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Anger Management June 23, 2012

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

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

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

(Big assumption alert)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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