It is always easier to dispel some characterization when it is given absolutely; not just as a generalization, not just as something that exists for some people, but as something that is always true. In this case, one merely needs to find a single counterexample to disprove the claim. Polygamy is one of those subjects that seems to lend itself to people giving absolute characterizations of it. Consider this Globe and Mail story: Polygamy's degrading to women - end of story:
"Polygamists’ wives are literally treated as cattle...women are reduced to the status of toys that can be tossed away and replaced at the whim of their husband. If this is not in itself degrading, I wonder what is."
Is this really the end of the story as the author would have us believe? Contrast the above narrative with the example of a polygamous family presented on the popular TLC show, Sisterwives.
Sisterwives challenges most preconceived notions we may have of what a polygamist family looks like. It is a family with four wives and seventeen children between them. All of the women come off as strong, proud, and independent women who can articulate a range of reasons why they actively want and desire the life style. It is clear there is considerable love throughout the family including close bonds between the sisterwives, something they cherish. Any semblance of coercion of either wives or children is entirely antithetical to the almost matriarchal family unit where everyone is treated as equals. The children are raised more or less normally and are not forced to continue the lifestyle and are free to make their own choices without pressure; some of the older children claim they want the lifestyle for themselves, others don't. They rather forcefully make a clear distinction between their lifestyle (which they claim is the most common way polygamy is practiced in Utah and I have little reason to doubt this claim) and the lifestyle of such high profile polygamy cases as convicted child assaulter Warren Jeffs, who they vigorously condemn for his actions.
It seems to me nearly impossible to watch the show and not come away with the impression that this specific family lives an entirely acceptable, perhaps even normative, life. It is exactly the opposite of the common caricature suggested by the Globe and Mail writer. Indeed, it becomes clear that to forcibly break up this family would be a very significant harm (as Utah law would attempt to do if pursued, they had to flee to Nevada after coming out on TV) . On this fact alone we can't necessarily make the case for legalization of polygamy - harm in other ways may trump the harm of separation here - but it provides a very compelling and very public example of how a polygamist family can be entirely fine and how it would clearly be a sad thing for the law to intervene here.
The main structure of Sisterwives models the format of the earlier runaway TLC hit Jon and Kate Plus Eight, and is part of a slew of similar shows such as Nineteen Kids and Counting, The Little Couple, and American Muslim. The essential premise is a reality TV show that follows a mixture of mundane daily activities and more major life moments of some family through a combination of filming unscripted family activities as they occur and through interviews with determined topics or questions. Each family has something about it that makes it unique and outside of the average person's experiences such as being polygamists, having sextuplets and twins, having nineteen kids in a very Christian household, being little people, and being Muslim, respectively.
Say what one will about the entertainment value of these shows, but there is a definite social value in portraying these different types of people - many who have distinct stereotypes attached to them that might make us uncomfortable with the idea - and showing how they can live entirely acceptable and even desirable lives. It helps to remove our stigmas and paves the way for both social and legal acceptance.
Sisterwives began by largely addressing the basic questions of how one actually might live a polygamist life. How does the husband allot time to the different wives? How do they function as a family? How do the various members think about polygamy (this children disagree n this question, incidentally)? What kinds of adversity do they face? And so on. In between episodes that were more drama centric (such as a pregnancy or fleeing Utah), they offered some episodes that really talked about their religious beliefs and how that fit in with society, including such things as discussions between them and Mormons of the same and differing sect (sometimes quite adversarial sects), Protestants, LGBT members, and other groups that were among the more frank and interesting discussions of the intersection of religion and society that I have seen on television.
Polygamy in Utah:
The Brown family featured in Sisterwives are a religious minority three times over. In the context of a broader Protestant and Catholic Christian society, they are Mormon. Within the Mormon church, or LDS church, a schism occurred at the turn of the 20th century due to extensive legal and social pressures against the traditionally polygamist Mormon practices. The mainstream LDS movement completely abandoned and banned the practice while the Fundamentalists, or FLDS, continued the practice of polygamy. There is considerable tension in Utah between the LDS and FLDS movement both of which at times consider the other to be a corruption of the faith, and we would be very wrong to lump these in together as is often done.
