yinWhen I agreed to publish Glenn Parton’s essay Love Politics on this blog last week, I warned Glenn to expect a firestorm of response. While I was very intrigued by the ideas in the essay, I was disturbed by the way he broached some of these ideas. Several respondents have complained about the essay, with the loudest criticism being about his overromanticizing of the ‘free love’ movement of the 1960s (which Glenn and I both grew up during), his apparent misogynism and homophobia, and his preoccupation with the sexual aspects of relationships over the emotional ones. I will confess that I share readers’ concerns on all these scores. At the same time, I believe the underlying message of Glenn’s essay is fundamentally valid, and extremely important. Rather than debate the concerns, I’d prefer to try to restate what I learned from the essay, hopefully in a less provocative way than Glenn’s, and focus the debate on the core ideas and their implications:

  1. Our society, our civilization, morally permits each of us to love, passionately and without limit, only one other person. If we violate this moral rule, we are called ‘unfaithful’, and this is considered a sin, fully justifying jealousy by the first person we loved. If this love manifests itself sexually, it is called ‘adultery’ and is illegal as well as immoral. People who do love more than one person, passionately and without limit, are demonized and shunned in our society.
  2. This limitation of permission to love is unnatural, and renders us psychologically ill, stunted, and repressed. This psychological illness manifests itself in anger, violence, hatred, neglect of others, depression, withdrawal, lack of emotional resilience, self-loathing, disconnection from our senses and from the Earth, and emotional detachment, emotional retardation, emotional isolation, emotional shallowness and emotional immaturity. In psychologists’ terms it makes us neurotic and psychopathic. This is not inconsistent with Prescott’s thesis that human violence stems from a combination of neglect or abuse in early childhood, and sexual repression as we grow older.
  3. Our political and economic systems promote and perpetuate this emotional trauma because it weakens and divides us, makes us politically meek, intellectually lazy and emotionally disconnected from our true wants and needs, and hence more malleable as passive students, workers, and consumers of commercial products and political rhetoric, all against our better interests.
  4. This emotional ‘closing-off’ is entrenched and reinforced by our society’s, our civilization’s, indoctrination of the absolute need and reverence for private, restricted property. Land and chattels ‘belong’ to a nuclear one-male, one-female family unit, we are repeatedly told that they are what, along with ‘exclusive’ love, gives that family unit substance, value and meaning, and in turn, the emotionally co-dependent spouses in the nuclear family ‘belong’ absolutely to each other (“til death do them part”), and the children ‘belong’ absolutely to the parents until they are “given away” in marriage and enter into a new, limited, co-dependent relationship. Homosexuality is abhorred because it doesn’t ‘fit’ this model.
  5. As a consequence, the community is destroyed in favour of the isolated, helpless, insecure, competitive, self-interested family unit and the all-powerful corporatist State. Our co-dependence on our exclusive partner and our dependence on the corporatist State are thus deepened, an inescapable emotional, economic and political prison.
  6. Our ability to love and be loved is unlimited. It is a gift that grows and seeds itself and is enriched when it is reciprocated. There is no such thing as too much love, and until civilization imposed its brutal restrictions, it ‘cost’ nothing. It is liberating, and arguably the true source of life’s meaning.

So what does this all mean? If you can accept these six Principles About Love, what are their implications? What does this tell us about how we should live?

I think it’s safe to say that this kind of emotional openness would only work in a community whose members were self-selected, and where there was substantial trust among the members. That describes lots of tribal cultures, but in our culture, only communes even come close. My guess would be that most communes have failed either because they tried to live idealistically, completely cut off from the rest of civilization (instead of taking the best technologies and the best aspects of modern society and melding them with the best of communal life), or they lived on the periphery of civilization and didn’t know enough about business and economics to operate successfully ‘partly within the system’. And many communes were pretty liberal at allowing new members and visitors in without limits, which would certainly strain trust. The new terms Intentional Community and Bioregional Community are similar to, though somewhat broader than, ‘commune’, but they are vulnerable to the same failings. With the right mix of pragmatism, economic and business understanding, and rigorous review and unanimous approval of new members, however, there is no reason why these types of community shouldn’t work well, and they would provide a perfect laboratory for the kind of emotional openness that Glenn espouses.

Glenn makes a point of saying he is not advocating promiscuity or a culture that compels the acceptance of unwanted, coercive emotional or sexual advances. What he is saying is that people in a trusting community should be free to love, passionately and without limit, more than one person, and to express that love in any way that is mutually agreed upon, and that such love should in no way diminish the love that either partner feels and expresses for others in the community. He is saying that exclusive pairing is not ‘hard wired’ into us, and that we could learn to permit ourselves, and those we love, to develop deep, guilt-free, jealousy-free, loving relationships with many people within a trusted community. And he is saying that if we could allow ourselves that freedom we would be happier, more peaceful, more respectful, more attentive, more optimistic, more connected with each other, our senses and the Earth, more emotionally resilient, self-loving, emotionally balanced, more feeling, and more emotionally mature. And with that emotional health would come the clarity, strength, and vision needed to tackle and overcome many of the intractable problems that bedevil civilization. I think this makes a lot of sense.

I don’t believe we need this kind of emotional liberation to save the world, but I don’t think it would hurt.

If you didn’t get this from Glenn’s essay, this may be due more to my imagining of what he meant than your misunderstanding. As Daniel Dennett says “On any important topic, we tend to have a rough idea of what we believe to be true, and when an author writes the words we want to read, we tend to fall for it, no matter how shoddy the arguments.” And I expect that Glenn will weigh in himself on what he really meant. But now that I’ve delineated what I got out of his essay, and why I think his basic idea is very sensible and very important, I’d be interested in your thoughts. Naive? Idealistic? Wrong-headed? Insensitive? Or is there something here that bears closer scrutiny, and maybe a real-world trial?

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  1. Denny says:

    It’s interesting to read these ideas in the form of rational arguments. It’s the only plane on which they work. Certainly, they don’t work on the plane of real life. I was a young man in the 60s and was familiar with the “free love” experimentation. It didn’t work then, and it won’t work now. The reason is because of the natural emotions that people have when in intimate relationships. The only way to experience this kind of free love successfully is if the participants are sexually intimate, but emotionally detached from each other. People have needs that only an intimate relationship can satisfy. The more emotionally intimate people become, the more they naturally need and want commitment to an exclusive relationship. Try it sometime!

  2. Philip says:

    Sounds like RAH in most of his novels after Stranger in a Strange Land. Utopian visions are attractive and impractical in my own opinion and experience. Men and women exist in “equal” numbers suggesting a natural one to one corespondance. In any interpersonal relationship the dynamics change constantly. Maintaining intimacy with more than one person is a challenge maintaining intimacy with a single person is a challenge. Then you have raising children. Will you work hard to support children that are not yours? Some people need the bond of blood, could they change? Perhaps I’m not sure how much is nature vs nurture in this question.In the idealized world with low density tribal groups there is one set of strategies that work. In our own society it requires different strategies.I would say remove all criminal penalties for adultery. I don’t think society is served by making consensual sex a crime. Only 20 of our states still hold adultery to be a crime even then most of those rarely prosecute.Nope I think the world is a better place without the alpha males controlling access to the breeding females.

  3. hetty says:

    I think we’re just socialized to be monogamous and I agree that it’s not healthy or natural. Communities should raise children (a la Island by Huxley) and men shouldn’t know which children they’ve fathered.

  4. Jim says:

    Glenn Parton may be right but in the part of the essay that I read he provided no evidence to support his assertions. What he presented were “truths” (which he seems to believe are self evident) couched in sympathetic language. It may be that Parton discussed the public health aspects of free love in the part of the essay I missed. I was interested in how he might address that question.

