Polygamous sects have been in the news recently, with a New York Times article on the vile practice of driving teenage boys out of isolated communities into a wider world they are not equipped to handle, and separating them from their families. Such sects are said to be into control, and so an uneasy relationship with teenage boys is no great surprise; and of course it serves the older men's interest in a more sinister way. Unless men are being lost to war or accident (or expulsion), a community in which all men are expected to take several wives cannot be sustained ... but then, so much the worse for community commitment to such rules. Can't maintain your way of life? Surely the answer is just "Well, that is too bad!"
(Viewers of Big Love will recall that Bill Henrikson was run out of the Juniper Creek compound as a teenager, as a threat to its leader in several senses.)
Meanwhile mainstream Mormons and other folk are in some places learning to co-exist with polygamous sect-members via the classic means of cooperation, and respect for virtuous individuals. In certain senses one cannot argue with this, and nor should one want to. But it provides an interesting test-case for prevailing ideas on tolerance:
Polygamists (and especially their children) should not be subject to relentless taunts, quasi-legal harrassment, or irrelevant discrimination. Amen. Individuals should be treated on their merits, and ideally one should "take them as you find them" in social settings. Sure. Allowance for their customs should be made in forming moral assessments. Well of course, although this is not the same as bracketing polygamy as an issue, or approving of it: as discussed in an earlier post on Bill and Barb's "affair", it's difficult to express a coherent opinion on certain individual actions (I was against the affair) without taking a position on the lifestyle as a whole (I think Bill taking second and third wives was wrong, and the fact that his domestic commitments now prevent him from devoting himself to his first and "true" wife, even despite his feelings, is part of what made it wrong in the first place).
But it is somehow illegitimate to express moral disapproval or criticism of this lifestyle choice, provided it stays within norms of informed consent (and so on)? Um, no. Acceptance of such customs should be taught, for the sake of integration/respect/choice/whatever? Nope, doesn't follow. And so on ...
"Gay marriage" always seems to float around the back of these discussions, and to some extent discussion of polygamy can serve as a proxy for discussion of homosexual partnerships. To me, this last approach seems unhelpful: each case should be treated on its merits. Polygamy is useful to the discussion precisely because it is different, and thus throws our concepts and rhetoric into relief. For example, what does one make of "rights" in this case? What about arguments on "orientation" and "choice"?