Because of the nature of the laws in Utah and other jurisdictions, the FLDS movement often tried to shy away from public exposure or working with police and has been tarnished with a few high profile cases of child abuse. Within the broader fundamentalist Mormon movement there is an offshoot called the Apostolic United Brethren (AUB) that disagrees with the more secretive practices of the FLDS and instead promotes wider and open social engagement, very strongly condemns all forms of child or spousal abuse, and pledges to work closer with the police and other authorities on these issues. It is essentially an attempt to hope for more acceptance from government and society by being open rather than closed about their lifestyle. The Brown's are members of the AUB (although they don't announce this on the show) which explains their willingness to do such a show.
Comparison to the Niqab:
Reading the comments of the article, the overwhelming consensus agreed with the central premise of the article that polygamy was oppressing women, end of story. This is often the claim as well with regards to the wearing of the Niqab that it is just a tent forced on women by oppressive men. However, some Muslim women will tell a different story about how it is matriarchal not patriarchal, how they are doing it out of their own desires for modesty and religious humility, and various other reasons.
When we claim that we are going to ban the free actions and associations of others, we have a very high burden of proof to justify this. Saying that we are doing it for their own good because they are some combination of brainwashed or forced into the actions (whether it is polygamy or the Niqab) superficially gives us this justification. However, this characterization of us being the good Samaritans as we ban other peoples decisions is often buying into narratives that the people involved simply don't believe and don't follow, or at least some of them don't.
Previously on the Niqab/Burqa: Defending the Burqa (also involves discussion of a G&M article) | Banning the Niqab: Freedom vs Inconvenience
Tactics of bigotry:
It is worth noting a few of the tactics used in the Globe and Mail article to combat polygamy simply because they are quite common and repeat themselves by people wishing to target all sorts of other groups of people. Perhaps most egregiously was the use of finding the most extreme example possible to be used as cannon fodder. In this case, the author mentions the timely example of a murder done by a polygamist. The implication, unstated but in no way unclear, is a smear against polygamy in general because of this extreme murder example. It is standard practice to find the most extreme examples of a group when trying to say something negative about the group.
There was an appeal to the fact that history of western democracies which has maintained marriage as being between two people with the idea that this could only have been because there is a really good reason for this. The author does note that the definition of marriage has changed recently to include gay marriage yet in a moment of cognitive dissonance still seems to think the historical precedent set of two people not more is relevant while the man and wife bit wasn't. Never mind, of course, that polygamy has a very prominent role in history including for many biblical characters. Such an appeal to tradition and history is a similar tactic people use when trying to defend their claims and truly sounds no different than all the people making the exact same arguments about about gay marriage.
Next up was the characterization of polygamy as just part of our animalistic lusts that makes males want to spread their sperm widely around. Dehumanizing various behavior and eliminating the idea that people do things for higher order desires of self-actualization, religious devotion, love of family, or whatever else, and replacing that with just base level urges as the only possible motivation, is common practice. Of course, when a male sleeps with many women outside of marriage - something our culture is entirely fine with an indeed glorifies - talk of these animalistic urges somehow doesn't materialize. Yet when they aim to express love and commitment and family for each other through marriage - not just base sexual gratification - this is the time this rhetoric gets pulled out. This narrative has thankfully dropped out of common usage, but in the sixties it was common to similarly characterize male homosexuality as just being an outlet for male desires of promiscuity.
Polygamy vs Polyandry vs Polygyny:
As a minor terminology correction to the Globe and Mail piece, the word polygamists refers to any combination of multiple spouses. The word polygyny refers to the multiple wives situation specifically such as the Brown family. The word polyandry refers to multiple men. Both are examples of the broader concept of polygamy. It is thus not, as stated, polygamy vs polyandry as the two possibilities; this is a category error.
I have found over and over in my life that when we attempt to truly understand people who are different than us, when we try to determine their human motivations and desires, when we view them in a humanized way, it often leads us along a path of acceptance and welcoming. Conversely, when we pigeon hole people into negative, dehumanizing characterizations, it breeds division and contempt. Sisterwives provides a unique and deep insight that humanizes the Brown family for us all in a way that is just fundamentally antithetical to the narrative presented by too many people about polygamists.
Thoughts on this post? Comment below!
Share this post: