No, I’m not going to examine the moral-theological questions concerning polyamory; I’ve been thinking about them because of what follows, and it strikes me as a more interesting problem than my superficial moral-theological assessment (“No,” or maybe “No!”) would usually imply. For this post, I’m writing about a specific incident and its hermeneutical ramifications.
(Note: many of the links that follow point to sites with, as they say, “strong adult content.”)
A couple of weeks ago, Jeph Jacques wrote an episode in his daily webcomic Questionable Content in which the central character (a man named Marten) and his colleague/boss (a woman student named Tai) discussed Marten’s relationship with his girlfriend Dora. Marten hadn’t had much of a love life in the backstory of the comic; he had grown very deeply close to his apartment-mate, a woman named Faye — but Faye had not been able to accept him as a boyfriend, and after a while, Marten and Dora (a bisexual woman who owns the coffee shop at which she and Faye both work) fell for each other. They’ve had a very positive, and very durable, relationship ever since. In fact, Dora just moved in to Marten and Faye’s apartment. (Excuse me, I should be saying “flat.”)
Tai is attending a women’s college that the webcomic transparently identifies as “Smif.” She is a lesbian who has, throughout her acquaintance with Marten, expressed a strong affirmation of her polyamorous philosophy and practice. In the particular comic in question — posted on a Friday — Tai expresses her envy for Marten and Dora’s happy, stable, long-term relationship. Marten is taken aback, but Tai indicates that she thinks eventually she’d like to settle down with someone like Dora. Someone exactly like Dora, as it turns out: “I can’t believe that out of all the hot chicks you know, you have to get into a committed relationship with the ONLY ONE who’s also into girls.”
So, to give a summary: in this episode, Tai indicates that she imagines someday settling down with another woman (such as Dora) in a monogamous relationship.
Very much to Jacques’ surprise, the moment he posted the episode to the web, his twitter feed began filling up with very angry protests from readers who had identified sympathetically with the polyamorous Tai. I haven’t tracked down all the original tweets to which Jeph — evidently feeling blind-sided and besieged — was responding, but his responses show him scrambling to answer his furious readers. (Here are selected samples from the archives of his Twitter stream, set in chronological order; I’ve edited out the tags of his interlocutors.)
As I said to someone who emailed me, Tai’s outlook is certainly not meant to be a catch-all point of view on the polyamorous lifestyle!
I mean, Tai SAID she wants ONE PERSON TO SETTLE DOWN WITH. That by definition means she’s not polyamorous! She’s just figuring this out.
You can be polyamorous and totally into committment, you can be poly and have lots of casual sex, there’s lots of ways to do it.
The point of Friday’s comic is Tai going “hey, this situation I’m in isn’t fulfilling for me,” not “ALL POLYAMORY IS UNFULFILLING”
[Responding to a particular tweet] it comes off like that because mono IS better than poly, FOR HER. not for everyone else.
[Responding to tweeter A] I can understand why it might be disappointing, but in no way is it a blanket statement about the validity of polyamory.
[Re-responding to tweeter A] I’ve reread the comic 50 times and there is no way “tai realizes she might not be poly” = “poly relationships can’t be serious”
[Responding to tweeter B] why read comics you don’t like?
[Re-responding to tweeter B] I don’t ask to be a smartass, I just don’t get that mindset. There are plenty of comics I don’t like, so I don’t read ’em!
[Re-responding again to B, a few tweets later] hahaha WOW. i’ve had plenty of folks wish I would get cancer or whatever but that is a new low
[Re-re-responding to tweeter A] dude, let it go. Tai finding that poly doesn’t work for her does not mean I’m saying mono is inherently “better.”
Polyamorous folks: would you agree that “polyamory is not a compromise?” Need to know for Monday’s (potential) script.
I mean a compromise in the sense that if it’s not your ideal situation, you probably shouldn’t do it.
okay! People seem to agree with that, so hopefully monday’s strip will not step on too many toes or ruffle too many feathers
[Responding to yet another tweeter] people forget stuff that happened hundreds of strips ago! if I had realized it would be an issue I woulda linked that comic.
Jacques’s comments illustrate a number of points that I’ve tried to make about language and interpretation. Most important, there’s no way to control interpretation. Jacques correctly (to my mind) notes that the story arcs of his characters show no inclination to devalue polyamory in principle, and asserts that the specific words (and, he might have added, illustrations) do not in any way imply that he or his characters deprecate polyamory as a way of life. Indeed, several episodes before, Marten seems to envy Tai’s life of “recreational drug use, casual sex, and occasional studying” (if any episode was going to cause a stir among QC’s polyamorous fans, I’d have thought it would be this one, in which Tai acknowledges that her life “gets boring after a while.”) But the point isn’t the specific words Jacques (or Tai, or Marten) used; the point is that intentionally or not, they gave cause for QC’s polyamorous readers to feel slighted. Jacques hadn’t anticipated that the strip would irritate (nor would I have), but then we aren’t polyamorists swimming against a stream of culturally-dominant monogamy.
To Jacques’ credit, he took account of the protests and designed the subsequent Monday’s episode to clarify whence Tai was coming. It seems to have satisfied his readers, though I think the strip itself was stiff and unconvincing; on my reading, his characters would not have felt the necessity for making Tai’s position explicit, the way that Jacques’s other readers felt important. It looks to me like better politics than it is good art. Again, not my call, and I admire his willingness not to just shrug and suppose “It’s their problem.”
Hermeneutical lesson: All the things you might want to enlist in your defense if you offend somebody — your intentions, your history as a good actor, the specific meaning you ascribe to your words (and that you think anyone ought to) — can’t defuse the offense. If you care about communicating with people, you have to allow that they construe your utterances, gestures, behaviour differently from what you wish. And once a particular utterance/gesture/act has given offense, appeals to your defenses are unlikely to resolve the problem. Constructive remediation, and manifest response to the basis of the offense, are likely to be the most productive way forward.
And all of this applies doubly (or even more, trebly or quadrally or quintuply or more) to people who inhabit positions of cultural dominance relative to those whom they offend. Disavowing responsibility for the offense, assigning the problem to them, only intensifies the misunderstanding and offense; that’s the “liberal white guy” response, that “I can’t be wrong because my attitudes are all in the right place.” (Here I mean “liberal” in a particular, narrow usage, the way Phil Ochs satirizes in “Love Me, I’m a Liberal.”) The problem in such situations isn’t that the aggrieved party hasn’t done their interpretation “correctly,” it’s that someone doesn’t care enough about what some of their neighbours think to acknowledge and take account of their relation to your behaviour.