Deviant Polyamory, Normal Monogamy

(Here’s a link to the article I’m responding to.)

Thinking about the relation of “being poly” to “being monogamous” made me think of the relation of “being radical” to “being neoliberal,” or of “being queer” to “being straight.” Specifically, it made me think of how these are asymmetrical pairs:

1. Being poly/radical/queer is deviant; being monogamous/neoliberal/straight is normal.
2. People commonly self-identify as poly/radical/queer, while people rarely self-identify as monogamous/neoliberal/straight. In other words, people doing deviancy say, “This is what I am,” while people doing normalcy say “This is what I’m doing” (if, indeed, they comment on their normal behavior at all).*

I think part of what’s going on is that people doing deviancy are trying to justify themselves by framing their deviancy as part of their essential nature rather than as an incidental behavior. Recall the political efficacy of the “I was born this way”-argument by gay Americans during the past decade: you can’t fault someone for being what they are. In other words, I suggest that a big part of identity politics involves deploying a “This is what I am“-frame in defense of deviant behavior against attacks from normalcy-advocates.

On the other hand, people doing normalcy see their own behavior as a universal default rather than one identity among others. So, they describe their own, normal behavior in the same kind of apolitical language that you’d use to talk about weather or geology. Think about it: almost no one in the US says “I am a neoliberal; I advocate neoliberal policies.” Yet neoliberal ideas–i.e. the primacy of contract-based markets as mechanisms of human welfare–are taken for granted in mainstream political discussion. Neoliberalism is so obvious to many Americans that it doesn’t need a name. It is such a powerful ideology that it successfully presents itself as apolitical common sense.

Ditto for monogamy and heterosexuality–and, come to think of it, theism. There’s a reason we commonly talk about “atheists” but rarely about “theists.” The reason is that theism is normal (i.e. hegemonic) while atheism is deviant.

There is sophisticated rhetoric at work when different groups choose between using essentialist “I am” language vs. seemingly-apolitical “I do” language. This rhetoric is presumably unconscious: rather than doing the kind of analysis I’ve just done, most people just talk in a way that seems useful and sensible to them. (This is an example of meme-evolution.) But, purposive or otherwise, the rhetoric is there, because the oppressed must always find ways to justify themselves, while the powerful simply point.

*(Hopefully it’s obvious that I’m using “deviant” and “normal” descriptively and not normatively.)

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2 comments

  1. Some great insights. Thanks for sharing them. Perhaps it is easier for us to say, “I am” rather than “I do” so that we don’t have to admit even to ourselves that we are abnormal.

  2. Thanks! I’m not sure I agree, though. My take is that people doing abnormality use “I am”-framing not to cover up the fact that they/we deviate from normalcy, but rather to argue that abnormality is a legitimate position (alongside normality). Queer people, for example (and to make sweeping generalities), are very aware of the fact that we are outside of mainstream, normal heterosexuality (and/or cisgenderism). It seems to me that the “I was born this way” argument is an attempt to make our abnormal queerness legitimate by showing that it’s natural (i.e. naturally-occurring; part of the natural order), and not an attempt to show that being queer is as normal as being cis/hetero. So I think the function of “I am”-framing is about legitimacy, not normalcy. BUT I think you make a good point that there’s a lot of shame that can go with being abnormal or deviant, and we surely do find methods of self-deception with which to obscure our own deviance from ourselves.

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