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Pandora’s Dictionary June 27, 2012

Posted by Alex Bove in Culture and Society, Polyamory.
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I began writing a response in the comments section of Wes’ recent post, and it fairly quickly spiraled out of control and into something that probably should be a post in its own right, so I’ve decided just to post it. But I have a couple of caveats:

1) I’m a bit concerned that we’re overloading the blog with one discussion. While I think it’s an important discussion to have, and one that is not being had much in the polyamory community, I know we also like to write (and you, dear reader, like to read) about other topics.

2) I don’t want to create (or perpetuate) the kind of rhetorical cycle of assertion, counter-assertion, attack, and defense that can sometimes sidetrack discussions, especially on the interwebs. On the other hand, Wes’ post (for me at least) further problematized this issue, and I’d like to explore how/why I think it did so.

3) I disagree with a lot of what Wes said, and I’d like to be clear on where, and more importantly why, I think his argument could be stronger. The problem with arguments about semantics is that they tend to devolve into arguments over definitions. This can be interesting as a purely rhetorical exercise, but I’m not sure it always leads to greater understanding. I have challenged some of Wes’ definitions, just as he challenged some of mine, Shaun’s, Loving More’s, etc. And if Wes wanted to respond to this post, he could certainly parse the definitions of my definitions. This can go on reductio ad absurdum. I really don’t want that to happen.

At the core of Wes’ criticism is his three part statement:

Polyamory is not sexual….polyamory is not an orientation….being poly is nothing like being GLB.

I think he is wrong on all three counts here.

1a) It’s a mistake to disqualify “sexual” because the definitions of polyamory do not mention sex. Isn’t sex implicit in the terms “romantic” and “intimate”? I’m not saying that all intimate/romantic relationships must be sexual, but sex is one of the things that tends to differentiate what we call romantic/intimate relationships from other relationships. If this weren’t the case, we wouldn’t need the word “polyamory” to describe a different class of relationships than, say, intimate but platonic friendships.

Under Wes’ definition of polyamory (“relationships, honesty, and intimacy”), all but the most closed relationships would essentially be polyamorous, thus rendering the word nearly meaningless. Or, to put it slightly differently, monogamous people also have multiple loves. They love their siblings, for example. or their children. We all acknowledge that “loving” is the proper word to use for these relationships. The type of love that is not permitted in monogamous relationships is “romantic” love, which is usually erotic/sexual in nature. If we’re going to have a separate category to describe polyamory, it has to describe something other than relationships that already exist.

1b) The other problem with focusing on the word “sexual” in “sexual orientation”–and now I’m taking the opposite position to the position I took in 1a (which is a problem with semantic arguments, as I said in my introduction)–is that many people object to the idea that one’s orientation/preference be described primarily in terms of sex. Wes said that sexual orientation “until recently was used almost exclusively to mean the sex and/or gender to whom a person is attracted.” The “until recently” part is important. One of the reasons the term “sexual orientation” has ceased being primarily a description of sexual (i.e. libidinal) desire is that focusing exclusively on the sex (i.e. what we do) neglects other important elements of the state of being the term “sexual orientation” sought to define (i.e. who we are). The APA’s definition clearly considers both “sense of identity” and “membership in a community of others” as important elements of sexual identity.

This cuts both ways. If we can’t qualify people for a certain sexual orientation for not having certain libidinal desires, we can’t disqualify people for having them. In other words, we can’t say polyamory is not an orientation because it’s not about the sex.

2) Wes’ analysis used one definition of “orientation” to the exclusion of others. As I pointed out, one definition of the word is “choice or adjustment of associations, connections, or dispositions.” That has nothing to do with “physical desire.” But I’d also argue that for some people, polyamory is a physical desire. How would we categorize someone who was only attracted to couples, or groups of people, for example? They wouldn’t fit our usual definitions of hetero, homo, or bisexual, and even pansexual wouldn’t exactly fit. We would have a different way to describe their sexual desire, and polyamorous might fit well there. I realize, of course, that this is an extreme example, and such attraction is probably exceedingly rare, but wouldn’t we have to say that such a person had a poly orientation?

Or what about someone who wants a d/s relationship? They may not have a gender preference for their partner, and they may not want a sexual relationship (or not a primarily sexual one anyway), but they absolutely need their partner to be dominant and they want to be submissive. I think it would be correct to call this an orientation, even a sexual orientation, even though one’s “object” of desire does not fit into our traditional models (hetero, homo, bi, pan, etc.). I realize that I may be stretching the definition of “orientation” nearly to its breaking point, as I did with “sexual” above, but that’s essentially my point. These definitions are slippery precisely because their constituent parts are not easy to define clearly, and because romance, intimacy, and sexuality are extremely complicated ideas that resist easy categorization.

3a) I don’t think it’s a good idea to say that “Being GLB is about the type of person to whom you are sexually attracted.” LGBT people have worked very hard over the few decades to dispel the perception that it’s all about “teh gay sex.” Surely for many people it’s partially (or even mostly) about the gay sex, but I think we all pretty universally agree now that when we say someone is heterosexual, homosexual, etc. we’re not just talking about the people with whom they have sex (or want to have sex). So while it may be true that polyamory is not the same as sexual orientation when we consider the number of partners polys seek, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that polyamory is similar in kind to what we’ve traditionally called sexual orientation when it comes to disposition toward those partners. Wes said that using the language of the LGBT community implied a false equivalence. I disagree. I don’t think poly and other orientations are exactly equivalent, but I think it’s fruitful to examine the ways in which they may be similar.

3b) If socio-political gain is polyamorists’ primary goal, I really don’t think aligning ourselves with the LBGT community could fairly be described as an attempt to “coopt the sympathy that the GLBT community has built up.” How much sympathy is that? Is it really politically useful? Discrimination against LGBT people is still rampant in the U.S. And to the extent that we practice non-normative lovestyles, I think that we ought to align ourselves with the LGBT movement, not because it’s politically expedient but because we have affinity with them. Polyamory queers relationships norms in much the same way that being gay, pansexual, transsexual, etc. queers gender/sex norms. I don’t think that’s a false equivalence at all.

I’m not sure anyone would say that polyamory is absolutely a sexual orientation in exactly the same way being LGBT is an orientation. Similarly, I don’t think it’s a good idea to dismiss poly as categorically not an orientation. I tend to describe poly as an orientation for me because I find that the concept of sexual orientation most closely describes the way I feel about my own sense of polyamory’s role in my life. I suppose we could try to invent a new word to describe how polyamory operates as a description of “who we are” rather than an explanation of “what we do,” but that would take more time, and chutzpah, than I have right now (or may ever have).

I also disagree that broadening our definition of the term “polyamory” weakens it. Having too narrow a definition can be just as problematic. For example, polyamorists often exclude swingers from the proverbial club (pun intended) because swingers don’t have multiple “loving” relationships. But that categorization privileges certain kinds of “love” relationships (actually, it privileges one kind whose definition is nebulous but which nonetheless one is supposed to know when one sees it) over others. Most swingers I’ve known develop intimate relationships with play partners that I would consider “loving,” even if the putative definition of “swinging” requires that the relationships be strictly sexual. The truth is that a lot of swingers (and some self-identified polys) exist in a liminal space between the strict definitions of “swinging” and “polyamory.” Perhaps the umbrella term “open relationships” is useful here, but that can open an entirely new Pandora’s box.

As with so many things, our lives and loves cause us to color outside the lines. I say we should embrace the ambiguity.

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Comments»

1. wfenza - June 27, 2012

I think our disagreement can be summed up in your closing statement: “I say we should embrace the ambiguity.” I say we shouldn’t. Ambiguity is the enemy of clear communication.

Quick hits:

– the asexual community (and I as well) will surely take issue with your unsourced assertion that sex is implicit in romantic and intimate relationships. Are you suggesting that asexuals cannot have romantic relationships? That they can’t be polyamorous?

– All but the most closed relationships would be polyamorous? Did you miss the part where I laid out precisely what relationships I consider poly, and what I don’t? And did you miss the word “romantic”? Basically, the idea is that most people have a class of relationships that they consider romantic, and a class that they consider platonic. If their romantic relationship(s) do not involve sex, I still have no problem with the classification. You seem to be saying that you do have a problem with that.

– Is your argument that a person can be homosexual without same-sex attraction? Is your argument that Josh Weed is not gay? One or both of those seems implicit in your argument that sexual orientation exists apart from sexual desire. Suffice it to say that I disagree.

– Polyamory is absolutely not a physical desire. Nonmonogamy can be a physical desire. But almost all definitions of polyamory contain the element that nonmonogamy be practiced ethically (i.e. with the knowledge and consent of all involved). Ethical behavior is not a physical desire. I don’t have a word for a person who is only attracted to couples or groups, but I don’t think polyamorous is the right one. That seems to be a completely different thing.

– certain kinks could rightly be called sexual orientations. If a person is exclusively attracted to women wearing leather, that sounds like a sexual orientation to me. Ditto for any other attraction.

– “I think we all pretty universally agree now that when we say someone is heterosexual, homosexual, etc. we’re not just talking about the people with whom they have sex (or want to have sex).” Really? I think we pretty universally agree that a person with exclusively same-sex attractions is homosexual, and a person with exclusively opposite-sex attractions is heterosexual. Do you actually disagree with that? Do you think Ted Haggard is a heterosexual?

– are you arguing that drawing a distinction between swinging and polyamory is not useful? Because I find it quite useful when explaining my relationship style. The ability to say “it’s not swinging” (and have people know what that means) is very useful. Excluding swingers from the definition of poly only “privileges” certain relationships if you look at polyamory as a term of honor, not merely a description. Which I think may be the main problem here. To me, the word “polyamory” is useful so far (and only so far) as I can use it to communicate a concept. It is not a merit badge. It’s not a community. It’s not a bludgeon. It is a descriptive term. No more, no less.

2. Alex - June 27, 2012

I have nothing against categories/definitions that establish some parameters for inclusion in the category/definition and include/exclude certain things based on those parameters. These are called characteristic definitions (i.e. if “x” has “y” characteristic–or “y” and z,” or “a, b, g, and q,” etc.–it belongs in the category). And they can be very useful. For instance, it’s pretty useful to be able to talk about the difference between a plant that is poisonous and one that is benign.

But some characteristic definitions can get us into trouble. An example might be definitions of literary genres. We might say, for example, that a horror story must include supernatural elements, contain a cilmactic plot twist, concern issues of death/mortality, etc. If a story has one or more (or possibly all) of these elements, it qualifies as horror. Otherwise, it does not.

There are two problems here. One is that we may not be able to come to a consensus on which characteristics ought to define the genre. We may be able to resolve these disagreements, or they may prevent us from making a definitive claim about the genre in question. The second problem is that a lot of works may fit partially, but not fully, into one category or another, and if we think of genre boundaries as mutually-exclusive, we’re going to have a lot of works that defy categorization.

Luckily, characteristic definitions are not the only kind we have. We can also talk about genre in terms of operational/social definitions (i.e. whatever functions as horror is horror, whatever society uses as horror is horror, etc.). Thus, if an art work is considered horror (by an authority–a librarian posts it in the horror section, for example–or by fans of the work, who give it an award at their horror con, or who vote it “best horror book/movie/etc.” in a poll, etc.), an operational/social definition paradigm would allow, or possibly compel, us to classify it as horror.

Of course, operational/social definitions have their problems as well. The main problem is that we should probably question the authority of the person or group doing the defining/categorizing. Some people might prefer to assent to the definitions given by “experts” (i.e. the curatorial class, which may include those who make the art) while others may prefer to go with the proverbial wisdom of the crowd. If we disagree on whose definition has the force of “law,” we have a problem, at least in terms of what you seem to think of as “clear” communication.

In matters of human love and sexuality, I’m arguing that attempting to create distinct, authoritative categories (i.e. characteristic definitions) is a fool’s errand, not the least of which because there is often considerable disagreement between how one identifies oneself and how society identifies one. And unless we create very broad categories, we’re going to find that a lot of people (perhaps most people) don’t fit into our categories. That threatens to make the categories a lot less useful.

I think you’re advocating for a model of language that doesn’t exist, at least not in any real society I know. Words don’t have unequivocal, unchangeable meanings. And language doesn’t belong to any one group. It is plastic, and one of the joys of communicating with other human beings is that we often discover that they have different meanings for words than we do. We ask them to explain, and dialogue begins (or argument, but okay, at least we’re communicating).

I’m comfortable saying that “sexual orientation” is not a term that we should try to assign a clear, unambiguous meaning to. I suppose we could say that psychologists, or human sexuality experts, or the government, or whomever, can create, and attempt to enforce, such definitions. But they won’t hold. People will stretch the limits of the definition, people will (defiantly, I suppose) self-identify in ways inconsistent with the authoritative definition, etc. I don’t have a problem with this.

I also don’t have a problem with you defining “polyamory” or “sexual orientation” for yourself in a way that differs from the way I define it for myself. The point on which we seem to disagree most fully (if I understand your argument correctly, which I think I do) is that you suggest that words have absolute meanings, people have absolute orientations, etc. I think there’s a lot more fluidity involved, and if we’re going to use language to describe these things, the language needs to allow for fluidity. Otherwise, I don’t see that it serves much of a purpose (or, more likely, I don’t agree with the “purpose” it serves).

Just as a less abstract example, when you ask me if Ted Haggard is hetersexual or homosexual, I don’t think it’s an easy question to answer. He could be a heterosexual man who also occasionally likes to have sex with other men; he could be truly pansexual but closeting his gay side; he could be gay and completely closeted. And not only that, if he self-identifies as straight, I don’t think it’s very productive for us to tell him he’s not. We can certainly refuse to pat him on the back for his great accomplishments in heterosexuality, we can accuse him of hypocrisy when he decries homosexual acts, etc. We can even tell him he’s not straight. But I’m not sure what good that will do. I’m more interested in using examples like Haggard to explore the boundaries of sexual orientation and to consider that maybe part of the problem is that those boundaries are too rigid and that making them more rigid will not likely lead to better understanding of the complexity of human sexuality.

3. wfenza - June 27, 2012

I have a general rule – if you can’t define a word, DON’T USE IT! If you don’t know what you mean when you use a word, then you’re not communicating, you’re just spouting nonsense. However, people rarely do this. People generally DO know what they mean when they use words, which is to say that people have clear definitions, in their heads. The problem is that everyone’s definition is not the same. The more divergent my definition is from yours of any given word, the greater the chances of miscommunication when one of us uses it.

As for the “problems” with characteristic definitions:

One is that we may not be able to come to a consensus on which characteristics ought to define the genre

That’s certainly a problem, but I don’t think the answer is to ignore the problem. If we can’t agree on the definition of a word, then neither of us should use it when communicating with one another, since we’ll both mean different things. It makes communicating difficult, unless we develop an understanding of what each other mean when we use the term (even if we don’t use it that way ourselves). If we do that, there is no problem.

The second problem is that a lot of works may fit partially, but not fully, into one category or another, and if we think of genre boundaries as mutually-exclusive, we’re going to have a lot of works that defy categorization.

What is the problem? If X is defined as having a, b, and c
characteristics, and Z has only a and b, then Z is not X. Are you saying that this is inherently a useless conclusion? Why is including something in a category inherently more useful than excluding something? Also, this is a reason why umbrella terms are helpful. A movie may not be satire, but it may be a comedy (an umbrella term including satire, slapstick, and many other categories of humor). If it doesn’t fit into any of the subcategories, then it can be describes as a comedy, but not a satire, slapstick, etc. If we have a lot of movies of that type, we should probably make up a new subcategory that fits them (see, e.g. “mockumentary”).

If we define subcategories too broadly or fluidly, then they become completely useless as descriptors. If “horror” is broad enough to include any scary movie, than it just becomes synonymous with “scary movie,” and it loses its use as a separate term.

Operational/social definitions are not really definitions at all. They are merely classifications, which are the manifestation of some authority’s or group’s characteristic definitions. The authority/group has an idea of what the classification means to them, and they classify the subject accordingly.

Words don’t have unequivocal, unchangeable meanings.

Words certainly change over time, but most words have very clear meanings. That’s the only reason we’re able to communicate. We each know the meaning of the words that the other is using. The words where there is any disagreement are the exception, not the rule.

I’m comfortable saying that “sexual orientation” is not a term that we should try to assign a clear, unambiguous meaning to.

I’m not comfortable with that. As I said at the beginning, if you can’t define a word, you shouldn’t use it. Necessarily, every time you use the term “sexual orientation,” you know what you mean by the term. What you seem to be arguing for is the propriety of meaning something different every time you use it. I disapprove. Words can take on different meanings depending on context, but we should try to be consistent in our use in similar contexts. That is, if you want people to ever know what you mean. If you don’t, you may have a bright career in metaphysics ahead of you.

The point on which we seem to disagree most fully (if I understand your argument correctly, which I think I do) is that you suggest that words have absolute meanings, people have absolute orientations, etc.

People have absolute orientations? I don’t know what that means. Words have absolute meanings? Did you read the part of my post about how difficult the word “polyamory” is to define? Does that sound like I think it has an absolute meaning? Don’t get me wrong, I wish it had an absolute meaning, but it doesn’t. My argument is that it only has usefulness as a term if it means something. Any useful definition, to me, must include a triad, and exclude a cheating husband. The goal of such is that when I say “I am polyamorous,” that people have some idea about what I mean (and that their idea is accurate).

As for Ted Haggard, your issue seems to be that you can’t peer into his head and see how he really feels. Fine. But let’s assume for the purposes of discussion that Ted Haggard is exclusively attracted to men. If we assume that, are you comfortable labeling him homosexual? I am. If you are not, I suggest that your definition of homosexuality is rather silly and useless.

4. Alex - June 28, 2012

The more divergent my definition is from yours of any given word, the greater the chances of miscommunication when one of us uses it.

Yes, I agree with this. But your earlier “rule” (don’t use a word if you don’t understand its meaning) only works if words have fixed meanings. Many words do, of course. So if I ask you to hand me a screwdriver, you probably know what I mean. Of course, even in this case, context matters a lot. If we’re in a bar, I probably want you to hand me a drink. If we’re putting together furniture, I’m probably asking you for a tool. We might have a lapse in clear communication with words like that, but it’s unlikely we will.

The idea that words can or should have meanings we can all agree upon is fine for objective words. It gets much more complicated, however, when we’re talking about subjective words (words that describe emotions, ideas, etc.). If I say, “I love you” to someone, I certainly understand what the word “love” means, and (one would assume) so does the other person. But that doesn’t mean that we both mean the same thing. Love might look/feel very different to the other person than it does to me. Does that mean we haven’t clearly communicated? I think we have probably communicated similar concepts to each other. That’s probably good enough, but it’s not totally clear (or totally honest, if the goal is for both people to understand the concept identically).

My argument is that it only has usefulness as a term if it means something. Any useful definition, to me, must include a triad, and exclude a cheating husband. The goal of such is that when I say “I am polyamorous,” that people have some idea about what I mean (and that their idea is accurate).

I agree with most of this, but not the very last part. Yes, a word ceases to have any meaning if it includes all meanings. An example I encounter all the time is “vegetarian” or “vegan” (less often for “vegan,” since it is a bit more codified). Some people say they’re vegetarians even though they eat fish. I recently went to a restaurant that included dishes in the “vegetarian” section of its menu that contained chicken broth. If “vegetarian” includes meat and other animal products, there’s really no point in having a word for it. On this I’m fairly certain you and I agree.

However, the fact that we do have a word for “no dead animals in my food” didn’t stop Annalisa from asking what was in the dish she ordered. We’ve both had enough life experience to know that our culture does not have a universally agreed upon definition of the term “vegetarian.” In other words, context matters here. A lot.

There are several ways I can frame this misunderstanding, and here is where I think your position (and Shaun’s, as far as I’ve seen/read it) and mine diverge. I think you would say that the menu writer misunderstood the true definition of “vegetarian.” In other words, “vegetarian” has a specific meaning, and people who use the word differently are wrong and shouldn’t use the word until their definitions conform with the normative definition. I would say that the person’s definition of “vegetarian” differs from mine, and that’s why further communication is necessary. I would certainly still tell the person that I thought their definition was non-standard. I might even ask them why they think chickens are vegetables (though I doubt I’d be that snarky–glibness and snark rarely result in effective communication). And, most importantly, I would try my best to make clear my definition of the word and be sure they served me food that met that definition.

I suppose it would be easier for me if everyone’s understanding of “vegetarian” (or in my case, “vegan”) were exactly the same as mine, but it doesn’t bother me much that it’s not. I accept that words can mean different things to different people, and that insisting “that their idea is accurate” is essentially another way of saying “that they agree with me” (and it assumes that I’m correct, which may not always be true). I’m the only person who can know for sure what a word means to me. Trying to insist that other people use words in exactly the same way I do is only tenable if I use words whose definitions have the force of cultural consensus. For many words, that’s fine. But for others, consensus simply doesn’t exist, at least not completely. I don’t see those kinds of words as necessarily flawed.

Returning to the example of “polyamory,” when someone tells me they are polyamorous, my first question is always “what does that look like for you?” If that person then said that he was married but had anonymous sex while away at conferences, and that his wife didn’t know about these encounters, I would certainly challenge that person’s definition, try to explain my own, etc. In short, the asymmetry between our definitions would (for me) be a good opportunity to engage in a conversation about what “polyamory” means. I suppose my response could also be something like, “well then you’re not polyamorous,” or “you obviously don’t know what the word you’re using means, so you shouldn’t use it,” but I don’t think that would be likely to “correct” the problem of the person using a word in a radically different way from the way I use it. they could just as easily think I’m the one using it incorrectly, for example.

Some words have fixed definitions, but some words have definitions which are constantly under debate. I’m fine with trying to reach a point at which a word’s definition has almost unanimous cultural acceptance. In those cases, we should hold people accountable for learning the word’s meaning and using it consistently. And I’m fine with your advocating for your preferred meaning of words like “sexual orientation,” (not strictly a word but a conceptual phrase) “polyamory,” etc., words that do not yet have a settled universal meaning. What I’m not okay with is your telling me I’m using those words incorrectly, or that I misunderstand you, if my definition doesn’t match yours. I’m also not fine with you saying a word has a settled meaning when it clearly does not.

I suppose I’m responding in part to a rhetorical difference in our arguments (and if I’m wrong about this, it might be fruitful to explore the nature of our miscommunication). I prefer to build consensus by listening to people’s subjective definitions of words and trying to decide if we can find a “universal” definition that is broad enough to include everyone/everything with whom/which we share affinity but narrow enough to have an effective meaning. I think we can still communicate effectively–if sometimes less efficiently with a language whose word meanings are not always unequivocally settled.

You seem to prefer language, in general, to be more objective than I do. In order to accomplish this, you use a more traditional forensic debate method in which each side makes its case and one side wins (i.e. convinces the other side that its definition is the “proper” one). This, I suppose, could be described as a way to reach consensus, but it’s problematic for me–and, I think, no more effective than other forms of consensus-building–because a) it does not easily allow for compromise (it allows for it in theory, but in practice debates rarely end that way); b) it doesn’t really result in victory for the “winners” because they still have to spend time and effort defending their victory; and c) it leaves the debate “losers” in an untenable position. I suppose they can then try to create a new word and initiate a winner-take-all debate over its meaning, but that seems (to me) to complicate language at least as much as having slightly-ambiguous definitions does, inasmuch as it necessitates many words for what might be subtly distinct concepts that could easily be contained in a single, more nuanced word.

I’m not suggesting my preferred method of “debate” is necessarily the better one. For me, it’s not a question of better or worse. It is a question of effective communication/persuasion, though. Someone employing my method of meaning-construction is likely to be resistant to your approach, and vice versa. I think the tenor of our discussion shows this fairly obviously.

I’m a much bigger fan of “spectrum” words/concepts. So rather than saying, “this is what polyamory means, and those who do not practice it this way shouldn’t call themselves polyamorous” or, more benignly, “I want you to know what I mean when I say ‘polyamory’ because ‘polyamory’ has only one meaning, the one I use” I think it would be equally effective (perhaps more so) to say that one is a 5 on the polyamory spectrum (assuming, of course, that we could reach consensus on the parameters of that spectrum). This would tell me much more about a person than the simple descriptive phrase, “I’m polyamorous,” which still leads me to ask, “what does that mean for you?”

5. Annalisa - June 28, 2012

“The goal of such is that when I say “I am polyamorous,” that people have some idea about what I mean (and that their idea is accurate).”

I think the disagreement between Alex and Wes comes down to the pressure put on that little word “some.” How much of an idea is enough for general communication and how clearly should sharp lines be drawn around “what’s accurate”?

Some words indicate complicated, abstract, context-dependent concepts and these words, I would suggest, can only indicate common ground for further conversation. For example, define “sex.” Or “religion.” Go ahead and try. I’ll wait. And when you’re done, go give your definition to 10 random strangers and see if all 10 (or any of the 10) agree with you.

Will you and the 10 strangers have “some idea” what you mean when you say “I had sex last night?” or “I am not religious”? Of course, but I hope you’ll immediately agree that while there is enough common ground to begin a conversation, without further discussion, understanding will be superficial at best. I’m an English professor, so I’m entirely comfortable with the idea that any sentence,really any word, that a human utters has multiple meanings and that we should be prepared to go beyond the superficial meaning at any point.

Because, honestly, I would not want to live in a world where “polyamory” meant one and exactly one thing and nothing else. It would boring (or infuriating) and exclusionary. I’ve been told that my style of poly is not twue enough because I don’t sleep with my husband’s partners, or because I have a husband. I find the people who shut down variety and discussion in favor of exactitude and accuracy to be, generally, not at all compatible with my approach to the world.

I also have to admit I’m not really sure why admitting the possibility that polyamory is an orientation (I’ll give you ‘sexual’ although the APA has long defined ‘sexual orientation’ as about emotional and relational attachments, not just sexual) for some people weakens the definition of polyamory to the point where we cannot have a conversation about it.

6. Wes - June 29, 2012

@Alex – you’re misstating my rule. My rule is “if you can’t define a word, don’t use it.” This is different, although subtly so, from your characterization of “don’t use a word if you don’t understand its meaning.” In your phrasing, it does indeed sounds imply that words have fixed, objective meanings. However, that’s not my view. When I say “don’t use a word if you can’t define it” I mean don’t use words unless you can explain what they mean to you. Don’t say “I love my partner” if you can’t explain what “love” is. Don’t say “I believe in god” if you don’t have a clear idea of what “god” means in that sentence. Don’t say “I value truth” unless you have a clear definition for the terms “value” and “truth.” For purposes of the rule, none of those definitions have to be rigid or objective, they just have to exist in the mind of the speaker.

I think you would say that the menu writer misunderstood the true definition of “vegetarian.” In other words, “vegetarian” has a specific meaning, and people who use the word differently are wrong and shouldn’t use the word until their definitions conform with the normative definition. I would say that the person’s definition of “vegetarian” differs from mine, and that’s why further communication is necessary.

Are you kidding? You think that if a restaurant owner misleadingly labels hir dishes vegetarian when, among every even arguably normative definition, the dishes are not vegetarian, the owner isn’t using the term wrong? If I ask you to hand me a hammer, but really I want a screwdriver, do I just have a different and equally valid definition of “hammer”? Of course I don’t. I’m using the term wrong. If “hammer” means anything, it means a tool used for pounding things. If “hammer” doesn’t mean anything, then I shouldn’t be using it in conversation without first explaining what it means. Same with “vegetarian.” If it means anything, then at minimum, it must mean “no dead animals.” You seemingly agree with this, and then later disagree with it.

The problem with “I would say that the person’s definition of ‘vegetarian’ differs from mine, and that’s why further communication is necessary” is that you don’t spell out whose responsibility that “further communication” is. I place the responsibility on the person using the non-normative definition. You seem to think that it’s everyone’s responsibility (or nobody’s responsibility).

This is seemingly the heart of our disagreement. Where words have accepted cultural meanings, I think people ought to either (a) use them in the way that the culture accepts, or (b) communicate that they are using them in a non-normative way every time they use them with a new audience. Anyone not doing either of those things, in my estimation, is using the term incorrectly.

Our disagreement about the word “polyamory” and the phrase “sexual orientation” is seemingly just about whether there is a cultural consensus. I’m not saying (nor have I ever said) that these terms have clear cultural definitions. What I’m saying is that they have minimum parameters. I started out my post by saying that polyamory is difficult to define, and laying out what I think is always included, and then laying out what I think should be included, but isn’t necessarily included when other people use the word. As I keep saying, any useful definition of polyamory must include my situation (married with a serious live-in girlfriend), and must exclude a cheating spouse. The cultural consensus is clear on that. The lack of clarity is in the areas between those two situations.

Similarly, the cultural consensus behind the term “sexual orientation” is that, at minimum, it must include an element of sexual desire. It can include other things, but for it to mean anything, it must mean at least sexual attraction. The cultural consensus seems clear on this to me. So anyone using “sexual orientation” to mean something that does not necessarily include sexual attraction (like polyamory) is using the term wrong.

As our community grows and matures, I hope that we will settle on a more rigid definition, and perhaps come up with other terms for different arrangements (as people are already doing with things like polyfuckery, polyfidelity, swinging, open, monogamish etc.). Until then, however, I think we’re mostly all agreed that certain things ARE polyamory, and certain things are NOT polyamory.

@Annalisa – hopefully, I’ve explained above that, while it would be nice if “polyamory” had a clear definition, I think we all agree that it doesn’t. But I think it does have minimum parameters.

I’m puzzled by this statement:

Because, honestly, I would not want to live in a world where “polyamory” meant one and exactly one thing and nothing else. It would boring (or infuriating) and exclusionary.

This only makes sense if you attach some kind of moral or intrinsic value to the word “polyamory.” Why on Earth would having a clear definition for the term make life any more boring or exclusionary? The phrase “you’re not polyamorous” carries no moral judgment in itself. It’s just a statement of fact. People can use it as a perjorative, but the problem in that situation isn’t the idea that polyamory has a definition (if that were the case, which it’s not). The problem is that the person using it that way is an exclusionary asshole. Telling someone “you’re not polyamorous, you’re a swinger, and you’re just going to confuse people if you go around telling them you’re poly” is very different from saying “you’re not polyamorous, and therefore you’re not one of us.” The first is about communication, the second is about tribal affiliation.

What I suspect is that you have an emotional attachment to the label “polyamorous,” and this is why you favor an inclusive definition. I do not share that attachment. All labels, to me, are merely descriptions, and should be as well-defined as possible. I’m actually planning on writing a full post on this topic at some point. Fitting or not fitting into a label is merely descriptive, not proscriptive.

7. Alex - June 29, 2012

I place the responsibility on the person using the non-normative definition. You seem to think that it’s everyone’s responsibility (or nobody’s responsibility).

A communicative act has two components: the speaker/writer and the listener/reader. When a misunderstanding occurs, both parties are at fault. We might be able to assign more or less fault, depending on the context, of course, but it is rare that only one side is at fault (i.e. the speaker/writer created complete jibberish or the listener/reader simply did a poor job of comprehension).

In the example of the restauranteur believing “vegetarian” meant “chicken broth is okay,” we have two possibilities here. If, as you say, he/she served chicken broth in a dish knowing that most vegetarians would not consider it acceptable, then the fault is his/hers exclusively. That is a clear deception and a misuse of the word. If one knows the accepted definition but chooses to use it differently without saying “I’m using this word differently,” that person is not behaving ethically.

But let’s assume that the restauranteur simply thought “vegetarian” meant “not containing any actual large pieces of meat.” You may find this definition absurd (so do I), but I wish I had a nickel for every time a restaurant employee, when I’ve asked if a sauce contained meat, has said something like, “well, we cooked it with hamhocks/bacon/etc. but took them out, so it’s fine.” or “yes, but you can’t taste it.” In cases like these, I will certainly try to communicate to the employee, the manager, etc. that most vegetarians do not consider “x” an acceptable ingredient, but I don’t blame the person for using a word he/she sincerely misunderstood.

Experience has shown me that many people, especially outside of major cities or other vegan/vegetarian-aware zones, simply don’t understand what “vegetarian” means. Knowing that, the burden is at least partly on me to communicate my definition clearly. That’s frustrating in some ways, but the world is not going to change overnight, and I’d prefer to avoid bacon in my pizza sauce if possible.

This is seemingly the heart of our disagreement. Where words have accepted cultural meanings, I think people ought to either (a) use them in the way that the culture accepts, or (b) communicate that they are using them in a non-normative way every time they use them with a new audience. Anyone not doing either of those things, in my estimation, is using the term incorrectly.

I actually agree with both a) and b) with the caveat that it requires a good sense of audience on the part of everyone involved a communicative act. People who use words in non-normative ways may not always be aware that they’re doing so, or the word may have a “normative” meaning within their peer group that varies from its larger-contextual meaning. This why I find the use of the simple phrase “for me” to be incredibly useful. Saying something like “this is what sexual orientation means for me” allows for the possibility that the term doesn’t mean the same for you. I’m even okay with something like “for most people, sexual orientation means…”. Of course, this might invite debate about whether or not the person’s definition is normative, but at least then we’ll know what exactly what/why we’re debating.

The bottom line for me is that I assume that, despite people’s best efforts (assuming they are behaving ethically), it is impossible to communicate in a way that ensures that no word is misunderstood, no matter how culturally-hegemonic definitions might become. In situations where people misunderstand one another, I certainly suggest that we attempt to identify the source of the misunderstanding and correct it, but I think that process is the (not necessarily always equal) responsibility of all people involved.

8. wfenza - June 29, 2012

A communicative act has two components: the speaker/writer and the listener/reader. When a misunderstanding occurs, both parties are at fault.

See, you got me all riled with this one, but then sort of took it back later. Obviously, both parties aren’t always at fault.

In cases like these, I will certainly try to communicate to the employee, the manager, etc. that most vegetarians do not consider “x” an acceptable ingredient, but I don’t blame the person for using a word he/she sincerely misunderstood.

I’m sensing that, in general, you are uncomfortable apportioning blame to non-intentional behavior. This, to me, is an untenable position. The legal system, for all its faults, actually deals rather well, conceptually, with acts or omissions that are non-intentional, yet still blameworthy. We call them negligent. It’s the equivalent of saying “you should have known better.” It operates on the reasonable person standard. As in, a reasonable person would know that chicken is not vegetarian. Therefore, you, restaurant owner (because you owe a duty to your patrons to behave reasonably, which is a different concept), have a duty to your customers to not label chicken dishes vegetarian. You’ve breached that duty. Therefore, liability for any resulting damage is 100% on you.

I think we’re also glossing over that certain words are somewhat “owned” by subcultures. When it comes to the definition of the term “vegetarian,” I think the definition of self-described vegetarians counts much more than your average layperson. But under any culturally accepted definition, chicken ain’t vegetarian, and anyone who says it is vegetarian is using that term incorrectly. (Side note: this concept is the reason why I get annoyed at atheists saying “homosexuality is not a sin.”)

Experience has shown me that many people, especially outside of major cities or other vegan/vegetarian-aware zones, simply don’t understand what “vegetarian” means. Knowing that, the burden is at least partly on me to communicate my definition clearly.

That seems reasonable to do, but I wouldn’t say it’s your responsibility to do so. That comes too close to victim-blaming for my comfort. If you’ve been hurt by other people’s unreasonable behavior, it makes practical sense to guard against it, but I hesitate to say that it’s your responsibility to do so. I place the responsibility on the other party to understand the relevant definition of “vegetarian” (i.e. the definition that people ordering off of the vegetarian menu will be using) before using it.

Saying something like “this is what sexual orientation means for me” allows for the possibility that the term doesn’t mean the same for you. I’m even okay with something like “for most people, sexual orientation means…”. Of course, this might invite debate about whether or not the person’s definition is normative, but at least then we’ll know what exactly what/why we’re debating.

The problem is that you can’t do that for every word you use, and doing it at all makes communication more cumbersome. It’s necessary if you’re using a term that has no standard cultural definition. But, if the quote above, you didn’t define any of those terms. What do you mean by “possibility,” “okay,” “normative,” or “debate”? These words are all open to interpretation, but you didn’t explain what you mean by them. I assume it’s because doing so, although it would increase my understand of your point, is just too damn time-and-energy-consuming. At some point, we have to draw the line about how normative a definition needs to be before using it without an accompanying definition (and without asking for clarification upon hearing it). Those words all have standard definitions. If I don’t understand one, I can go look it up. So long as you are using the terms correctly (i.e. consistent with their standard definitions), we can communicate without the burden of defining all of our terms.

I find the phrase “for me” to be painful, in that it shuts down all debate about (a) what the definition of a term is, and (b) what the definition should be, which, clearly, I think is important. It carries the implication that word definitions don’t matter, and everyone should just run around using words to mean whatever they want. It’s the linguistic equivalent of “well, you can believe what you want to believe (about god) so long as you’re not hurting anyone.” It completely ignores the consequences of non-normative uses, and/or it implies that such consequences don’t matter. I think they do matter. As I said in my OP, words matter.

9. Alex - June 29, 2012

I find the phrase “for me” to be painful, in that it shuts down all debate about (a) what the definition of a term is, and (b) what the definition should be, which, clearly, I think is important. It carries the implication that word definitions don’t matter, and everyone should just run around using words to mean whatever they want.

Yes, too much linguistic relativism is absolutely a bad thing. I think we are probably comfortable with different levels of relativism, but our disagreement is one of degree, not kind, in this case.

As for the first part of your quote, it’s fascinating to me that what you view as shutting off debate about a) and b), I view as opening up that debate. But I think the debate is worth having, even if we arrive at it using different language.

10. wfenza - June 29, 2012

Well, I think it’s a different debate. My way seems to start debates of this variety, where we talk about what words mean, why, and semantic principles. “For me” seems to start a debate about each other’s ideas regarding the actual topic, and bypass the discussion about semantics. Sometimes, I’d rather do that, but often not.

11. Jessie - July 1, 2012

I also don’t have a problem with you defining “polyamory” or “sexual orientation” for yourself in a way that differs from the way I define it for myself.

I have a big problem accepting an excessively broad or ambiguous definition for polyamory, whether between two individuals or two segments of a group. Not only do I disagree because it allows cheaters and those only pursuing casual sex, but because it allows for those with a “Hall Pass” or swingers to label themselves in a way that is ambiguous and misleading. There are no clear boundaries to indicate when you are entering or leaving the poly community, but if people are ambiguous in their own definition of polyamory they are abusing my trust and endangering my safety within that community. For example, particularly in the case of orientation, just because I am open to group sex involving other women does not mean I am bisexual. My participation is entirely dependent upon a man I am attracted to participating, not only is it deceptive to say that I am bisexual because of this openness, labeling myself as such would be offensive to those of a bisexual orientation.

12. The God Particle was Framed « atheist, polyamorous, skeptics - July 6, 2012

[…] framing, god particle, higgs boson, media trackback Last week, mostly in the comments section of my post on the difficulties of defining words clearly and universally, to everyone’s satisfaction, […]

13. Alex - July 13, 2012

See, you got me all riled with this one, but then sort of took it back later. Obviously, both parties aren’t always at fault.

I really hate to potentially reopen this thread, but I should not have left this unchallenged. I’m not sure if you were using a hypothetical “you” and “me” or if you were referring to our actual discussion, but I think you were doing the latter, in which case I have to say two things:

1) I did not get you riled up. I am not responsible for your emotional reaction. You may have found yourself riled up, but it wasn’t my fault.

2) I don’t recall taking anything back, sort of or completely. As I always do, I tried to identify points on which we actually agree, defend the points on which I think we still disagree, and acknowledge places where I may not have communicated as clearly as I’d liked in my original post.

When other people misunderstand what I’ve written (not when they disagree, but when I think they actually misunderstand me), I take the time to consider that I might have expressed my idea less clearly than I could have. Then, if necessary, I clarify. Clarification is neither an admission of fault nor a rescinding of what one originally said. It’s an addition.

Some people consider this tendency of mine a rhetorical weakness. Why should I clarify my words? I could simply say that I wrote it correctly the first way and if people misunderstood me it’s because they didn’t read carefully enough, distorted my meaning, etc. My rhetoric is rooted in reader response theory. Communicative acts are not information exchanges (or at least most communicative acts are not): both the writer and the reader bring subjectivity to the process, so even when one person writes clearly (in his/her estimation) and another person reads generously and thoroughly, miscommunication can happen.

Assigning blame seems rather pointless to me, at least in these cases, because it doesn’t actually get us any closer to the goal of communication: understanding, which is a mutual process. Understanding happens when two people work together, not when one convinces the other he/she is absolutely correct.

My basic point here is that you characterized the interaction in a way that served your own point extremely well but did not reflect what actually happened, at least not in my estimation (I can’t speak for other readers, of course). Such rhetoric is a barrier to understanding, though it’s certainly useful if one wants to assign fault/blame.

14. wfenza - July 13, 2012

Original statement:

When a misunderstanding occurs, both parties are at fault.

Followup statement:

If, as you say, he/she served chicken broth in a dish knowing that most vegetarians would not consider it acceptable, then the fault is his/hers exclusively.

(Bold added). These statements are not compatible with each other. From this, I inferred that you weren’t really serious when you made the unqualified statement that both parties are at fault when a misunderstanding occurs. I chose that because it’s the more charitable interpretation. If I am misunderstanding, please correct my inference.

In terms of fault, generally, I don’t understand this impulse that people have to run around screaming “stop assigning blame!” as if you have to have some sort of moral high horse in order to assess what went wrong in a social situation. Whenever a situation turns out badly, it’s critically important to go back and develop and understanding of why it turned out that way, and how to prevent it in the future. The process of figuring out why it turned out badly is impossible without assigning blame. “Assigning blame” just means that you’re assessing which party (if not both parties) should have behaved differently. If neither party is willing to admit that they should have behaved differently, then the next time they face the situation, the same result will follow. It’s a total cop-out to say “well, nobody did anything wrong, but next time, I/you should do X.” If there’s a good reason to do it next time, then there’s a good reason why it should have been done this time. It’s not a moral judgment, just a pragmatic one.

Minor points:

My basic point here is that you characterized the interaction in a way that served your own point extremely well but did not reflect what actually happened, at least not in my estimation.

I’m confused about to what you’re referring. If you’re still talking about my inference that you “took back” your statement that miscommunication = fault by both parties, I’ve addressed that above.

I am not responsible for your emotional reaction.

Glad to hear it. Your discussion on apologies seemed to suggest otherwise.

15. Alex - July 13, 2012

I admit that the sentence you quoted above should have contained a qualifier. I think the next section clarifies my point, but I should have gone back and edited the original sentence.

When a misunderstanding occurs, both parties are at fault. We might be able to assign more or less fault, depending on the context, of course, but it is rare that only one side is at fault (i.e. the speaker/writer created complete jibberish or the listener/reader simply did a poor job of comprehension).

I think if you’d chosen the most charitable interpretation, you would have read the second sentence as a clarification/expansion of the original idea. But you’re certainly not obligated to be that charitable, and I let it hang. I can see why that sentence seems odd given everything else I said in the rest of the discussion.

Actually, now that I think about it, I probably should have qualified that whole paragraph with “when both parties are operating in good faith” since your example (the restauranteur deliberately misleading the customer) is a good example of one-sided fault but also has one person operating in bad faith and one in good faith. I tend to assume good faith on the part of everyone unless/until we have reason to assume otherwise. That qualifier appears in my post, but near the end:

I assume that, despite people’s best efforts (assuming they are behaving ethically), it is impossible to communicate in a way that ensures that no word is misunderstood

I probably should have lead with that, since I thought at the time (and still think) we were comparing apples and oranges there.

As for “blame” and “fault” not being moral judgments, I appreciate your clarifying that point. However, I think most readers will read the connotative as well as denotative meanings of those words when you write them, and both words tend to connote moral judgment. Even the denotative meanings are fairly moral-judgment-heavy. The denotative meaning (here we are, playing the dictionary game again) of “blame” is “to hold responsible; find fault with; censure.” Only the first part of that definition could be said to be impartial. As for “fault,” two definitions seem to suggest moral judgment: “responsibility for failure or a wrongful act” and “a misdeed or transgression.” Only “an error or mistake” is relatively impartial.

But even if we try to strip moral judgment out of these words, we’re still stuck with the problem of the potential (I’d argue likely, but I’ll try to be generous here) partiality of the person who determines fault/blame. In most cases of interpersonal communication, one can’t assign fault without privileging one value system over another. Assigning fault/blame works in the legal system because we all defer to the same authority (the state’s code of laws). But in communications between individuals, we don’t always share the same base assumptions. We don’t always operate under the same ruleset.

From what you’ve said in several discussions on this blog, I infer that you want there to be such a ruleset (or possibly that you believe one already exists–but either way, you seem to be advocating for one) and that we can reach an impartial determination of fault/blame (perhaps by consensus, but I’m only guessing there). If all those conditions were met, I suppose it could allow us to assign blame/fault without moral judgment. I just don’t that’s the way our world exists right now. So, as I said above:

People who use words in non-normative ways may not always be aware that they’re doing so, or the word may have a “normative” meaning within their peer group that varies from its larger-contextual meaning.

Which is the second full paragraph of your last comment was a necessary, and useful (my judgment, of course), clarification.

16. wfenza - July 15, 2012

Saying “when X happens, then Y,” and then later saying “if a specific type of X happens, then not Y” is a contradiction, not an expansion of explanation. I (correctly, it seems) assumed you didn’t really mean “when a misunderstanding occurs, both parties are at fault.” This was not only the most charitable interpretation, but also the most accurate one. I don’t understand why you’re arguing this.

In terms of good faith, I don’t think you really mean that. It’s a completely unworkable way of looking at the world. Both parties can’t always be at fault, even if both are acting in good faith. Another example:

We’re supposed to meet for dinner. You say “let’s meet at 6pm.” You say it in good faith, and I am listening in good faith, but I don’t hear what time you’ve said. I just say smile & nod because I’d rather talk about something else, and I figure we’ll talk about it again later. Now, there has been a miscommunication here, and the fault clearly lies with me, despite the good faith on both of our parts. You might say I was operating in bad faith by pretending I heard you, but in that case you’re defining “bad faith” to include much more behavior than I usually consider bad faith.

Even more relevant: imagine the same scenario, except I choose to use the number “six” to mean “eight.” It doesn’t matter why. So when you say “six,” I hear “eight.” Are you saying that it’s partly your fault that I’ve misunderstood you?

As for blame and fault not being moral judgments, I’m not trying to say that they’re never moral judgments. I’m saying that they’re not inherently moral judgments. Whether a person is at fault for a negative outcome is completely independent of any moral judgment. Moral judgment may be added to that situation, depending on the morals of the people involved, but it’s not necessary.

Also, I think you’re misunderstanding how negligence law work. There is no “code of laws” showing who is at fault in every conceivable situation. The factfinder is basically told to decide if the defendant behaved reasonably, based not only on what ze knew, but what a reasonable person would/should have known.

Clearly, we don’t all operate under the same ruleset. What I’m saying is that my ruleset is right, and your is wrong. You should use my ruleset, because it’s better.


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