Birth of the Dragon Review

Disappointing as a Bruce Lee biopic, but still leaves audiences with rare insights on kungfu, personal growth, and the benefits of defeat | DVD release: November 21



Historical Premise

Characters and Story: Steve McKeeBruce LeeWong Jack ManMinor characters

Thematic Development: Ethnicity and interethnic loveBruce Lee’s growthThe nature of kungfuVictory and defeat

Thematic Analysis


I went to watch Birth of the Dragon mainly to be completionist, since I’ve been doing a lot of research on Bruce Lee for my dissertation. Appraisals were lukewarm or negative all across the spectrum, from activists concerned about a message of cultural appropriation to general audiences who realized that half the film wasn’t even about Bruce Lee.

Still, Birth of the Dragon does try to innovate upon what we know of the period in Bruce Lee’s life and introduce different stances on the definition of kungfu. Partly because it deals with kungfu, themes such winning and losing, and finding oneself, are handled in a refreshingly different way than straight-up Hollywood films about sports; at the same time, because the setting is the modern US and Lee is a pop culture icon, it also differentiates itself from wuxia films that are ancient, arthouse-y, and enigmatic.

The first few sections are more like a conventional film review about how well the elements of the film come together; the last Thematic Analysis section is where I will give more of a social critique regarding how the messages in the film may impact society.

Historical Premise

In the early 1960s Bruce Lee was teaching kungfu in Seattle and the Bay area, before developing Jeet Kune Do and before his television and film career. In 1964, Wong Jack Man and Bruce Lee had a private match with only a few witnesses; because it was private, there are different accounts of what motivated the match and what happened. Lee’s widow, Linda Lee Caldwell, claims that Wong Jack Man and other kungfu masters in San Francisco’s Chinatown didn’t approve of Lee’s decision to take students of all ethnicities (her account is in I Am Bruce Lee). Wong’s account states that Lee claimed in public he could defeat any kungfu master in the region, so Wong took him up on the challenge. In addition, while some witnesses claim that the match took 3 minutes and that Lee won decisively, others claim that it lasted for over 20 minutes, and the fight was broken up bystanders who didn’t want a death on their hands.

Motivations are unclear and historical details are vague, but its impact on Lee’s later career seemed important – which makes it a good juncture of Lee’s life to elaborate on. While his death was sensational and might make a good film in 50 years, precisely because it is sensational and scandalous, it does less justice to his legacy and also disrespects members of his family who are still alive. What seems to be true regarding the Lee vs Wong match is that Lee was unsatisfied with his own performance, as he believed that an effective fighter would have ended the fight sooner (discussed by Caldwell in the clip); it also seems to be the case that this idea lead to the development of Jeet Kune Do.

Characters and Plot

Steve McKee

Birth of the Dragon added the entirely the fictional kungfu student, Steve McKee. In an early sparring scene, Lee consistently exploits his weaknesses, causing him to be more and more frustrated until he forgets his technique. Lee observe that he has anger / father issues. Steve sees from a newspaper that Wong is arriving and goes to meet him, hoping to learn from him also, but Wong observes that kungfu requires inner cultivation and a spiritual necessity, but Steve is directionless.

Steve finds something to fight for in Xiulan, an indentured waitress in Chinatown, working to pay back the Tong (Chinese mafia) who trafficked her to the US. The Tong forbids her and other indentured girls from learning English, as a means of ensuring their dependence. McKee thinks this is unfair and smuggles her an English textbook. Because the Tong catches her meeting with Steve and teaching English to other girls, they threaten to send her to the brothel and to punish the other girls. The Tong agree to free her on the condition that Steve can arrange a match between Lee and Wong; by running bets on the match, they could earn the money they would lose with freeing Xiulan.

Steve’s story is how the filmmakers elaborate on the murky motivations for the Lee vs Wong match. His function is to bring Lee and Wong together, and to provide an audience-insert character who is in awe of two martial arts masters, and to whom the masters can explain themselves. Another function is that it provides some romance to a plot that is otherwise about fighting (more in the next section about how well this worked). Unfortunately, Billy Magnussen plays Steve McKee’s part in a way that combines hammy and wooden. I’ve only seen him briefly in The People v. OJ Simpson and Into the Woods, and it seems that he does better as characters who are kind of hammy or full of themselves, as opposed to an impulsive but genuine kid that I think Steve McKee was supposed to be.

