Reflections on Eusebius McKaiser

Reflections on Eusebius McKaiser

A Bantu In My Bathroom

A book written by Eusebius McKaiser

Foreword written by Professor Jonathan Jansen

On Polygamy

McKaiser ingeniously argues that monogamous marriages possibly exist for the same reasons that polygamous marriages are often criticized: the female entrants thereof have not exhaustively weighed all the pros and cons of monogamous marriage, and if they could do so by the rigorous standard that anti-polygamy liberals fanatically and unfairly demand that polygamy be measured by, then the cons of monogamous marriage would always be unqualified deal-breakers as well.

And he’s correct: if we’re going to condemn polygamous marriage because we believe that the wives do not have sufficient information to exhaustively assess and reject them, then we’d better declare a plague on both the house of monogamy and the houses of polygamy.  We’d better put the institution of monogamous marriage on the same defense stand on which polygamy is being tried for the crime of misogyny.

He knows that his ruthlessly logical even-handedness cannot be brought into harmony with what polygamous and monogamous relationships mean to the hypocritical societies observing and practicing them, nor with what they realistically will continue to mean to those societies for a long, long time to come.  He knows that the lens society is viewing through is distorted, and that’s why he dares to put forward his argument.  As a closeted gay man living in the township whose only voice is blogging, I agree with his unstated insinuation that there is something disingenuous, self-serving and mostly arbitrary about the moral status that society confers on certain relational transactions, and not others.

But – and I’m playing devil’s advocate – the fact that society has a skewed and inconsistent way of measuring the morality of actions – that society often judges and acts from a place of no self-awareness – is binding on the philosopher, and to a great degree.  It does call for the philosopher to limit himself and his writing to the ill-measured constructions that society has dreamt up.  Philosophers can go too far not because their assertions are wrong but because society is wrong and that wrongness, however erroneous, has claimed a great deal of mental ground in people’s thinking.  The wrongness of the constructed standards by which society evaluates things, does frame the argument; if we don’t acknowledge that, we’ll end up speaking past one another.  Scandalous and disgusting and frustrating, this thought, that no philosopher is allowed to delve into the guts of truth as he really sees it, but truth as it can be accommodated to the current (mis)understandings of the people he is speaking to.

This is relevant for Bantu In My Bathroom because polygamy presents an untidy dichotomy: on the one hand, polygamy must be possible in order for freedom to thrive.  But that freedom must precede polygamy.  Hence – when the situation has demonstrably been the other way around, and you know that it was polygamy that preceded freedom –

(and when you have the messy question of whether women were free prior to colonialism, which relates to the polygamy question because polygamy was broadly practiced before colonialism arrived)

– then we have a morally questionable situation on our hands wherein polygamy is, probably, an expression of limitations placed on women’s ability to understand all that they can be.

And that, in spite of all the correct answers that McKaiser gives to the liberals who contest polygamy, in spite of the equal culpability that monogamous and polygamous marriages could have in perpetuating misogyny, in spite of all these could-be scenarios that absolve polygamy, that is probably still the truth about polygamy in South Africa!  Every polygamous marriage I have known of has been an expression of the same hetero-patriarchy that silences me and others like me.

That some monogamous husbands are more likely to abuse their wives than polygamous husbands, that some women in polygamous marriages are empowered and educated women who have freely chosen their situations (I once saw a local drama that played with that idea), does not rule out the strong possibility that in South Africa, polygamy mostly exists because its women have been herded into those situations; they’ve been brainwashed from childhood into thinking that they are chattels.

I am not insulting those women when I state that; I am discussing the conditions and mindset in which they are steeped from birth, against and before their knowledge.  For me to state that those women are unable to see beyond what they’ve been raised to know is not me making a negative value judgment on those women or their intellects; it is my making an observation that relative to how they could have been raised, they were not given all the pedagogic advantages that they should have been given.  It’s tragic, but true, and if we say it’s neither tragic nor true, then there is no need to bother to get more people access to education.

Until someone can convince me that the question of whether women were free or not prior to colonialism is even answerable, and answerable in the most objective terms, then polygamy is not yet as tidy an issue as any of us want to think it is.

What would happen if we discovered that just off the coast of KZN there existed an inhabited island in which conditions were exactly as they were for the rest of the country in 1600, with women living in polygamous marriages?  What level and kind of interference with inhabitants’ existence would be acceptable?  Would it be all right to leave that island vulnerable to be preyed on by stronger colonialists?  Would the people of that island want protection from the UN, and on what terms would they accept the protection of one half of the world from the other half of world?

What if disease broke out there – how and what kind of intervention would be morally acceptable then, and how much of their native culture would those people part with in their acceptance of that intervention?  Where is the line?  The obvious answers don’t work unless we appeal to the personal preferences of the persons working those answers.

The point that this thought experiment is meant to drive home is that polygamy is intractably married to many things – no pun intended – and embedded in so many moral issues, that I believe it is impossible to isolate it philosophically.  Until someone can convince me that the question of whether women were free or not prior to colonialism is an answerable question, answerable in the most objective terms, I will err on the side that measures “better off” from my own worldview, in which getting a formal education is preferable to not getting a formal education.  And as a rule, derived from observation, women who get formal educations end up choosing monogamous relationships over polygamous ones – perhaps unfairly so; perhaps not.  That polygamy has been given an unfair stigma by those who would not examine it as clinically as McKaiser has done, does not change the fact that educated women, as a rule, do not enter polygamous marriages.  And observed phenomena must count for something regardless of how bizarre it is.

