The Colors of Words

My boyfriend and I just had a two hour debate over something we agreed about completely. “Sure, you need to be careful about what judgments you make, and how you treat people based on those judgments,” he would say, “but its still fair and inevitable to make some judgments, especially based on things people really have choices about, like the slogans on their T-shirts.”

“Sure, we all come to conclusions about each other, and when those are based on real choices, not things people have no control over, that is somewhat justifiable,” I would respond, “but you still need to be careful when making judgments, especially when those judgments affect how you treat someone.”

On and on, in a circle of exhausting agreements that still felt like a dispute.

When we both finally tired of playing Ring Around the Rosie, we eventually found the source of the argument. It was in the word “judge.” Like so many words, it carries the load of a few different meanings, and we were thinking of distinct ones as we spoke. We were committing a classic sin of debate; failing to properly define our terms.

According to the conventional narrative of how debates play out, that was supposed to resolve the problem. We were supposed to mutually redefine our terms and laugh about the error. Oddly enough, though, that didn’t happen. Even knowing what the problem was, we both struggled to use the word “judge” in the sense that the other meant it. We were both using the word in a somewhat limited sense, and neither of us could easily expand our definition.

Grant’s father was a judge. He listened to cases, had the opportunity to see both sides of an argument, deliberated on all sides, and came back with a consequence that was reasonable and appropriate. Over and over, throughout his life, Grant heard of judgement being delivered in that manner. When people tell him not to judge, it feels like telling him not to think, not to be fair, not to care about justice, not to come to any conclusions about anything. It makes him feel vilified when he has to make a decision and doesn’t have all the facts at hand, or all the time in the world to investigate them.

To me, though, judgment means Judgment Day. It means how dare you think for yourself, be raised in a religion that isn’t ours, make a mistake, wear too much lipstick. It is when Moses strikes a rock to get water from it, instead of only speaking to it, and God says he will die in the desert without ever entering the Promised Land. (Numbers 20:2-12) It means seeing someone with spiky blue hair and concluding they worship the devil, whether they know it or not. Judgment lets one mistake, one action, one facet of your complex being define you, and it removes any qualms you have over punishing someone, harshly, for that small thing.

For both of us, our associations with the word judge were intimate, personal and deep, and in order to end the argument we had to get away from it entirely and find a new word, “assess.” Its all right to make qualified, well evidenced assessments about a person, provided you are also fair in how you treat them and willing to revise those assessments as you get to know them better.

I think all of us have words like that, where the associations we have, based on the context in which we learned them, color their meanings. The dictionary can solve some definitional problems, but not all of them. Sometimes its on us to recognize our linguistic biases, acknowledge the rights of others to have their own, and meet each other halfway.

Gender-neutral pronouns: or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the “ze”

I’ve been resisting “made-up” gender-neutral pronouns for at least a decade. My argument has always been the same: they’re ugly, they sound super-awkward, and they’re unnecessary. At first I said “he” is a perfectly acceptable gender-neutral pronoun, because I was young and ignorant of many things. Then I said that “they” is fine, as it has a long history of use as a gender-neutral singular. I still say that, actually, but I’ve come to accept that it may not be the best choice, especially for an individual who prefers not to use gender-specific pronouns. It might be grammatically correct, but it still feels slightly depersonalized. The plural connotation has a semantic impact, and it makes it feel less like you’re talking about a single, unique individual. So there’s that.

At the same time, my resistance to the alternative pronouns has been weakening. First of all, in the circles I know they seem to be standardizing: most people I read who use gender-neutral pronouns use the ze/hir system (sometimes zie). That means that what sounds awkward and clunky to me may well sound natural to a new generation. I’m all for the evolution of language, even if it leaves me behind. I wish that people had standardized around the “ey/em/eir” system, because I think it sounds the best, but as long as people standardize on something I’ll be happy.

More importantly, though, I’ve realized how using “ze” instead of “they” or something else that feels more natural draws attention to the fact that we’re using a gender-neutral pronoun. Sometimes that’s not what you want, but a lot of the time it is. My brain, like (I’m betting) a lot of yours, still has a habit of considering male the “default” gender, so that if someone says, “The person next to me on the plane ate their lunch really loudly” I’m usually imagining a man. (A white man, natch. Around 35 years old. That’s what a default human being looks like in my brain.) Whereas, if the story is, “The person next to me on the plane ate zeir lunch really loudly” the unfamiliar word jolts my brain into awareness that this person could be any gender. (Now if only we had a quick and easy linguistic convention that could do the same for race and age!)

