The Bachelorette and Polyamory? (via Respectful Atheist)

As I have said, I read a bunch of blogs.  Many of them are related to polyamory, but most are atheist-oriented.  And while some have some overlap, most are largely unaware or at least unconcerned with the other issue most of the time.

Somewhat recently, I started following the blog called “Respectful Atheist,” which I discovered via another blogger.  And it seems that the Respectful Atheist may follow this blog as well, because he at least links to us.

So, today a post went up about the Bachelorette.  I have never seen the show (as I have no interest in the majority of “reality” TV shows), but often such shows give us things to talk about, as it did in this case.

Now, I know that today’s post is not about polyamory, at least that was not the primary focus, but I think that it demonstrates how much our species has attributes which are conducive to polyamory and how enlightening a non-monogamous view of relationships can often be in exposing our assumptions.

In the post, Respectful Atheist (RA) says:

The other thing I find interesting is the way in which The Bachelor/Bachelorette, in this case Emily Maynard, goes about making their decision as to who they will pick in the end.  In nearly every season, the given star of the show comments on how they are falling (or have fallen) in love with more than one person at the same time.  This always seems to come as a total shock to their system, the implication being that there must be something terribly unnatural about having feelings of love for several people simultaneously. [emphasis in original]

Isn’t that fascinating? People who actually are falling in love with more than one person, rather than just deal with that as a reality and thinking rationally about the consequences of that reality (I know, perish the thought!), tend to conclude something is wrong, rather than consider that the premise of their quest for “the one” is fundamentally flawed.

I have said on this blog before that part of the problem with our culture is that monogamy is assumed, rather than chosen.  This circumstance from this TV show is one type of example of what I mean.  RA continues, describing their interpretation of the Bachelorette’s circumstance;

In Emily’s case, the cognitive dissonance that results leads her straight into a period of deep confusion, during which time she considers the idea these conflicted feelings may themselves serve as proof that both of her top two guys are in fact wrong for her.  In other words, as the thinking goes, if one candidate is not very clearly better, than each of the others, something just must not be right (because it’s not supposed to feel this way).  Sadly, there are others, close to Emily, who encourage this type of thinking, which only ads to her confusion for a time.  She *should* feel much more strongly for the guy she is *supposed* to choose, because that is the one guy she is *meant* to be with…right?

Ah, social sanctioning of ignoring the truth (how she actually feels) for a cultural ideal which does not fit with the actual facts.  Isn’t our culture grand?

Bizarre scenarios and love as a choice?

Respectful Atheist’s post is about the concept of a “soul mate” and continues a criticism of this idea in light of this reality show.  I have touched on this issue myself in the past, and largely agree with that part of RA’s post.  But later in the post, RA says this;

It IS possible to fall in love with more than one person, at the exact same time, and we should expect nothing less when we engineer such bizarre scenarios.  In our culture, it’s not considered normal to date 30 people at once (in fact, it’s generally frowned upon!), so it’s just that we don’t often see these dynamics in action….

Perhaps RA doesn’t often see such dynamics in action, but I do see similar things play out all the time (and not only in the poly world, but elsewhere; I notice it because I’m sensitive to it).  And I think it is more common than we, as a culture, are always aware of, perhaps because we are distracted by the ideal of monogamy? Who knows….

So, I’m assuming that the set-up of the show allows the bachelorette to interact, date, etc with 30 people, who over time get eliminated until eventually there is just one left? The deliberateness of it and the presence of producers and cameras certainly make it “bizarre,” but is the fundamental set-up really that strange? Perhaps it is more quantitatively exaggerated, but is it qualitatively bizarre?

Many people, even in the monogomously-inclined world, date multiple people simultaneously (not usually 30…), most with the goal of eventually choosing one.  That is the ideal of our culture; we have the freedom to interact with, date, etc a number of people to find “the one” who, while we are not meant (by god, gods, or any cosmic forces) to be with, we choose to be with.

RA’s criticism here falls on the idea of “the one” being fated, not with the concept of there being just one.

…The truth is there is no one person who is *meant* to be with you or I forever.  I know this all sounds terribly unromantic of me to say….

The criticism is of the concept of a “soul mate,” while not taking the next step and being overtly skeptical about the ideal of their being one person we choose.  But like I said, this was a post about the role of deities in finding our one person, not polyamory.

RA continues;

Please understand that I say it as a guy who is very happily married, and plans to remain so until the day that he dies.  But isn’t this more romantic anyway?  I’d much rather marry someone who promises to stick with me, through thick and thin, even when their feelings wax and wane. [emphasis original]

RA does not say so explicitly, and I would like to hear his thoughts on this later, but this sounds like “stick with me, through thick and thin” means that they will remain monogamous, committed, etc.  Well, I’m married as well and I am committed to both Ginny (my wife) and Gina (my beloved girlfriend).  I chose to be with both of them (and I may meet another person I wish to commit to as well, but perhaps not), and I love both of them and will remain with them through thick and thin.

The juxtaposition of this with RA’s comments about the bachelorette’s position of being in love with two people seems to indicate that I’m not particularly romantic.

What I mean is that RA’s commentary seems to assume that the monogamous circumstance RA has chosen is “more romantic,” and possibly more legitimate, than being in love with more than one person as Emily found herself in the show.  I don’t think that he would have meant to imply that my choice (if it is a choice…we’ll get to that…) is somehow not romantic or meaningful, but that seems to be the logical implication.  I think this may be a blind spot for monogamous people.  A privilege, if you would.

RA finishes that last paragraph with the following.

You can’t “fall out of love”, because love is not a feeling to begin with…it’s a choice.  I realize that choice is driven by feelings, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, but it’s still a choice at the end of the day.

This is probably a semantic disagreement, but I do disagree.  As I use the terms, one chooses (insofar as choice is meaningful in a deterministic universe) to commit to another person, but we don’t choose to love them.  I think this may be what RA means, so I will not quibble about this more than I already have.

But in the context of the criticism of the concept of a “soul mate” in the context of actually having feelings for more than one person, I find it very interesting that an intelligent, thoughtful, and aware person, as RA seems to be, misses the implication here.  It is possible that he is quite aware of it and is setting it aside because the post is about something else, but the language used seems to imply a view consistent with monogamy being somehow more romantic, meaningful, etc.