Unless and until the question about pre-colonial women is shown to be answerable in the most objective terms, the exceptions cannot rule out the rule – at least, not for me.  The variations of the levels of polygamy’s normativity from place to place relative to the status of women in those places, the incidence and the distribution of polygamous marriages, the current relative number of polygamous marriages versus monogamous marriages; all these contribute just as much to the assessment of the moral status of polygamous marriages as they are now, as does the raw futuristic philosophy that McKaiser sets loose from his bag.  The question is too complex to be left up to philosophers – for now, but hopefully not for long.  Until the sociological issues are ironed out, the question remains in sociology’s domain; it could be argued that philosopher McKaiser embezzled the question into the realm of philosophy a tad prematurely.

Scandalous, that the quality of the philosophy being done, is not independent of a miasma of peripheral issues or of the time period at which it is being done.  Because the truth is, just about anything viewed in the abstract can cease to be intrinsically evil; but many of those things, once viewed in the backdrop of the situations they occur in, are evil.  Isn’t this how the relativity of morality works?  Killing is not necessarily bad; killing a human being with no good reason is supremely and disgustingly wrong.

Though we do not have insider information about the polygamous marriages we observe here, we have enough information about the environments and atmospheres in which they occur to safely state that though polygamy could, under different circumstances, be the a tool by which a healthy society expresses its freedom, it is currently the tool by which an unhealthy society is expressing its unhealthiness.  This is Africa, not Vegas.  Combined, geography and history must trump philosophy.  So, judging by where and how she grew up, that satisfied smile on Wife#3 is cause for sadness, not for a liberal remark about how “everyone has a choice.”  Such a remark is not permissive; it is morally negligent and loveless, in my worldview.  At the same time that I hold on to my conviction, I have to respect the justification that McKaiser gives for his conviction that this is not necessarily as morally negligent and loveless as I think it is.

Philosophers have to accommodate the categories that they recognize in social constructions, not to what those social constructions are in and of themselves metaphysically, but to what they are in relation to sociology, anthropology and many other things pertaining to those societies under observation.  Indeed, do categories exist metaphorically, except only in relation to what they are to other categories?  Against the better judgment of many of my friends, I have decided to tackle the issue of religion-based homophobia on religious grounds precisely because failure to do so will mean that persons on both sides of the discussion will keep speaking to one another.

McKaiser wrote a treatise about polygamy, but to defend it, he had to dismiss or argue through those “many other things” pertaining to the societies he is observing.  I’d imagine that he’d have thus left himself open to many critics who’d take him to task without realizing the importance of what he has written.

A few years ago, Richard Dawkins wrote The God Delusion and got chewed out by a growing number of philosophers who argued that, like Charles Darwin before him, he had myopically used science to answer questions that lie beyond the scope of science alone, making a blunder of the philosophy of science; Dawkin’s approach could only be justified by scientism, which is the philosophical stance that science and alone has the tools to wrestle even with existential questions and produce the most accurate answers.  But there is no scientific proof for the philosophical stance of scientism; there is no empirical proof that empiricism is empirically correct.  So there exists an incompleteness to just about any –ism in existence.

Are there circumstances in which, laboring under the weight of its own brilliance, sound philosophy becomes philosophism, and eventually, (an albeit responsible) solipsism?  Could it be argued that McKaiser has used philosophy to deal with cultural questions that anthropology could rightly wrestle with, thus making a blunder of the philosophy of anthropology?  He’s anticipated that argument.  That’s why he threw in the caveat that once we begin to look through our social constructions and mature beyond them, there’s no telling just what kind of marriages could start cropping up.  McKaiser is no Dawkins.  McKaiser is no fool – he knows the objections that are coming, and he’s just waiting for everyone else to catch up.  He’s like Nietzsche: gutsy enough to declare that God is dead, but also responsible enough to spell out the implications of the announcement.  So my criticism is actually also a compliment: McKaiser is ahead of his time.  Some critics will lambast him for the same things I’m examining, and others will laud him.  But who recognizes just how dangerous or important his ideas really are?

I would have advised McKaiser not to address polygamy because addressing it would call for a situational-ethicist’s zig-zagging from approval, to disapproval, and back again, that South Africans are nowhere near ready for; McKaiser truncates that zig-zag and jumps to the (correct) conclusion, and from there explains the journey backwards.  He thinks this stuff should be obvious to all, but not all want to see as clearly as he sees: “Truth has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light.”  And really, how is it going to be explained that by the same consistent philosophy that polygamy has been found wrong for multiplying women in a misogynistic South Africa, it would be found innocent in a non-misogynistic South Africa – or will soon be found innocent in liberal Holland?

Still, as a philosopher, he had no choice but to bare his convictions.  Having summarized them into dense gems, he gives us the job of digesting – and perhaps challenging – his ideas.

Stay tuned for my attempt at exploring more ideas found in his book.

In closing, let me clarify that I strongly recommend Bantu.  It’s funny, it’s vulnerable, it’s well-written.  And like its author, it’s downright sexy.

Twitter handle: @SKhumalo1987

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