I was directed to an interesting conversation on Facebook today. It is in twoparts.
If you just refuse to read it, essentially it is a conversation between two people (“Jaime” and “Kelly”) about monogamy and “permanent promiscuity,” but the term polyamory is used in the conversation as well.
There are many points I find incomplete, flawed, etc on both sides (although I agree with the polyamory-advocate “Jaime” much more, obviously), but I will not bother with in-depth analysis.
What I do want to comment on is that “Kelly” comes across as saying that promiscuity, or polyamory, is too hard for most people and so to ask it of people is asking too much. This comes across to me as apologizing for human weakness.
It sounds to me like a person saying “being a good person is too hard, and you can’t expect people to do it.” Or, perhaps more to the point; “doing the work involved to become more emotionally mature, honest, and less fearful about my insecurities is too hard.”
I don’t have much sympathy for this. It is merely excusing laziness, fear, and mediocrity at best.
As I like to say, if you are happy, then great. But if it might be possible to be happier with some effort, what is stopping you besides fear and insecurity?
In talking with religious people, one thing I hear from many of them (conservative or liberal, devout or not) is that their beliefs are personal. These are things they believe truly, inside, and I have to respect that (that last bit is usually implied, rather than stated directly).
Well, OK. So are my beliefs. They are personal and I really believe them. What does that have to do with respect?
Well, says the defender of such a person, it means that these beliefs are important to them and so we need to treat those people with respect. And then we get into the whole argument about respect, distinguishing between having respect for the person and their beliefs, etc. It is, says such a defender, not our place to tell them that their beliefs are wrong.
In such conversations there is a fair amount of talking past one-another, as well as a pinch of differing values and goals. There is also a fair amount of those defenders missing the detrimental affects of such beliefs on people and society subsequently. (BTW, I love this post about epistemological and moral values of new atheists)
I don’t want to discuss that issue specifically, but I want to raise another question instead. When a Christian (or Moslem, Pagan, etc) receives questions or challenges about their beliefs, they often become defensive, offended, and become appalled at our lack of respect. So, why don’t atheists react that way to their views being challenged? Why do we, for the most part, welcome the discussion? And, perhaps most interestingly, why are we gnu atheists (in my experience) rarely challenged in a way that we have not heard before? And why, further, do believers react as if they have never heard something like that before?
Could it be that the believers really have not thought those things atheists challenge them with before that moment? Could it also be that atheists, specifically the gnu variety, have heard all (or at least most) of the challenges that a believer might bring up? What does this say about the relative awareness and education about the philosophy of religion between atheists and believers? Well, at least one study has given a partial answer to this.
But more importantly, is it the case that the gnu atheists simply care more about challenging their own worldview? (perhaps not exclusively; I am sure there are quite a few non-gnus who share this quality as well).
All these questions paint the issue with a broad brush, certainly. But I think a few observations are fair to point out:
Gnu atheists are more prone to critical examination of religious belief. This is because they often started as religious and through education and thought found a way out eventually, a process which provides perspective, depth and breadth of thought on the topic, and a higher level of justified certainty than most believers have. Others, like myself, never believed but grew up in a such a way as to be sensitive to the emotional, psychological, and intellectual affects of such beliefs. We see how people are stunted by such a worldview and know humanity is capable of more (although perhaps only some). Yes, there are some believers who have studied their beliefs, but it is much more rare that they have honestly studied the arguments of atheists or skeptics. They have not taken the outsider test for faith, looking at their beliefs from the outside. And even when they do try and see their beliefs from the outside point of view, it is often clear that they are missing the essential point of the criticism. On the other hand, when you hear theists declare victory over atheists, more often than not they are pulling out the same old canards again and again. This frustrates us quite often and possibly offends us (but only our hope for human rationality, not our sense of having been respected).
How often do we hear that we can’t disprove god? How often do we hear about Pol Pol, Hitler, and Stalin? How often do we hear about TAG or Kalam? (let alone the Ontological argument, argument from design, etc?). And if I hear Pascal’s wager again, I swear I’ll scream! (“look at the trees!” *headdesk*)
Similarly, how often to believers hear the various replies to these arguments? And if they do hear them, how often are they really interested in hearing? How many times have I seen eyes glazed over by anything I say in response to some lame attempt at apologetics? Too many!