While the point about there not being a person “meant” for you is spot on, how does RA miss the fact that circumstances, such as the bachelorette’s having love-feelings for multiple people, are examples of how we truly can love more than one person and that perhaps this tells us something about the choices we should and could make?

Why monogamy (reprise)

Why should we choose one person? Why do so many people tend to (perhaps unconsciously) associate commitment with monogamy (or at least monoamory)? Why is one special person more “romantic” than two, three, or possibly more? The fact is that we don’t choose who we love, but we (as a culture) do choose to ignore or set aside some other loves in order to compromise to have another.  We choose to direct our feelings towards one person, even though we do, or potentially do, love other people.


I have no reason to doubt that RA is happy being married and (as is implied) monogamous.  And if they are in fact monogamous, I have no doubt that their relationship is potentially healthy, happy, and worth the effort for both of them.

That isn’t the point.

The point is why did they choose that path? Why do we, as a culture, choose to be monogamous so often?  If we recognize that we can love more than one person (whether or not the circumstances are bizarre or not), why would we not? Why would we artificially limit ourselves to one person?

It’s not necessarily more romantic, meaningful, or intimate to be monogamous.  These are myths about relationships in our culture, and our actual feelings and experience with actually loving and committing to multiple people (either serially or in parallel) attests to that.  And when we are faced with that reality, as the bachelorette apparently was, it is fascinating that many people assume something is wrong rather than step back and apply that experience to our assumptions like a good skeptic should.

So not only is there not one “soul mate” out there for you, there may not only be one person.  RA adds some thoughts that are encouraging to this polyamorous, atheist, skeptic;

We tend not to give ourselves enough credit; Maynard included.  She need not deny, or be in any way embarrassed, about the fact that she fell for more than one guy on the show.  Sometimes there is no *one* right way to go, even in cases where there is a choice that clearly needs to be made.  This is my larger point.  I think we all hope that she will make her choice (as spoilers would indicate that she does) and live happily ever after.  And those people who would have had Emily doubt herself, simply because her love has not been directed at one man exclusively, are clearly well meaning but misguided.  What Emily needs to do instead is make a rational choice….based on her feelings, yes, but also based on her head.

And while I think RA is talking about the fact that with the options given perhaps neither is right, I think that it can be read to mean that perhaps the choice could be both.  If we make a rational choice using both our hearts and our heads, we will find that we are capable of sharing ourselves and our beloveds, and recognizing that not all choices are exclusive, but some are inclusive.

And while the bachelorette will almost certainly choose to exclude one or more people in order to choose one, as RA may have also done, this is not the only option.  We can choose to love and commit to each person as we actually desire to and allow those we love to do the same.

That’s using our hearts and heads rationally.

Sexnegativity and the Law, continued

Editorial Note: This post was written by Wes Fenza, long before the falling out of our previous quint household and the subsequent illumination of his abusive behavior, sexual assault of several women, and removal from the Polyamory Leadership Network and banning from at least one conference. I have left Wes’ posts  here because I don’t believe it’s meaningful to simply remove them. You cannot remove the truth by hiding it; Wes and I used to collaborate, and his thoughts will remain here, with this notice attached.



Why violence, but not sex, is protected by the First Amendment.

The case eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1957, the justices upheld Roth’s conviction, in a landmark ruling that obscenity is not entitled to First Amendment protection. The court said that the law had always assumed sexual material is not covered by the Constitution’s free speech provision, so its ruling merely codified that assumption. The Roth decision place d obscenity in the tiny category of exceptions to First Amendment freedom, along with incitement and fighting words.

My take on obscenity and violence here.

MORE Anniversaries? Perish the Thought!

I have always been strange.  I have always been on the outside.

No worries.  This isn’t about to be a post about how the band Staind changed my life or anything.  The only way Staind changed my life was by making me more aware of the popularity of whiny crap on the radio.  Then a Nickelback song came on saying, “I like your pants around your feet” or something and I thought, sarcastically, “Awesome.”

I’m simply pointing out that I have been askew.  Those of you who have been reading for a while know why this is.  It was, of course, both nature and nurture.  This bag of chemicals was destined for oddness and oddness was certainly nurtured in my household growing up.

But my oddness was inoffensive back then.  It was the kind of oddness that led people to label me as “so unique” and when people saw me wearing a ring with a big eyeball in it or something they would say, “oh, that’s so you” and it was up to me to decide whether or not that was a compliment.  I had friends who ultimately seemed to like me because they were relatively straight laced and they could show me off to their straight laced friends.  I was a sign of progress for them.  “See?  I have an interesting weird friend from the big city!”  I was a novelty.

As such, I have felt lonely a lot in my life.  I have always had friends, but I didn’t really connect with many people.  There is a difference between someone simply understanding you with little self-explanation and having someone look at you as a part of some sort of anthropological study as you explain yourself.  I never really felt a sense of community anywhere.  This has been a general theme in my life.  Often, I find myself thinking I might have found a place for me amongst people I hope are kindreds, only to find that we really are not.  I am, apparently, just too strange.  I can fit in anywhere with a little effort, but I don’t easily fit in everywhere.  This allows me to be successful in ways that people generally respect as successful, but it has meant that deep down I haven’t been happy a lot.

I have mentioned this before, I think, but I always loved the concepts put across in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle”.  Other than being a book about the end of the world due to an impressive world-wide chemical reaction, he invents a new religion, Bokononism.  A lot of its major tenets have to do with people’s group identities.  A granfaloon is a connection based on nothing of great consequence (we all like the same sports team or we all went to the same university) and a karass is a connection based on the matching of souls…fate, if you will.

Of course, I don’t believe in souls or fate or any of that, but I do believe that some people simply understand each other and if you are lucky enough to find even one person like that in your life, I feel like you have really managed something.  I feel like this accomplishment, this lucky thing, is something to be appreciated and cherished because very little else matters ultimately.  What good is success of other kinds if you have no one to share it with and no one to understand why a particular success is so exciting or why a particular failure is so devastating?

