Altaïr, Ezio, Ratonhnhaké:ton, and Desmond all lived by a Creed.
I don’t consider myself an assassin, but today I experienced an eruption of thoughts that have been circulating in my mind for quite some time and for reasons deeper than this post will explore. But, in addition to this article, that eruption (“compulsive, uncontrollable word-vomit”, I called it on twitter earlier today) produced a personal Creed that resonates with that of the fictional Assassin’s:
“Nothing is real; everything is experienced. “
What does that even mean?
I started out with two words I hastily typed into my phone: Objectivity and Subjectivity. I sat my phone down for a moment, then immediately picked it back up because I had a realization. Objectivity doesn’t exist. All we have is our subjective impression of objectivity…an impression that may or may not be shared by others. A sound being emitted and that sound being heard are to different events. A sound that is heard is heard subjectively. The exact same sound may be subjectively heard by two individuals very differently. It doesn’t change the sound, but the two people may violently disagree on what that sound was. Even if not, though… All that it really means is that their subjective interpretations are in agreement. The agreement or disagreement of two or more subjective hearers has no bearing at all on the actual sound that’s emitted. Physical objects… A tree, or a shoe… Are subject to this phenomenon as well, but we have language to sort that out when we are talking about objects. Science uses instruments and measurements as an agreed upon subjectivity. We can assume that physical objects exist even if they aren’t being observed, just like we can assume that the tree that falls in the forest really does make a sound if no one hears it… There can be no such assumption when it comes to Ideas.
As an example… What is Polyamory? For the sake of my own sanity, I’m going to make a drastically oversimplified definition and say that Polyamory is the ability to love more than one person. But… I know that there are others who would describe Polyamory as the inability to love only one person. Before we talk about the differences between those to definitions, I want to focus on the commonality: Love. Even if we focus on the agreeable term, we see that there is nearly infinite room for subjective difference. What is love? Does it include sex? Does it require sex? What if it starts out as just sex, but evolves in to friends? What about best friends? What if it’s a non-romantic friendship-type love, but does involve sex? What if it’s transactional sex sex with a paid sex worker? What about recreational sex? What if it’s just dating as recreation? What if it’s romantic love that doesn’t include sex? What if it’s romantic love, but at a distance? What if it’s only an emotional connection online with someone in another country that you’ll probably never meet? Those are just the things that come into my head immediately when thinking about what love could mean in this scenario. Some people will say yes to all of the above, most people would pick and choose among them in their definition of love, and there are probably people who would define it in completely different terms, and we’d all call those definitions ‘love’ and think we were talking about the same thing when we used the word in conversation.
That’s two levels down into what Polyamory is, and we have more possible meanings for the idea represented by that one word than I care to figure out. This is with two greatly oversimplified (admittedly to the point of inaccuracy and/or uselessness) definition of what Polyamory is. But… Even those simple definitions differ at the core. If we go back up a level in these very oversimplified definitions, there’s vast room for disagreement if we agree on what love is. By the second definition, I can’t be Polyamorous because I do have the ability to only love one person. By my definition, anyone who loves more than one person, be it a parent/spouse or a child/partner combination of people that they love is Polyamorous. So, even at this simple level, there’s fundamental, even existential subjective differences in what polyamory is.
If this seems similar to the debate over Polyamory as Identity or Orientation, it’s because reading those posts and blogs is what started me down this line of thinking. I tweeted today that I was compulsively, and uncontrollably word-vomiting this post into my phone. This wasn’t unprovoked. I read this article on the Sex Geek blog, and immediately thought about the orientation/identity debate and immediately felt that THIS scenario that I laid out above is exactly what I saw happening again, just like it did with the orientation/identity debate. (Please read the article and form your own opinion. My take on the TL;DR: ‘The mainstream attention being given to polyamory is promoting ‘bad’ Polyamory, so we need to call it something different (polynormativity). This something different isn’t ‘real’ Polyamory because…’) The reasons ‘because’ don’t really matter, because in reality its all moot. Why? Because Polyamory doesn’t exist outside of experience, which is always subjective. To be clear on my point, I’ll say it a different way: Polyamory does not exist objectively, and therefore cannot be defined objectively. Another way: Anyone who says what Poly is or is not is only ever describing their experience of what polyamory is. That experience may allow for things that are outside of their practice, but it’s still limited by that person’s subjective experience of polyamory. Why do I feel the need to make this point? Because, even though I agree with much of what that article says…especially when it comes to the ‘mainstream’ portrayal of Polyamory and the reasons behind it… All it really does I serve to create divisions that don’t actually exist outside of a set of subjective definitions of what Polyamory is.
