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Smugness and arrogance in polyamory? April 16, 2012

Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory, Skepticism and atheism.
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I have been following a blog about polyamory for a little while now called polytical.  I try and keep up with a few poly blogs, twitter feeds, etc in order to keep my finger on the pulse of the community.  I am not really a part of that community, even less than I am an insider the atheist community, but I have been listening for some time and know a fair bit about the issues, people, etc.

So, earlier today this post went up on polytical entitled I’m Poly ‘Cause I’m Better (which was a follow-up and partial change in views from a previous post entitled I’m Better ‘Cause I’m Poly).  I had not read the earlier post previously (it went up before I started following the blog), but read it today for further context.  I will say that I pretty much agreed with the older post.  I have some reservations about the one from today.

Let’s just say I have some questions.  Concerns even.

Lola O starts by saying how ze, after more presence in the poly community, has started to see the smugness of some polyamorous people; smugness about polyamory being better than monogamy and so forth.  I have seen a little bit of that myself.  I think that some of that smugness, that arrogance, can be justified.  Not all of it, surely, but some of it.  I’ll get to that.

So, let’s start with where Lola thinks the problem originates.

I feel it’s important to address this. Not because I enjoy being a naysayer, but I can see why the community alienates people. The smugness comes in two forms – a lack of acknowledgement of intersectional issues, and unchecked blatant privilege.

Oh boy, have we skeptics and atheists been over this ground in the last year!  The debacle that was Elevatorgate, The ‘Amazing’ Atheist, and even Penn Jillette will remind us skeptics (the rest of you can use your Google machine) of what I am referring to (and of course there are many more examples).  Alienating people, especially women and non-white people, from meetups, conventions, etc has been a huge issue in the skeptical/atheist world in recent years, and it exploded last year in a way that educated many people, including myself.

I still have not had a chance to thank Rebecca Watson, personally, for much of that unfortunately.

Once again, there are a lot of things that the polyamory community has to learn from the skeptic community, as well as the other way around.  I know there is some overlap, but I don’t see a tremendous amount of discussion that deals with the intersection and how their trajectories might resemble one-another.  Except, of course, for here at polyskeptic.com!

In any case, let’s get back to Lola.  Ze thinks that there are two issues that are at the foundation of the problem in the poly community.

  1. a lack of acknowledgment of intersectional issues
  2. unchecked blatant privilege.

Intersectionality is a relatively new idea to me, although I certainly sympathize with the phenomenon as an atheist, polyamorous, skeptic.  Privilege…well, that is not as new to me, but the debacles listed above must have increased the Google hits for that term by a significant degree last year, and I wrote a bit about it myself.  But  I don’t want to deal with these issues naked, I want to allow Lola to dress them up, give them shape, so that we can follow her reasoning.

People who say they’re polyamorous and critical of the assumption that we’re biologically suited to monogamy do not seem to bat an eyelash at gender stereotypes, and are more than willing to glue themselves to biological imperatives of the way “males” and “females” behave.

Yep, I’ve seen this.  The nature of privilege (or am I getting ahead of myself) is that you don’t see it when you have it.  I am in agreement with this statement, although I don’t know how common this actually is, having seen it rarely myself.  As a point of comparison, I’ll add this; having seen how many atheists, who tend to be good at seeing past religious privilege, are blind to their own privileges has taught me that suffering the blunt end of privilege does not imply that you are incapable of having another form of privilege.

Lola continues:

I find myself (and I’m not exaggerating) constantly having to remind fellow poly people that not only do intersex and gender variant people exist, but sometimes even that bisexual individuals exist. And when I bring up how sexism probably impacts the way people interact with others; the way people find partners; how comfortable, for example, those who identify as female may feel in situations where being poly means they are sexually available, I’m told that I’m pissing in everyone’s Cheerios or being too negative.

I have not seen this much myself.  From my non-scientific sample, from my experience, this is pretty rare.  Of course, most of my experience with the poly community IRL comes from being in Philadelphia; a very LGBTQ, intersex, etc friendly area of the world.  I also attended an extremely liberal school where most of my friends were also extremely liberal.  Just another privilege of mine.

