Way back in 2002, I was in grad school, in West Chester University and saw some flier about a 10 Commandments plaque that had been on the local courthouse for many years, and some local atheists were making a stink about it. So I attended a meeting related to that, and met some local atheist activists and started learning about the atheist community. This was in the early days of the post-9/11 atheist community expansion, but before any of the major atheist books were published or the community took off in size and scope. And it was long before the rifts became apparent to us all. They were there, of course, but they had not yet become flaming internet arguments and YouTube channels raking in money for…well not all of them are terrible human beings.
Having a lack of belief in any gods, or being convinced that no gods exist (the difference of which is actually a minor philosophical rift in itself) is a pretty specific and singular data point of who a person is, and so knowing this about a person will not tell you very much else, if anything at all. PZ Myers has been arguing for years that such a worldview should lead one to a progressive worldview. And while I might agree with many of his progressive worldviews, I don’t agree that one must necessarily reach those positions, logically, from the starting point of atheism, per se.*
The cultural divide becomes polyamorous, and takes on the polyamorous community as a new partner
If you look at the atheist world today, you will find a myriad of political views, opinions about feminism, and both wonderful and awful people. There are people I tend to agree with, people with whom I may share almost no conclusion except for the lack of gods, and there are people with whom I have much in common, but disagree on small points, or on certain issues. The rifts which have occurred over the years have led to situations where some people simply cannot talk to certain people, because of vast differences in opinions. In some cases, I think the nature of the disagreement is important, in others, it’s mostly hot air and emotion preventing an actual conversation. Such is life as a human being on planet Earth.
So, will you be surprised when I point out that I’ve seen much of the same phenomena within the polyamory community? No, I don’t think you will be that surprised.
But, before I go there, I want to take a step back because I don’t think that the analogy of the atheist community maps all that precisely to the poly community itself. Rather, I think that the atheist community is a better analog for the non-monogamous world in general; some people have come to the conclusion that monogamy (more specifically, sexually/romantically exclusive relationships, since monogamy is not quite the right word. monoamory works, in some cases) is not the best way to go about relationships the way atheists have come to the conclusion that god is not real, or at least that they are not convinced that it is real.
In the atheist community, there are more traditionalist/conservative people who tend towards libertarianism, Trumpism, and are opposed to much of the feminist movement as it currently exists; mostly the “shitlords” with whom I share almost no philosophical worldview (I qualify that because inevitably some shitlord would see this and point out that we might share some opinions here and there, which would be technically true but missing the point, completely). There are also many liberal, progressive, or even downright anarchistic revolutionary people in the atheist community; people with whom I share many more data points with, philosophically. But the fact is that I’m not tied to any specific ideology, so even though I overwhelmingly agree with the more leftist, progressive worldview, there are places where I disagree on some points, even if I accept the general schema of the worldview of the progressive movement concerned with social justice and so forth. To be clear, I am not identifying with the centrists, a la Sam Harris (whose podcast I listen to, because he has interesting conversations, even if I agree with him only about half the time at best. I don’t agree that he’s especially racist, except in the technically true sense that we all participate in a racist culture to some extent). I’m definitely very far left, and the shitlords could call me a SJW if they like, but I disagree with many other social justice oriented people on some points related to the worldview, even if I accept the general schema.
The non-monogamy world, including swingers, poly folks, etc, are similarly all over the map. In general, swingers tend towards more traditionalist/conservatism. In fact, the swinging world is itself an extension of a kind of conservatism insofar as the environment is overwhelmingly couple-centric, often unfriendly towards male bisexuality, and often unwelcoming to trans people. Swingers may, individually, be OK with these things in theory, but they still tend to be much more comfortable with staying within their rules which defend a more conservative worldview about relationships and identity. Poly people tend towards the progressive side, and are generally much more open to all shades of the LGBTQ rainbow. A focus on listening to marginalized people, consent culture, and a plethora of discussions of all sorts of things which will expand your mind and worldview exist at polyamorous conferences, and I would highly recommend what the poly community has to teach to all people, and support the vast majority of the lessons they have to teach. In short, the communities to which I belong tend to be made up of people who have overwhelming support for progressive values and politics. The shitlords would certainly call it a den of SJW cucks, or some other myopic prattling.
But within polyamory, there are definitely rifts and disagreements, which is similar, in many ways, to the arguments going on in the progressive world in general. That is, even among the idealistic, Relationship Anarchistic, touchy-feely, progressive group of people, there are differences in opinion on many questions. Let’s take one example, shall we?
