Monday, January 20, 2014

Two Obnoxious People (and Me) on Marriage

© Alexey Bannykh | Dreamstime Stock Photos
A week or so ago, one of my friends on Facebook shared a fascinating blog post on the subject of marriage. It was on the Matt Walsh blog, an unapologetic conservative Christian blog, and involved an exchange on the nature of marriage with an equally unapologetic polygamist college professor.

What's interesting is that (not surprisingly) I disagreed with both of them, but not for the reasons that they seemed to think the other person should be disagreed with. So I'm going to try to sort out my thinking on the disagreements here, publicly, and see if perhaps there are any useful responses.

First, let's be clear: I am a monogamist. But my monogamy is a practical consideration, based on principles that are completely at odds with those Walsh put forth. My earlier discussions of marriage probably make it clear that I don't have particularly conventional views on the institution ... but also make it clear, I think, that I feel maintaining the integrity of that institution should be viewed as important to anyone entering into it. Monogamy helps maintain the commitment at the heart of marriage, so I advocate in favor of monogamy as a means of helping to repeatedly nudge marriage participants in favor of bonding with their partner in place of bonding with other people.

Ultimately, my disagreement is that both the professor and Walsh seem to be taking their personal preconceptions about marriage and, instead of arguing for some sort of general statistically-superior trend, they are both arguing in absolute terms that their preconceptions are always the right ones, which apply (and should apply) to all marriages. The obnoxious professor explicitly calls Walsh out on this perspective ... and then commits precisely the same fallacy.

In conclusion, though, I think it's Walsh's perspective that's the more dangerous. Though he applies it only to sex, there's no reason to stop there, and extending his reasoning makes a person think their partner can give them everything they need: emotionally, physically, sexually, socially, intellectually, etc. No relationship can achieve this ... and in setting up for that, he's doing far more damage to the idea of marriage than someone who thinks that the institution can withstand some open sex.  

Disagreeing with the Professor

Disagreement 1: Authority isn't evidence

First of all, reading the polygamist college professor's introduction, my natural aversion to authority kicked in, and I really wanted to see this guy knocked down a peg or two: 
I am a college professor, author, and researcher. It was obvious to me before you ever stated it that you are a man of little education and limited intelligence. Still, I commend your newfound fame and congratulate you on the enormous amounts of money you must be making. 
[Five more sentences of insults and pretentious self-aggrandizement] 
…You have become a hot topic in some of my classes and this very much worries me. It wasn’t until your name came up for a fifth time that I decided to investigate you. Your prose are rife with fallacies and Neanderthalic musings, so I could easily disembowel and discredit any part of it. But I’d like to concentrate on what seems to be your most common themes: heterocentricism and monogamism.
Now, it's possible that the "five more sentences" deleted are mis-represented here. Perhaps the professor laid out actual credentials that are relevant, such have been a lead researcher on extensive psychological studies in human sexuality, or something like that, and that Matt Walsh has deleted these relevant comments and lied about their content. However, given the tone of the quoted part of the letter, I'm going to assume that this casual dismissal is fairly accurate, especially since the remainder of the letter contains no valid evidence or citations for any of his claims.

In other words, I get every sense that he's written to Walsh merely to express that he - a college professor, author, and researcher - has a different view and that this alone, without sufficient supporting evidence, should be the basis for proving that Walsh is wrong.

Disagreement 2: Unnaturalness = Undesirable

The supporting evidence that is offered by the professor is the anecdotal evidence of his personal relationship with his wife. While this might be sufficient to counter Walsh's stance that other relationships can't work out, it does not actually support the professor's grander claims that monogamy is fundamentally unnatural, nor his implications that it is actually undesirable and somehow detrimental to one's well-being. 

There are problems with this stance on nearly every level. First, one has to ask what is meant by "natural" here. As someone who generally subscribes to both evolutionary theory and materialism, I would say that all human behavior is, in fact, natural behavior, because I believe that all human thought and motivation is the result of natural processes. In this sense saying that something that actually happens is "unnatural" is illogical, because if it happens then it clearly has to be allowed to happen by nature. 

Example: Flying to the moon without a spaceship is "unnatural," because the laws of nature don't allow it; flying to the moon with a spaceship is "natural," because the laws of nature do allow it.