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Denny, Philip (and doubters in the original post) — I think some of the arguments against what Glenn is saying are confusing cause with effect. I would suggest that our propensity to form monogomous relationships, and the failure of deep non-exclusive ones, is due to our social/cultural conditioning, and lack of practice, rather than anything inherent in our species or nature. Hetty: I agree, and I’m curious — do you think the British culture, where children may be sent away to school young and have limited contact with their fathers, would make what you advocate easier there than it is here in NAmerica?Jim: As was pointed out in the original post comment thread, Glenn’s article didn’t deal with physical health, only emotional health. And while I suspect he’d admit that much more sexual activity is inherent in what he is advocating, I’m not so sure it need be. You can have a very powerful love without sex, and any two people in such a liberated environment may not have sex any more often, they may just each have it with more different partners. So public health need not be an issue, especially in a community with a fairly closed membership and a great deal of trust.

  6. Jim says:

    Glenn’s essay is all about sexual activity. He comes right out and says that his focus is on sexual love. He writes: “Love Politics is the idea that sex, the oldest force in the world for building community, when linked throughout to emancipatory consciousness, is still the basis for building a political community that puts us on the path towards a good society.” He may be using the terms sex and love interchangeably. Are they the same thing? To him they may be. As far as the point about community with a fairly closed membership, how does that square with the “good society” that Parton is saying these practices will result in. Restricting relationships to a community with a fairly closed membership doesn’t sound like ir gives individuals all that much choice in finding and developing relationships, as presumably these would be subject to review by the community as a whole.

  7. Don Dwiggins says:

    I recently read a review in Scientific American that reminded me of Parton’s thesis, and now I see this followup; nice synchronicity.The book being reviewed is “Why We Love”, by Helen Fisher; you can see the review at http://tinyurl.com/34xg6 (I _love_ tinyurl! ;^)I think that book, and the review, offer a more useful setting to address issues like this. It’s fun to swap stories and experiences, but it’s better to test the theories with as wide a variety of real instances as possible (yeah, I suppose I’m being a spoil-sport). One quote from the review particularly intrigues me: “For instance, baboons can simultaneously be “in love” with more than one individual, a capacity that, according to anthropologist Helen Fisher, most humans lack.” I’d guess that Fisher is drawing on some anthropological research for that assertion; it’d be interesting to see at least a summary of the evidence.Personally, like Dave, I’d guess that high-trust, high-caring relationship networks are more important to the health of societies than who sleeps with whom (and how many “whoms”).

  8. NeoLotus says:

    As Jim said, Parton’s essay is about sex. As Parton is male I find it suspect meaning he ain’t gettin’ enough. Doesn’t mean I don’t think he has a thought worth exploring but it is exceedingly one-sided and the issues very sloppily addressed and wholly based on supposition rather than a substantial view of history, anthropology, other cultures, and a deep view of what people really seek in their relationships.It must also be pointed out that sexual relations and true intimacy are not the same thing even if he makes a big deal about trust and consensuality. I’ve been exploring this myself lately and have come face-to-face with having experienced a deeply intimate but non-sexual encounter but because of the constrictions in our society about anything intimate outside of marriage, particularly in a Christian context, he won’t even be friends because of the risk of “temptation.” Feh. Due in part to my being stuck between a rock and a boulder I found myself looking up stuff in the BDSM world which provides a perspective of the human mind and our emotionally needs left unaddressed in the vanilla world. The point of commonality is the laurentian (enormously deep) need for communion so as not to feel alone and isolated in a world full of people. We NEED to connect with others and there is no way on earth that a single person can fulfill ALL our emotional, mental, and even physical/sexual needs. Not everyone gives a good back rub.The mistake Parton’s makes is to put ALL our needs into one basket and claim that it alone will result in making a better world politically and socially. He is as guilty of ignorance as those he rails against for their ignorance reducing the complexity of the human mind and our emotional needs to a single physical act that may or may not be the communion of soul people desire.

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