It may be that the level of awareness, comfort, and overlap between the polyamorous community and the intersex/gender variant community varies from region to region or even group to group within a region, and Lola and I live in different parts of the world and may travel in different kinds of circles.  Perhaps if I traveled around more I would find similar experiences as Lola did in recent months.

At one poly event, when a friend of mine brought up the struggles of women & gender variant individuals, and how – as poly activists, we need to mention and address these issues, she was condescended to by a fellow “poly activist” who told her that those people need to fight their own battles while we need to focus on poly struggles and poly issues.

I am in complete disagreement with this “poly activist” which Lola paraphrases here.  This type of statement is another example of where the poly community needs to learn lessons from the gay community.  I learned it through the atheist community, in a talk given by Greta Christina, where she talks about how the atheist community needs to learn from the mistakes of the gay community.  (watch it, but perhaps after reading):

This larger fight for rights, recognition, etc for all of us weird, and even the not-so-wierd, people is the same fight.  I stand for gay, lesbian, bisexual, intersex, cis, feminist, men’s (but no so much MRAs), atheist, Christian, Moslem, Jewish, Hindu, Pastafarian, polyamorous, monogamous, asexual, etc rights.  I stand for human rights.  Anyone who thinks that we are all fighting separate fights doesn’t see the larger picture, and ends up segregating and tribalizing us all.

Lola then addresses the issue of whether polyamory should be included in with the “Queer” umbrella, and even whether we should add a “P” to the LGBTQ “alphabet soup.”  In some ways, I think that there are good arguments for this addition, but only because I have seen good overlap between the LGBT community and polyamory.  But if what Lola is identifying here is true, then I think that the following is very well said.

And when I voice my concerns as a queer person, that adding “P” to an acronym built on backs and blood of beaten, raped, tortured, and slain individuals is insulting when, while polyamory is misunderstood, it has yet to be a death sentence – I’m told by individuals who have no concept of being queer that I’m being divisive and discriminatory. What sort of welcoming do queer people find in a community that tells them to keep their issues to themselves, unless of course heterosexuals want to co-opt their struggle?

This is a fantastic point.  I don’t know the extent of the real distance between the poly community as a whole from the LGBTQ struggles, but if it tends towards being as far as Lola is claiming here, even if not everywhere, then I think that the poly community should back off trying to add a “P” here, at least until this issue is rectified.

So, thus far in the post I am in agreement with Lola.  I think that ze has some wonderful things to say about some problems in the poly community, and while I hope her experiences are the rare exceptions, my more cynical nature doubts that it is.  We poly people have work to do, surely.

So I keep reading.  When Lola turns to race relations, I don’t expect to find this sentence;

To put it bluntly, being polyamorous may cause one to endure all manner of ignorant comments and may even threaten the custody or family lives of a few, but practicing polyamory is overwhelmingly a privilege.

Upon reading this, something pops in my brain.  ‘huh?’ my inner-voice says.  ‘did I just read that correctly?’ it continues.  Now, I have never thought of polyamory as a position of privilege.  To me, it seems that monogamy has the position of privilege, and polyamory is struggling against that privilege.  But being aware that privileged people are blind, I keep reading.

Loving more than one person is a capability I believe all human beings have. But having the time, energy, and resources for more than one relationship is, without doubt, a privilege.

Ah! I see.  This makes a bit of sense.  I see where the argument is headed.  The immediate point following this, then, is not surprising.

I see a lot of poly people online and offline wax poetic about polyamory being the next stage of human evolution, degrade and devalue monogamous people for their silly triflings; all the while ignoring that a working single mother barely has enough time for herself, let alone dating.

This is an interesting point.  And no doubt the observation is largely true, but consider this.  A common response to polyamory, from monogamous people, is that they simply don’t have the time or energy for another relationship.  This is basically the same point, and I think it falls apart for similar reasons.  Let me address it in two ways.

First, what I think is overlooked here is that some ways to approach polyamory may actually help this problem, rather than exacerbate it.  I think the assumption here may be that the single mother (or father) may not have time for two relationships, let alone one.  Sure, this is a problem.  But what if that single mother/father found an existing couple, family, etc? What if they found themselves a support network which could make the work of raising a child a bit easier?  That is one of the major strengths of polyamory, IMO.