“Poly” is not cultural appropriation
About a year ago, there was a bunch of conversations about the term Polyamory being abbreviated to “poly,” and whether it was a cultural appropriation from Polynesian people, who apparently sometimes call themselves “Poly.” Now, I won’t get into the minutia of the arguments, but the gist was that if we want to be sensitive towards people who have been historically treated pretty badly, perhaps we should not use the same term; we should not appropriate the term. Now, I agree with the first part; we should be aware of such things and seek to do less harm, when possible. We need to be aware of the effects of history and try to be aware of how we use language, borrow from cultures, etc to make sure that we are not doing it in an unnecessary and offensive way. But I came down on the other side of this argument; I do not think that using “poly” for the polyamorous community is a form of cultural appropriation from Polynesian people, and so I still use “poly”, rather than “polya,” which has been adopted by some people recently. I’m not against doing so, I just think that it’s not based on sound reasoning. In other words, I came to a different conclusion.
I’m not insisting that people say “poly” instead of “polya”, but I do sort of roll my eyes a little when I read “polya,” because I believe that the argument for doing so is nonsensical, even if I agree with the sentiment.
Here’s the thing; I’m a skeptic first. I want to have as many true beliefs, and as few false beliefs, as I am able to have given my cognitive abilities. In short, I care what’s actually true, and I try to use logical and rational means towards figuring out what is true. I also care about justice, but I will not sacrifice the truth on the alter of avoiding offense. I will not offend intentionally (at least, I try not to), but there simply are times when the truth might be offensive or not in line with a desire to be culturally sensitive. In this case, the argument for using “polya” is a bad argument. So even if the intent is to be aware, sensitive, and non-offensive (which I think is a good thing), the argument that it actually is appropriation falls flat. That is, the argument is not true. The fact that somebody is offended by the term “poly” in a polyamorous context is unfortunate, and their feelings are still valid. The thing is, their argument isn’t valid. One can be offended, have that emotion be legitimate and important, but still be wrong.
Others disagree with me, of course. But I’m not convinced by their arguments. The problem came in when it’s pointed out that my argument is coming from a place of privilege, where my attempts to be rational about the question at hand are a function of that privilege. And yes, I am privileged. Over the last several years, I have been listening. I have learned quite a bit about how privilege works, and have come to recognize that it’s a real force in the world, with real effects. I believe that people have a range of privileges, dependent upon historical, cultural, etc factors which make certain things much easier for people like me. I understand that there are things which are much harder for me to understand, and that I have to listen first, especially when talking about an issue related to historical, cultural, or political marginalization. That is my responsibility. But that does not erase rationality. A rational argument is not subject to privilege. Rational arguments, skepticism, and logic transcend social justice concerns. A person can be privileged, use motivated reasoning (*cough cough* Sam Harris *cough cough*), and thus make mistakes in utilizing reason, but reason itself is not subject to the effects of the theory behind privilege.
Thus, in terms of answering the question whether “poly” is cultural appropriation, if the argument for it being so is nonsensical, then all the concerns about cultural sensitivity and historical/cultural structures become irrelevant. They are still relevant when discussing the Polynesian people in terms of their cultural circumstances, of course. And, of course, if the arguments in favor of calling such a use of “poly” were not nonsensical or logically flawed, then it becomes relevant to discuss whether the appropriation is problematic or not. As it stands, I’m convinced that the arguments are nonsensical. If someone disagrees, they need to address the logical concerns first, if they want to be taken seriously.
How long does one need to listen, before their questions become relevant?
Over the last few years, a question kept swimming to the surface as I thought about things related to social justice, privilege, etc. In the beginning I saw this question as a internal emotional reaction against the information; as a emotional reaction more than an actual philosophical problem. For a long time I dismissed it as a side-effect of privilege and part of the very problem I was trying to learn and understand, so I didn’t follow it to any conclusion. I was still listening, and the listening will never stop. But after a while this question persisted, and so I kept reading, listening, and hoping to find this issue addressed in a way which satisfied the question, but no answer ever satisfied me. Further, I found no way to voice this question because the question is always reacted to with dismissal and often with anger (No, I’m not tone-policing; I have no issue with the anger per se). I became terrified to ask about it, because every time I saw anything like it broached it was met with dismissal, hostility, and was never seriously addressed. The question is something like the following:
If privilege is a blinding force, which prevents those with it to see certain things about culture, in particular people’s lived experience, to what extent is this blinding force merely an obstacle or an impenetrable barrier? In other words, does ones privilege merely make it much harder to understand a set of ideas, born of a marginalized or non-privileged experience, or is it one of complete obscurity, such that the privileged person can never hope to understand or have anything to add at all?