I have been very lucky in my life when it comes to people.  This is a fact I have only really become aware of recently, as I have also been pretty unlucky when it comes to people.  For every one person I have met who has brought me great amounts of joy there are ten people who have done quite the opposite.  This isn’t unique to me.  I would venture to guess that this is the experience of most.  In highschool I had the great fortune of meeting Peter and now 18 years later I am astounded that I didn’t truly realize how important the day we met was.  If I were to describe being in a karass with anyone, Peter would certainly be a member.  Our lives have been so intertwined without a lot of effort that it is clear that our paths are inseparable.  There have been long gaps during which we didn’t particularly see each other, but we would always come back together as though no time had passed.  I didn’t realize until recently how very unique this is and how important it is.

Similarly, when I met Kelly at my second internship, I thought little of it, but ultimately I stumbled into finding another person to understand and be understood by.  I never felt like I had to explain myself and yet she knew me.  We engaged in all kinds of silliness together (which we would still do if she were remotely close by…stupid Atlantic Ocean) and we never felt it necessary to explain why whatever we were doing was awesome.  We just knew that it was.

When I got together with Wes I knew that I had found another person who intrinsically understood me.  I was an emotional wreck back then, but he saw through it to the person I was underneath all of that.  He understood why I felt the way I did and helped me to get out of it.  When I would explain myself, I knew that I was explaining it to articulate it to myself.  He already got it and was waiting for me to catch up.  I had never been so loved and so supported.  His blunt honesty, his insistence that we articulate issues (and that the conversation isn’t over until we have really done so), the way he never walks away are things that make a lot of people uncomfortable, but they were life saving for me.

I thought that I got so lucky with Wes that it was a ridiculous notion to think that there were more people to find who could make me feel so happy and well.  When we decided to open our relationship up after a philosophical discussion about the subject, I assumed that I would likely not date anyone seriously because I just didn’t have a lot of faith in people.  I still don’t and for pretty good reason.  Wes lucked out and met Jessie, a woman who, much to my surprise, was yet another person who seems to understand me very easily.  We were fast friends and I figured that I could only have so much luck in life.  I thought I might find someone entertaining here and there.  I did not think that I would fall in love.

And then I met Shaun.  We didn’t really talk the first few times we were in each other’s presence but when we finally got a chance to really have a conversation, the connection was pretty immediate.  When we started dating, I was head over heels for him in less than a month.  I felt ridiculous.  We both felt ridiculous.  There we were barely a few weeks into dating and we were wanting to say “I love you” but we felt like that was too fast.  We felt like teenagers or something and I was uneasy about it.  “I’m being foolish, right?” I would ask myself.  But ultimately I had to accept that it was so because it was simply so easy.  When I am in Shaun’s presence, just as when I am in Wes’ presence, I am me completely.  And neither wishes it to be any other way.

Today is Shaun and my one year anniversary.  For those of you keeping track, yes, I started dating Shaun a few weeks after Wes and I got married.  Polyamory is neat-o and that just makes July a month for wonderful celebration!  I am caught between two feelings.  On one hand I barely believe that it has been a year already, as I still feel great anticipation when I’m going to get to see him on any given day (of course, I still feel like that about Wes and it’s been 9 years, so I guess I just kinda, you know, like them and stuff).  On the other hand I think, “Has it only been a year?” and while we joke that this is because we’re sick of each other, it’s simply because it does feel like we have been together for a long time with the level of comfort between us and that when we explain ourselves to each other it feels like we are just confirming what we already know about each other.

I have been made aware very recently that I am, most certainly, an “Other”, but in a more seemingly offensive way than it used to be.  Even amongst “others”, I am a different “other”.  The way Wes, Jessie, Shaun, Ginny and I think about polyamory and practice it, our commitment to honesty, direct communication, and learning to navigate through other things that are difficult seemingly alienate us from communities.  In a recent discussion Wes, Shaun, and I were spoken about as though we were some strange culture in a remote jungle and I wanted to try an deny that we are so bizarre, that I have never felt so “otherly” in all my life.  Wes and Shaun both assured me that, “We are the others, Gina” and I realize that I have to accept this, but I am not alone.  Far from it.  And so, I have never felt more grateful for my strange little family than I do right now.  Sure, we are few, but what we lack in numbers we make up for in passion, love, and general awesomeness.

Happy anniversary, Shaun.  I hope for many more.  I thank you for a year filled with hilarity and adoration.  I thank you for your patience in explaining philosophical things to me when I have to admit that I haven’t read anything.  I thank you for reading Nietzsche to me while I baked Ginny a birthday cake, if only for the absurdity of the scene.  I thank you for the inspiration to be more domestic and attempt to not live in squalor (doing dishes sucks).  I thank you for arguing with me about subatomic particles and then admitting you were wrong about hydrogen.  I thank you for watching Zardoz with me and introducing me to “The Wall” and Upright Citizens Brigade and Archer.  Thanks for letting write on this blog thing.

And may the things that make us so odd become more part of the norm in our lifetime.  It’s a long shot, but a girl can dream, can’t she?

Polyamory is Better Than Monogamy (if you’re into that sort of thing)


Editorial Note: This post was written by Wes Fenza, long before the falling out of our previous quint household and the subsequent illumination of his abusive behavior, sexual assault of several women, and removal from the Polyamory Leadership Network and banning from at least one conference. I have left Wes’ posts  here because I don’t believe it’s meaningful to simply remove them. You cannot remove the truth by hiding it; Wes and I used to collaborate, and his thoughts will remain here, with this notice attached.




I think that polyamory is better than monogamy.* This assertion is qualified only by the fact that by “better” I mean “more closely aligned with my value system.” However, I don’t think my value system, when it comes to relationships, is all that different from the norm. My line of thinking can be summed up in a syllogism:

Premise #1: All other things being equal, the greater the mutual love in a relationship, the better the relationship;
Premise #2: Polyamory is inherently more compatible with mutual love than monogamy
Conclusion: Polyamory is better than monogamy.

Premise #1 is relatively uncontroversial, so I won’t spend a lot of time on it, except to say that if you disagree, polyamory is probably not for you. I don’t intend this as a moral judgment. I think that transactional relationships can be very happy and fulfilling for some people. They are just not what I prefer.