I have said a number of times that if there is a god I want to know. I think the question is important, and I want to know the truth about such things. Despite this desire, I have found no reason to believe in such a proposed being, so I must conclude that one does not exist. What other intellectually respectable choice do I have? I cannot prove that there is no god (except for very specific and well-defined gods which are logically impossible), but I see no reason to believe in one and so I do not. This provisional conclusion is open for criticism and challenge, and I am baffled why most believers do not have this attitude towards their beliefs. This personal thing that I conclude, these potential gods that I lack belief in, is as personal a thing as it gets. So why am I not offended at being challenged? And if I were offended, would the accommodationist assist me in defending my rights to believe what I want with the same vigor that they defend the believer now? Would they demand respect of my beliefs with the same moral outrage? The irony, as I hope they might see, is that I would hope that they would not try to defend my respectability in this sense. I don’t want the ‘respect’ they are offering. Because acting as a shield to criticism is not respectful of people, it is only respectful of an opinion that may or may not be worthy of respect; we’ll only know upon analysis.
Analysis that the accommodationist tries to prevent in the name of respect.
The accommodationist’s flavor of respect is not actually respect, nor is it respectable. From my point of view, it is ultimate disrespect for any pursuit of truth, human progress, or growth.
I’ve been thinking recently about conversations. Polite conversations. You know the kind I mean; you are at a dinner party with people you do not know well, having lunch with some acquaintances, or maybe you just popped into the local tavern for an ale or two and struck up conversation with some other people doing the same. The circumstances are immense in number, but the basic situation is the same; you are talking with people casually, and polite conversation will evolve into touching on topics of all sorts.
There are a set of unspoken rules to such things, right? They are not written (nor will I attempt to write them now), but they are accepted and understood (to some extent). And while those involved in such discussions are usually aware of the mental composition of ideas in relation to other non-verbalized thoughts, most of what they are thinking is left unsaid. We can’t say everything we think.
There is that filter that I–as well as most people–have which allows me to say one thing and not several others that arose to consciousness but not quite to my tongue. And some of those alternative thoughts remain in consciousness, treading the waters of my mind while waiting to sink or swim as the polite conversation continues to evolve. The presence of these unsaid thoughts, in adjacent position to the conversation perceived in my mind as I listen and contribute, will sometimes form a theme of parallel thoughts that are left unsaid but play like a harmonizing phrase to the conversation shared by the society in which I find myself. That’s how it often is for me, anyway.
But what I long for, what I hope for even, is when those silent themes emerge among the greater score. When, while the orchestra of conversation begins to grow and increase in complexity, the whine of a violin makes it’s way into the background, playing with the theme in a way that is both beautiful and sublime. And, eventually, that violin silences the rest of the orchestra, and plays itself while every ear perks to hear it in its quiet grace. The music of conversation evolves such to set the stage for such moments.
And they often leave us silent.
But that silence is not always appreciation, but is sometimes a tumultuous composition being raised in the the mind of another who does not see the only the beauty of this moment. They may feel discomfort, anger, annoyance, insecurity, indifference, or even a mad desire to hear more and to repeat the phrasing with another instrument–perhaps an oboe–but does not do so.
Oh what beautiful music we humans are capable of playing, but rarely we do. Just like with the real world and music, it is often the monotonous babble of popular tones that drown out most of the world. Subtlety and rarity is left, as Nietzsche commented, to the rare.
Out of metaphor
Enough of music metaphors. What the hell am I talking about?
One of the things I like about such social situations is the uncertainty of what will transpire. The anticipation of either heated argument, genuine curiosity and interpersonal intimacy, or polite indifference or discomfort. It’s almost, well, sexy.
As a person who self-identifies as polyamorous and an atheist, I run into this type of communication anticipation on these two fronts from time to time, and I relish the expectation. It’s not completely unlike meeting an attractive woman and, while talking with her, noticing her body through the clothes she wears, wondering if she is also trying not to let me notice her own interest while I try to thrust away images that my mind creates of the anticipation of passion thus far unrequited. I eagerly watch the facial queues for subtle emotional indicators, body language, and changes in tone of voice as certain subjects are hinted at, caressed, and occasionally penetrated. Yes, a conversation is a lot like the anticipation of sex, which makes good conversation a lot like sex.
