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King: Culture of fear or fear of culture?

POSTED: May 20, 2008 5:00 a.m.

When I was studying anthropology at Georgia State College eons ago, I had a professor who liked to ask the young women students how they would feel about sharing their husband with one or more other wives. Polygamy, he said, is a worldwide norm. Only modern industrial societies mandate monogamy.

This usually got the class interested. After he’d given his female students time to ventilate, he’d explain that sharing a husband was not an issue in a polygamous society. Sharing a cook pot was. When a man took a second or third wife, he was expected to provide her with separate living quarters, which meant not just a place to sleep but a place to prepare meals. Strife, when it occurred, was more culinary then sexual.

Polygamy, to my knowledge, has never been legal in Georgia, but child marriage has. When I moved to Georgia in the mid-1950s, 14 was a marriageable age. I have known at least two women who married at that age. One later earned a Ph.D and taught in the university system.

Historically, young women were married off while they were very young. Furthermore, the husbands often were many years older than the bride, and these marriages were neither particular unhappy or unhealthy. Does this have anything to do with the raid on that fundamentalist group in Texas a couple of weeks ago?

Maybe, maybe not, but it’s food for thought. With more than 400 children in custody and the authorities uncertain of parenthood, there is no question the state of Texas has opened a can of worms.

Was it wrong to intervene? I’m not sure, but I can imagine the sheer terror those little children must have felt as they were separated from their mothers and carted away from the only environment they had ever known.

I’m not taking sides. I simply hold this up for examination because it represents two very different cultural views. One on hand, a particularly nasty form of abuse; on the other, the desire of a group to live according to its own religious and moral code.

As an emancipated Western woman, I’m opposed to any patriarchal culture. But as a student of religion and human psychology, I understand the attraction of absolute assurance. To believe, and to believe absolutely, requires a mind essentially closed to other points of view.

I have known individuals who belong to religious groups that might be described this way. We have a community of Dunkers in our county. The women are covered from wrist to ankle in what they refer to as their "uniform." They grow their hair long and cover it with a net bonnet. The men grow beards.

They are biblical fundamentalists. While not entirely isolated from the larger community, these people follow a strict moral code and generally keep to themselves. The men work in construction; the women stay home with the children.

My husband and I hired one of their community as a painter. Wilber radiated an aura of calm. He was a man completely sure of his place in the universe, but as much as I envied his sense of peace, I knew immediately that I could never surrender my mind to an absolutist philosophy of any kind. Once this happens, once the individual stops questioning, he or she becomes vulnerable to mental and emotional manipulation of the most dangerous kind.

I’m not taking sides in the case of the Texas fundamentalists, and I have no idea of whether Wilber’s aura of balance and calm came from his particular nature, his religion or something else. I do know it isn’t based on fear. Fear doesn’t come from God.

In the end, this has to be the defining criteria. We cannot judge a culture from outside. When the authorities raided that compound in Texas, they were following the law. A complaint had been lodged, and they had to respond. But are we who live in a very different culture and make these laws in a position to judge?

If, however, a judgment must be made, I suggest that it be based on the element of fear. Where fear and humiliation are used as methods of control, it’s safe to say the situation is toxic. Moreover, this holds true at every level of social organization: the family, the community, religion, politics and international relations.

Fear itself is toxic and ultimately nothing good comes from it. Beware those who use it to influence or motivate.

Joan King lives in Sautee. Her column appears biweekly and on gainesville times.com.



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