Sunday, July 08, 2007

In defense of my mother

I have been away from my computer for 24 hours, but am working through the comments about multi-partnered relationships, and will post on the arguments that I think merit further discussion soon.

But before I begin on that, let me clarify my comment that I think of my mother's advice on "what if everybody did it?" to this question.

I follow this logical path.

Assuming that I have been discussing Chris, Pat and Lou who are members of my church and in a multi-partnered relationship, and beyond saying that they seem like nice people who are performing no harmful acts and good manners suggest that we not make a lot of judgments about things not our business, but go on to say, "Multi-partnered relationships are, in general, just as good as two person relationships."

To me, and permit me to think like a minister now, it follows that if Chris, Pat and Lou want to perform an unofficial "wedding" or "Union" ceremony, then I should perform it. And I am aware that when I perform an unofficial ceremony that looks like a wedding, I am making a public statement that I believe that the relationship in question should be, as a matter of public policy, able to receive marriage rights. I think that everyone understood that every same sex ceremony of union service is a symbolic call for equal marriage rights.

If you believe that multi-partnered relationships should be given equal marriage rights as two-person marriages, then it doesn't mean that you get to pick the composition and terms of those marriages beyond the minimal age restrictions we know place. My mothers question in my mind on this is "What if any group of three people want to get married?"

It means that the laws against polygamy must be abolished. How can UU triads be given marriage rights and not Mormans and Muslims? It means that marriages in which new and younger women are brought into the marriage on a serial basis, with the oldest wife's consent, must be legalized. It means that no standard that we would like to think of being essential -- careful negotiation, mutuality, egalitarianism, gender equality -- can be applied, unless we have the means to apply them equally to all marriages. It means, to be snarky, that we are in favor of multi-partnered relationships having equal marriage rights even if the people involved have never been in an OWL class.

Once I make the statement that multi-partnered relationships are in theory morally equivalent to 2 person relationships, I step beyond the pastoral (where my care for people does not presume approval of what they are doing in every aspect of their lives) into public ministry, where I am advocating public policy, where what I advocate will be operative not in some ideal world, but the world in which we actually live, with the human beings we actually see around us.

I have exactly the same problem with "assisted suicide". You say to me, "why can't it be legal for a member of my congregation -- well-educated, moral, loving, conscientious -- help his terribly suffering father take the pills that will end his life with dignity?" You offer a best case scenario. My mother asks "what if everybody could do that?" In this world, where we live, society does not protect elders from physical abuse and neglect in private homes and nursing homes around the country. And you want to give out the right to give fatal overdoses to their parents on an equal basis to all adult children of elderly parents? It is not enough to say that we give those rights only to people who follow the letter of the law about where and when and what conditions. We have laws against physical abuse and neglect of elders now -- we just can't enforce them, even in nursing homes which are publicy regulated, much less in private homes.

We live in a world where domestic violence, the coercion of women, the rape of underage female children by family members, sexual abuse of all types are occurring -- most of it stemming from the sense of entitlement given to husbands and fathers.

When you ask me as a minister to say, because it will make Chris and Pat and Lou, feel really welcomed and affirmed, that Multi-partnered relationships are just as socially beneficial and useful and moral as two person marriages, this is where I have to go in my thinking.

5 comments:

Desmond Ravenstone said...

”It means that the laws against polygamy must be abolished. How can UU triads be given marriage rights and not Mormans [sic] and Muslims?”

Yes, it does (not to mention neopagans) -- if the parties of such marriages are consenting adults. If you grant the freedom of one group to choose X, then the same freedom to choose X applies to all. Similarly, while I personally do not agree with the concept of "covenant marriage" advocated by many conservative Christians, I certainly believe that couples have the right to enter into such unions if they freely choose to do so -- and the responsibility to live with the consequences of their choices.

”It means that marriages in which new and younger women are brought into the marriage on a serial basis, with the oldest wife's consent, must be legalized.”

Again, if all the participants are fully consenting adults. It also means that a woman who wants to marry another man, with the consent of her first husband, should be able to do so. It also means that anyone, man or woman, who marries a second spouse without the knowledge and consent of the first spouse would be guilty of violating the terms of the original marriage, similar to a spouse running off with all of the family’s money is guilty of theft and abandonment.

”It means that no standard that we would like to think of being essential -- careful negotiation, mutuality, egalitarianism, gender equality -- can be applied, unless we have the means to apply them equally to all marriages. It means, to be snarky, that we are in favor of multi-partnered relationships having equal marriage rights even if the people involved have never been in an OWL class.”

Now where did you come up with that conclusion? Have you forgotten that you as a minister are under no obligation to officiate any individual marriage with which you are personally uncomfortable? Rabbis routinely refuse to perform interfaith marriages on religious grounds. That is their right, just as it is the right for the prospective spouses to look for another officiant with whom they are more comfortable. Nor does it say that they necessarily disapprove of legally allowing interfaith marriages -- merely that officiating one would be inappropriate for them.

Are you also forgetting that many ministers, priests and rabbis insist on counseling soon-to-be-marrieds before the ceremony? And what makes you think that you would be unable to apply that requirement consistently, and by doing so to apply the essential standards you spoke of equally to all marriages? On the one hand, you claim that the very act of officiating a particular marriage ceremony would have powerful consequences; on the other hand, you claim that you are suddenly powerless as a minister to take reasonable precautions to minimize the risks of potential abuse.

