving home for the first time and finding out the hard way that not everything that can be done ought to be done.

  3. Generally speaking there are good scientific reasons to think that men tend more toward polygamy than women. Indeed, the woman with many husbands in history is rare, and women are more committed to their partners in general. So a resistance to legally legitimizing polygamy could potentially be motivated by a desire to keep in check this imbalance and not have a culture that caters to male interests even more than it already does.

    However, I’m sure there are plenty of things that are both legal and favored by one group more than another. This doesn’t seem like sufficient legal, or even moral, reason to resist its legitimization.

    So who knows.

  4. Mike: “If someone had legitimate concerns that, long-term, polyamory might be a hurtful practice, would they, too, be bigoted? Are we obliged to say anything goes or risk being called bigots?”

    Nope. My concern about Adam’s post is that he didn’t have legitimate (or even clearly stated) concerns, but rather that he engaged in a bit of illogical guilt by associationism rather than present a clear argument.

    Josua: “Generally speaking there are good scientific reasons to think that men tend more toward polygamy than women. Indeed, the woman with many husbands in history is rare, and women are more committed to their partners in general.”

    But this doesn’t mean that polygamy favors men. It means that polygamy (understood in a free-choice way and not forced-harem way) favors:
    (1) attractive men
    (2) women who see their choice as between sharing an attractive husbands or having an unattractive ones to themselves, and prefer the former

    and disfavors:
    (1) unattractive men
    (2) women who would otherwise have a shot at the most attractive men on the marriage market to themselves

    So yeah, these considerations matter, but they’re not as straightforward as you suggest. And more importantly, while they may be reason to keep civil marriage monogamous, they’re not enough for me to be nasty to acquaintances in non-traditional relationships.

  5. It seems to me that Islam would be the stronger example of the dangers of polyamory.