"Building the Poly Movement": My keynote speech at Rocky Mountain Poly Living
Loving More puts on two Poly Living conventions each year, in Philadelphia and Denver. I went to my first Rocky Mountain Poly Living April 15–17 and gave the keynote talk starting things off Friday evening. People asked me to put it online. Here it is.
You may recognize some of my central themes.
Building the Poly Future
When Robyn [Trask] asked me to do this talk I knew what I wanted to say. Three things to say, actually — to lay out a larger perspective on what we’re doing here this weekend.
We’re incredibly lucky to live in a time when ideas like ours can be noticed, take root, and thrive. Think what we’re doing. We are confronting the world with deep new relationship values, new modes of formerly forbidden loving intimacy, new family structures, and new demands for self-determination — all with high ideals of ethics, honesty, and communication. The world is noticing, and the world is fascinated. The wind is with us.
Now a whole lot of things in the world today look like they’re getting worse. But it warms me no end to see that public understanding of the possibility of multiple love and group relationships, and acceptance of relationship choice, is one thing that looks like it’s just going to get better and better in the coming years. And we right here have been a big part of making that happen. Loving More was there when this movement was barely a movement. . . . (Do fundraising plug for Loving More.)
One thing I’ve been doing is running a website called Polyamory in the News. In the last 11 years it’s reported on over 2,000 newspaper and magazine articles, radio and TV broadcasts, and new-media stories of all kinds, during the decade when the poly movement really came onto the world’s radar. And most of the trends I’ve seen happening are really good. I’m doing a workshop on that tomorrow.
And by the way, if you might like to go on TV or radio representing for polyamory, you probably can. The demand for articulate, out polys willing to do media exceeds the supply. Talk to Robyn about that. She can help train you up with some basic tips, and send you good media inquiries that Loving More gets. She’s particularly looking to get a wider diversity of people than you usually see representing us on TV.
This wider exposure of our ideas is beginning to change the wider culture. The media exposure we’ve been getting is pretty darn good, by and large – partly because this movement is blessed with so many fine people who set good examples, and partly because we’ve been emphasizing things like how much polyfolks care for each other, and work to try to make their relationships good for everyone involved, and how this requires efforts to develop communication and relationship skills that monogamous people can learn from too. But most of all, healthy polyamorous relationships are just gradually becoming more familiar. Normalized.
The world is learning the word. The idea that happy multi-love relationships really exist, are actually happening, that they can be a rich, successful way of life for certain people – is much more out there than it used to be. There’s been an especially big rush of this in just the last 8 or 9 months. It’s growing and it will keep growing. The world is increasingly ready to hear us, and see us, and consider our examples. To realize the existence of what Elisabeth Sheff-Stefanik calls the polyamorous possibility.
There will continue to be a lot of pain and discrimination. There will continue to be trouble from your birth families, and from hostile judges in child-custody cases, and from bosses who may fire you and landlords who may evict you. But gradually less with time.
In the last 5 or 10 years we’ve successfully defined ourselves to the public as what we know ourselves to be: ethical people who care deeply about good relationships — smart, interesting, friendly people — nonthreatening and respectful of all well-considered relationship choices, monogamy included — and by and large just kind of adorable. The longer we keep doing this, the firmer a defense we’re building against any future backlashes or moral panics.
It is going to get easier. It's 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.
Now the second message. And maybe you’ve heard this from me before.
You see in social movements throughout history, that the people who push for years to get a bandwagon rolling are often unprepared for what to do when the bandwagon finally starts to move.
No longer is it all about a few devoted people grunting and straining from behind to make the bandwagon’s wheels move half an inch. When the effort begins to succeed, the bandwagon starts rolling on its own, faster and faster.
And unless the people with the original vision stop just shoving the rear bumper and run up and grab the steering wheel, pretty soon the bandwagon outruns them and leaves them behind. And their elation turns to horror as they watch it careen downhill out of control, in disastrous unintended directions. And then it wrecks itself spectacularly in a ditch. Survivors loot the wreckage and disappear, and onlookers nod their heads knowingly and say they saw it coming all along.
I say this as a veteran of the 1960s. Think what happened to the psychedelic drug movement back then, for instance. Think what happened when psychedelic experimentation grew from a thing a few philosophers and intellectuals were doing, picked up speed, and rolled downmarket.
Could something like that happen to our movement?
I keep hearing disturbing ways that the word “polyamory,” as it spreads, is becoming used out there as just a hip-sounding new term for old-style screwing around without regard for other people. Without our defining values of communication, honesty, respect. And love, the great clarifier of values.