I guess my point is, “they” doesn’t necessarily work much better than “he” for combatting the standard programming that male is the default. “Ze,” on the other hand, does. And I care more about changing gender-related assumptions and preconceptions than I do about making language conform to my aesthetic likings.

The C-word

Strong language ahead!

I actually really like the word ‘cunt.’ Unlike most words for female genitalia, it sounds strong and earthy and unsentimental, which is how I like to think of my vagina. It’s long been my favorite genital slang word for either sex (I don’t really like any of the slang for “penis.”)

Beyond my personal preference, I’m generally all in favor of word reclamation: a word is only an insult if you let it be. So I’d like to see “cunt” brought to the same level of acceptability that “pussy” holds. Which means I had a weird cognitive clash the other night when I read about Penn Jillette calling a female humor writer a “fucking cunt” just for writing an article he found unfunny.

I’m really not interested in excoriating Jillette: this is not the first thing he’s done that made me think I wouldn’t like him as a person, and there are plenty of other people calling him out anyway. What I’m interested in is how strongly I reacted to seeing “cunt” used that way. It evoked a feeling of threat, of violent hostility, directed not toward a particular personality but toward womanhood — which meant that the threat was vaguely aimed at me as well.

This is pretty much how I always feel when seeing someone referred to as a “cunt” in a way that’s clearly hostile. I know it’s not always meant that way, and that in English-speaking countries other than the US the word is much more mild in connotation. But to me, unique among gender-based insults, “cunt” sounds to me like the speaker is about two steps from brandishing a knife, and lashing out not only at the person who evoked their wrath, but at anyone else who bears the same genitalia.

I freely use words like “dick” and “tool” to describe people who are displaying a stereotypically masculine unpleasantness, and “bitch” to describe people who are displaying a stereotypically feminine unpleasantness. I don’t have a problem with my own or other people’s uses of those words. But “cunt,” to me, is different, and I’m not sure why. Is it because “bitch” seems aimed at female behavior, and “cunt” seems aimed at femaleness itself? But then why am I okay with “dick” and “tool”?

My theory, and it’s pretty off-the-cuff, is that there is not nearly the level of culturally-engrained loathing of the penis as there is of the vagina. (In all the ensuing discussions of culture, I’m talking about the segment of modern US culture I inhabit.) Penis-having is seen as a pretty positive thing; we expect men with penises to be proud of them, and we treat penis-related indiscretions with the kind of indulgent scolding we’d give to a puppy who knocked over a cookie jar. Oblique references to the penis are constant and pervasive in our culture, and most of them are positive.

The cultural view of the vagina is much more ambivalent: there are a lot of people, both male and female, who see the vagina as dirty, disgusting, and treacherous. We talk less about vaginas, we joke less about them, we don’t pat ourselves or anybody else on the back just for having one. While phallic imagery is usually met with a giggle, vaginal imagery is often met with a vague feeling of discomfort. The mainstream cultural voices never seriously think someone’s worth is lowered just because they have a penis; sometimes they do think someone’s worth is lowered just because they have a vagina. “Cunt,” as an insult, draws on a whole deep well of hatred and revulsion that’s just not present, in our culture, for penis-based insults.

I find it interesting that “pussy” is only an insult when it’s directed at a man, which possibly sheds light on another subtext of “cunt.” Pussy is a soft word, in both sound and meaning: it’s gentle and cute and unthreatening. Cunt, as I said at the beginning, is powerful: it’s just as direct and plosive as cock. Women are never insulted by being called pussies: gentle, cute, and unthreatening is what women are supposed to be. Daring to be powerful while having a vagina is what gets women in trouble.

Orientation vs. identity: some thoughts on belief

When sexologists talk about sexual orientation, we often use some variation of the Orientation-Behavior-Identity model (OBI). The idea is that sexual orientation can be understood and discussed in three distinct aspects: a person’s identity, what they define themselves as, both publicly and privately; a person’s behavior, their actual sexual acts with different genders; and a person’s orientation, the natural bent of their attractions (which may or may not be innate or changeable, but which is much less subject to power of choice than the other two aspects.) It’s a helpful distinction, and clears up a lot of miscommunications about what it means to be “really” gay, het, or bi.

