Our Happy Destiny: my keynote talk at Atlanta Poly Weekend
Continuing on the topic of Atlanta Poly Weekend, some of you asked me to post the talk I gave at the closing on Sunday afternoon. Here it is. No apologies if you've seen some of it before.
Our Happy Destiny: Polyamory in the Coming Years
(Modified from a speech I gave at Loving More’s Poly Living Conference in February 2012)
Hi! I'm Alan. Thanks so much for coming. It says here that this is the weekend’s closing keynote, so I am going to take that literally. I've done this before at the start of a conference, but now…
This is a pitch pipe. (Holds it up.)
And this is a key note. (Blows pitch pipe.)
A key note, remember, is sounded for a chorus, so that the people can start singing together on the same key. But now, the show is mostly over and winding up!
Well, every ending is a beginning. We’re going to say our goodbyes and walk away from this magic, special space that everyone has created, out into the old ordinary world.
You know about “con drop?” The disorientation, the emotional crash that can happen after a gathering of really special people in a special place, when you go back out into the… ordinary? Well… may I sound for you a key note to set the tone, for what I hope we can carry away back with us out into the wilderness.
You know, so much of the world looks like it’s turning for the worse. Climate change is going to grow more severe with no turning back yet in sight. International crises and wars are going to increase as a result, the Defense Department says, because of food, water, and resource disruption. Our own once proudly functional political system is broken, the rich and powerful are becoming more rich and powerful and further abandoning their connection to the rest of us; their pet crazies have seized the works and deny everything – you know the drill – I won’t make this a political rant.
But of all the things I’ve ever been active in, poly was the very first and closest to my heart. And it warms me no end now to see that public understanding of what's now called polyamory, and acceptance of relationship choice, is one thing that looks like in coming years is just going to get better. As we go out of here this afternoon, we can look forward to things for us and our communities getting better, and take comfort in that, and be a part of making that happen.
I called this talk “Our Happy Destiny: Polyamory in the Coming Years.” A few of you will recognize, with a little bit of sentiment, where that came from: the final section of the science fiction story Stranger in a Strange Land is titled His Happy Destiny. And I know we are going to have an easier time of it than the title character in that novel did.
I’ve been in and out of the poly world ever since I was invited into a group of young Stranger in a Strange Land waterbrothers – bonded lovers – when I was 17. I’ve been really back into it for the last eight years. That’s because after a long time out of it, living a pretty conventional life, I discovered in 2005 that what was now being called the polyamory movement had grown and matured enormously while I wasn’t looking. It seemed loaded with fine people who had great ideas and values, and was really getting its act together. So I dove back in.
One thing I’ve been doing is running the Polyamory in the News website. I’ve reported on more than 1,400 news articles, magazine articles, radio and TV broadcasts, all sorts of things, as poly and the poly movement have been coming into the eyes of the wider public. And the trends I’ve seen across these last eight years are really good.
What I’d like to do here is say my piece – and pardon me if you’ve heard some of it before – and then throw it open for discussion.
A few things right away. We’re getting on TV a lot more, and it’s only beginning. This matters to the culture. And by and large, it’s been pretty damn good TV – that emphasizes how much polys care for each other, and how they work at making their relationships good for everyone involved. There were a lot of human-interest news reports like this in the last year, some of them really breaking ground for positivity. There was the Polyamory: Married and Dating series last summer on the Showtime network – which was successful enough that it’s been renewed for a second season. And the best-ever portrayal of us on mainstream TV in my opinion happened just a couple weeks ago on the Oprah Winfrey network, with the hour-long Lisa Ling "Our America" documentary including Gina, Shaun, Jessie, Wes, and Ginny here. We really owe you guys immensely.
This is worlds away from how the media used to be toward the poly vision, on TV especially. They really didn’t used to have a clue what it was, or how to treat it other than as a joke or something to pretend to be shocked by. They still don’t always think it’s a good idea, but at least they usually get it now. And, so do more and more watchers and readers and listeners. People are learning the word. The idea that happy multi-love relationships exist, and are happening, and can be a successful way of life for some people – it's much more out there in the culture than it used to be. And that’s going to grow, and grow.
It’s slow. Even a thing like the Lisa Ling show on cable has less than a million viewers, out of 300 million Americans. But it’s happening. A decade ago almost no one you talked to imagined that loving truly, and happily, and openly beyond a couple was even possible. Most people assumed the idea was just completely outside of human nature.