Clearly, this isn't the sense of "natural" that either the professor or Walsh are using. (Walsh specifically uses a spaceship as an example of unnatural-ness.) I think more intuitively in this case, the word "natural" is probably meant as something that happens in nature without conscious intervention from a human being. The problem with this, though, is that unless you're having sex while sleepwalking, the choice of who to have sex with is a conscious choice of a human being, so neither monogamy nor polygamy is natural in this definition.

Still, I think you can move a step further and define natural in this context in this way: "Natural" is something which is done by creatures or processes in the animal kingdoms. Human beings may also do these things. This seems to be the sort of definition where we could actually say that monogamy is "unnatural," but the problem with this is that this form of "unnatural" is not at all related to being undesirable.

Example: Taking a bath with soap is not "natural," either, but I'm rather glad that I live in a society where people do it, and am willing to do so myself as part of the rules in that society.

In fact, I would argue that one major point of society in general (or governments in particular) is to institute social and legal contracts which constrict our "natural" tendencies. (Or, as another Facebook friend recently pointed out, accentuate the aspects of human nature we want to accentuate and inhibit the aspects we want to inhibit.) So attacks against something as being "against nature" isn't sufficient to prohibit a behavior ... which is basically the argument that Walsh lays out.

Monogamy is undesirable only if there is an argument that demonstrates its undesirability, which the professor hasn't in the least presented. (Honestly, he hasn't even really demonstrated its lack of naturalness.)

Disagreement 3: People in Archaic Houses Shouldn't Throw Stones

The professor also throws out a criticism of Walsh's support of "archaic relationship models."

But, the professor's whole point is that polygamous relationship models pre-dated the more recent monogamous relationship models. As such, it seems to me that it is the professor who is advocating for "archaic relationship models. (This was actually the first criticism that occurred to me, but is relatively minor in the grand scheme of things.)

Disagreement 4: Ad hominem attack ... or completely insane generalization?

This next line is just totally uncalled for and undermines the credibility of the rest of the letter (if it actually had any):
... but when you inevitably cheat on your wife ...
Unless the professor is omniscient and we live in a deterministic universe, there's no way he has any basis to make this claim, unless he is claiming that it is somehow physically impossible for Matt Walsh to avoid cheating on his wife. (Having not met Matt Walsh's wife, I don't know if this is a realistic claim.) 

He seems to be saving that monogamy itself does not exist. Not just that there's historical trends the argue against monogamy, or that monogamy isn't the most common form of relationship structure in human history, but rather that it is not possible for anyone to actually live a monogamous life.

Disagreeing with Matt Walsh

All of the above having been said, Walsh's disagreement - while quite rhetorically impressive, and displaying a much more deft intellect than the college professor - has some major flaws of its own ... flaws that are, in their own way, exactly the sort of points which prove some of the professor's points.

Disagreement 1: Static "definition" of marriage

The professor's key point is that, historically, human unions - including marriages - have come in diverse forms. Specifically, Walsh says in his reply:
Marriages, by definition, are supposed to be closed. Actually, I’m getting rather tired of people like you trying to hijack the institution, strip it of its beauty and purpose, and convert it into some shallow little thing that suits your vices.
Here, it seems to me that Walsh is doing exactly the same error that he's accusing the professor of, just shifting by several hundred years. The institution of marriage that Walsh describes is not the institution that is described in, say, the Old Testament. The Old Testament itself prescribes extremely harsh penalties (death, as I recall) for wives who commit adultery on their husbands, but far less significant penalties (if any) on husbands who cheat on their wives, which implies that some forms of "open" relationships were, if not officially sanctioned, then at least less punished in ancient times. Marriage today is not even really the same institution that it was just a few hundred years ago, when wives and children were largely viewed as the property of their husbands, by both most religious institutions and the secular law itself. 

Not having read Walsh in depth, I suppose it's possible that he still subscribes to these views on wives and children, but I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he doesn't believe that wives are the properties of their husbands.

If you accept that ancient polygamy was a legitimate form of marriage, and the husband-as-dominant structure was a legitimate form of marriage, and the husband-and-wife-as-equals structure is a legitimate form of marriage, then you have to concede that, at least in principle, the definition of marriage evolves over time.

Disagreement 2: Yes, Marriage Is Like Geometry

Walsh makes quite a good analogy at the end ... especially if you don't really know geometry:
Personally, I like circles but I hate squares. Can I subvert the laws of geometry and suddenly decide that all squares shall henceforth be circles? No, because geometry is geometry, despite my strange square-hating quirks. Similarly, marriage is marriage, no matter how many college professors insist otherwise.
It is interesting to note that there is another geometry analogy which actually serves the exact opposite point of the one that Walsh lays out. I describe it thusly:
From the time of Euclid to the mid-1800s, it was believed that "geometry is geometry," but then mathematician Frederick Gauss developed non-Euclidean geometry by questioning one of Euclid's basic assumptions. (There were actually several others throughout the centuries who periodically questioned these assumptions, but their voices were ultimately drowned out by those arguing for the status quo.) At the time it was developed, it was seen as purely a mathematical curiosity, an intellectual game, a bit of a quirky mathematical game, with no real-world relevance. When Einstein developed his theory of relativity, however, it turned out that the mathematics of non-Euclidean geometry was crucial to understanding the underlying physical structure of the universe itself.
So, you cannot turn squares into circles but non-Euclidean space allows you to construct perfectly valid squares that do not possess exactly the same properties as squares in Euclidean space. One set of squares isn't "correct" and the other isn't "wrong" ... they're just different squares, and their properties are defined not by pure rationalist considerations, but also by the environment in which those definitions take place. (Note that I didn't say "right" and "wrong," but that's because "right" in mathematics means "90-degree angles" and one set of squares is "right" in that geometric sense.)

Disagreement 3: Assumption that Sex is a Dealbreaker

When I first read this, as a fellow monogamist, the following two comments resonated with me:
I have found a woman who will be with me until I die, even while my hair falls out and my skin shrivels and wrinkles, even when I stumble, even when I fail, even through the doldrums of daily existence, through bills and dirty diapers, through all things — joyous or miserable, pleasing or painful — through every day until death comes. Why should it be hard for me to simply refrain from tossing such a gift into the garbage? 
... 
If you won 600 million dollars in the lottery, would you go out the next day and break into cars to steal the change from the cup holders? That’s what sleeping around is like when you’ve already found a woman who will pledge her life and her entire being to you for the remainder of her existence.
On reflection, though, I realized that there was an incredibly troubling assumption in these examples: they seem to assume that sex is, in and of itself, the most important aspect of marriage.

Look at the first paragraph quoted above, and all of the aspects of the relationship that are being praised. They are all worthy of praise, to be sure, because they are the very things that are valuable about being married. In fact, I would argue that marriage is precisely about being willing to make that sort of commitment to another person.

Why is it that a consensual open sexual relationship would negate all of those things?

I am inclined to agree with Walsh's underlying assumption that retaining this commitment is easier in the context of a monogamous relationship. This is the entire basis of my support for monogamy: if you are going to maintain commitment to someone else, you should limit the bonding behavior performed with other people. I find it extremely likely that sex with other people weakens the bonds of commitment to one's spouse.

Oddly, it occurs to me that it's precisely my naturalism that leads me to believe that monogamy is preferable if we are to maintain the "unnatural" state of marital commitment. We are constructed by nature to bond, at a neurochemical level, with our sexual partners. If we have sexual partners other than our spouse, then we are going to bond with those other people when we could be bonding with our spouse ... and that just has to have a negative impact on the bond, or to create similar bonds with other people.

But that doesn't mean that it's impossible for anyone to have an open relationship and retain this level of commitment into old age, as Walsh seems to suggest. 

The second analogy also breaks down along these lines ... Walsh is assuming that sex outside of marriage is equivalent to betraying the marriage. A better example would be you win 600 million dollars in the lottery, but you really enjoy collecting coins. Previously, you had done this by scrounging for any old coin you can get your hand on, but you now have 600 million dollars, so you can take your time, and only select the coins you really want. You aren't stealing anything, because you have 600 million dollars with which to buy coins. (It's completely okay with the 600 million dollars, and in fact it occasionally buys coins of its own ... okay, I think the analogy has broken down a bit here.)

In essence, Walsh is committing the same error that the professor committed earlier, when he said that Walsh would "inevitably" cheat on his wife. He is taking his preconception of an outcome and assuming that it is a general rule that applies in all cases, but without any hint of evidence that this outcome is, in fact, inevitable.

