Not Nothing and Other Negations

(This post was written for the December Carnival of Aces, of which the topic was “attraction”.)

Under timely circumstances, some of my friends went to a workshop on campus the other day on the topic of love and “why we all crave it”.  By the sounds of it, I’m glad I didn’t go.  Much of the discussion seems to have been about romantic relationships, how we all (by this account) desire unconditional and everlasting ‘true love’, and how without it we are nothing no matter how much else we might happen to accomplish in our lives.  My aim here isn’t to talk about the workshop: the people who organized it had their own reasons for saying the things they did, and I wasn’t actually there to hear them.  Instead, I want to talk about these ideas of romance, and in particular how they relate to the realities of those of us who, for whatever reason, don’t experience love in such ways.

To make it clear where I’m coming from, when pressed for a one-word description of how I understand myself in terms of romantic orientation, I tend to say that I’m aromantic.  It is perhaps a bit more complicated than that.  I find the whole concept of romance somewhat confusing if not incoherent, particularly once sex has been removed from the equation (since sex can be used to arbitrarily differentiate between romantic relationships and other kinds of close friendships, although even for non-asexuals this doesn’t really work all of the time).  It is entirely possible that I actually do experience what other people might term romantic attraction and so am not aromantic, but the fact is that I don’t find the romantic paradigm useful for describing my own experience or understanding the dynamics of my relationships, seeing as how I find it so confusing.  How can I tell whether I experience romantic attraction if I don’t understand what is meant by ‘romantic’?  I prefer simply to think in terms of ‘closeness’ or whatnot: I feel closer to some people than to others.  It is true that I feel the desire to be closer to some people than to others as well.  This could perhaps be understood as indicating some kind of attraction, but I’m not sure what else to say about it.  Attraction is not by necessity romantic any more so than it is necessarily sexual, and without clearly understanding the romantic I’d be hard-pressed to call such attraction romantic or not.  In any case, none of this is important to my identity: I’d rather just call myself an ‘asexual’ than an ‘aromantic asexual’ or (with the alternative assumption that I do experience romantic attraction) a ‘panromantic asexual’, but I don’t care too deeply about it one way or the other.  Fair enough?

So, let’s return to the ideas about romance which I mentioned at the start.  I won’t say anything much about the idea that it must be unconditional: I think the problems with this are obvious enough to (well, almost) anyone who stops to think about it for about for a moment.  What about ‘true love’?  At the risk of sounding terribly unromantic, I’m going to say that this term is poorly defined and can be unceremoniously discarded for the purposes of our discussion.  (And don’t say anything about ‘the one’ either!  That’s an unabashedly supernatural notion I’ll have no truck with.)  That leaves one thing, the idea that we’re nothing, or at least incomplete, without romantic love.  Before even speaking about the idea itself, it’s obvious enough that this can be an annoying if not hurtful claim to aromantic asexuals.  If we don’t experience romantic attraction, but need romance in order to be ‘complete’, then we’d find ourselves in a situation where we’d be at a great disadvantage in living meaningful lives, were we not to simply be declared ‘broken’ by our own nature from the start.  The more basic problem with it though is probably one that is familiar to many asexuals: substitute the word ‘romantic’ with the word ‘sexual’ and it should be clear why.  (“You must experience sexual love to be complete as a human being.  Your relationships aren’t the real thing otherwise.”)  It is a clear privileging of certain forms of affection over others.  (I’m not saying that this is a problem at the personal level: of course we value certain things above others.  The problem though is saying that other people must follow suit when the values in question are simply our personal preferences.  This holds true even of preferences that are generally shared among one’s peers or by society at large, which may indeed be socially conditioned.)  Anyhow, another problem might by now be obvious.  The idea that we need to experience romance in order to be complete is a form of the idea of true love, which has in fact crept back sneakily into this discussion.  “You must desire this kind of love.  You must experience this kind of love.  This is true love!  Without this you are altogether lacking.”

I make no claim to be a complete and perfect human being and am willing to accept that I am quite deficient in certain respects, but in certain other respects I think I actually have much to be proud of.  I think it’s fair to say that I amount to more than nothing.  Yet for the reasons explained, I have not experienced the kinds of love described here.  Someone then must be wrong, and I don’t think it’s me…

But there’s more to it.  When I say that “I’m glad I didn’t go” to the workshop I don’t mean that this is because I think the people presenting the workshop were simply mistaken, and if I thought that the ideas about the importance of romance which I’ve mentioned here were merely incorrect then I wouldn’t have anything much else to say about them.  The fact is though that these ideas have a way of playing to one’s insecurities.  Consider that one of the positive things about an asexual identity is that it can help replace the idea that one is defective for not experiencing sexual attraction: this seems to describe the experience of more than a few of us.  Now what of romance and those of us who are aromantic and don’t experience romantic attraction or (aromantic or not) simply don’t seem able to make sense of romance or connect with people in that way?  To say that it’s just how we are and it’s fine and we can still live fulfilling lives is reassuring.  It also flies in the face of almost everything our society says about love.  After all, a quick look at popular culture shows us that romance (and sex too) is held in very high esteem, and more than that, is thought to be a considerable part of what makes us who we are.  It’s something we should have, or at very least want (and be inconsolably miserable without).  To simply say that this isn’t so for us is perhaps to say that it needn’t be so for others.  It’s a challenge of sorts, and it is not made against one found to be resourceless.  After all, how can I even write this without feeling just a little bit like some sort of loveless orc?  How can I even try to dodge the charge that I must just be a bitter person who’s chosen to denounce (what is held to be the only meaningful kind of) love for want of its experience?  But no one has told me these things: I am rather giving voice to my own doubts, which exist in light of social expectations of the universality of romance and sex.  In truth, I don’t even think I’m saying anything that radical.  “I still desire love and affection, just not of those sorts.”  In this respect I see little substantial difference between myself and anyone else who desires love, who feels any sort of attraction to others.  But I’ve set a distance between myself and the forms of affection commonly designated as especially important.  Some sort of difficulty is to be expected.  So be it.