And as I started to think more about this, the question began to have subsequential concerns and questions, which I was similarly afraid to voice in social justice circles. Because if privilege merely makes it harder to see parts of the world, that would imply that if one listens enough and comes to understand, then it is possible to come to a rational conclusion that may or may not be the same as the person who is marginalized, no? In other words, it might be possible to, from the point of view of one who is privileged, disagree with someone’s opinion who is marginalized, and still potentially be factually right. Because it’s possible that any person, in any set of circumstances, might be wrong. That’s part of being human.
If a Polynesian person, or someone on their behalf, is offended by the use of “poly” by the polyamorous community, their feelings are important and valid. We should be kind to them, and we should hear them, and we should do our best to understand where that pain is coming from and seek to minimize it as much as we can. But, again, if someone listens and comes to a different conclusion because they think that the arguments in favor of it being problematic don’t add up, or if there is no argument at all, but merely a focus on the offense, then what is a person supposed to do? Is it really wrong to have a different conclusion? Is it wrong to say so? And if so, why?
And this is where the “red-pilled” shitlord comes in and says “Exactly! The SJW cucks are all a bunch of groupthink sheeple who insist upon allegiance to feelings and will insist upon ideological purity over the truth.”. And this is the part where I tell that shitlord to go fuck themselves and find something else to do, because I’m not talking to them right now and I’m certainly not taking their red pill.
Because I’m not throwing out the larger theory by disagreeing here. Disagreeing with a conclusion or a small detail of the theory is not the same as disavowing the whole left, progressivism, or social justice. In fact, such disagreements and questions are the only way to keep those theories strong, vibrant, and not dogmatic. The dogmatism that the idiots who call us SJWs, talk about being “red-pilled, and who troll all over the internet is based upon this dismissal of any questions from people who are not convinced, either in whole or in part. No doubt potential allies who accept most of the worldview concerned with justice in society have been pushed towards the red pill (because tribalism is often dualistic) because they disagreed with some small bits here and there and were dismissed. Erased. Sound familiar?
Skepticism to the rescue, I hope
I do share one thing with those red pill people; I care about what’s true. Well, they say that they care about that, but I don’t think their application of reason is very good at all. It’s true that many shitlords, anti-feminists, and other anti social justice people grew out of skepticism. But was their skepticism properly applied in all of their opinions? I would say most certainly not. It seems to me that the anti-feminist, pro-Trump, sexual abuse “skeptics” (there are so many kinds of shitlords) on the right are holding onto notions of human rights, consent (or lack thereof), and freedom of speech which are overly tied to tradition, misunderstandings, or (in some cases) obvious trolling and lying to manipulate towards their own goals (I’m looking at you, Scott Adams)**. Some who have been red-pilled might share more opinions with their cultural interlocutors (he says euphemistically) than either side would want to admit. The tribalism at the core of this divide is obvious to me, and is actually the fault of people on both sides. I believe that one side’s worldview is generally correct, and the other is problematic, but individual people on both sides, or caught in the middle, are all over the map in terms of their specific responsibility for being decent skeptics.
So, right off the bat here, skepticism as a community is not the best example of where to turn, and being overly “skeptical” in the face of allegations of sexual misconduct is technically skepticism, but it’s also technically being completely clueless about the realities of how our culture teaches us to interact when it comes to sexuality in our culture. Or maybe it’s just that those people want to keep having the excuse to not ask for or be concerned with consent. I did hear one guy say, in response to hearing that situations such as being intoxicated, in a position of relative powerlessness (like being an employee), etc as a circumstance where consent might not be fully possible, that if that were so then he might never be able to have sex with that woman he wants to have sex with. No shit, asshole, but you’re really missing the boat here. Social justice theories about privilege, consent, power structures, and so forth are something you really need to understand, because they are real. Holding onto traditional ideas because they work for you (privilege) is a shitty way to be skeptical.
