Stepping into the world of Social Work

Monthly Archives: July 2012

Sister Wives, polygamy, and feminism

The title card for Sister Wives, a TLC reality...

The title card for Sister Wives, a TLC reality television series about a polygamist family. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been watching the TV show Sister Wives for the past couple of years with some interest – the show is about a polygamist family with one man, four wives (the fourth joined the family during the early part of the show) and 16 kids. While I’m sure the show is not a completely accurate view of their lives (I imagine they’ll even admit that, as it is clear they have correctly declared certain private matters completely off limits to the cameras), if it is at least reasonably close, it provides some evidence for my personal view of whether polygamy should be accepted.

It is a tenet among feminists that polygamy is harmful to women. The evidence for this is typically gathered from closed, authoritarian polygamist communities, where a small group of older men are completely and utterly in charge, taking their views to an extreme which includes child and spousal abuse, forced underage marriage, horrendous treatment of young men, and other abusive acts. Examples of this can be heard from those who escaped such groups in Arizona, Texas, and Mexico.

As a feminist, I’ve been shocked by the stories I’ve heard and hope that those abused by these communities get the help they need and those who commit crimes (such as Warren Jeffs) come to justice. As the descendant of Mormon pioneers, I am a little more ambivalent about the issue, as polygamy is only a few generations back in my own family tree. This makes it harder for me to decry something that led to my own existence.

I’ve often wondered what polygamy would look like if it was not part of an authoritarian communal structure and simply a personal choice among adults. This is what Sister Wives purports to show – a family that lives and works alongside us. A recent episode, and a new book, discussed the downsides a little more, though the interpersonal issues sounded fairly normal to me, simply multiplied (as would be expected) due to an increasing number of people.

I’m definitely not cut out to be a sister wife, I think my own personality is too strong to deal with multiple adults. But outside of a closed, authoritarian community, it can have benefits for those who choose it. Child care and household duties can be shared among the women, for example.

As the Browns themselves admit, polygamy “isn’t for amateurs.”  But with divorce statistics as they are, perhaps neither is monogamous marriage. The only way we can really examine these choices is to separate polygamy from the authoritarian cults and examine it as a separate issue. Whatever you might believe about polygamy and the Apostolic United Brethren church, the show has at least contributed to the conversation by allowing us to see a family that isn’t in some separatist compound.

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Morality without God?

Lawrence Kohlberg's stages of moral development

Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I often encounter the statement from devout Christians that it is not possible to be moral without a supreme being and some eternal reward or punishment hanging over our heads. Such a view of agnosticism or atheism includes the expectation that no deity equals permission to do anything you please – such as the chaos that ensued when your second grade teacher left the room for a moment.

As an agnostic who considers myself an ethical/moral individual, I strongly disagree with that belief. I also believe I have pretty good psychological theory to back my statement up. While non-theists might not share every bit of the “moral” code in a particular religion, there is no reason to expect that an individual who does not expect heaven or hell would not be as ethical as his religious neighbor.

First of all, looking at Christian doctrine specifically, it stresses that everyone sins, and the importance of faith in Jesus is for his forgiveness. Different denominations place different values on faith vs. works, but the primary message that Jesus died for “our” forgiveness remains constant among most, if not all Christian sects.

This was always a bit confusing to me, growing up in a Christian household. I was pretty comfortable that God would forgive my childish errors, or minor “sins” as an adult, but I also know that there are some rather nasty acts committed in this world, some by professing Christians at the time of the act, others are converted to Christianity in prison. Will God forgive assault? Rape? Murder?  Where is the line? And most importantly, if I know I’m forgiven, does that really help me avoid sin? If I know, for example, that my husband does not want me to spend money on a particular item, I also know that the item is small and he will forgive me. I might use the principle that it is easier to ask forgiveness than permission and buy it anyway.

Psychological theorists, particularly Kohlberg, have also illustrated stages of moral development. Toddlers care only about avoiding punishment, while slightly older children might also start caring about rewards. To me, this is clearly the level of moral thinking expected by those who assume atheists/agnostics cannot act as moral/ethical individuals.

Later, children begin caring about how they are perceived and how their actions affect their relationships. This would be demonstrated by how different children would respond to their teacher leaving the room – some would begin acting out and others would not. Children who had progressed morally would care about their relationship with their teacher and how s/he would feel on coming back to a chaotic classroom.

Developing beyond that, we grow into understanding that rules and laws, even if not visibly enforced, are necessary for people to live together. Most of us will not intentionally run a red light, for example, not because we might get caught, but because we know that the cars coming the other direction are relying on our observance of the rules.

While an enforcer (a parent) has been an integral part of teaching all of us morality and ethics, we move beyond responsibility to an enforcer and towards responsibility to our community and others. This same process happens whether we go to church and are taught about heaven and hell or not.

Recently, in a parking lot, I misjudged a turn and slightly damaged the car I was parking next to. I didn’t believe anyone had seen it, and could have left without doing anything. But this agnostic, despite the lack of punishment, left a note on the other car and provided insurance information. Why? Because that is how I want my community, my world to be. To have slipped away would have been to diminish my community by some small amount.

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