Conservatives love the “Gay marriage will lead to polygamy! Are you saying you really support polygamy?” argument. Surprisingly, I rarely hear the intelligent, correct liberal response to this.
Instead, I hear a lot of mealy-mouthed waffling. Libertarians (and some liberals) say “Hell, yeah! There is nothing wrong with polygamy!” which doesn’t quite feel right to most liberals. Other liberals will simply say “Well, that’s totally different” without explaining why it’s totally different.
So, at the risk of being presumptuous, I’m going to step up and give the correct liberal response to the issue of polygamy.
LIBERAL POINT #1: If you are a liberal, then you really don’t find anything inherently morally objectionable to a group of consenting adults getting together and forming a romantic bond. A true liberal might say “I think that would be complicated” or “I believe that would involve some troubles” or “I wouldn’t want that for myself”… however, a true liberal is open-minded enough to know that just because he isn’t interested in that kind of relationship, doesn’t mean he has the right to impose that preference on other people.
LIBERAL POINT #2: If you are a liberal, you are also very sensitive to unfairness in power structures, and the way that historical power structures can perpetuate discrimination and inequality. Liberals are always the ones that talk about the lasting effects of history in a culture. For example, liberals will tell you that a white person saying “nigger” and a black person saying “cracker” are not the same, because there is a huge long history of abuse and intimidation and subjugation that goes along with the use of the N-word, and whenever you invoke the N-word it necessarily pulls on all of that cultural baggage.
This is the reason that most liberals feel uncomfortable with simply greeting polygamy with open arms. Historically, polygamy has been used by men to subjugate women. Historically, polygamy has been a way to establish male-dominance both within families and across society at large. Historically, polygamy has been tied to all kinds of abuse.
As a result, the notion of polygamy carries a huge amount of baggage along with it.
As a liberal, I do not reject polygamy on moral grounds on the face of it. There is nothing morally wrong with polygamy “in the abstract”.
But, of course, polygamy never happens in the “abstract”. It happens in real situations. And, as a liberal, before I could embrace the legalization of polygamy, I’d need some kind of evidence that polygamy could be done without abuse, without misogyny, without subjugation, and without intimidation.
If we describe “polygamy” as three (or more) truly consenting adults, then there is no real liberal argument against it.
The liberal argument against polygamy is only this: prove to me that polygamy can be done that way. Then, legalization is a no-brainer.
But the fact is, the happy liberal “in-the-abstract” kind of polygamy, with three (or more) equal partners all working toward an equal relationship, is not the kind of polygamy that we see when we look at history.