Yesterday morning I watched an interesting breakfast TV show here in Accra, on Ghana’s GTV. Interesting for three reasons: (a) because it illustrated the passionately articulate and comfortably personable nature of many Ghanaians, with whom just about any quick chat can escalate into an eloquent debate within seconds; (b) because it showed how breakfast TV chat shows seem to follow a universal cross-cultural format, focusing largely on fashion, relationships, and personal health with discussion driven by a small coterie of generalist talking heads; and (c) because, well, religion.
After a slightly over-long item on “managing your wardrobe” (pro tip: don’t put smelly shoes in a wardrobe; the moisture spreads bacteria and mould to the clothes), we had a panel discussion on the slightly cognate subject of “managing your in-laws” (pro tip: again, no putting in wardrobes).
The first round of contributions were peaceable enough, with a lot of clichéd in-law jokes as well as a few interesting local observations (apparently it’s not altogether rare for a father-in-law to run off with his son’s wife here).
We also had some warnings that young couples should think strategically about what they are getting themselves into: consider the different implications when marring a first-born as opposed to a “tenth-born“, for example. Also, seemingly, keep away from an only child. As for marriage counseling advice, well, let’s just say it involved Jesus. A lot of Jesus.
Things took a more serious turn when a speaker from Ghana’s single parents caucus spoke about how domineering in-laws were a leading cause of marriage breakdown in the country and that no amount of spiritual piety would undo the harsh economic damage that befalls a single mother in a country like Ghana.
So then this guy lost his cool.
He had been introduced as a CEO of some or other family values group, and he also went by the monicker of ‘Reverend.’ He had some interesting scientific ideas to marshal by way of arguments in support if his position.
For one thing, he reckoned that all animals were pre-programed to love their offspring above all others, and so people who describe their children’s spouses as newly acquired ‘sons’ or ‘daughters’ are flying in the face of nature. As such, it is spouses seeking to inappropriately ingratiate themselves with their parents-in-law who cause marriages to break down. Single mothers in Ghana have “caused all their own problems” by perversely wanting to be loved by their in-laws. He’s seen it happen hundreds of times.
According to him, this is all borne out by science: you see, mothers and sons “have the same germs.” As a result, if a son wants to eat food from his mother’s dinner plate, he “doesn’t need to wash his hands.” His wife, having different germs, would need to wash her hands because she’s an outsider. A wife who ignores this, and who sees herself as a true daughter to her mother-in-law, would recklessly be putting the older lady’s life at risk by poisoning her food.
Such a position exemplifies two standard genres of pseudoscientific xenophobia. Firstly, it is based on a kind of “germ theory” that links cleanliness to biological relatedness, in much the same way as 19th century slave owners insisted that their servants use specified wash basins so as not to contaminate the main household (even though the servants were about to prepare their master’s meals). And secondly, it advances the notion that biological relatedness can be used as a basis for determining moral worth simply because natural selection favours kin selection (in animals across aeons), a leap of logic that neatly illustrates the naturalistic fallacy.
So what’s driving this guy’s concerns? Well his repugnance of divorce, of course. He finished by reminding us that “what God has put together, Man will not pull asunder.”
And to think it all started off with some mother-in-law jokes…
There is a certain irony in a religious fundamentalist citing an evolutionary notion – namely, kin selection – as an explanatory framework. I guess it is also ironic that a professional moralist would champion a level of xenophobia so extreme that anyone outside of one’s immediate family is regarded as a biological hazard. Such intense kin loyalty makes traditional racism look inclusive by comparison.
All in all, the wardrobe item was better.
Brian Hughes is an academic psychologist and university professor in Galway, Ireland, specialising in stress, health, and the application of psychology to social issues. He writes widely on the psychology of empiricism and of empirically disputable claims, especially as they pertain to science, health, medicine, and politics.
Really enjoyed this. I love the way you ridicule the idea that mothers and off spring have the same germs so the sone doesn’t need to wash his hands !