This is from Louisa Leontiades, a poly-community activist in Europe and author of The Husband Swap, in an article she titled “The Mass Exodus of Polyamorous People Towards Relationship Anarchy”:
Despite the fact that the polyamorous community says it over and over again — polyamory is ‘not just about sex’ — the perception and focus on sex as the principal driver of polyamorous relationships is not only incorrect, but it has damaged the real meaning of polyamory to such an extent that I don’t know whether we can recover the word.
And, this was posted by someone on the reddit/r/polyamory group (with 34,000 members) a couple weeks ago, in a discussion called “Is poly losing the amory?”
I've stopped using the label for myself, after attending events, and meeting hundreds of people who call themselves polyamorous [this sounds like the Poly Cocktails events that have been set up in various cities] but seem to have very little concept of love, or concept of relationships being things that are worth working at, but somehow expect them to appear by magic because you meet someone who embraces the same label.
I urge you to speak up and jump on that kind of misuse of the word polyamory whenever you see or hear it. It’s actually amazing how far the social influence of one forthright person speaking up can spread.
If we are to save our defining word from a loss of meaning – the term by which we can find each other and identify ourselves – and guide this bandwagon in good directions as it gains momentum – we should, in my opinion, be taking every opportunity to do several things:
1. Keep stressing that successful polyamory requires high standards of communication, ethics, integrity, generosity, and concern for every person affected;
2. Emphasize that poly is not for everyone, and that monogamy is right and best for many. Relationship choice is the mantra we want to repeat.
3. Insist on the part of the definition that stresses respect for everyone, and the "full knowledge and consent of all involved";
4. Expand that to not just "knowledge and consent," but well-wishing and good intention for all involved. The defining aspect of polyamory, I'm convinced — the thing that sets it apart and makes it powerful and radical and transformative — is in seeing one's metamours not as rivals to be resented, or even as neutral figures to be tolerated, but as, at minimum, reasonable friends or extended family even — for whom you genuinely wish good things. (And beyond that, of course, there's no limit to how close you can become.) This is what differentiates poly from merely having affairs: a sense that at least to some degree, “We’re all in this together.” When this happens poly becomes a generalization of the particular magic of romantic love — into something wider, more widely applicable, than the dominant paradigm of a couple carefully walling away their particular love from anything to do with the rest of humanity.
5. Warn people that, while poly can open extraordinary new worlds of joy and wonder and may help to humanize the world, its benefits must be earned: through courage, hard relationship-honesty work, self-examination, tough personal growth, and a quick readiness to (as they say in the Marines) "choose the difficult right over the easy wrong."
And I also think we have an opportunity here, with this new identity we’ve been creating, to cut across some of the divides between cultures and races and classes and other identifications that are all around us. These societal things are huge and daunting and a lot bigger than us. But by gathering diverse people who share an interesting new way of thought, a new type of identity, we have a chance to intersect through a lot of those other identities, to the strengthening of everyone. We’ll be weaker if we fail to do this.
So please — with the bandwagon now starting to roll fast on its own momentum, let's not let it run away from us in the coming years to the point that "polyamory" goes mass-market as something careless or trivial, or in any way less than what we know it to be.
Okay, third and last message. And this is going to be a little far out.
I want to look ahead farther into the future, where a lot of things in the world may get grim.
Barry Smiler, who runs the BMore Poly network out of Baltimore, has said,
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.
150 or 200 years from now, as I sometimes guess, 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 of whatever’s coming — “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.
Forget 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 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.
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 even 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 think that the polyamory paradigm will help to humanize societies. Thus helping to provide ways to lead rich, rewarding, meaning-filled lives without the Earth-killing pursuit of Ever More Stuff.
Also: 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 then: Is this really the great future that the poly movement has ahead for us?
Well, as the computer pioneer Alan Kay said long ago:
“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”
Update: Anton of polyamory.progressor.ru has translated this into Russian. He comments, "The first part of the speech is quite tied to American conditions, though public interest in non-monogamous relationships is present in the Russian-speaking world. The third part is a little too alarmist for my taste. The second part, in my opinion, is universal and important for the Russian-speaking community."
Update: Now it's in German too: Die Zukunft der Polyamorie Bewegung.
Labels: conferences, convention, Loving More, speeches by me
Excellent speech Alan, I wish I was there to listen to it at the conference. Have you ever considered or is there some kind of way we can support you in maybe giving a TED Talk or something. I think you very much have the "Ideas worth spreading". I know that the price of admission for TED can be a bit high, however, I think its a great cause and I'd pitch in to fund to make it happen.
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