Granted, this is an idealized solution to a tough situation, and the logistical problems in finding said support group is a challenge in itself.  I was raised by a single mother, until I was eight or so, myself.  And while my mother didn’t find a poly tribe, she found a support structure despite the hardship.  Finding a poly support structure, if that is what she had been after, may not have been impossible or even very difficult (especially now that the internet exists) for a single mother.

The second point is that this argument is no more a problem for polyamory than it is for relationships in general.  It’s like my mother (who apparently has a lot to do with this post) talking to me about why I, as a poly person, should not get married.  All of her arguments turn into arguments against marriage itself, rather than arguments against me getting married while polyamorous.

The essential point here is that when one argues that polyamory is a privilege because doing it is hard, one might as well be arguing against having relationships at all.  Having a tough life does not stop people from finding what they need and want, so if they are open to and prefer polyamory, they can find that as well as any monogamous single parent could.

These discussions about how advanced polyamory is and how much better we are at relationships and life come off to me as incredibly ignorant of the realities many face. There’s a difference between being happy in and of ourselves for what we have, and being arrogant and ignorant. I have the economic privilege and free time to date more than one person, but I haven’t always had that. And people who have to spend most of their time working to keep their head economically above the water may have little time for conventions and long discussions about compersion. Love is infinite. Time is not.

When I met my soon-to-be wife, I was unemployed, nearly homeless, recently abandoned in a city I barely knew (Atlanta), and emotionally wrecked.  I was already pre-disposed to polyamory due to previous experiences, introspection, etc.  My being polyamorous was not about going out on nice dates, spending tons of time with many people with whom I had long-term relationships, or even actually having any partners at all.

My being polyamorous was about not creating arbitrary and absurd rules, when starting or solidifying relationships, about being exclusive.  It was merely about recognizing that my ability to love is not limited, and that anyone who will love me has to know that about me because I will not lie to myself by artificially being exclusive for the sake of some silly fears and insecurities.  Being polyamorous is about being authentic to my actual desires and tendencies, not living la vita loca with wining and dining potential partners.

It was a declaration of true maturity, skepticism, and self-knowledge, not a declaration of wealth of time and money to do the dating game with two or more people.

Polyamory is not about doing what the hetero-normative, middle class, educated world does, but just more of it transparently.  It’s about recognizing that we actually do love more than one person, and this happens whether we are dirt poor, middle class, or of the 1%.  For me, it is a part of a larger project to be a better person than I was, than most people are, and who I would be if I hadn’t challenged myself to be better.

I am not better because I am polyamorous, but rather I am polyamorous, like Lola said, ’cause I’m better.  Not better in the sense of having more money, time, or people in my life, but because I have done the real, hard, tedious work of improving my ability to be a better person, including when I didn’t have the privileged economic means, and for me that means being polyamorous.

In my view, polyamory is actually better, unless you accidentally become monogamous, than what the world tends to do with relationships.  Am I smug? Damned right!  Am I arrogant? I don’t think this pride is unwarranted, I think it’s earned.

And no, not everyone will be polyamorous, nor will all people have the capability to be so.  Also, not everyone will be a skeptic, an atheist, a PhD, an expert, or even famous.  This does not mean that we do not respect, fight for, and care for those who cannot climb such mountains, but it means that in some way we have achieved something that others cannot, or have not yet, achieved.  We can encourage others to follow, but will not expect all to do so.

My privileges (and I have many; I’m white, educated, middle class in a very wealthy country, male, and certainly some others that I’m not thinking of right now) are not what make it possible for me to be polyamorous, but they do allow me to do polyamory in a more privileged way.  This is the distinction that, I think, Lola is missing.  It’s not that polyamory is a privilege, but doing polyamory in a certain way is a privilege.

But this privileged way of doing polyamory is no different than doing any type of relationship in a privileged way.  Again, this line of reasoning does not point exclusively to polyamory, but also to any type of relationship which exists in a privileged world.  There is a logical error of confusing a privileged way of doing polyamory with polyamory per se.  Polyamory does not require a privilege to mount, it only requires an open and honest mind about how we love people, what we want, and how we communicate between those two things.

