Regression towards the mean (a rant) December 13, 2013Posted by Shaun McGonigal in Culture and Society, Polyamory.
Tags: Alternative lifestyle, mainstream culture, monogamy, polyamory, values
All cultures have traditions, values, means of communication, etc. All of these, and more, help define meaning and appropriate behavior for the group of people that interact with that culture. It sets values for moral behavior, words for communication, and expectations to evaluate your decisions and circumstances against. It gives you a set of standards to compare how well you’re doing in your process of personal growth. Culture creates a filter through which we define what is good personal growth. The problem is that sometimes cultures are bad standards for such things.
What do you do when the values, expectations, and even the very language your culture uses seem, well, wrong? Not all of them, necessarily. Really, it just takes one value or tradition to create this problem, and I am not sure it is a problem which will ever go away. We may perpetually, as a species, be evolving and progressing our cultures towards various ideals, assuming we don’t kill each other first. I’m rarely optimistic. So, given that, it seems rational to assume that those working for social justice, of all flavors, are the people we should be paying more attention to as members of culture. But we don’t, because the path of least resistance is easier. It’s totally understandable, right? Well, it’s certainly human. As if that’s sufficient reason to do something in itself.
(Just another reason I’m a misanthropist and not a fan of humanism; I don’t want humanity to be our example or our standard, I want the ubermensch to be the standard. I want to transcend mere humanity towards something perpetually better, culturally. No, not a trans-humanistic future of perfect cuber beings or even Cybermen, but a perpetually improving set of cultures.).
Well, in such cases where we find ourselves dissatisfied with our cultural environment, we have little choice but accept it or to (hopefully) find some other people who feel the same way and create your own sub-culture where we will often have to hide some behaviors so that the normals can go around feeling comfortable with their quaint little lives, unchallenged and sometimes even unaware that challenge is even an option. And if we, rebels and other hooligans, happen to encroach on their territory (which is everywhere, seemingly), we have to apologize and slink back into our little holes, lest they get offended and have feelings they don’t want to deal with. Examples? Christian privilege in the Christmas wars, for starters, but also the fear that many polyamorous people have in being discovered by employers, family, etc because of the effect of cultural norms on our legal and practical rights.
And, sometimes, you meet one of these friendly normals who seem to think your little hole in the culture is sort of fascinating and interesting. They sort of like some of what you have to say, or they have a friend who also has a similar hole and they want to be liberal, open-minded, and accepting but they don’t really feel it deep down the way we do so it always feels like they are merely patronizing. Because they are patronizing, even if it is also partially genuine (I’ll be clear; sometimes it is actually genuine). They will occasionally visit your little hole, play around for a while in that hole, but they are not prepared to live their. In some cases, a person might spend time with the weird people because a friend likes the weird thing or because their partner is weird as well, and they feel like they should be supportive even if they don’t really get it. I mean, sometimes they do get it, but sometimes not. Either way, they are not invested in your little cultural oddity, and most of their thinking and feeling is still tied to the mainstream culture in which they live most of their lives.
As we grow up, the things that are meaningful to us are tied to the culture in which we live. And for most people, that is the mainstream culture. Generations of people have common cultural items to use as stand-ins for more universal human commonalities, and we latch onto those things. For many people it is the church they went to, but it could also be the love of popular TV shows, music, or hobbies. And this is all fine. The problem is when the things we value and have fond associations with are a part of the problem. I’ll use a personal example.
When I was in graduate school, I made friends with a fellow graduate student who was the member of a fraternity. He was very active and loved this fraternity, and he spoke well of it. Through our friendship, I became fascinated with the ideals and the experience of this group of brothers, and because I valued him and the ideals proposed by the fraternity I decided to join. I had hoped to meet other people who shared certain values with me and to become part of a group that seemed actually worth-while, rather than the ones I had seen elsewhere. It was against my general nature of not being the type who joined things like this; I never went to church (willingly), I have never been enamored by any particular political party, and I had some prejudices about fraternities.
Upon joining, I slowly but inevitably saw the private, secret rituals of the fraternity as well as how my new ‘brothers’ really were, and things started to sour. I learned, quickly, that the role of the fraternity was exactly like the role of church for most mainstream and normal people. While in the ritual times and spaces, people tend to be solemn, respectful, and even reflective. But as soon as they leave, the ideals (for most of them), go by the wayside. Then I saw that people were sort of douchebags, just like everywhere else. On top of that, the ideal that the fraternity upheld were available without the fraternity; just like with religion. There was no need to join the fraternity, because I could have the ideals without that particular group of people.
