Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Women of Deseret

What about feminism? A collision with the modern world. 

Continuing from last week, a particularly interesting topic in the field of Mormonism is the role of women. The church calls itself a "restored" Christianity, which is a fundamentalist position, in that it claims to attempt to reproduce the conditions of the early church, and proselytizes on that basis. This includes naming apostles, extending priesthood to all men, and thorough-going patriarchy. It even meant, during its formative period in the mid to late 1800's, polygamy, based on a bit of cherry-picking from the Old Testament.

Polygamy was also based on a revelation from god to Joseph Smith. One that his (sole) wife at the time, Emma, knew what to do with. She physically burned that revelation, by some accounts. She also agitated against this new doctrine, turning the female relief society into such a dangerous organ that the church leaders shut it down for a couple of decades, after which it was reconstituted and has behaved in properly submissive fashion ever since.

An intriguing aspect of polygamy is the patent lies and dissimulation practised in its defense. The Mormon authors of "The Mormon Expereince" insist that a large part of the rationale (as was the case for Muhammed and Islam) was to provide for otherwise unattached women, the destitute, and to correct for an excess of women due to warfare, etc. But the West in the US always had an excess of men (though see here). More tellingly, polygamy was not a matter of charity, but a reward to the highest officers of the church for their obvious spiritual blessings, to be converted into power and children. The fourth president of the church had six wives and forty-three children. The book also relates that if economically possible, a husband would build separate houses for each of his wives.

This hardly reflects how harmonious the institution was on behalf of women, or how charitable it was towards the destitute. No, it portrays a system of power-mad men, perhaps not wearing huge beards, but otherwise rewarding themselves in a way that suggests that they were somewhat impatient about becoming gods only in the afterlife.

Brigham Young, with what resembles a rather Islamist beard.

It is a problem we also see with the veil on Islamic women. How do we judge and react to oppression when its victims are acquiescent or even explicit supporters of the system and part of a culture which, whatever its flaws, is valued by its members? Can a system of oppression be so insidious as to be invisible? This comes up in the black lives matter movement, not that blacks in the US are acquiescent or supporters of racism, (though studies show that they are also unconsciously color-ist and racist by way of indoctrination), but that non-blacks require continual consciousness raising to a condition that is so ingrained in the social fabric and unconscious that great harms are inadvertantly, and continually done, while rationalizations accrue without end whenever a question or difficulty arises.

There is no objective judgement about social affairs, unfortunately. One group may be treated differently on an objective basis, yet that treatment be justified by any number of value judgements and attitudes whose quality is not objective at all. To take the devil's advocate position for a moment, it is clear that women and men are different, mentally as well physically. Thus it is no surprise that women may typically want different things out of life than men, and might naturally prefer a social system with roles which are different and respectively suited to each gender, both in talent and desire.

To go even deeper, all social organization involves oppression. Every relationship involves expectations and some desire to get something from the other person or change the other person. No one is innocent of manipulation, least of all the infant in its crib. We are social beings, instinctively ready to make commitments of service and sacrifice, working for family, company, nation in return for uncertain, and surely incommensurate, benefits. And ultimately we benefit from the social structures we are enmeshed in, in countless ways. But that is hardly freedom. No one is free.

So the question of civil rights, of equality, and freedom, are ones of degree, not of black and white. The problem of feminism (the problem that has no name!) is one of enumerating the various qualities of people of both genders and asking which ones are relevant to our various (modern) social roles, instead of throwing a lace-trimmed blanket over the whole thing by saying that men are better than women and should run the society from top to bottom, perhaps because they are more violent and warlike.

And even more importantly, it is a project of recognizing and accepting diversity among people, so that even if women and men mostly abide by their stereotypical interests and roles, exceptions are not judged as abnormal, destabilizing, even evil. To take another example, Mormons are no great friends of introverts:
"If our composite family contains members who are temperamentally introverts or 'loners', people preferring quieter life-styles, the church programs may seem uncomfortable- or they may be looked upon as opportunities to emerge from a shell and may help to develop a more balanced personality."

The "life-style" of homosexuality is likewise a source of horror, of course.

In the context of feminism, sure, relatively few women are lesbians, or are interested in joining the infantry, or running for president. But some are, and why not let them? What point do the normative, rather than descriptive, gender roles that conservative, patriarchial institutions like the Mormon church enforce to various degrees, and push with vast amounts of propaganda, serve?