Likewise, it seems clear to me that the conclusion necessarily follows from the two premises. This leads me to believe that most popular disagreement is with Premise #2.

Polyamory is Inherently More Loving than Monogamy

Like any good lawyer, I’ll start by defining my terms:

Polyamory: a style of relationship involving two or more people which has no rule or agreement (implicit or explicit) against pursuing other loving and/or sexual relationships.

Monogamy: a style of relationship involving only two people which has a rule or agreement against outside sexual and/or romantic relationships.*

Love: a very strong concern for another conscious creature’s well-being such that one’s own well-being is dependent upon the well-being of the other.

Respect: an attitude of deference, admiration, or esteem.

Polyamory, as defined above, is more compatible with love and respect for one’s partner than monogamy. To say it another way, the relationship that is maximally loving and respectful will necessarily be polyamorous.

I’ve dealt with this before somewhat. The only point of a rule or agreement against outside sexual relationships (i.e. a monogamous relationship) is that you anticipate having outside sexual interests. It’s a contingency plan. The only time such an agreement would have any effect whatsoever is a situation in which one or both parties has the opportunity and desire to pursue an outside sexual relationship. Therefore, when crafting such an agreement, both parties consider this at least likely enough to necessitate an agreement.

The effect of the monogamy agreement is to put the brakes on such a thing. It’s saying “if I want to fuck someone else, I won’t.” Making that sort of sacrifice for a partner (assuming that’s what your partner wants) is definitely consistent with loving and respecting your partner. The disrespect comes in the next step: saying “in return, if you want to fuck someone else, please don’t.”

Imagine saying that about any other topic. “Honey, let’s agree that even though both of us really like cheddar cheese, neither of us will eat it ever again.” “Honey, in the event you’d ever like to go snorkeling, please don’t.” Etc. It sounds ridiculous, because it is.

This is not to say that monogamy serves no purpose. Firstly, monogamy is the best way to ensure sexual safety and lack of unwanted pregnancy. However, monogamy done for that reason would still allow a lot of safe sexual play, so couples that have rules against all sexual contact (i.e. the majority of monogamous couples) can’t be doing it for this reason.

Other justifications are emotional. Monogamy arguably** enhances the stability of relationships by preventing parties from exploring other options. However, demanding monogamy from you partner for this reason is basically saying “if you meet someone who makes you happier than me, stay with me anyway.” It’s a selfish justification, and in opposition to love and respect as defined above.

Another popular justification for monogamy is jealousy.*** One party feels that if hir partner hooked up outside of the relationship, it would be upsetting. But that begs the question: why would it be upsetting? Sex is fun! A loving partner should be happy that hir partner is having fun. Instead, jealousy encourages a person to feel bad when good things happen to other people. To be jealous of someone is to wish ill fortune on that person. Jealousy is, in effect, the opposite of love. If love is a symbiotic relationship, where one party’s happiness creates happiness for everyone, jealousy is a parasitic relationship, where one party’s happiness drains happiness from all other parties. In that sense, the more love in a relationship, the less jealousy. Therefore, if you buy into Premise #1 above, the less jealousy in a relationship, the better the relationship.

This is not to say that polyamorous people are any less jealous, more loving, or otherwise better than monogamous people. As in any group, there is great diversity within the polyamorous community, and not all people becomes polyamorous because they love their partners. Many people become polyamorous for reasons just as selfish (or more selfish) as the reasons that people choose monogamy. Many polyamorous relationships are unmitigated disasters.

However, the most loving and least jealous (i.e. “best”) relationships will necessarily be polyamorous. Loving partners want each other to have the things that make the other happy. A loving partner will encourage hir partner to pursue a relationship if ze wants one. People who love one another want each other to have the things that they want.

What do you think? Agree/disagree? Let’s hear it in the comments!

*yes, I know that technically, “monogamy” refers to marriage. I’m using it in the way that most people do.

** this is not necessarily true. Nonmonogamy may do more to enhance stability by allowing parties more freedom within the relationship, and taking away a main reason for leaving a relationship.

*** the discussion of jealousy applies equally to possessiveness. Wanting to own a person is incompatible with loving and respecting that person.

Thinking about “the OTHER side” with friends

OK, so I don’t know why I have not been reading Dan Fincke’s blog, Camels with Hammers, for longer than that last month or so.  I don’t always agree with him, but he and I share a number of things, including graduate degrees in philosophy, a love of Nietzsche, and being atheist bloggers.  It’s too bad he’s not poly or I might have to have a man-crush or something.

This is what Patrick Stewart does after reading the beginning of this post

OK, not that last part.  I’m totes hetero.  Except for Patrick Stewart during the days of Star Trek: TNG.

Anyway, I’m getting off-topic (already), so I’ll just leave my Kinsey rating to the side for a moment and get to what I want to talk about today.

I had a long conversation with some friends last week about atheism, polyamory, privilege, etc that was rather frustrating all-around.  In an email exchange, a friend wrote to me, and this was my response.

I think I address some issues which are interesting to readers here, so enjoy.

[I’ve changed names of people involved for the sake of anonymity or someshit]

I find it interesting that you read that post and got this from it:

I’m not sure which viewpoint you meant to espouse here – doesn’t this stand for the proposition that any prominent view can be blindingly pervasive?

I find it interesting because this may be a related tangent to the post, but it is not what Dan Fincke was talking about (as I understand it).  For me, the core of the post was this section (Quoted only to highlight it, not to have you read it again, necessarily):

And this is not because they are either brainwashed or intemperate, but rather because they know what you think already and are sick of it. They too were systematically enculturated to internalize the same values, beliefs, practices, and assumptions that you were. What you are about to say to them was drilled into their heads, quite often to their own detriment, with both words and consequences. And sometimes those words and consequences were extremely harsh in order that the point you want to make to them might sink deep into their little, obtuse heads. Whatever you are going to say, they have heard it already from their parents, their lovers, their religious leaders, their friends, their coaches, their colleagues, their teachers, and/or their employers. The assumptions you want to make explicitly clear to them, in order that they finally “get it”, have already determined the course of their lives in ways you can hardly imagine.