One example always sticks with me. I had some interaction with the prytanis (president) of the chapter at Drexel University a while ago, during my early days as a volunteer, and it was like talking to any self-serving, arrogant, and self-important douchebag I have ever had the displeasure of talking with. The values of the organization do not tend to filter down to the members. So it is with such things. This, and other things I learned during my brief activity (you are a brother for life, after all), showed me that no matter how good the ideals of a community, or culture, are, those ideals won’t translate. You don’t have to be a member to share the ideals, and if you do become a member you won’t necessarily meet better people. Unfortunately, this truth carries through to all of my experiences with groups of all kinds, including the atheist community. I have many friends in the atheist community, but it is full of many douchebags as well. The Polyamorous community is a little better.
So, it’s even worse when even the ideals of a community, group, or culture are not, well, ideal. Take the ideals of love and romance in our culture to start with. Most people associate love with concepts of possessiveness and jealousy as a positive sign of love being ‘real’. But those are the ideals of love and romance in our culture in general, whether we like it or not. It might be changing slowly, but that’s where it seems to be for most people. Those of us who are polyamorous tend to recognize that those values are broken, and see love as expansive and less limiting (it’s not actually infinite, because nothing is.). But from the point of view of someone steeped in mainstream culture, we poly people often look like we’re crazy, or at least playing with fire (which is also fun). We are, after all, intentionally breaking the expectations of the culture they live in and value. I mean, it’s one thing to cheat, but at least the normal monogamously-inclined cheater has the ideal of exclusivity, possessiveness, and jealousy…I mean, true love and romance…as a goal. At least those cheaters are (generally) trying to do things right, but they keep messing it up because they are human. But to throw away those ideals and love 2 or more people? That’s just nuts.
So when those hangers-on, those people who are, intellectually and theoretically, accepting of us rebels and hooligans (you know, because they are open-minded, liberated people); those people who hang around because they have friends who are also weird; those who hang around because the person they are dating wants to be part of it, even if they are unsure about it. When those people start to really face the hard parts of being an adult and dealing with the real complexities of attraction, jealousy, envy, time-management, trust, etc what do they do? Well, they tend to regress towards the cultural expectations. The average. The ‘mean’.
Monogamy as an expected ideal, as it is in our culture, is not a healthy value to defend and to default towards. I recognize that some people will be truly happy and fulfilled in monogamous situations, but as a default this ideal is broken when held against the shape of human desires, capabilities, and actual behavior. When you have millions of people nourished with in a set of values around love, relationships, and sex which imply the expectations of monogamy, their emotions and thus their opinions latch onto those ideals. Subsequently, due to various cognitive biases and imperfections, they are offended by opposing values which may actually be superior (either generally or for them specifically). So when some of those people are exposed to polyamory, even if they are willing to accept or even try it, their emotions are still tied to the ideals of love, relationships, and sexuality which make polyamory seem wrong, impractical, or “not for me.”
Let’s use another example, not from myself but based, in part, on someone I have known all of my life.
If someone grows up going to church, loving the music, the community, etc, they will attach emotional significance to much of the tradition and ritual. They have emotional bonds to the sounds, smells, architecture, etc. For someone like this, being in their religious space brings to mind good feelings, memories, etc which cannot be replaced, but which are valued by them whether they would choose to value them or not. If they start to disbelieve in any or all of the doctrines of the church, those feelings don’t go away. So even if they leave the church, they seek out some sort of substitute, or create atheist churches (*gag*). And from time to time, they will think about and miss what they left. Their emotions bond to such sounds, smells, images etc which they formed in those places while they developed as people. And sometimes, especially if they experience trauma, hard time, etc, they go back. They regress.
The same thing often happens to people who are interested in, or try, polyamory. It gets hard, their emotions–which were tied with ideas about love and security which are antithetical to being polyamorous–pull them towards the cultural norm. It’s the path of least resistance, after all, to appear normal. it’s even easier to actually just be normal. Polyamory is not normal (and it may never be). The normal alternatives, whether monogamy, serial monogamy, or even swinging (which is, let’s be honest, just couples who like to fuck other people sometimes, and not a real challenge to the fundamental norms of couple-based relationships) requires less personal struggle and work, it’s easier to explain to co-workers and family, and it does not force you to grow. Growing is hard, fitting in is easier.