Finally, I want to deal with what Lola talks about near the end of the post.  The discussion here is things like mental health, ableism, etc.  Lola says:

Discussions that centre around shaming jealousy, or the assumption that security is a realistic goal for all, or that you need it in order to be “good at poly,” create an environment that encourages people with mental illness (and people without) to not only misjudge red flags and pangs they experience as jealousy but also encourage them to ignore those feelings for fear of being the “green eyed monster”. There’s little to no discussion around these assumptions unless it’s pointed out that insecurity could stem from mental illness, and no advice or acknowledgement on how exactly folks with mental illnesses are supposed to navigate poly situations.

I struggle with Borderline Personality Disorder.  If there are any MH issues which would be problematic with emotions, including jealousy and insecurity, BPD would be among the toughest to deal with.

I acknowledge that many people may not be able to do poly, for reasons of trauma, mental health issues, etc.  Where “jealousy-shaming” actually exists, it needs to be confronted and eliminated.  Jealousy is not something to be ashamed of, it is something to work through because it is unhealthy.  We must be up-front with our personal struggles, and not be ashamed of them.

I think that Lola might be missing the distinction between shame and the frustration that comes with having to deal with something unwanted and pernicious, like jealousy (or faith, credulity, etc), which can cause emotional reactions such as shame.  I have not seen much “jealousy-shaming,” but I have seen people bluntly proclaim that jealousy is an unhealthy attribute which we need to confront towards the goal of managing it maturely, honestly, and with aplomb. This is not shaming; this is asking people to deal with a difficult problem with things like maturity, courage, and lots of communication.

The experience of shame in response to such things is part of the problem, and it makes me wonder if the intent of people is always to shame, or if many times it is the interpretation of people who struggle with jealousy and are confronted about this. Shame, a Christian concept if ever there were one, is anti-human and festers beneath the psyche of many of us in the West due to the perpetuation of theologies which feed off of such unpleasant experiences.  We need to be aware of that.

Jealousy, like faith, needs to be outgrown by our species for us to thrive in a future where we transcend the teenage years of our history.  Not through shame, but by compassion, patience, and very good listening skills will we achieve such goals.  We need to allow the love (the ‘-amory) to massage jealousy away a day, a word, or a touch at a time and encourage the best scientific methods to deal with the exacerbation of that problem for those with particular mental health struggles, just as people do in the monogamous world.

We don’t, after all, say that since many people struggle with violent tendencies we should, therefore, not confront and try to deal with people who have mental health issues which exacerbate those impulses because it causes shame.  I know, from personal experience, that causing physical harm to people through violence brings shame, but that this response was mostly my responsibility.

I’m glad I realized that it was not shame, but motivation to be more healthy, was the intention of those confronting me.  Otherwise, I might still be ashamed, rather than more healthy.

Near the end, Lola begins to sum up thoughts:

So, I have found the smug poly people. But it’s more than smugness. To me, smugness implies at the very least that there is something to be proud of, and you’re going the extra mile beyond being proud to being boastfully arrogant. This isn’t boastful arrogance, this is unchecked ignorance – and that is nothing, as a community, to be proud of. I see this problem in many communities, and I’m hoping that this is something that will change.

Well, maybe the community does not have anything to be proud of.  Frankly, the community I have seen is small, unorganized, and struggles with all sorts of issues that differ from group to group.  But this statement above goes further than I am willing to go.  This, above, sounds like an attempt to shame.

I do hope that the polyamory community will continue to grow, evolve, and improve.  But I think that many poly people have much to be proud of.  I am proud of my accomplishments as a poly person, of our little group, and the thoughts that we have collected here at polyskeptic (we’re still quite young as a blogging group).

To sum up my own thoughts here which have gone long and long), I agree that issues with intersectionality need to be dealt with where they are a problem.  I believe that education about what it means and how it affects us all are part of that solution.  But I don’t agree that polyamory is privileged any more than any relationship is potentially privileged.  I believe that Lola has committed a logical fallacy in arguing that poly is privileged because to do it in a privileged way is not possible for everyone.  There are non-privileged ways to do polyamory, and many people are doing just that.

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