They have met you before. They have thought your way before, they have felt your way before, and they have valued things your way before. They have lived in your world their whole lives. They walk around with you already in their head.

They have struggled through hard experiences, wrestled with challenging educators, and engaged in a whole lot of personal reflection in order to learn  how to think differently, in order that they might successfully think and feel at cross-currents with not only explicit sociopolitical pressures but implicit ones embedded in language, social norms, religious practices, and, even, what are taken to be moral assumptions.

People who come from your own culture and yet think so wildly differently from what you think you know to be common sense do not just wind up that way because they are stupid or emotional or have mysteriously not been presented with basic information or arguments yet. They have, in all likelihood, had some bad experiences and been exposed to challenging ideas that you have not seriously had to contend with yet. They have, in all likelihood, thought through the issues at hand in intricately complex ways that you have not even begun to take seriously.

Of course this does not mean that they have necessarily come to correct conclusions in all, or even in most, matters. Their radical reeducation may be mistaken. They may have drawn the wrong conclusions from their experiences in any number of areas or in any number of ways. They may have something to learn from a dialogue or a debate with you.

But neither you nor they will learn anything if you just dismiss them as someone who needs you to explain to them the obvious that they might overcome their apparent obtuseness. Nothing is going to be learned if you condescend to them by telling them they haven’t heard out the “other side” and that they are just some sort of extremist who does not get basic facts about the world. Nothing is going to be learned if you strawman what is strange and unfamiliar in what they are saying so that you never give it the slightest chance to prove itself to you and to expand your horizons. You are not going to grow if you look for their most obvious mistakes, interpret their views to have the worst possible implications, or try to attack their personal failings as a convenient excuse to shut them down without listening to them.

This is not talking about how persuasive or prominent an idea is, at least not directly. As I understand it, Fincke is talking about how worldviews skew how we approach topics.  It’s talking about how a person can get at a problem from a view that others, who have not dove into the intricacies, simply don’t see.  The simplistic view that those people, who have not dove in, is often paired with an untested certainty about their view.

I say “untested” because they have not dealt with the subject deeply and seriously, so they are incapable of understanding it in the way that the expert (or even non-expert activist) does.  It does not mean they are lacking in intelligence or anything like that, just that they currently lack the relevant experience to comprehend the various subtleties of the problems.

As an example, let me address your question about self-doubting ideologies, where you said

So it would cut against any ideology which isn’t self-doubting, including atheism?

I’m curious why you see atheism as not being self-doubting.  Granted, there are atheists who may not doubt (as there are theists who do not doubt), but this is either a false claim to cover up insecurity or a semantic problem. Atheism per se is nothing more than the lack of belief in any “gods” (whatever those are supposed to be).  Atheism is a tentative conclusion based upon rational thinking, logic, and empiricism; in short, it’s due to skepticism; the lack of supporting evidence leads to the lack of belief in supernatural entities.

Any intelligent and mature thinker knows that their opinions, conclusions, etc are always tentative.  The strength of their certainty is dependent upon the strength of the evidence in support for a position, ideally.  My certainty that there are no theistic gods is very high (for deistic gods, not as high), and if I am given sufficient reason or evidence to doubt this certainty, that lack of belief is subject to change.  If there is good reason to think there are any gods, I want to know and am willing to change my mind.

But my experience with theology, science, philosophy, etc have led my certainty to grow quite strong, and the area for possible evidence for such beings is vanishingly small.  That is, the gaps for “the god of the gaps” grows smaller the more we learn about the universe.  But in the end I will always concede that I might be wrong, that there may be a god, gods, or something supernatural.  I simply see no reason to suspect that I am wrong, currently.

So in other words atheism is always tentative and thus, in a sense, self-doubting.  An atheist should always doubt (everyone should).  If I were to be precise, I would point out that because atheism proposes nothing about the world at all (it is a negative position; a- + theism=atheism), it is not even categorically meaningful for it to not be subject to doubt because it proposes nothing to doubt or not.  Theism is the position, the claim, and atheism is the rejection of the claim and logically implies nothing else, directly.  The only way to meaningfully doubt atheism is to be exposed to evidence or good reason to believe in a god.  And an atheist should be open to the possibility of such (And there are atheists, like PZ Myers, who [seem to] disagree with that statement…for reasons too complicated to get into here).

The point of the post, as I understand it, is to show that ideas, whether popular, mainstream, etc (or not) are subject to a kind of bias, often called privilege, which creates a problem in communication.  The Christian talking to me, for example, talks as if I have never heard the story of Christ.  Or at least that if I know the words, I have failed to comprehend the meaning and significance of the story.  But not only do I know the story, but I know the history, theology, etc better than they do (quite likely; studies have shown that atheists know more about religion than practitioners of those religions do, in most cases).

I know it more because I have spent years studying the subject.  I have superior experience, so when I talk with people with other specialties (say, the law or robot-building), I run into ideas about the subject which fail to demonstrate sufficient understanding, let alone expertise.  And the arguments that I hear are attempts to show a narrative which I not only understand (and better than the arguer), but which I have transcended, rejected, and have replaced with a superior narrative.

Like I said before; I would not try and argue a legal position with you (or anyone else who has studied such things) without understanding that my views on the subject are sophomoric (at best), and I would lend more weight on what you would say, even though I am aware that you may not actually be correct.  But I hear people add their views about religion, atheism, philosophy, etc frequently who have little idea about what they’re talking about, because they are intelligent people and these are mere matters of critical thinking (or whatever their justification may be).

There seems to be a view in our culture that subjects such as religion and the complex issues surrounding “new atheism” are accessible to any educated person (and, I suppose it is if they do the work), and so many people feel (whether atheist or theist) like they can just confidently explain to me the popular narrative and I’ll simply get that I’m making it more complicated, extreme, etc than it has to be.  When [name redacted] referred to me as “one-dimensional,” I wanted to say I saw him as sophomoric and simplistic, but I realized that wouldn’t help conversation.  When I hear that, I feel like I’m talking to the freshman in philosophy class who thinks he knows everything because he read ahead and knows what the next reading offers as an answer.  But that freshman doesn’t have a grasp on the problem at hand, and just looks stupid from the point of view of the expert.