Nothing is real; everything is experienced.
I see this article about polynormativity as a reaction to mainstream attention being given to this idea. That’s the problem I have with it, and this is why: As humans, we observe just as (if not more) subjectively than we experience. Maybe this is just us Americans… (Does the rest of the world have this problem? Is it just me? Gosh… I really hope it’s not just me.) We are generally very unclear in our communication about the distinction between when we are describing something, and when we are labeling it. Most commonly people do the two like they are interchangeable, when they are not. Most notably with the way we ‘describe’ ourselves. I could describe my self as an american, black, poly, feminist geek. (I don’t.) But what those things mean to me, they may not mean to others. American is only a descriptor of my country of origin. Black is only a descriptor of my race. When these descriptors are used to describe or define who I am, they are no longer descriptors, they are labels. Just like polyamorous, feminist, and geek. They are labels, and when we describe ourselves with a label, we automatically subject ourselves to everyone else’s interpretation of that label even though we are describing ourselves from our own interpretation of this label. The problem is, that as groups grow in numbers that shared meaning of the label becomes increasingly part of the group identity. This can happen on its own sometimes, but especially when there is an outside threat, the group identity then becomes something that needs to be protected. The group then works to segregate differentiate between the ‘true’ identity of the group, and those who are just calling themselves by the label.
This need to create these artificial divisions to protect the “true” meaning of the label is not unique to Poly. Our twitter stream has been full of people struggling with whether or not to continue to identify with “mainstream feminism”, and the phenomenon of the “fake geek”, and even in politics, there is/was the RINO who was just too darn moderate to be a “real” republican. Just like with these examples, Someone outside of Polyamory who looks at it is going to see what resonates with them more clearly than they are going to see everything else. I think that would be acceptable to most people on a one-on-one basis. If you’re explaining what polyamory is to a new coworker, and their response is “wow, it’s possible for a married woman like me to have a girlfriend and not lose my marriage?!? that’s great!’ I doubt anyone would truly have a problem with that interaction. Why should it be any different when it’s ‘the mainstream’ looking in? I don’t want this post to be seen as a rant against the sex geek post; it’s not. (I did comment about my differences with the article there, so like I said earlier read the post, read the blog, and form your own opinion.) Most of these ideas have been in my head for some time now, and have been brewing. That post was so well written, and it just happened to be the spark that made it all coalesce and the words start pouring.
So, what is my point in all of this? Nothing is real; everything is experienced. I experience being a black man in America. I experience being Polyamorous. I experience identifying with parts of geek culture and much of feminist ideology. But, if I publicly apply those or any other labels to myself, I am opening myself up to everyone else’s subjective and experiential interpretation of those labels whether I like it and agree with it or not. What my creed really gets at for me is the nature of what tolerance truly means. When I first learned about polyamory, and sought out info online, it was often said that there were as many differnt types of polyamory as there are poly relationships and they are all ‘right’ if they are the right relationship for the people involved. I don’t see this as much anymore, and I dislike it. I so often see people preach, and advocate for more tolerance in the world. That advocacy often ends when it comes to tolerating other people’s conflicting definitions of the labels that they hold most dear. If we truly want tolerant communities, be it communities of race, social interest or anything else, we have to allow for views of the world that are wholly different than our own, even though they may share the same label. My experiences are mine, and no one can take them from me. The same is true of yours.