Anger Management

I was struck by many things in the “Godless Perverts” panel video Shaun posted yesterday, but one thing in particular that I’ve been meaning to write more about was the idea of the narrative of redemption through suffering (Maggie Mayhem segues into Charlie Glickman discussing it, starting at around 30:25 of Pt. II). I’m going to try to tread very carefully here as I discuss the ways in which I think this concept is relevant to nonmonogamy, so please accept the caveat that I’m trying to make somewhat broad conceptual associations in order to see if they’re fruitful.

When we “come out” as atheists, many of us face the usual types of reactions. Some people accept our decision right away (or don’t really care–i.e. it’s not really their business how we live our lives); some say they knew all along and are genuinely happy for us; some completely reject atheism and, thus, reject us along with the proverbial bathwater. If I think about people as roughly falling into three camps–true believers/theists, nonbelievers, and “weak” believers (i.e. those who may identify as religious but whose religiosity operates more as a cultural identity, or quasi-ethnicity, than as a dominant life philosophy)–all of these reactions make some sense to me. The true believers are likely to want nothing to do with an atheist (except the ones who might think they can “save” us, but that’s another blog post altogether), and may even feel threatened by an atheists’ presence in their lives (because, as everyone knows, we recruit). The nonbelievers will either embrace our newly-announced identity or be indifferent, neither of which harms us much, though the former can certainly help.

The middle group, though, are the ones who tend to respond angrily. Some people seem to get very angry when I share my atheism (or skepticism of almost any kind, honestly) with them, and I’ve spent some time trying to understand why.

(Big assumption alert)

I think the “weak” believers get angry when we decide to live our atheist lives openly and unapologetically because, at least on some level, they’ve bought into the narrative that pious people deserve to be rewarded and wicked people must be punished. Even though they may not go to church every week, or observe all of the holidays, rituals, etc. required by the most devout members of their religious identity group, they still want to believe that their lukewarm belief–and, often, adherence to at least some elements of their religion’s moral/ethical rules–will gain them a reward. In other words, they’ve given up some things in order to convince themselves that they’re a good “insert religious identity here,” and if atheists are living happy, free, unapologetic lives and not being punished for it, the “weak” believers’ entire ideological framework is in danger of crumbling like a house of cards.

The historically religious narrative of asceticism and punishment leading to reward/redemption is so powerful that, I’m arguing, it has become a powerful secular narrative, even in the minds of those who do not strongly identify as religious. Hence, they often can’t articulate why they’re mad at us. Usually they say things like, “why can’t you just keep that to yourself?” or “did you have to shove that down my throat?” when we’ve done no such thing. They feel threatened because our unpunished existence directly contradicts the narrative not only that they want to believe but that has motivated actual life choices they’ve made, and these choices often involve sacrifices that they would not have made were it not for their belief in the reward/redemption at the end of the narrative.

When we come out, and especially when we openly and honestly live our lives, as polyamorous, we tend to get the same spectrum of response. Some people simply can’t accept our choice, or they may feel threatened that we’ll try to “steal” their partners, etc. This is always sad, but I think we can all deal with it. Some people (often the similarly nonmonogamous) embrace our choice and/or take a “it’s not really my business, but I’ll show tepid support” attitude, or (occasionally) express mild disapproval but tolerance. Again, the latter responses are not my favorites, but I don’t worry too much about them. They might be described as falling into the YKINMK camp, and that’s understandable. The angry responses, however, can be tough to grok. Why do other people get so exorcised over our chosen lovestyle?

My answer is that mononormativity operates as a secular form of the historically religious narrative of suffering leading to reward/redemption. Here I’m defining “suffering” extremely broadly. In the case of monogamy, what I mean is that monogamous people deny often themselves the pleasure of multiple intimate relationships (these need not be sexual–remember that many monogamous people believe that even having close friendships with people other than one’s spouse is a form of cheating). This sacrifice has a cost, but it also has a reward. Monogamists feel a kind of secular piety, a sense that they’re doing the right thing. Moreover, they tend to think that the sacrifice is the very thing that gives the monogamous dyad its special status.

I’ve seen this sentiment over and over again in online forums and in conversations with “devoutly” monogamous people. People have told me that I just don’t understand what “true” love is because I’m not giving 100% of myself to each of my relationships (because, you know, it’s mathematically impossible and all that). People seem to feel the strong need to prop up their own lifestyle choices and to devalue mine, even though my being polyamorous doesn’t in any way directly affect their monogamous relationships. So why should they be angry? I think they get angry because they believe that my successful, happy, unapologetic polyamory does threaten their relationships. If they’ve sacrificed to be monogamous, they must be rewarded and, conversely, those who deviate from mononormativity must be punished. Our lack of suffering does not compute.

I’m not suggesting that this is a new phenomenon, or that it’s unique to polyamory. Quite the contrary. Normativity in all of its forms elicits this desire for secular piety on behalf of its adherents. Deviation from the norm is systematically demonized, most notably in popular culture (which is overwhelmingly heteronormative, sex-negative, pro-theist, etc.). If gay/polyamorous/freethinking people live their lives openly and happily, how can “normal” people maintain the fiction that their ways of living are worthy of praise and reward (especially in the absence of something as dramatic as an actual intervention of a deity, the full wrath of a state apparatus, etc.)?

I’m also not saying that people who obey normative rules are bad people. In fact, I think their obedience is largely due to their desire to be good people. And I also believe that they are aware of the sacrifices they make for normativity. Thus, they experience a real sense of loss when non-normative beliefs/practices are shown to be completely benign (or, gasp, rewarding). Studies of loss aversion have shown fairly consistently that humans tend to react much more negatively to losses than they react positively to gains. This is not only true in economic situations but in social ones as well.

Some people surely feel that monogamy involves no sacrifice at all. Given the statistics on infidelity within monogamous relationships (over 50%), I’m not sure we can fairly say that a majority of monogamous people see things that way, but certainly many do. I don’t think they get mad when we say we’re polyamorous and show that we’re happy that way.

However, I believe that most monogamous people are “weak” monogamists. They are monogamous by default, without ever really knowing alternatives exist. I say this, by the way, as someone who for more than 30 years thought exactly the same thing. “Weak” monogamists are aware that closing off a large part of our humanity (love/sexuality) to all but one person for our entire lives causes us suffering. In order for that suffering to be bearable, they must believe that the reward outweighs the sacrifice. This, for me, explains their often visceral reaction to our living (and loving) openly.

Polyamory challenges our culture’s dominant, cultural narrative about love/sexuality because it shows that stable, committed, loving relationships are still possible when all parties involve have other stable, committed, loving relationships. And challenging people’s dominant cultural paradigms, especially when those people haven’t examined those paradigms very deeply (one of the pernicious things about normativity is that it seems, to most members of a society, simply to be “natural,” not culturally constructed and reinforced)–makes people angry.

11 thoughts on “Anger Management

  1. I think your observation about polyamory being a challenge to people’s just world hypothesis is spot on, but the comparison with atheism goes a bit too far. While being polyamorous is not, in itself, an aggressive act, atheism most certainly is. By proclaiming atheism, you are necessarily saying that anyone who has faith is deluded. People’s anger is because they perceive your stance (accurately) as a challenge to their own beliefs. Saying “I’m an atheist” is, in effect, saying “you are wrong” to anyone with a belief in a higher power. It’s an aggressive stance, in a way that polyamory is not.

  2. I agree about polyamory. I think it’s a pretty widely observed phenomenon that when people have been made sacrifices because they believed, or were told, that it’s necessary, then they tend to strongly resist the idea that another way of life is possible. It deprives their sacrifices of the meaning they’d ascribed to make it worthwhile… very frustrating.

    With regard to atheism, and “weak” theists in particular, I don’t think they make very many sacrifices to participate in religion. It’s the serious, devoted, thoughtful theists that are more likely to make those sacrifices. I think when weak theists feel more threatened by atheism than the true believers do, it’s because we’re shifting the ground for belief and identity. Instead of accepting religion as a sort of toothless myth for organizing one’s life around, we’re insisting that it makes real, factual truth claims deserving of investigation and assessment. We’re challenging their faith on grounds that they’re not comfortable defending it on. I think for a lot of people there’s a certain amount of self-misdirection away from the “Yes, but is it actually true?” question, and atheists (as well as extreme Biblical literalists) insist on confronting that question head-on.

    True believers, on the other hand, are used to the idea that their faith makes truth claims which need to be defended on that basis. While they disagree with atheists’ conclusions, the arena they’re arguing in is the same, and atheism doesn’t threaten a complete paradigm shift for them the way it does for social or cultural believers.

  3. Also, let’s not forget the “weak nonbelievers” out there. Those are the people who are atheists (but often self-identify as ‘agnostics’) who get angry at us for being so vocal and open about our lack of belief. Their anger stems from a different source, and may be related to a form of ‘your-doing-what-I-wish-I-could-do’, which may have a weak analog to some people who really feel like nonmonogamy is more comfortable or rational, but either do it in less-than-ideal ways or are “stuck” in monogamy.

    There is a value in our culture that says that if you are not going to follow the normal expectations, you should at least do it quietly, discreetly. So not only are we breaking the rule of conformity, we are “boastful” about it. We are, in short, unapologetic and proud of our “sins”. Sin laid atop sin. The narrative of religion is deeply ingrained in our culture.

  4. I think for a lot of people there’s a certain amount of self-misdirection away from the “Yes, but is it actually true?” question, and atheists (as well as extreme Biblical literalists) insist on confronting that question head-on.

    Yes, I think this is exactly right. Weak believers are often people who are “religious” by default. They might have been raised in a religion and felt that identifying as a Christian, Jew, etc. was a social obligation, even though they never seriously reckoned with their religion’s doctrines, or with the question of the existence of a deity. In other words, being religious was normative for them.

    Though my family was not wealthy, I had an adolescence of relative privilege. The town in which I grew up was a fairly typical Florida suburb: mostly white, mostly upper middle class, mostly nuclear families with 2-3 kids and as many cars. It’s not that there were no gay people, no atheists, no people of color, etc.; it’s that there were pretty much no out non-normative people. As a result, I accepted a lot of things about culture, sexuality, and even religion as matters of course.

    I didn’t question them not because I was lousy at critical thinking–I was 5th academically in my graduating class of over 500 and was college-bound practically from elementary school–but because the social cost of nonconformity was high, especially within my family. So, for example, even though I stopped going to church and refused to be confirmed Catholic in middle school, I did not officially declare myself an atheist until after college. And though I believe being polyamorous is an orientation, not a choice, for me, I was successfully monogamous for the first 20 years of my dating/sex life.

    So while I wouldn’t claim there’s no difference between them, for me various types of coming “out” (as atheist, polyamorous, queer, kinky, etc.) are all very similar in the way they provide flesh-and-blood examples of narratives that subvert dominant cultural metanarratives. One of the effects of that subversion can be to force people with normative values to examine those values, and that does not always end well.

  5. Whoa whoa whoa, you can’t just throw something like “polyamory is an ortientation” as a minor point in a comment thread. I demand a full post on the topic!

  6. Wes – But…some of my best writing is in the form of minor points in comment threads. Sigh. If I must, I must. I mean, you’ve thrown down the gauntlet. My masculinity is at stake now.

  7. @poly as an orientation

    Yeah, I have talked about that in the past here (I think…). I’m not sure how the concepts are parsed in your heads (all of you, that is), but in my head polyamory certainly feels natural to me. In becoming poly, I felt like I was being myself. Does that make it an orientation? I don’t know. Definitely something to blog about.

    Not for me right now, however, as I am on my way out. Perhaps tomorrow. Have at it, though!

  8. As far as poly as orientation, the best writing I’ve seen so far is this analysis by Ann Tweedy:

    Highly recommend it.

    As far as coming out poly, I think you may be missing an important part of some people’s reactions. As one person of an older generation told me – for people who grew up in a world where only one type of relationship was believed to be possible, right and wrong don’t come into the reaction. It’s like telling them that you can but the batteries in backwards and still turn on the flashlight – they know it isn’t possible. Of course, what they know is wrong, but that’s the kind of thing that only experience can teach them. The woman I spoke with told me it was like watching me jump off a cliff and tell her ‘it’s okay, gravity got turned off.’ That I was doing something she KNEW was impossible, and was going to get me hurt. And that scared her. And some people get angry when they get scared.

    And can I say as a Jewish theist, some days I get REALLY tired of hearing all theists get conflated with Christian theists? I have no interest in saving anyone, and none of the Jewish theists I know give a damn if you are telling us we are wrong or not – after dealing with Christians idea of ‘recruiting’ and telling us we’re wrong for a thousand years, for the most part, we just don’t care. And let’s face it, if the Orthodox want nothing to do with anyone who isn’t orthodox, got nothing to do w/ you being atheist.

  9. God is Trinity. Male – Female – Male.
    God is Trinity & Polyamorous 🙂

    That is when your Christian “friends” get really angry.”

    Adam & Eve were naked in the garden and so was God (as trinity), and they were delighting in each other: Proverbs 8: Wisdom (Female – Holy Spirit)

    “The Lord brought me forth as the first of his works,
    before his deeds of old;
    I was formed long ages ago,
    at the very beginning, when the world came to be.
    24 When there were no watery depths, I was given birth,
    when there were no springs overflowing with water;
    25 before the mountains were settled in place,
    before the hills, I was given birth,
    26 before he made the world or its fields
    or any of the dust of the earth.
    27 I was there when he set the heavens in place,
    when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep,
    28 when he established the clouds above
    and fixed securely the fountains of the deep,
    29 when he gave the sea its boundary
    so the waters would not overstep his command,
    and when he marked out the foundations of the earth.
    30 Then I was constantly[e] at his side.
    I was filled with delight day after day,
    rejoicing always in his presence,
    31 rejoicing in his whole world
    and delighting in mankind.

    Let us make man in OUR image…

  10. Being monogamy entire life with one person is not that much hard, if you make your relationship perfect. Otherwise you have to be poly. Yes, there are two shades of every human being are positive and negative, if you really understand each other then you will be happy by being monogamous.

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