Disagreement 4: Sex Isn't the Most Important Thing in Marriage

Related to the above disagreement is that this argument seems to only apply to sex, but sex isn't the only thing that married people do, and arguably isn't the most important. As I mentioned above, I think that all of Walsh's other points about the things we do in marriage are far more significant in marriage:
I have found a woman who will be with me until I die, even while my hair falls out and my skin shrivels and wrinkles, even when I stumble, even when I fail, even through the doldrums of daily existence, through bills and dirty diapers, through all things — joyous or miserable, pleasing or painful — through every day until death comes.
If you have all of those but only skimp on the monogamy part (consensually), I'm personally willing to put that relationship into the "marriage" bucket without qualms.

Despite the wonderful commitments listed above, think about how "open" we make even those key commitments. If I grow old and stumble, there's absolutely no expectation that my wife is the only person I'm allowed to have help me. If I end up incontinent, having dirty diapers that need changing, then not only would it be permissible for my wife to seek help, she wouldn't even be expected to stay within the family. In fact, rather than asking my sons to help maintain my deteriorating body, it would be perfectly socially acceptable for her to hire a complete stranger to do so, in the form of a home health care nurse, if we had the means to do so!

Or even back off from something that severe. By marrying my wife, I am committing to her as one of my closest friends and confidants throughout the rest of my life. However, by doing this, I am most certainly not placing the expectation or responsibility that she can meet every single need I have in friendship throughout my life. If she were my only friend, most psychologically healthy people would recognize this as a big problem, and suggest that I needed other friends to fill other social roles. It's just unrealistic for anyone to think that their spouse can and will be everything to them as a friend.

If you're having financial trouble within the marriage, it's acceptable to get financial help or go to an accountant, and not to necessarily expect that you and your spouse are qualified to make these plans without input. (And lest this be dismissed as a trivial analogy, keep in mind that financial decisions are extremely personal ones, both Biblically and pragmatically.)

If you dance, then presumably you'll most frequently dance with your spouse, but it's considered socially acceptable to occasionally dance with other people. In fact, if one of you don't enjoy dancing, then the other person might spend most of their dancing time with other people.

Again, all of the above things are ideally something that will be primarily, if not exclusively, handled between spouses ... but if a pair of spouses don't like the same music, and dance with other partners, or if a spouse hires a nurse to help during a time of health problems, then I know of no one who would argue that they're "tossing such a gift in the garbage." 

In fact, I am genuinely curious: Is there any component of marriage (other than sex) where it's considered absolutely inappropriate to involve people outside of the marriage to help with lack of full satisfaction within the marriage?

I cannot think of any.

Disagreement 5: Walsh's View of Marriage is Mythical ... and Dangerous

The culmination, then, is with a point that Walsh even partially concedes. His perspective on marriage is supernatural. It is unrealistic. It is, to use the professor's words, mythical.
And it is dangerous.

It's dangerous because the single biggest danger for marriage is the over-idealization of the institution. People today enter into marriage with the bizarre notion that they will be completely fulfilled by the other person. 

It seems to me that this has not been the case historically. The rise of "romantic love" as a common motivation for marriage is a fairly recent invention within Western society, and love used to be far more pragmatic in its concerns. There was nothing particularly "beautiful" about young women being sold off to old men for political alliances, which has a far older pedigree than romantic love. And, honestly, the rise of "romantic love" probably had much to do with the works of playwrites such as Shakespeare than it did any legal or religious institutions. The concept of "soulmates" was largely created by Plato, but it didn't take hold in the belief system of the ancient world for quite a long time. Historically, people knew that marriage was hard work. They didn't expect everything to work out once they found the "right person."

I don't know that Walsh himself has this over-idealized view of marriage, but his argument in favor of marriage seems to lean heavily upon this worldview. Find the right person, commit to them, and everything will work out ... without needing to look outside of that relationship for anything.

Walsh applies this argument only to sex, but if you accept it, then there's no reason why it shouldn't apply to all of the other intensely personal needs we have in our life and expect our spouse to primarily fulfill. There's no reason why you shouldn't assume that your partner can fulfill every need you have, or else that if they can't (or won't) fulfill them, then you're supposed to just go without that need being fulfilled.

That is a view of marriage that's fundamentally flawed and dangerous. Marriage is a commitment ... and it's up to the two people within the marriage to decide what they need to do to make that commitment work. They can learn from their tradition (faith and/or historical traditions) or from psychological principles or whatever, but if they believe that they will somehow miraculously have things work out without facing hard decisions, they're wrong.

And if Matt Walsh thinks his solution is the only one that could ever work ... then he's just as obnoxious as that college professor.
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