Ménage à cinq
The French Romantic author Gérard de Nerval once wrote: “In the character of our nation, there is a tendency to exercise force when one possesses it, and have pretensions to power, when one does not.” He was making the case that little had changed in French censorship as the Old Régime passed into the New; it was merely a matter of different state regulators. Indeed, French history is riddled with ridiculous and unnecessary regulation. An old joke holds that, in Heaven, the administrators are Swiss and the lovers are French, while in Hell, the opposite is true.
It’s still a bit surprising to see la patrie de l’amour upset over polygamy. When French authorities recently discovered a halal butcher was living with four women, and married to one, Brice Hortefeux, the interior minister, demanded the man be stripped of his French citizenship. The demand is particularly drôle given the old stereotype that a respectable “French marriage” is between a man, a woman, and their discreet lovers. It’s hard to see how the country that coined the term “ménage à trois” could have a problem with those who want to make it official. Nevertheless, polygamy was outlawed in France in 1993 as “an infringement of the principle of equality between men and women”.
One suspects the real problem, as ever, is with French feelings about les Musselmans particularly the ones not born in La France. Like adultery, French racism is both widespread and not spoken about too openly in sophisticated society. Members of former colonies are given French citizenship, but they can never really be French. The French are fiercely proud of their way of life and see it as an excellent model for emulation, but you’ve got to be born into it, and part of that way of life is secularism, mixed with nostalgia for Catholicism. The religious justification for polygamy is especially grating as civilized people have left such things in the past. Finally, there’s the issue of “women’s rights”, although it’s not clear if French officials would accept a woman with three husbands.
I suspect that another issue might be how little justification there really is for banning polygamous marriages, aside from a general feeling of unease among the rest of us. This relates to same sex marriage not because the one necessitates the other, but because the western world has recently rejected the arguments against letting gays marry that are quite likely used to deny polygamists the right to marry: it’s not natural, people can’t really love that way, it could confuse the children, and it’s just weird, isn’t it? Increasingly, we’ve come to reject these non-arguments in terms of same sex marriage. So why shouldn’t polygamy follow?
Opponents of same sex marriage sound stupid when they bring up bestial marriage because animals cannot agree to legal contracts such as the marriage contract. But, given that we generally see marriage as an agreement between adults who love each other, what arguments are left against either same sex marriage or group marriage, which incidentally is quite familiar in the Scriptures and nearly all religious traditions? If Joseph Smith wants to marry three women, or Tilda Swinton wants to form a family with two men, what case can we make against it, aside from “You can’t really love two other people”, which certainly hasn’t stopped anyone thus far? So part of the discomfort here could be due to our awareness of how lame our case against group marriage, and non-monogamy in general, is at this point, amounting to, “Well, I couldn’t do it. It’s pretty weird, am I right?”
Would anyone like to propose a stronger argument for or against polygamy?