I wonder if a similar model would be useful for discussing religious belief. Is belief or unbelief in a deity (pick your favorite!) a choice? I would argue that at any given moment, a person does or does not believe in a particular deity. Analogous to the “orientation” piece of the OBI model, this is just a program that is running in your brain: you cannot choose to switch it on or off, although various paths you take in life may contribute to its running or shut it down. But it’s not subject to conscious, volitional will.

Then there is the “identity” component: whether you think of yourself as a theist, and usually a member of a particular religion, or not. This may or may not have anything to do with your belief orientation. There was a time in my life where I identified as a Christian although I no longer had the belief in God that I had in my earlier years. Similarly, anyone who identifies as an “atheist” because they are mad at God is not an atheist in the orientational sense: people who genuinely lack belief in a deity have nothing to be angry at.

Finally, there is the behavior component, which is independent of both orientation and identity. Attending church does not make you a Christian believer, nor do you have to call yourself a Christian to attend. And many people identify as members of a religion without engaging in any of the behaviors prescribed by that religion. Whether there are any behaviors that could be categorized as “atheistic” is an interesting question… I can’t think of any off the top of my head, although I can think of many that could be described as humanistic or skeptical.

What do you think? Useful categories for discussions of belief and unbelief?


The rumors are true: I’m getting married. After the most romantic proposal ever (a text message from me to Shaun saying “Hey, can I call you my fiancĂ©?”) and careful analysis of best possible timing (“Spring is nice, wanna get married next spring?”) we’ve announced wedding plans to friends and family, and changed our facebook status to “engaged.” (That’s how you know it’s for real.)

Naturally, a lot of people have wanted to know if we’re still going to be polyamorous. Yes we are; this relationship has never been about “we’ll be non-monogamous until I decide if I really want to commit to you.” What really weirds me out, though, is the people who ask what the point of marriage is if it’s not going to be exclusive.

I’m not being flip here, I really am mystified. One person close to me said “What is a marriage without sexual faithfulness*?”– and then denied me the opportunity to respond, so I’m going to respond here. In marrying Shaun I am making him a partner in all my life decisions. I am committing to upholding the health of our relationship, and prioritizing it over everything except my own growth and wellbeing. I am declaring my intention to be with him through all the changes of adult life. I am trusting him to be the primary decision-maker on my behalf if I am ever incapacitated, and accepting the responsibility of doing the same for him. These things are the bedrock of my commitment to him, and though I’ve had very different ideas about the meaning of marriage throughout my life, these are always the things I have thought of as being the essence of marriage. Once upon a time I considered sexual exclusivity part of it as well, but only because I couldn’t imagine a kind of non-exclusivity other than cheating. Exclusivity was part of the marriage contract not in itself, but as a sub-category of the “upholding the health of our relationship” clause.

When I talk to someone who seems to have trouble imagining what a non-monogamous marriage could possibly mean, I begin to have rather unflattering thoughts about them. Such as (if they’re married) “has sexual exclusivity been such a monumental struggle or sacrifice for you that it’s come to define your marriage?” Or “is marriage, for you, more about ‘nobody else can have you’ than about the positive commitment you’re making to each other?” Apart from something like this, I really can’t conceive where such a question comes from.

But enough of that. My marriage is about the commitments and intentions I named above; I believe that Shaun and I both are better, stronger, and happier together than we would be apart, and in marrying him I am making public that belief and my intention to continue working to make it a reality.

*Faithfulness is the wrong word here; as I’ve said many times before, Shaun and I are faithful to each other. We each communicate our needs, emotional and physical, and faithfulness is a matter of us each considering the other’s needs before our own gratification. Exclusivity is only part of faithfulness if you make it so.