I think there are two main answers. One is the raw power of the patriarchy. As the reader may recall, it took a decade and a half after the civil rights movement for the Mormon church to ask God about the fitness of blacks for the ministry. Here is president Spencer Kimbal writing to the church:
"... we have pleaded long and earnestly on behalf of these, our faithful brethren, spending many hours in the Upper Room of the Temple supplicating the Lord for divine guidance. He has heard our prayers, and by revelation has confirmed that the long-promised day has come when every faithful, worthy man in the Church may receive the holy priesthood, with power to exercise its divine authority, and enjoy with his loved ones every blessing that flows therefrom, including the blessings of the temple."

Note the word "man". Whether they are beseeching god on behalf of women, we have no idea. Personally, I doubt it. The transparent secular motivation of this revelation, as transparent as the federally induced revelation banning polygamy almost a century before, could hardly be more obvious. The patriarchial system likewise, with its old testament tradition, is a institution of power, with clear secular motivations. Why else deny the obvious: that women have as much access to god as men, whatever that might mean?

The second attraction of strict roles is plain orderliness and security. If the family and church is automatically organized by way of gender roles, then that is one less source of conflict and negotiation, or so it might seem to the naive. More psychologically, some standard of "normal" is a powerful organizing principle for us individually and socially. Teenagers want nothing but to be normal, and dread the opposite. People contemplating marriage are more secure in knowing that their partners are thoroughly indoctrinated into their role's "normal" template, minimizing surprise and heartbreak. Mormon institutions up and down the ladder, such as the Women's Relief Society, hum along based heavily on the slotting of all their round pegs into nice, round holes.

One could also bring up from the archetypal depths the common image of the father figure as decider and leader, and the mother figure as nurturer and consoler. Are such images innate, or are they programmed by the patriarchy itself? And even if innate, where else do we so give in to our instincts to pattern all of society on such an archaic basis? The fact of the matter is that women are natural executives, deciding on life and death as effectively, if less violently, as men.

Maturing as individuals out of wild uncultured children involves no end of repression and self-control, to form acceptable adults ready for taking on responsible, interconnected roles in society. What is one more bit of repression, for women to accede to the patriarchial system, in all its social, political, and other dimensions?

Of course, it is simple unfairness, a reflection of ancient feudal and tribal orders where the strong rode herd over the weak. We do not accede to such systems any more in politics and professional life. (With apologies to the GOP, Donald Trump, and our whole campaign finance system.) Why should we do so elsewhere? If the Mormon church really thought so highly of the family and motherhood, it would have opened the priesthood and high offices to women long ago.

The Mormons supposedly believe in the constitution, voting for political (if not ecclesiastical) office, and ironically were leaders in women's suffrage, back in the 1800's. But that constitution is based on the enlightenment principle of equality among all people, and the need for secular, practical, and compelling reasons to deviate from that fundamental assumption. Sure, the constitution in its original incarnation debilitated women, not to mention blacks, but that has since been repaired, again by voting processes, not revelation. The Mormon church, for all its protestations of protecting the family and the sacred roles of each gender, is in this respect an anachronism. Just as much as protecting the family from the homosexual "lifestyle" is an anachronism.

Is it in this respect a "restored" church of Jesus Christ, thus a purposeful anachronism? Obviously, I am no expert. But just because patriarchy was the norm in antiquity, and all the apostles as well as prophets were men does not mean that Jesus (if and however he existed) was not open to the feminine in a spiritual and apostolic sense. There is first of all the adulation and semi-divinity of Mary. Then there is the quasi-apostle-ship of Mary Magdalene. She seems to have had more importance and faith than the rest of the apostles. Indeed, Christianity started off as a religion very accepting of women in powerful positions. In all its cherry-picking, the Mormon church seems to have, in its attachment to hierarchical patriarchy, restored the structure of Catholicism rather than the broad dispensation of Jesus.

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  • What happens when social order breaks down.
  • Nihilism may be a problem, but not ISIS's problem.
  • Why friends with Saudi Arabia, and not with ISIS?
  • Is Iran really the enemy? Or would it be a better friend than the Sunnis?
  • Sam Harris on Islam.
  • Want to hear more JFK assassination theories?
  • Someone is wrong on the internet. Not to say that a recession in the near future is impossible, but raising interest rates would bring it on faster, rather than helping solve it once it arrived. We have to get over expecting monetary authorities to be the only adults in the room.
  • Lawrence Lessig on equality.
  • Requiem for Douglass North.
  • Appreciation for John Locke, and modernity.
  • Is renewable energy reaching liftoff?
  • On the mechanics of the Fed and its rate liftoff.
  • Paul Mason on basic income and the end of work.

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