I think that social justice theories are wonderful at making important cultural, political, and historical observations, and it’s a wonderful method for understanding how various personal identities effect power structures, but it is not the best method for determining what is actually true, philosophically, in every situation. Reason, wielded by skepticism, is the best method we have for determining truth, and where social justice theories of privilege conflict with reason, we need to value reason first. That is how I rank my values, and I understand that other people do not do this, especially many people working for social justice. I simply disagree with this approach.
And I’ll be clear, I think that a social justice set of theories armed with skepticism would be a powerful tool, the problem is that not all social justice activists are always clear thinkers, and (because they are human) therefore make errors in thinking and come to bad conclusions, sometimes. And, again, while our feelings are immensely important, and things like micro-aggression, racism, sexism, transphobia, body shaming, etc are all things that actual people live through and have legitimate feelings about, in the cases where their conclusions are not rational, we should feel free and comfortable to express this when and in the space in which that person is willing to hear it.
The problem is that I rarely feel free or welcome to do so, and am am merely dismissed as being privileged. There needs to be room, sometimes, for marginalized people to hear this criticism. I know, I know…that space for criticism is the dominant narrative, right? But, is it? Are you really going to try to argue that the dominant narrative of our culture is reason and skepticism, properly applied? I’m not talking about listening to privileged people, because I know you already understand their perspective pretty well. I’m talking about when a privileged person, who has been listening, and who cares about the truth and who has tried hard to understand but has a question, a criticism, or a disagreement and they are dismissed merely because they are privileged. That is not rational.
Maybe that person is wrong, and maybe they’ll change their mind, but we, as human beings, need more than your experience, at some point in the process of listening. We need actual arguments, and sometimes the arguments you have are not sufficient because sometimes even marginalized people make errors in judgment and thinking. Those arguments don’t have to be on the terms of the person asking, and they don’t have to invade the spaces you make for yourself to feel safe (I, for example, am writing this on my own blog), but philosophical conclusions cannot be merely asserted in the name of lived experience, because there is no “my truth” or “your truth”; there is only truth, and we all have it and miss it’s mark on the merits of our arguments. I’ll take your word on your experience, and your feelings, but your philosophical conclusions are everyone’s territory, because you’ve left the realm of experience, and are claiming something to be true. So if someone in your community disagrees with your conclusion, you cannot merely play the privilege card against a genuine disagreement because reason transcends that theoretical concept.
My point is that there needs to be room for disagreement within our communities, whether poly, atheist, or whatever, because truth is the realm of philosophy and is not subject to theories dependent upon historical or cultural realities. If someone does the work, listens, and tries to understand but simply comes to a different conclusion, the response has to be better than something like the following;
Of course you disagree. You’re speaking from the most privileged position of anyone here. You’ve got a personal investment in being able to look down, talk down, and still deem yourself as logical and correct. It’s a matter of perspective and you’ve got it.
Because that’s not an argument. That’s merely dismissal. We must do better, if we want to be role models.
No, I don’t have any answers which cannot change
The bottom line is that I don’t have answers to my questions, yet. I may never have them. But I will not merely conform and agree, because I’m supposed to. I cannot choose my beliefs, because they will form themselves in my mind based upon the strength of argument made in their favor. If I disagree with you, then it might be the case that I’m missing something, and I’ll keep doing my work to see if that’s the case. But if I’ve had the same nagging question and concern with some specific aspects of the worldview you espouse after several years of attempting to understand, then at some point the responsibility becomes less mine, and more yours to have better explanations.
Perhaps my point of view occasionally allows me to see something that you cannot see, even if only extremely rarely. I admit that it’s quite possible I’m completely wrong. Wouldn’t be the first time. But so far I disagree with many people in the progressive community concerning specific beliefs and details of the worldview we generally share. But I need to feel free to have these disagreements without being dismissed and erased. Perhaps that’s something I learned, initially, from you. Perhaps you need to listen sometimes, as well.
So, thanks for reading, those of you who used to be friends (perhaps as of this reading. I’ve already lost FB friends recently articulating similar points in comments sections), those of you who might agree or disagree but are ambivalent towards me specifically, or people who agree with me here (I’ve heard from some people in the poly community the last few days who might agree with much of what I’ve said here. No, none of them were also white, hetero, cis men). Something finally compelled me to write after some time. If you disagree with me and feel like dismissing me because of my privilege, then I guess we’re at an impasse.
*Skepticism might, in itself, have more logically derived conclusions, but that’s a conversation for another day
**Listen to the podcast episode at this link only if you really feel like yelling at your earbuds a lot