Good conversation–and good sex–is about the exploration of the other person. It is about opening up and letting people in while trying to maintain the awareness of their needs as they seek to fulfill yours. It is about saying what you think, hearing what is said, and responding to what is actuallysaid rather than what you wanted to hear. It is about actual communication, and not merely saying your bit and then having done with it.
Wait, I thought I was done with metaphor….
I know, but in a sense is not all language metaphor?
You may find yourself with some people you don’t really know very well, and some talk about current events comes up. Perhaps it is Iraq, the healthcare bill, or local politics, but eventually something will approach a more sensitive and controversial topic. Perhaps it is a comment about the recent discovery of documents that indicate that the current pope was responsible for covering up child abuse; perhaps it is playful flirtation between two couples who meet at a bar and play with some rising sexual tension and making jokes about swapping or some other arrangement; or perhaps it is the discussion of polygamy as a force for female subjugation in some FLDS and Moslem communities, and why don’t you ever see a woman with four husbands rather than the other way around.
And then the voice inside me says well, I know this woman….
And that is the sort of thought, that lonely whine of that violin, which is rarely played.
Some people are wound tight. It may be traumatic experiences with either sex, relationships, or religion. it might just be that some people need to just loosen up a little, but I really can’t generalize while being fair to each person’s circumstances. What I can say is that in my experience some people react quite defensively, even if they have learned to do so quite subtly, to their comfort zones being poked at.
The part of me that is all about free speech, intelligent conversation, and personal growth wants to merely dismiss this as cowardice or emotional weakness, but that is not really fair nor true in many cases. I cannot know the cause of such discomfort or caution in the face of certain topics, but I am almost always interested in knowing what those causes are.
It is the intimacy of it that I love. And it is a desire for this intimacy that has caused some uncomfortable relationships in my life. The reasons are sometimes clear to me, especially in hindsight. I have been a person who has been closed off behind my own fears, defensive and reactive at certain questions, perceptions of criticism, etc. But my desire to grow past this has left me sensitive to the behavior in others, perhaps to the point of projecting it when it is not there? (I cannot say).
Perhaps, but I have trouble imagining that I never recognize it accurately. In at least one prior relationship, I am certain that I was correct in this conclusion, and I think that it was part of the reason that it is a prior relationship rather than a continuing one.
But I’m straying too far from the point.
Some topics of conversation will bore, frighten, or annoy people. And often this is for good reason, but still those reasons are interesting in themselves. And it may not always lead to a meta-conversation, but it may lead in that direction in some cases. But I enjoy the ability to discuss things of moderate or ultimate concern; philosophical discussions, details about personal experiences or beliefs, or passionate defenses and debates about things of personal stake and interest.
It is in these moments of personal insecurity where intimacy grows. There is a vulnerability about it, but that is what makes it rare and (perhaps thus) beautiful. It is scary to trust to open up, especially to people we don’t know well, but there is a certain point where I think it is empowering and powerful to do so. And in such conversations truth may occasionally be born, and we may find ourselves open to new possibilities and expand our boundaries a little at a time.
I may be wrong; there may be a god. I may be wrong; polyamory may be ultimately unhealthy. I may be wrong about many things. So may you, and so let’s actually discuss them rather than sit silently and let those beautiful phrasings play silently in our heads while we try to imagine what melody plays in our neighbor’s head. How often do people assume things only to find they are wrong when they actually talk with other people.
(How many times have I had to explain the definition of atheism/agnosticism or explain what polyamory is about if not a fear of commitment)
How many times has Glenn Beck sat and really listened to a progressive or liberal without replacing their music with his own biases? How many times has Keith Olbermann listened to the music of the Tea Party people? And no, I’m not advocating the view that necessarily some ideal in between opposing sides is always where the truth is. “Teach the Controversy” is a joke when there is no controversy except that which is contrived for political or religious effect. Listening does not compel respect for the idea listened to. Respect has to be earned by reason and evidence, not merely demanded.
And while I may agree more often with Olbermann than Glenn Beck (who I think may be mentally ill), I still listen, really listen, to what is being said. I only hope for the same.
Conversation avoids misunderstanding and mis-communication while it builds intimacy. It works in relationships, religion, politics, and even sex.
We all need to communicate better, including myself.