Polygamy & Moral Relativism
Yesterday, Warren Jeffs, a polygamist and the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was found guilty of sexual assault by a Texas jury. Jeffs was the leader of the Yearning for Zion Ranch which was raided by authorities in 2008 after reports of abuse. Remember those women in the news who looked remarkably like Borough Park residents with their long dresses and gigantic hair bumps?
Jeffs’ case and the raid both stirred up a lot of the debate regarding moral relativism. How can we judge if polygamy is wrong? How can the women painted as victims in this society really be victims if they adamantly defend their lifestyle and community?
In college, my goyish classmates and I used to frequently debate moral relativism, particularly the right of Western society to step in to “save” female “victims” of a culture, like the women in the polygamy raid. Perhaps somewhat perversely, I always defended the right of the “oppressed” women to continue to live their lives, no matter how victimized they appeared to us. I could remember how happy I was to be frum as a child, how I would have scorned that idea of being “rescued” from my limited, oppressed world.
Now, I’m not so sure.
What kind of choice do you really have to stay part of a polygamous cult (or a society that practices genital mutilation, or an oppressive patriarchicical society), if your entire conditioning has taught you that’s the only way to live?
It’s like Rumspringa, where religious rules are relaxed for Amish teens as they “sow their oats”. Rumspringa is lauded so often as a sign of Amish tolerance and openness, but what kind of freedom do those kids really have, when everything they’ve ever learned has taught them to reject and judge the experiences of the outside world?
On the other hand, how do we measure what lifestyle is considered severe enough that we can paternalistically step in and say: “We’re gonna rescue you from your culture for your own good”? How about girls being raised in Miami Beach who regularly undergo surgical, bodily-altering procedures because their culture indoctrinates them with a sense of inferiority otherwise?
I don’t have any clear answers for most of these questions, but one thing I do believe, is that a culture can be measured by how it treats people who want to leave. I can tolerate some pretty extreme practices, if people who want to leave that culture are given ample leeway to do so, without serious consequence to their safety, finances or family connections. If a culture has heavy consequences for those who leave, it leaves me doubting that it’s the culture alone that is compelling people to stay, and I’m a lot more likely to harshly judge the conditions people live under in that community, no matter how “willingly” they seem to cling to them.Printable Version