Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Polygamy, the law, and brain-washing

Earlier this month, a federal judge declared Utah laws criminalizing polygamy (note: not the same as bigamy--they're still only allowed to legally marry one person, but people can cohabit in "spiritual marriages"). Yesterday, I was listening to NPR's On Point program from a week ago discussing this, and one of the guests was Kristyn Decker, a former wife in a polygamous family and the author of the recent book Fifty Years in Polygamy: Big Secrets and Little White Lies. She took a passionate stand against polygamy, even among consenting adults. Her essential point was that the women involved in plural marriages have been brain-washed to believe that they have to participate in and defend the institution in order to go to heaven.

Boy, that's a tough argument to make.

Not because they haven't been "brain-washed." It's probably fair to say that they have, though the word is obviously prejudicial. The problem is, where do we draw the line? In a sense, we could all be said to have been "brain-washed," in that our parents raised us to believe certain things which may or may not be true. While we do tend to pass ideas from one generation to the next, it's also pretty common for children to reject at least some ideas of their parents, and in some cases a whole lot of what they were raised to believe. We can't necessarily say that one is right and the other wrong: each is doing what he or she believes is right. Decker is basically saying, from her vantage point as someone who "got out," that anyone still inside this system of belief that includes plural marriage is not competent to make a decision because they haven't seen the light the way that she has.

By the same logic, a former Christian who has become an atheist could argue that Christians, because they are deluded by their belief in God and everything that goes with it, are not competent to make political decisions about what's right and wrong, what should be legal or illegal. Or believers might turn that around on atheists: if you have been led astray into disbelieving in God, you have clearly had your mind twisted in such a way that everything you believe is suspect. To be fair, there are almost certainly believers and disbelievers who feel this way, at least to the extent of distrusting their opponents' beliefs, but most of us take a more tolerant viewpoint, allowing people to do and believe things that we think are wrong or stupid. We can argue against them, trying to convince them of the error of their beliefs, we can campaign against their politics, but that's about as far as we take it.

I think there's an argument to be made that decriminalizing polygamy could be a good thing for women who are "trapped" in these relationships: by bringing them out of hiding, abuses of wives or children might be easier to detect and for law enforcement and other groups to step in and help those who are harmed by polygamous marriages. And at the same time, consenting adults would be free to make their own choices, deluded by stupid ideas though they may be.


  1. Your argument here makes sense to me.

    1. Although I wonder a little… clearly there have been times, and probably still are, when a disadvantaged / oppressed group has needed special protection and advocacy… admittedly it is not always obvious which groups qualify and what form the protection and advocacy should take.