And we as sensitive, caring, and mature people, are supposed to sympathize with their struggle when they regress in such ways. We are supposed to allow them to go the path they want with our blessings and support, because their life is theirs. Well, sure it is, but that does not mean that the decision to regress towards the norm is not often based on some fear, unwillingness to be challenged, and even cowardice. That does not mean we have to actually agree with them. Also, it does not mean we have to respect their decision. We are supposed to not challenge them when shit gets hard for them because shit is already hard for them, I understand. We are supposed to be patient (and some patience is fair to ask for, but their must be a limit). We are supposed to not rock the boat. We are supposed to behave ourselves. we are supposed to know our place. Our place is not to question the norm. Most people will defend their norms all day and all night because it is comfortable, and they will do it with a smile and get offended when you find them ridiculous, because they are so conditioned to see it as right even if it might not be.
They are so easily offended, those open-minded, liberated, progressive normal people. Not to mention the conservatives; they are a whole different problem. But the liberal-minded mainstream normal people who find us weird people so interesting to hear stories about on NPR or have representative friends to make them seem interesting…. They are very often, to this weird person anyway, quite amusing and interesting. They are like the Unitarians from the point of view of radical new atheism; not the source of the problem, but not really helping either. They are just sort of boring, trite, and uninspiring. They just sort of blend into the background of the culture, which we already (hopefully) agree is not ideal.
And we are supposed to respect them and their lives.
That’s another part of the values of our mainstream culture. That is the quiet, brilliant lore of mainstream inoffensiveness. That is what feeds and keeps alive what is wrong with mainstream culture. Where privilege of all kind lives, it is guarded by the desire to be polite, because being polite is nice and it won’t offend your grandmother or the neighbors. Where injustice lives, so does the smiling, ubiquitous face of “it’s just how people are” and “live and let live.” Where cowardice, fear, and conservative tendencies live, so do the values of tradition and “just fitting in”. And so when shit gets hard, it’s easier to just fall back into the tendencies of the lazy and cowardly culture that we live among and within. When shit happens, it’s easy to just blend into the background pattern of normal culture, and appear as just another person who feels more evolved and liberated because you had this time in college (or whenever) when you tried that weird thing, but it wasn’t for you. Or perhaps you have some weird friends who are interesting to invite to parties and amaze the other normals with how many interesting people you know. Don’t I look all open-minded now? Aren’t I a mature and responsible adult? Aren’t I interesting?
So this is where I regress to being (a little) mean. I don’t respect the majority of our culture or its values. I don’t want to be nice or to sympathize beyond a reasonable level of time to allow you to get used to the culture shock you have when you run into weird people or radical ideas. I’m willing to allow you some time to calm from your privilege or parochialistic shock, but then I expect you to actually grow up a little or go away where I don’t have to tolerate the inoffensiveness you reek of. And, unfortunately, most will go away and regress to their mean. That’s fine, my world is better without you anyway, but I will be disappointed because this reaction is so common. I’m not going to be nice to you just because you have some emotional attachments to being normal and unchallenged, and you would rather run away or hide behind wanting to fit in or not offend your co-workers or your family for the sake of something that scares you to think about doing.
I’m sympathetic to emotional difficulty when it’s warranted, but the common emotional attachments to a set of values affixed to a broken and stupid culture are not sufficient warrant after a while. If you are exposed and given time to adjust to the weird alternative to the norm, and you don’t adjust, then I’m no longer sympathetic. You have time, especially if you have the time to read blogs like this, to think about the nature of our culture and your relationship with it, so do it already and stop being boring. If you don’t do that work now, then I hope that if you eventually figure out that the (for example) monogamous marriage which you willingly enter, but later find yourself stuck in, was the result of unrealistic expectations about relationships which you learned from our culture, then you will be willing to do the work. I also hope that you will then be willing to start re-thinking your values and your attachment to the dominant cultural values.
I hope you figure that out before all of that, and I hope that our experiences and insights as (polyamorous, atheist, social justice activist, etc) people, while not perfect (I’m certainly far from it) might be more than mere interest from afar. Because for many people out there, the weird stuff around them is just a way to play with ideas while not really questioning your very basic values and assumptions in any meaningful way. Weird sub-cultures and counter-cultures are a sort of cultural clothing that makes our culture look interesting to those living in it, when it is not interesting in itself. In short, I’m not impressed by your emotional freak out because you are more comfortable with what is normal than with doing the real work to challenge your cultural conventions and assumptions. I’ll be impressed when the freak out happens when you are genuinely trying to adjust to the fact that the dominant culture inculcated so much crap into you and you are trying to change those ideas for better ones, actively, painfully, and most of the time.
I am no longer impressed by the values, methods of solution, or rules of a culture–any culture–which is fundamentally broken as our mainstream Western culture is. And if you don’t think this mainstream Western culture is broken in many ways, then you might be part part of the problem.