There exists a (privileged) narrative about religion, faith, atheism, science etc in our culture which is largely nonsensical and flatly wrong.  It sounds sensible at first hearing (that is, it’s compelling and persuasive and thus hard to respond to easily without explaining the underlying narrative), but it’s dubious and has been shown to be so by people such as myself for years.  And yet this narrative drives the mainstream cultural opinion where the mass media, most of the middle class, and even educated people swim and pass around the memes which we, the experts in the field, know to be absurd.  And so we get frustrated, labeled as angry, irrational, and “one-dimensional.”

The reason we seem one-dimensional is that whenever we talk to people like [name redacted], in the role he played during that conversation, we are viscerally reminded of the narrative we find so ridiculous, and have to confront it again.  It seems like was are reactionary and combative, but we are defending ourselves against the dominant narrative.  We are combating a privilege you have, can’t see, and everyone walks away frustrated.  We have to explain the basics of the problem, for the thousandth time, to someone who thinks their opinion is intelligent when it isn’t.

So yes, we come across as angry, repetitive, and one dimensional.  We have the choice of that, or shutting up.

This image sums that up for me, perfectly:

Secularism v. religious privilege

QualiaSoup is among my favorite YouTubers (others include Evid3nc3, The Thinking Atheist, Darkmatter2525, NonStampCollector, and of course the vlogbrothers).  His analyses of various issues are coupled with helpful visual components which make his arguments powerful and compelling.  Here’s the latest:

And while this video focuses on the United Kingdom, the principles are pretty universal, and thus apply to the United States as well.

I have worked with Separation of Church/State groups and have done activism on this front, along side my atheist activism, for a long time.  Because I live in a relatively liberal part of the country (and world), I tend to not feel the cultural necessity to keep the pressure on such issues as strongly, and local groups here are not as active as they are elsewhere (like they are in the Midwest, the South, and specifically Austin, TX).  But keeping secularism as a goal and ideal is important to me, and I think we need to remember that there is a fight right now against religious privilege, who are framing it as the right to their religious freedom.

It’s not religious freedom that is being fought for by conservatives and their religious allies; it’s religious privilege.  Secularism is the solution to religious privilege, and does not threaten religious freedom at all.

The Transactional Model of Relationships

Editorial Note: This post was written by Wes Fenza, long before the falling out of our previous quint household and the subsequent illumination of his abusive behavior, sexual assault of several women, and removal from the Polyamory Leadership Network and banning from at least one conference. I have left Wes’ posts  here because I don’t believe it’s meaningful to simply remove them. You cannot remove the truth by hiding it; Wes and I used to collaborate, and his thoughts will remain here, with this notice attached.



Polyamorous people tend to think about relationships a lot. I’m no exception. What I want to talk about today is the transactional model of relationships.

A transactional relationship is a relationship where both (or all) parties are in it for themselves, and where partners do things for each other with the expectation of reciprocation. Almost all relationships start here. People tend to date a person because of what they get out of it. Doing otherwise would actually be kind of weird. Genuine concern for a partner’s well-being (some might call it “love”) is something that generally grows as the relationship progresses. But some relationships never get past the transactional stage. I suspect that many, if not the majority, of relationships never do. I’ve fallen victim to this myself. There are times when I’ve bought something for Gina, or done the dishes, or done her some other sort of favor, and expected something in return. But there’s a deeper foundation that some relationships reach, where people do things for each other just to make the other person happy for altruistic* reasons. I truly believe that some relationships transcend selfishness, and reach a place where both partners are happy in large part because the other partner is happy.

Some poly relationships work on the transactional model. You see this is relationships which involve a lot of rules (or ridiculous relationship agreements). The idea is that “I let my partner see other people, and in return, I’m allowed to see other people as well.” Side note: this is why I dislike the term “negotiation” in a relationship context. It’s adopting the language of business transactions.

This doesn’t work with the kind of polyamory I practice. As I’ve said before, polyamory isn’t all about you. My preferred style of polyamory is something people do for their partners, not for themselves. It’s based on a mutual desire not to deny each other the things that we each want. The transactional model doesn’t work there. If you try to do poly for yourself, you start worrying about things like who has more partners, counting date nights, money spent on partners, and keeping a running tally of who is benefiting more from the arrangement. You start worrying if things are “fair.” You start getting resentful if you feel like your partner is getting more goodies than you.

Granted, it’s a spectrum, and not a binary. Some relationships are entirely transactional, and some are entirely altruistic, but most fall somewhere in between. I think that the best relationships, or at least the ones that appeal to me, are much closer to the altruistic side of the spectrum than the transactional one.

What do you think? Can a transactional relationship be fulfilling? Are all relationships really transactional, and we just fool ourselves into thinking otherwise? Discuss in the comments.

* I don’t actually believe in pure altruism, but that’s a discussion for another time. What I’m talking about if functional altruism

All Apologies

Considering recent discussions about apologies, I think it is fair to ask what apologies are all about.  The word itself comes from the Greek apologia, which means a justification, defense, or argument. Obviously, the term has transformed a fair bit, and an apology is now defined as “An acknowledgment expressing regret or asking pardon for a fault or offense.”

If you look at some ways to say “I’m sorry” in various languages it is clear that the concept of an apology is more basic than a mere regret or asking for pardon.  For example, the Spanish ‘lo siento,’ while translated as “I’m sorry,” means something more like ‘I feel it.’  Thus, I would argue that the basic idea of an apology is sympathy, and can specifically lead to an attempt at atonement due to that sympathy.

Ok, so is it possible to have sympathy for some offense given, especially if it was not intended, and not feel culpability? In other words, can we sympathize with some offense without having the responsibility to make amends, atone, etc?

Alex does not seem to think so:

Glickman also suggests that if we hurt someone, regardless of our intent, we should be willing to “apologize and make amends,” and I think this is good advice as well.

