From the Specter of Polygamy to the Spectacle of Postcoloniality: A Response to Bai on Confucianism, Liberalism, and the Same-Sex Marriage Debate
Politics and Religion, Volume 15 (2022), Issue 1, pp. 215 - 227; published online: 29 November 2021, DOI: 10.1017/S1755048321000304
18 Pages Posted: 13 Jan 2022 Last revised: 22 Feb 2022
Date Written: November 29, 2021
In “Confucianism and Same-Sex Marriage,” published recently in Politics and Religion, Professor Tongdong Bai argues for a “moderate Confucian position on same-sex marriage,” one that supports its legalization and yet endeavors “to use public opinion and social and political policies to encourage heterosexual marriages, and to prevent same-sex marriages from becoming the majority form of marriages” (Bai 2021:146). Against the backdrop of downright homophobia prevalent among vocal Confucians in mainland China today, Bai claims that his pro-legalization rendition “show[s] a different version of Confucianism that challenges the received perception of Confucianism that it is deeply conservative, a perception that often lies at the core of the rejection of its contemporary relevance, especially by the so-called ‘liberals’ in China and elsewhere” (Bai 2021:133). Furthermore, Bai claims that his moderate Confucianism is normatively preferrable to “the typical liberal or individualist position” of a marriage equality supporter, because the specter of polygamy – the conservative trope of invoking polygamy as a reductio ad absurdum against same-sex marriage – imposes “a serious challenge” to liberals but not to moderate Confucians (Bai 2021:146, 153).
Both of Bai’s claims falter upon scrutiny, however. Granted, it is applaudable that Bai tries to dissuade his more conservative Confucian colleagues from opposing the legalization of same-sex marriage. But as Section 1 of this Response will show, the alternative rendition of Confucianism he presents, along with the way he presents it, is premised on a highly contested conception of what shared Confucian values are; does injustice to Confucians who embrace marriage equality more unreservedly (i.e., without caveats à la Bai); fails to produce new arguments that “enrich the theoretical basis for same-sex marriage” (Bai 2021:133); and, ironically, reinforces – rather than “challenges” – the “received perception” of Confucianism as deeply conservative. Meanwhile, Section 2 will show that Bai’s comparison between liberalism and moderate Confucianism relies both upon an apparent unfamiliarity with the extensive and nuanced liberal discussions on polygamy, and upon fallacious methods of assessing comparative normative valence.
Finally, Section 3 will offer some concluding thoughts from the perspective of decolonial theory, examining the dynamic of spectacularized postcoloniality that propels the production and consumption of dubious theoretical projects like Bai’s. As it turns out, this case serves not only as a cautionary tale of how not to conduct comparative normative theorizing, but also as a cautionary tale of how not to let the spectacle of postcoloniality derail the pursuit of academic decolonization.
Keywords: Confucianism, liberalism, China, same-sex marriage, polygamy, academic colonialism, spectacularized postcoloniality
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation