Here’s an interesting idea. Wait until you see who wrote it.
So there’s one aspect of the pro-gay-marriage brief that deserves a mental asterisk. A second argument that has always been a bit weak has been the attempt to minimise the extent to which allowing same-sex marriages will change the definition of marriage for straight married couples. When conservatives have argued that gay marriage would “devalue traditional marriage“, the response has often been to ridicule the idea that straight people’s marriages will change at all. (“OMG! Marriage is now worthless!”) This isn’t a serious response. Obviously the legalisation of same-sex marriage represents a major change in the institution and in the meaning of the word, much as the meaning of phrases like “all men are created equal” changed significantly when they began to be understood to include, say, women. For people who have a strongly gendered understanding of their own marriage, this is a paradigm shift. The government is now saying it understands marriage as a long-term legal commitment between two people who are assumed to have a sexually attached relationship to each other. Gender is irrelevant; marriage is simply a paired relationship. It’s a big deal when social institutions change this way, and if conservative heterosexuals feel their marriages are affected, they’re right, even when the way they phrase their complaints is wrong.
Which brings us to moderately off-the-mark argument number three. One of the assumptions that gay marriage calls into question, for many conservatives, is: why pairs, then? If not man-woman, then why not man-woman-woman, and so forth? Again, the response of gay-marriage proponents is generally ridicule. I don’t think this is a ridiculous question. “Why can’t you marry your dog, then?” is a ridiculous question; marriage, in our society, is between consenting adult persons. (Though states where girls can marry below the age of legal adulthood violate this premise, and show the traces of a premodern understanding of marriage as a reproductive contract between extended families that few Americans would say they support today.) But “why only two?” isn’t a ridiculous question. It’s easy enough to show that gay marriage does not empirically lead to pressure to legalise polygamy; that hasn’t happened anywhere that gay marriage is legal. But this is different from explaining why opening up the boundaries of the 20th-century understanding of marriage shouldn’t raise the possibility of legalising polygamy. Why shouldn’t it be legal for more than two consenting adults to marry each other?
There are, obviously, a whole lot of societies in the world where polygamy is legal and normal. In fact the anthropological record suggests that the overwhelming majority of human societies have allowed men to have more than one wife simultaneously. I don’t want to be taken to be making a creepy dirty-old-man argument in favour of polygamy. But the reflexive belief that polygamous marriages must be evil and oppressive even in societies where they are traditional is basically an expression of cultural prejudice. I would never want to be in a polygamous marriage myself, because I’ve grown up in the West and it seems freaky and inegalitarian to me; but for people who grew up in Yemen, or in Swaziland, or in Vietnam before the 1950s, that is not necessarily the case. Women in polygamous societies may decide to become a rich man’s second wife rather than a poor man’s only wife, and do not necessarily feel oppressed by that choice. Their children usually turn out well-adjusted. To take the typical paradigm-upender, if you imagine a Sudanese man with two wives (and children by each of them) who wins the Green Card lottery and is told he has to divorce one of his wives before coming to America, you have to wonder whose interests the government thinks it is defending.
And yet modernisation in almost every country seems to entail a shift from polygamy to monogamy. This is actually something of a puzzle, according to “The puzzle of monogamous marriage“, a paper published last year by Joseph Henrich of the University of British Columbia, Robert Boyd of UCLA, and Peter Richerson of the University of California Davis. It’s particularly confusing, they note, in that in any polygamous society, the most powerful men are likely to be the ones who benefit from polygamy. How does a society make a shift in norms that greatly disadvantages its most powerful members? Their argument is that in the case of Europe, the dynamic that led pagan, polygamous Germanic tribes to shift to monogamy and Christianity was competition between proto-states at the group level. In polygamous societies, high-status men marry a disproportionate share of the women, leaving low-status men to fight and scramble for the rest. Monogamous European societies outperformed polygamous societies economically and on the battlefield, the argument runs, because low-status males in polygamous societies were more often engaged in debilitating violence against each other. So monogamous Christian societies defeated and converted polygamous heathen ones, and monogamy gradually spread.
Now this argument may well be wrong. But any other plausible explanation is likely to be similar in that it explains the transition in terms of enhancing the economic welfare and institutional reach of monogamous cultures and states. Monogamy thrives in the service of power. Having grown up in a monogamous society, we respond instinctively to its myths: the brilliant state-building legend of Romeo and Juliet, “one girl, one boy”( to quote the Leonard Bernstein version), the might of the sovereign (“the Prince expressly hath forbidden bandying in Verona streets!“) decreeing that marriage as a tool of clan alliance or rivalry will make way for marriage as a pairing of two autonomous individuals in a romantic attachment, answerable to no one but the law. This is the way the state will recognise sexual bonding, because this is the codification of sexual bonding that makes for the strongest state. We absorb these norms, we learn to embrace them, we thrill to them from the age when we watch our first Disney film. Today, gay men and women want to have their sexual bonding embraced within the same norms, to achieve equality, and that’s their right. But my guess is that the real answer to the conservative question “why not more than two people, then?” is that we will stick to pairs because marriage is a creature of the state and pairs are the form that makes the state strongest. Nobody, though, gays or conservatives, finds this way of thinking about the issue very appealing, so it probably won’t get much play.
Where’s that from? That bastion of right-wing Christian fundamentalism, the Economist.
Andrew Lilico has also written on this theme previously.
Third, Mr Moghal’s point is powerful – why should we not facilitate Muslims in their contractual relationships regarding polygamy? Is the point that some people believe polygamy to be wrong? Well, virtually everyone thinks adultery is wrong, yet we marry adulterers. Do we think that these relationships involve asymmetric power interactions? So, you really believe that a 35 year old businessman divorcee who marries his 16 year old schoolgirl mistress is in a symmetric power relationship? Yet our law allows these to marry. Is it that some polygamous marriages might be abusive? Are there no abusive monogamous marriages?
No. We have long since deserted the concept in Britain that legal marriage has any connection to morality or power. It is simply (a) a convenient way to wrap up a number of contracts that people might undertake separately; and (b) a mechanism that simplifies division of property in the event of separation.
So, I go further than Mr Moghal. Whilst Baroness Warsi wants honouring polygamists to be treated worse than adulterers, I want them to have access to official legal sanction – I want there to be civil unions for polygamists. These should obviously be available to anyone (including multiple men and the same woman or all men or all women or multiple men and multiple women) – you shouldn’t need to belong to a specific religion to access them. They should not be “marriages” in the sense that churches would be obliged to offer them.
Many of you will have objections. My challenge is this: In your objections swap the term “polygamist” and “homosexual” and see whether your objections really look any different to the objections many offered (mistakenly) against homosexual civil union. Why should polygamy be any less honoured before the law than homosexual union (which I favoured)? (And the answer had better not be “because polygamy is wrong”, for we established at the time of the Section 28 and age of consent equalisation debates that it was not the function of the law to provide moral signals and the legal provision of homosexual civil union had nothing to do with the belief that it was morally right.)