There is a remedy for this, but whether it is an easy one I can’t altogether say.  We have to consider where our expectations come from and try to evaluate them on their own merits.  “Does it really make sense to say that I am flawed if I do not desire love in such-and-such a way and broken if I do not even desire it?”  When we’re talking about sex and even romance, I don’t think that it does: to me it would not seem reasonable to say otherwise.  Have I reasoned correctly?  Then all I have to do is actually believe what my reason tells me is true.

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Quiet Condemnation

Last week our freethought group on campus met with some representatives of Campus for Christ.  A friend of mine, blogging about the experience here, was taken aback by the fact that they really do believe in Hell and eternal damnation, that we actually “spent most of the evening sitting and having a civil and polite discussion with some nice, fairly intelligent people who sincerely believe that I and my friends will be in eternal agony after death.”  Put like that, I can recognize how strange it was, yet all the same I didn’t find it strange.  As I told him then, I’m used to those doctrines.

To explain, I was raised in a fairly devote Catholic family.  While the doctrines concerning Hell were never emphasized in the way that is stereotypical of Catholicism, they were there.  At Mass they did sometimes teach the concept of mortal sin, but I relied on books to follow its course of logic to the end and learn among other things of the damnation on account of such sin of those who understand that they scorn the faith.  (These books, some admittedly rather dated, “taught” me many things besides this, but that’s perhaps a subject for another time.)  I came to believe that “the damned” were all around me, in my community, my school, my church, and that I might even be one of them should I fail to behave in accordance with God’s will.  Unbelievers seemed to be a particularly bad sort in light of the nature of their rejection, but as far as I could tell, most of the people I knew were unbelievers.  I was very reserved though, so I never tried to evangelize to them or anything like that.  I merely became used to having ‘civil and polite discussions with nice, fairly intelligent people whom I sincerely believed were (probably) going to be in eternal agony after their deaths.’  So I’ve been that person who thinks this way.  I know well that such people exist.  Their experience is too familiar to be strange to me.

I was able to persist in such belief for several years, longer than I think should have been possible.  There were two main reasons for this.  The first is probably applicable to many: the belief that being good requires a certain degree of orthodoxy means that challenging the orthodox doctrines of Hell was out of the question, since believing such doctrines and not challenging them was one of the things necessary to being good and thereby being saved.  (Duh!)  The other reason is probably common as well, but by nature not something easy for others to notice: as I said, I seldom talked about these beliefs.  In fact, I didn’t talk much about my beliefs at all.  The result is that they received little direct challenge.  How could they?  But I was sensitive to those devilish sentiments which made their way in my general direction by less direct routes, and the basic dissonance inherent in believing in the probable eternal damnation of seemingly-decent people around me gradually became too much to remain acceptable.  Something had to give, and in the end it was my belief in Hell (and its God).  I have to thank everyone who ever said that it is a foul doctrine, and so I don’t hesitate to join them now.

What I really want to talk about though is the basic social dynamic involved in situations like these, where (let’s say) two people can sit around having a friendly discussion while each quietly believing that the other is fundamentally wrong on some important matter.  After all, believing that one’s interlocutor surely faces eternal damnation while not saying much of it to them is just one of the more excessive forms of this pragmatic civility.  I’m sure that it’s something we all do in other forms.  Here are just a few examples that come to mind from my own experience.

1) In a certain community organization I find myself working with people with whom I share rather different political views, and by that I mean I often find their views quite repugnant.  But we have things to do together and fighting each other for political reasons wouldn’t seem to be productive, so I simply do what I can to avoid political discussion.  (I admit that I could be mistaken on that last point about avoiding conflict, especially because it leaves open the risk that the inaction of people like me will passively allow the group to move in a distasteful direction.  Case in point: ‘doing what I can to avoid political discussion’ has increasingly meant simply being less involved in the group.)

2) For mainly ethical reasons, I’m a vegetarian.  Most people aren’t, including the majority of my friends.  We tend to avoid the topic.

3) Someone is wrong on the internet, but I don’t hit ‘reply’ because I have things to do.

What should I do in these situations?  They’re not entirely comparable, but what they have in common is that they all involve silent inaction for practical reasons in the face of a situation which might seem to call for something more from anyone with a conviction that they’re in the right.  More generally, what is the proper response to such situations?  This is a difficult question and I won’t pretend to have the answer, even if I assume that the context underlying the situation is always one in which it is safe to speak.  (It’s also problematic for me because I tend to be somewhat shy.  This means that the fundamental reason for my saying nothing in such situations is sometimes only that I find myself too unassertive to say anything when the occasion surely calls for speech.  I can then rationalize my failure by saying that it was a sound tactical decision on my part when it was merely a thoughtless reaction.  Separating good reasons for inaction from such rationalizations adds another level of difficulty to this situation, and I’m sure that many people face the same difficulty.  Shyness is after all something that may vary with context.)  I suppose it’s something to think about.