OK, so we should be willing to do so, perhaps, but I don’t think we have any moral or ethical responsibility to do so, necessarily.  Not all offenses require amends.  Sometimes offense is purely the responsibility of the offended.  To explain why I think so, let’s get back to Alex’s post, especially to something else that Alex quoted of Charlie Glickman:

  • Some event happens, whether by a person’s actions or chance.
  • We filter it through our experience and decide what we think it means.
  • We have an emotional response based on our interpretation of that meaning.
  • Our feelings shape how we respond to the event.

When I read this, my pet-peeve alert went off and I had to control my urge to throw my phone (on which I was reading the post) across the room.  Let’s track what’s wrong with this series above with my response to reading it as an example.

  1. I read Alex’s post, getting as far as this feeling like he was making some fair points.  Then I read the above sequence.  That’s the event.
  2. My ability to perceive and understand the information contained within said event led to parts of my mind, of which I am mostly unaware, to create an emotional response which flavored and colored any cognitive ideas and decisions I was capable of subsequently considering.
  3. I considered the rational and logical implications of the ideas, flavored unconsciously by my background emotions for which I have no conscious control but which I am responsible for reacting to.
  4. I decided I disagreed with Glickman’s sequence, making sure that my emotional considerations were not over-riding my rational capabilities (knowing that I may still be wrong).
  5. I felt frustration, disagreement, and began to compose rational reasons why I disagreed, fueled by the emotional frustration and disagreement.
  6. Here I am

The point of this is to illuminate that where the offense occurs here is at the pre-concious emotional level.  I am responsible for how I react to this, not the source of the offense.  Alex or Glickman should no more apologize for making me feel frustrated than should the phone on which I read the post.  The result is that I’m not mad at Alex (or Glickman), my phone was not thrown, and I made the rational decision to respond to the post with a rational critique rather than dell in the frustration..

We are responsible for how we respond to our emotions, including offense.  We are not consciously responsible for our emotions, since they pre-exist our conscious awareness, and offense is simply an emotion.  If we are offended, we need to consider why we are offended and what we should do about it.  Blaming the source, rather than take responsibility for our mind, is not always the best option.

There are many things to consider when it comes to offense.

Is the act or idea which we found offensive true or does it reveal a truth? Then why be offended by the truth?

Was it an act that harms me directly, physically? Was it done intentionally? Was it done via negligence?

There are many other questions which I will not try and enumerate here.

In the case of an unintentional harm, I wold hope that the person who acted and caused the offense should at least sympathize (I should not expect it, but I should hope for it), but I don’t think they have any responsibility for atonement or to make amends.  So for them to say they are sorry, we have to wonder what they mean.  If they simply mean that they sympathize with the offense (like the Spanish ‘lo siento’), then I’ll agree that it is a sign of a sensitive and caring person, but what of atonement?  Sympathy can help solidify social bonds, but this is not the same as an attempt to make amends.

Should the offender try and make amends? Sure, if they want to, but in many cases this would be silly.  If I were to make a statement such as “faith is irrational and harmful” (which I am wont to do) and another takes offense at this, I certainly sympathize with their feeling but I don’t think I owe any amends for this.  I have done nothing wrong in stating an opinion, one which I hold for what I see as good reasons.  Hell, even if I’m wrong I owe no amends, I just have to be shown that I’m wrong.

What could it mean to owe amends for an opinion which is seen as offensive? Does it mean I change my opinion? Does it mean that I don’t say my opinion? This is the basis for the charge that religious people crying ” that’s offensive” as being an attempt to shut up criticism.  There is nothing to atone for in an opinion spoken, even if it does lead to offense.  So if an apology means that we sympathize, then fine, but I think that’s a weak use of ‘apology’ and I think apologies (in the sense of making amends) should be reserved for when we do something wrong, not merely when offense occurs.

Offense is not the criteria for apologies; doing something wrong, harmful, etc is the criteria for an apology.  Offense can happen for bad reasons, good reasons, or no reason at all.  This is the case because offense happens before we are even conscious of the idea we find offensive, so it pre-exists reason.  it is arational.

In short, there is no right to not be offended, and if we are offended then we are responsible for dealing with it.  It is only when someone actually wrongs us, not merely offends us, that they have any moral culpability which might lead to an apology.


Harassment and Intent: Once More Unto the Breach

I wanted to piggyback a bit off of Shaun’s recent post about shame and shaming. In the comments section, Shaun wrote:

My point was that the emotional shame we feel is often caused by actions which do not seek to cause shaming. I didn’t see the OP making the distinction between the two, so wanted to make sure that this was not another call for people to stop criticizing other people because it might hurt their feelings.

The potential disparity between the intent of a statement or act and its effect on the statement/act’s recipient is, I think, a key factor in most breakdowns in communication. I also think that several of the conversations on this blog and others in the past couple of months have not fully acknowledged the elephant in the room. Charlie Glickman recently wrote his response to the skeptical con sexual “harassment” kerfuffle, and (as I pretty much think of all of Glickman’s writing) he’s spot on.

What this situation brings up for me is the fact that there’s a big difference between doing something to deliberately and maliciously harass someone and offering an unwanted invitation or attention.

Of course, one of the big problems here is that we can’t always know what someone’s intention is in a given social interaction. They might not even fully understand their intention themselves. In addition, when someone says he/she felt “harassed,” we have to take their word for it. I’m not sure we can devise a set of rules that would objectively determine what constitutes harassment in all circumstances, and possibly not even in most. And even if we had such a set of rules, and saw people acting according to them, that still wouldn’t solve the problems because, as we’re all fond of saying around here, context matters. A lot.

While these folks’ actions weren’t appropriate in this setting, I can think of quite a few situations in which it would have been perfectly acceptable to do what they did. Swingers conventions and kink conferences both come to mind. Non-conference events like sex parties or clubs are also places where one might offer a card like theirs and walk away. For that matter, so is Folsom St. Fair. And those are also places where it very well might be “appropriate to hand someone an invitation to group sex if you haven’t already had or discussed having sex.”

