One of the Christian right’s objections to gay marriage was to say that if it’s ok for the same sex to marry, then why not allow people to marry multiple people?
The classic liberal response to this is to scoff and dismiss the argument without consideration, but I personally think there’s something to it.
So, from one progressive to another, I ask you: why is polygamy illegal? And do you agree with it being so, or do you think the concept of “people should be able to marry who they love” should extend to other types of relationships?
Exploring the limits
It’s an interesting thought exercise, and I think I know where it ends up, but let’s walk through it.
- Human adults should be allowed to marry the partner of their choosing
- #1 assumes a lot of things, most importantly that people should only marry one person
- What that means is that people fighting for #1 have already accepted 95% of the other conservative rules around love and commitment, including the single-recipient rule, and, if you think about it, the need to formally declare a relationship in the first place
- This raises the question of why we have any rules at all. Why not just love and have sex with whoever you want, whenever you want? Maybe it’s ideal for each person to commit to each other to avoid hurt feelings, so why not just keep that between them?
Conservatives have an easy answer—it’s what what the Bible says. Nevermind that the Bible says many things about what’s legitimate when it comes to marriage and sex—that’s been handled elsewhere. The point is that conservatives have an accepted rationale for why they’re opposing both same-sex and multi-partner marriages.
Conservatives are absolutely correct in asking where the boundaries are when the central concept of progressive approaches is questioning boundaries.
Why not two lovers? Why not 10? Why not marry 1000 people?
Help vs. harm
The answer can only come from two places:
- Scripture (religion)
- Thought (philosophy)
- Data (science)
Religion simply says not to think about it. The answer was given and we must obey. It’s that simple. But at the core level it comes down to families. The religious narrative is that one man and one woman is best for raising a family.
At its core, the liberal approach unknowingly inherits this belief. We have marriage because it makes good parents. And we have parents because it makes good kids. And we have good kids because they make good societies.
So that seems to be the foundation.
But why not push those boundaries? Are progressives so sure that this is the best approach that they simply accept the traditional narrative? Why not experiment? Why not try some places out with monogamy, some with polygamy, some with no marriages at all, etc. And then rigorously test the happiness and well-being of those societies.
Isn’t that the progressive model? Question tradition? Question the old rules. Color outside the lines?
Know why you stand where you stand
My point is not that we should change to polygamy. My point is that progressives, who are ostensibly rebelling against conservatism, are swallowing many other traditional components of relationship definition without consideration.
And once they start thinking about why they believe monogamy is the best model, they might start seeing more of an argument against same-sex marriage. That’s not guaranteed to happen, but it might.
Or it could take us much farther towards open, communal relationships. Who knows.
But the one thing we cannot do is claim to be pushers of boundaries while having no idea whatsoever why we hold the views that we do. Especially when it turns out 90% of those views were stolen directly from the conservatives they disdain.
The answer is to decide what your bedrock is. Know what materials you’re using to build a belief about optimal relationships. And know how you intend to adjust that belief. What are you using to decide?
Intuition? Bollocks. That might as well be scripture.
And if it’s not scripture, and it’s not intuition, then it must be data. It must be some sort of indicator that doing X is better than doing Y. It’s the best tool we have.
So the next time you’re pulling boards off the conservative house, ask yourself what you’ll be left with when you’re done. And whether you could actually build a house yourself that didn’t end up looking much the same.