There’s more coming down the road. Reid Mihalko has worked in and around the TV industry and has said for several years now that Hollywood is quite aware of modern polyamory and its potential to seize viewers' interest. He says TV people have been nosing around the edges of it for at least five years now, since he pitched his own half-hour sitcom Polly and Marie to HBO. He says they came within an inch of buying it. But they were nervous about how advertisers would react. In TV, advertisers rule everything. Now in the last year it looks like maybe this dam is starting to break.
Demand for publicly out polys who want to appear in the media exceeds the supply. People like Robyn Trask in Loving More, and Anita Wagner active in the Poly Leadership Network, keep getting calls for people to interview. Truly – if you want to try your hand at representing open relationships and poly life to the public, the way is open for you. Joreth here has been training out-and-proud polyfolks to become skilled, effective public spokespeople for themselves. There are necessary tricks to this, especially for TV, and they’re easy to learn. She’ll coach you in this for free. Joreth, what's your email where people should write? (Answer: joreth (at) techie.com.) Thanks. And also, call Robyn Trask at Loving More, who has a lot of experience with this too and who gets a lot of calls from media looking for people.
The things we are saying and doing truly grab attention. We turn heads. With relationship roles and rules and ideals in flux throughout society, society is increasingly ready to hear us, and see us, and consider our examples.
Here is something I saw change in just 2½ years. You remember the flap a year ago over Newt Gingrich demanding from his wife that they have an open marriage. Unlike previous cheating-politician scandals, that event became a vehicle for lots of major media attention to good open and poly relationships, contrasting with how Gingrich did it. There were profiles of people doing multiple relationships well, and articles on how to make them work with honesty and close communication and compassion and respect, in the New York Times (twice), the BBC, USA Today, many others.
Now: Contrast that experience with the Governor Mark Sanford cheating-politician scandal 2½ years earlier, which also captivated the nation. Sanford was the governor of South Carolina. Mr. Hiking the Appalachian Trail, with the secret mistress in Argentina. During that, Loving More sent out a press release to media high and low trying to drum up attention for people doing multiple relationships with kindness and consent and good ethics all around – and they couldn’t get a peep of interest. Something really changed in just the couple years between those things.
And while we're on this topic, last year we crossed a certain milestone in poly history – we became a political football in a way that was good for us. For years, we’ve been the Something Awful that’s waiting at the bottom of the slippery slope of gay marriage. But the day before the Florida Republican primary last spring, the largest newspaper in Florida’s largest Republican belt, the Tampa Bay Times, published a long feature article on the people in their local poly community and their high ethical standards – explicitly drawing a contrast between them and Newt Gingrich right in the lead paragraphs. The newspaper was profiling us very positively to drive home Gingrich's scuzziness by comparison, the day before Florida’s vote.
If we’re going to be used as a political football, that’s a pretty good football to be.
It’s now at the point where, just for an example, a couple weeks ago a commentator at the University of Maryland had this to say:
“...I’m the wrong person to explain exactly what polyamory is, as I fall under the umbrella of monogamy. However... the polyamorous people I have encountered in my life are some of the most stable and rational people I know. They develop strong emotional connections with their partners. They have real, loving relationships and can even be happily married with children. Though their relationships are often hidden to avoid social stigma, when you get to know them as people, they are just as open and happy about their relationships as anyone else.”
Some polyfolks clearly impressed that guy pretty favorably. Thank you, whoever you were. This stuff is happening a lot. One thing I hope I can leave you with as we go out of here, is that we can help a poly-friendly world to develop by being our best in how we run our lives and in how we impress the people around us.
Now, as we become more widely seen and talked about and thought about, is there going to be a backlash in the next few years? A big moral-panic persecution, as the things we’re saying become less avoidable, less dismissable – and therefore maybe more threatening?
My prediction is no. I used to think there would be a great backlash at some point, but now I don’t.
There will continue to be a lot of pain and discrimination. There will continue to be trouble from your birth families, and in court from hostile judges in child-custody divorce cases, and from bosses who may fire you. But gradually less with time.
One reason why I think this, is that an organized backlash has already been tried. From about 2003 to 2006, some top-level conservative think tanks and journals tried to whip up a campaign against us as the next great threat to civilization that they could defend everyone from. Not just as a side exhibit in the gay-marriage debate, but as a threat in our own right. It was all over the serious conservative journals like the National Review and the Weekly Standard.