I do worry about the possible sex-negativity of Elysa Anders’ characterization of her encounter at Skepticamp Ohio. Anders clearly finds the sexual nature of the invitation upsetting, not necessarily its social nature. She has subsequently said that she became friends with the “sex card” couple of Facebook prior to the encounter, which does not mean she wanted any more than a casual social relationship with them but does mean that she was not opposed to interacting with them in non-sexual ways, despite their status as relative strangers. The fact that adding the possibility of sex into a social situation is always seen as problematic (or its not being problematic is the very rare exception to the rule) suggests a cultural discomfort with the notion of sex as a relatively harmless social activity. I find that assumption to be sex negative.

I want to be clear about what I’m saying here. It seems fairly clear that the couple’s behavior violated the conference’s harassment policy, and I think it was an inappropriate thing for them to do in that context. However, I also think it’s possible that they’re simply the kind of people who see no harm in propositioning relative strangers for sex (i.e. their intent was not to harass). I’m not saying that their intention trumps (or invalidates) Anders’ reaction, but I think it’s also problematic for the reverse to be true. A person’s perception of being harassed is, of course, real to that person, regardless of the “harassing” person’s intent. But I also think that Glickman is right to say that it’s important to work “with people to distinguish between ‘this person did this thing’ and ‘I feel this way about it.'” Sometimes the gap between what a person did and how we felt about it is minute; sometimes it’s wider. Assuming it’s always one or the other gets us into unnecessary trouble. And though we should probably err on the side of caution, that doesn’t mean we’re inerrant.

Finally, Glickman suggests a four-part sequence of events between what happens and how we react:

  • Some event happens, whether by a person’s actions or chance.
  • We filter it through our experience and decide what we think it means.
  • We have an emotional response based on our interpretation of that meaning.
  • Our feelings shape how we respond to the event.

When a social encounter results in one party feeling uncomfortable, harassed, etc., I think it’s important for both parties to consider this chain of events. What in each person’s experience made them believe the interaction had a certain emotional tenor? Is it possible that they’ve both “read” the situation incorrectly? Have they both read it correctly and one person really is being an asshole? Under what circumstances would the same behavior in a different context be (or not be) offensive/harassing? In all cases, I’d argue that assuming both parties are operating in good faith is a better default position than being preemptively distrustful/cynical/defensive.

Glickman also suggests that if we hurt someone, regardless of our intent, we should be willing to “apologize and make amends,” and I think this is good advice as well. One of the reasons I think this discussion has taken some ugly turns in the blogosphere is that several writers (mostly men) have essentially said that the “offending” parties in these examples ought not to apologize for their actions. I don’t really understand this position. If you’ve hurt someone, it doesn’t really matter if you meant to hurt them. They’ve been hurt. That hurt exists, even if you believe they’re being irrational. You can, of course, choose not to apologize. You can say, “it’s your fault for misinterpreting my intent; I didn’t do anything wrong, so I won’t apologize for your reaction,” but that’s childish and staggeringly arrogant (it implies that you couldn’t possibly be wrong, for starters). I don’t think childishness and arrogance are good methods of having productive social encounters/relationships.

Shaming and jealousy (via

Yesterday, Dan Jasper over at Polytical posted some thoughts about shaming and respectful dialogue. As anyone who knows me will guess, I think about the issue of respect and criticism a lot, so this was a subject which grabbed my interest.

I put up a comment (currently awaiting moderation) and wanted to put that comment up here:

Breast milk IS better. The patriarchy IS alive and well. The veto rule IS dangerous. Biblical inerrancy IS illogical. These ideas might be inferior to their counterparts, yet couldn’t that be demonstrated through respectful dialogue, as opposed to shaming?

Sometimes, yes.  But not always.

Christopher Hitchens, a personal favorite of mine actually, personally used shame as a tool against representatives of the Catholic Church (during debates with them, in some cases) in addition to rational points.  He did not respect the Church, and so why would he act as if he did?  In my opinion, Catholic doctrine and actions throughout the world are shameful, and in some cases the people in charge SHOULD be ashamed of what they have done, represent, etc.  We should not merely shame them, but sometimes emotion is the key to rational action.

Your seeming dichotomy between respectful dialogue and shaming is problematic, I think.  For me, respect is based upon honesty, truth, and a willingness to challenge and be challenged, not merely being nice.  Pure rational approaches (if this is what you mean by “respectful dialogue) are not always effective (or affective–HA!).  Unless we are to become straw-Vulcans, we have to recognize the relationship between emotions and intelligence, and that people don’t get to conclusions through purely respectful (especially if only rational) dialogue.  Sometimes the only way to get through to us is to show us how ridiculous our ideas are by playful mockery, pointing to moral failings in our ideals, etc.  In many other cases such tactics are not useful or helpful, but I don’t think shame is never appropriate.

Jealousy is a problem for many, not so much for others.  It is not a moral failing, but it is an unfortunate reality for many people.  I don’t think anyone should be shamed because they are jealous.  I think people should have compassion for the struggle with jealousy.  But if someone is not struggling–not trying to improve their relationship with–jealousy (or other emotional realities), then perhaps they are not working as hard as they could to make themselves emotionally healthy people.  Is that worthy of being ashamed? No, I don’t think so.

But the measure of a person is not so much what you are given, but what you do with it.  If a person who suffers from bouts of jealousy does not confront that problem as best they can, openly and with a desire to actually change it, then perhaps shaming is not appropriate but perhaps transparent disappointment and constructive criticism are appropriate.  And the unfortunate reality is that disappointment and criticism cause shame in people–because they actually are ashamed of being ridden with something.  That is, sometimes shame is the cause even when it is not the tactic used.  So, should we avoid any sort of interactions which might trigger shame, or should we only not intentionally shame?

And if someone is shamed by our attempts at respectful dialogue, should we be ashamed of doing so?  This is more complicated than respect/shaming dichotomies.  Just some thoughts I had after reading this yesterday.  While I agree with many of your points, I think that I disagree with what I perceive as some background assumptions which I see here.

I think that people feel shame quite often not because they were shamed, but because they are ashamed. Thus, it seems that this question of whether we should use shame, while interesting, is not the whole story. Criticism is not using shame, and the post at polytical seems to create ideas which could conflate criticism with shaming, which is problematic.

(sorry for my lack of activity recently. I’ve been feeling sort of depressed recently and am doing what I can to get out of it. Apparently reading helps…)