Conflict, consent, and blirtatiousness

My new gentleman friend requested that I write about blirtatiousness. I assumed that he had made a typo, and thought, “What do I have to say about flirtatiousness? Other than how bad I am at it?” Then he sent me this link. So, okay, blirtatiousness. Stupid word, useful concept. The article linked to, after defining “blirtatiousness” (for those who don’t want to click, it’s basically a measure of how quickly and easily you say what you think), talks about problems in relationships where the woman is highly blirtatious and the man is not. But since my relationships tend to be the opposite, I’m not really interested in that, and if I wrote about it I’d probably wind up writing about the insane cultural pressure we put on males and females to act in certain ways, and, um… I write about that a lot.

So instead we’re going to talk about conflict and consent, because I’ve noticed sort of an interesting pattern. It’s related to my recent post about social status updates, and the core question is this: does a person always have the right to engage another in verbal/ideological conflict? Or is there a question of consent and mutual willingness that needs to be considered?

When put in terms of physical conflict, this is a no-brainer. I don’t get to decide I’m going to have a friendly boxing match with you: it’s something we both have to agree on. If I try to initiate a friendly boxing match by hitting you without prior discussion, that is what we call assault, and most of us will agree I’ve done something morally wrong… even if I back off immediately afterward and say, “Okay, no problem, we don’t have to fight, I just wanted to put it out there.”

On the face of it it seems preposterous to draw a comparison between physical attack and verbal challenge. Throwing a punch hurts someone, whereas questioning someone’s beliefs (for example) doesn’t. Oh wait… yes it does. Plenty of people feel acute emotional discomfort when somebody is challenging a cherished idea of theirs. Social conventions aside, a lot of people would suffer less from a moderate-strength punch on the arm than from a bluntly-worded “You’re wrong about this.” The pain of the punch lingers for a few minutes and then is forgotten… the ideological conflict tends to stick in the brain, to keep eating at you. What specifically bothers you will vary: perhaps it’s feeling that the other person thinks less of you; perhaps it’s the niggling fear that maybe they’re right; perhaps it’s the frustration of not having had a good response.

Blirtatiousness, I think, is a good predictor of how much the first and third factors will bother someone who’s been on the receiving end of a verbal challenge. According to the aforementioned article, high-blirt people tend to be less worried about whether others think badly of them, and by definition they’re more likely to be ready with a response. A low-blirt person, on the other hand, is likely to be plagued with anxiety that the other person thinks has a low opinion, and with frustration at knowing they have a response to the person’s challenge, but not being able to access it in time. So a low-blirt person is more likely to view the challenge as an unwelcome assault, and a high-blirt person is more likely to either engage in argument or dismiss it with scorn.

If I polled people on the question whether it’s rude to challenge someone’s ideas in a non-debate forum (i.e. not a blog, classroom, editorial, etc) I’m guessing answers would correspond with the responder’s blirtation level. Overall I think our society comes down on the side of the low-blirters. It was interesting to me, in the article I linked above, to read that high blirters tend to be better-perceived socially: “The high blirters were seen by the others as more competent, sociable, emotionally reactive and extraverted than low blirters.” Since most of the high blirters I know also tend to have strong and controversial opinions, their readiness to say what they think is often a social liability. Our cultural norms act to protect the low-blirters from unwanted challenge, which they feel as a kind of assault.

If this were all there was to it, I’d tend to side with society, especially since I am a mid-to-low blirter myself (although I also have strong and controversial opinions, which is an interesting space to occupy.) But there’s that second reason I mentioned for people’s discomfort with ideological challenge: the niggling fear that the challenger might be right. It’s very easy for a person to protect themselves from questioning their own ideas by crying rudeness when another person questions them. And I don’t think that’s healthy. I think we would all do better in life if we questioned and reconsidered our ideas on a regular basis. (And yes, that is an idea that I have questioned and reconsidered.) So I don’t think “shut up about your controversial ideas unless the other person has indicated willingness to get into a debate” is the right answer.

I have to go back to work now, so I’m throwing the floor open: what do you think? Are you highly blirtatious or not? Do you think it’s rude to challenge someone’s ideas without an invitation? What is your perception of the social conventions around verbal conflict, and do you think they should be different?

Polygamy, polygyny, polyamory

Figleaf has a brief description of his own experiences with jealousy that completely jibes with my own. The times I’ve experienced romantic jealousy have all been times when I deeply longed for a certain intimacy, and saw someone else getting it. If I am not feeling loved and desired by my partner, to see him loving and desiring someone else is upsetting: if I am secure and happy in the knowledge that he loves and desires me, then his also feeling that way towards other people bothers me not a whit. Not sure if that’s true for most people or not, but it is for me.


I want to write about our experience on the talk show, and I will — when I’m able to post a link to the show itself, if not sooner — but right now I want to address a confusion about words. One of our fellow guests on the show was a woman who had been in a polygamous sect (I imagine fundamentalist Mormon, though I don’t think she ever said specifically), married at 15 to a man who had 5 wives before her and 4 after her. Partly for that reason, the show’s producers wanted us to avoid using the word “polyamory” on the grounds that people would confuse it with “polygamy.” (Viewers are Morons, after all. And, not to bite the hand that fed me my 15 minutes of fame, but in this show’s case they’re probably mostly right.) The funniest thing to me is that, even though we carefully said “non-monogamous” and “open relationship” an audience member still addressed us as “the polygamists.” So clearly the confusion is there.

Let’s just get dictionary definitions out of the way. Polygamy means multiple marriage: any marriage configuration where more than two people are involved. Polygyny means a man has multiple wives, but women are only permitted one husband. Polyamory is this newfangled Greek/Latin hybrid of a word referring to a specific cultural movement, emphasizing loving and mutually fulfilling relationships with more than one partner, where honesty, openness, and communication are paramount. (Yes, there’s also a word for women having multiple husbands — “polyandry” — but in our patriarchal heritage that word’s been practically irrelevant for many centuries. I was tickled to learn it when I was a kid, though, and enjoyed the idea of having more than one husband at a time. Shoulda figured I’d end up a hedonistic reprobate.)

Polygynous fundamentalist religions are almost always referred to as “polygamous” even though it is inevitably the men getting the multiple partners. And the history, and current illegal practice, of oppressive polygyny is a huge problem for those of us who think it might be nice someday to legally marry more than one person. While the ideas of polygyny and polyamory might be easily confused in the popular mind, they are very nearly opposite in moral philosophy. Polygyny is deeply sexist, both in structure and in common practice. Polyamorous communities are usually ahead of the cultural curve in gender equality. Polygyny demands that its participants submit and repress their feelings to conform with its rules about acceptable social and sexual behavior. Polyamory encourages people to understand their desires and seek out ways to satisfy them in harmony with the needs of others. Polygyny is imposed from without, often upon people too young to make a sound decision about lifelong matters. Polyamory comes from one’s inner sense of what is right and healthy for oneself. (At least, it should. I know there are many people who feel coerced into trying or adopting polyamory because their partner is insistent on it, and this is unhealthy both for the individual and for the relationship. But the poly community frowns heavily on this.)

So it’s kind of funny to me that the two groups in American culture that would like to see polygamy decriminalized are so profoundly opposite in overall philosophies of life. It’s awkward, because while I like the idea of being able to marry more than one lover, I’d rather never see that freedom if the cost is oppression of young girls married off before they have a chance to understand the world and the choices they make within it. But how to draft a marriage law that would allow my kind of polygamy without paving the way for theirs?

One idea is to impose a much higher age of consent for a multiple marriage than we impose for a monogamous one. 25, maybe? With no loophole for parental approval? (A loophole I think shouldn’t exist in an case.) A 25-year-old might make bad, self-destructive decisions, but by 25 most people have scoped out the world a little and are ready to start on their own chosen path in life, ready in a way no 15-year-old can be. Polyamory in the broadest and most literal sense — building loving and nourishing relationships with multiple people — requires emotional maturity, whether it’s being done within a religious sect or among godless hedonist reprobates like myself.

And the heart of the matter really lies in the difference between “polygamy” and “polyamory.” The “-gamy” suffix means “marriage,” which despite our modern romanticization, has been a political and commercial arrangement as much as it’s been a romantic and self-fulfilling one. I am reluctant to defend multiple marriage in and of itself, just as I’m reluctant to defend marriage, period. A marriage is only as good as the love and respect given by its members to one another. As our fellow talk-show guest related, polygamy without concurrent polyamory is soul-destroying. The love, the respect, the commitment and devotion to caring for each other through good times and bad… that is what makes a good relationship, whether or not it’s exclusive and whether or not it’s formalized.