Further, by your “we-live-in-a-world” argument that all sorts of abuses are bound to take place if plural marriages are recognized … by that logic, you should not be performing marriages between an American citizen and an immigrant, or a working-class woman in her twenties and a wealthy man in his eighties, or any other situation where there is a higher-than-average chance of abuses taking place. While we’re at it, given domestic violence, divorce rates, and so forth, why perform any marriages at all? More broadly: What if everyone were similarly apprehensive of doing anything, because of the perceived risks of abusive or harmful consequences?

Lastly … One of the arguments I’ve read throughout these blogs is that monogamy is a “long-standing tradition” which must be upheld. There are, as I see it, four flaws with this argumentum ad verecundiam:
First: It assumes that the ideal of monogamous marriage is in fact what has been adhered to this entire time, when a more detailed study of history indicates a very different reality.
Second: Like previous arguments against same-sex marriage and interracial marriage, it assumes that once the “non-traditional” option is offered, the “traditional” one will be completely abandoned; if the statistics on same-sex and interracial marriages are any indication, then plural marriages would still remain a minority.
Third: The argument also fails to take into account another segment of the population – those who choose, for whatever reason, not to enter into marriage or any other committed romantic relationship. If marriage is such a positive binding social institution, they why not insist that everyone get married? Impose a “bachelor/ette tax” on people who don’t get married by a certain age, possibly increasing as they get older?
Fourth: All appeals to tradition ultimately make tradition an end in themselves – and, worse yet, reduce us all to mere means towards perpetuating those ends.

Anonymous said...

We have conceded so much; it is difficult to criticize the polyamorous.

So my church has a new DRE (i.e director of children's programs.) Nice woman, has a passel of children herself. Moved here recently from a nearby city, with her lesbian partner. A few years ago, she was married to man; I'd met him at a district event. Now he's out of the picture. But we can't even raise the question – is this a good role model for our kids? If it were a man leaving his family for another woman, we might raise our congregational eyebrows. But question this situation? Not in the cards.

I think polyamory will be disastrous for kids. (Indeed, I know kids for whom it has already been a disaster.) But not very much more disastrous than easy divorce and serial monogamy.

"If the parties of such [plural] marriages are consenting adults." Uhhh... by definition, the children of such marriages are not consenting adults.

Desmond Ravenstone said...

"I think polyamory will be disastrous for kids. (Indeed, I know kids for whom it has already been a disaster.) But not very much more disastrous than easy divorce and serial monogamy."

And how many experiences are you basing this upon?

Another episode which was "disastrous for kids": when an isolated polygamous community was raided several decades back, the children were separated from their parents and shuttled into foster care. Despite the valid concerns about the polygamous group, and the good intentions of law enforcement and others, the specific course of action taken wound up scarring those children for life.

OTOH there are children who do well in situations of divorce, blended families and explicitly polyamorous families. Clearly the issue is not the quantity or frequency of intimate partners a given parent has, but the quality of their interaction with their children regarding the changes in their family.

Which leads to your next comment:

"If the parties of such [plural] marriages are consenting adults." Uhhh... by definition, the children of such marriages are not consenting adults.

Granted, but they are not helpless bystanders either. The honest and communication valued by poly folk not only apply to their intimate partnerships, but their role as parents as well. And we often give youngsters far too little credit for their intelligence, perception and resilience.

Many years ago, a friend of my parents related how she sat her kids down to explain that she and their father were divorcing, her having made the decision after years of abuse. Their faces showed a mixture of confusion and relief, clarified by the middle child's comment: "Mom, what took you so long?"

Alan7388 said...

"what if everybody did it?"

Tom, you KNOW this question is valid in some realms and ridiculous in others. For instance:

What if everybody had only gay sex? The human race would fail to reproduce and go extinct. Does this mean nobody should be gay?

Suppose every writer wrote only detective stories. Nothing else would be written and culture would collapse. Does this mean nobody should write detective stories?

"What if everyone did it" applies to unethical behavior -- NOT to diverse behavior. Polyamory, done right, is highly ethical.

And in such cases (I know may) the enlarged household is quite good for the kids. In one case, with twins in preschool, the kids expressed sorrow for their deprived friends who don't have both a Mom and a Mumsy. In that household, Mumsy is older and people not in the know assume she is the live-in aunt or grandmother. Such people have remarked to them how lucky the kids are to live in an "old fashioned" extended family.

Personally, after years of consideration, my guess is that in 50 or 100 years when polyamory is widely considered a normal and legitimate way of life, about 10% of people will choose some form of it long-term, if only because monogamy is simpler. You see the trend already: vees are more common than equilateral triads, which are more common that quads, which are more common than quints. The more complex the relationship, the less frequently it occurs.

But does this mean that nobody should have a complex relationship?

Actually, if (nearly) everybody did do it, I like to think we'd have something like Robert Heinlein's vigorous society of the 44th century, which calls our era the Dark Ages. (Yes, I know science fiction is fiction... just like Ayn Rand's....)

Cheers--

Alan, member of UUPA (www.uupa.org)

Mark said...

anonymous said:

"I think polyamory will be disastrous for kids. (Indeed, I know kids for whom it has already been a disaster.) But not very much more disastrous than easy divorce and serial monogamy."

This is a defensible point. (A point that overreaches, in my opinion, but a defensible one).

So I would ask: what would the next step be, then, from the perspective of "what the UU community endorses"? Should UU ministers and congregations refuse to publicly recognize second marriages, or marriages that come after premarital relationships, because that would set a bad example and encourage others to make the same decision?

Personally, I don't buy arguments along the lines of "well, it's too late to do anything about that, but we can nip this polyamory thing in the bud." That's an internal-politics argument, not an ethical or moral argument.