This campaign gained very little traction beyond the conservative movement’s immediate followers. It didn't take. So, they pretty much just dropped it, and went on to try other things that would do better in the panic market.
Meanwhile, therefore, we have had year after year now in which we’ve been defining ourselves to the public on our own terms. This is crucial. Politicians spend millions of dollars trying to define themselves to the public before their opponents can do it. We've done it on a shoestring.
We've done it thanks to a whole lot of brave volunteers – including in Loving More, the Polyamory Leadership Network, a whole lot of local groups all over, and the folks right here who created this conference from scratch starting three years ago. Thanks to all these people, we’ve successfully represented the modern polyamory movement to the public as what we know ourselves to be: ethical people who care deeply about good relationships — smart, verbal, interesting, friendly people — nonthreatening and respectful of all well-considered relationship choices, monogamy included — and by and large just kind of adorable. Every year we are better entrenching this public image, firming up our defense against future moral panics.
It is going to get easier. It's gradually going to get easier to be out. And when that happens, the dam will really burst.
Remember, the dam broke on gay issues when a flood of gay people finally got sick of the closet and came out all over the place in just a few years in the mid-1980s. We’re not quite there yet. But it’s going to happen.
And now I want to look ahead much farther into the future, where a lot of things in the world may get grim.
Barry Smiler, who was here last year, has said, quote:
I'm more than half convinced that in the future when
historians look back on the poly movement, we'll be
remembered not so much for multiple partners, but
rather as the cauldron in which was developed some
powerful tools and frameworks for discussing and
negotiating win-win in relationship situations.
In other words, we’re among the people developing powerful tools and frameworks for getting along intimately in close, complex social structures. Maybe you see where this is going.
As someone who was influenced early by science fiction, I try to take long views.
150 or 200 years from now, I sometimes think, I see surviving cultures spreading out and recolonizing over the climate-changed, resource-overshot wreckage of the 21st and 22nd centuries.
Getting to a sustainable world on the other side, or maybe with any luck before things get that bad — “sustainable” meaning a world that is both good and able to last — will not happen, without the emergence of genuinely attractive life alternatives to high material consumption.
A sustainable world will surely require more people sharing homes, kitchens, child-rearing, goods and resources of all kinds. Life in more crowded quarters, in a low-consumption economy of resource-sharing, is generally a worse way to live in the present culture. People strive hard all their lives to move in the opposite direction: to get bigger, emptier homes farther apart. Closer living, using less material goods, will truly attract people only in a new culture of unusually high interpersonal and group-living skills by today’s standards.
Never mind about sex and romance for a moment. I see today’s polyamory community gardening up sprouts of these next-level interpersonal and group-interaction skills – the practices, and ideology, and the interpersonal value system of a new culture. I really want these ideas and practices to take root well enough to survive through ugly times, if that’s what’s coming, and be there to seed the ground on the other side.
Second point: Back to sex and romance. A sustainable world is going to require attractive ways to pursue and acquire richness and purpose and meaning in life that do not involve Getting More Stuff. The ways that people find richness and value and meaning will need to have low resource costs. Which means, finding these things in each other. As the bumpersticker says: “The best things in life aren’t things.”
A culture offering wide possibilities for romance and sexual intimacy, or just deeply intimate socialization throughout life, can offer abundant richness and purpose. A materially simple life need not be simple in any other way.
I have no use for fairyland woo-woo about these things. But I do think that the polyamory paradigm might help to humanize the world. I think that it might even someday generalize the magic of romantic love into something larger and more powerful in the world than the isolated couple-love where society has safely walled it away. Thus helping to provide ways to lead rich, rewarding, meaning-filled lives without the Earth-killing pursuit of Ever More Stuff.
And thirdly: Sexual repression in a culture is an accurate predictor (as the CIA is said to be quite aware) of a culture’s tendency toward war hysterias, religious fanaticism, submission to authoritarian rule, and pathologies of denialism toward reality-based ways of thought. So, a safer world will have to be freer of it. And we’re on the intellectual cutting edge against sexual repression.
So: Is this really going to be the great future that this movement has ahead for us?
Well, as the computer pioneer Alan Kay said: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”
So. (Blows pitch pipe.) As we go out into the world again when we close down here, just go for it. Follow your dream, follow your bliss. Help make it happen. “Life rewards people who move in the direction of greatest courage.” It’s going to get better for us. The wind is with us.