Bruce Lee

Unlike Steve, Bruce Lee was performed better, and I could tell (as someone who has tried to watch as much Bruce Lee interview footage as I could find) that Philip Ng studied up on the role. Birth of the Dragon included a segment where Lee attends a regional competition / demonstration where he demonstrates to the public his famous one-inch punch. This actual demonstration didn’t take place til a few years later and was in Long Beach, but footage of it exists; in addition, there is Lee’s audition footage for The Green Hornet, where he demonstrates the efficiency of kungfu. Philip Ng’s performance clearly draws from Lee’s showmanship in these kinds of footage.

The drawback, however, is that Lee in Birth of the Dragon always came across like a celebrity who knew he was being filmed, and his lines were declarative, like someone giving an interview, rather than conversational. Granted, Lee was larger than life and was attentive to his image, but in rare fictional portrayal of him early in his career as a local instructor, I would expect that there would be some more vulnerability and intimacy to his character.

That said, why don’t we see him as anything other than a kungfu instructor? Especially since Steve’s subplot has to do with interethnic romance, it would be nice to see Linda Lee in the film (more on this later). It would make his character more three-dimensional if audiences could see how he behaved in a wider range of contexts – though there is a segment where Chinatown filmmakers help Lee shoot a demo reel, and he expresses his aspirations to make films.

Finally, the general problem with using Steve and his romance subplot to motivate the match is that  Lee is reduced to reactive character who gets pulled into the situation that Steve and the Tong set up. The one time that Lee is active – challenging Wong to a match when Wong wanders into the regional competition – Wong declines and walks away. This makes sense for the kind of character that Wong is, but deflates Lee. Even before delving into how the film fails to represent his philosophical journey to Jeet Kune Do, relegating him to a passive role fails to do justice to the enormously active and proactive life that Lee actually lead.

Wong Jack Man

Historically, Wong Jack Man seemed to have arrived in the US shortly before the match, but stayed in the US and taught kungfu in the Bay area until his death (source), making him an American national. In the film, Wong was portrayed as a Chinese national who returned to China soon after the match. In addition, while historically Wong was Cantonese / Southern Chinese who practiced the Northern Shaolin style, the film made him actually a monk of Shaolin. The point of this seems to have been to accentuate the character as a guardian of traditional practice, associated with the old country, whereas Lee is forging the future of kungfu in America.

The film actually starts with Wong; we see him in Shaolin beginning a demonstration match with a visiting taichi master and his pupils. The taichi master gains the upper hand, but Wong retaliates with a lethal kick that was disallowed. The film cuts away to Bruce Lee and Steve at this point. Next we see Wong having exchanged monks’ robes for a fedora and a suit, alighting alone and unrecognized at the pier in San Francisco. Steve only read a snippet about his arrival in a Chinese newspaper and had goes to greet him, but is surprised that a kungfu master arrived with so little fanfare. Since no one else has come to pick Wong up, Steve offers him a lift to Chinatown. Steve later finds out that he came to San Francisco to work as a restaurant dishwasher, which mystifies him.

When Steve tells Lee about his arrival, Lee is convinced that the dishwashing job is a cover and that Wong really came to shut down his school. Wong keeps explaining that this isn’t true, and that his objective is to humble himself after his error. Even when Lee preemptively challenges him after his public demonstration / competition, he just repeats the same explanation and leaves the arena.

Personally, I find Wong the best-acted character in the film. Yu Xia, the actor, is a Chinese national. I had seen him a few years ago in Mandarin-language television and film where his roles tended to be optimistic, pure, and righteous young men. He brings a serenity and restraint to Wong that works well for the character, and also provides a foil for the flashiness and of Ng’s Bruce Lee.

Minor character threads

Other than Steve, the film also focuses on another student of Lee’s, Vinnie Wei, whose family runs a laundromat. It is through his family business that we see the brutality of the Tong, as they trash the place and beat him up, since he has gambling debts and can’t pay their protection fee. He also provides some comic relief. The blandness of Steve McKee, though, makes me wonder if the film would have worked better with Vinnie and Steve’s characters combined.

Xiulan is represented with warmth and purity, which fulfils the character’s function. She is a fairly bland character as well, but still more multi-faceted than Steve and even Lee – we see her as a restaurant worker, as a partner to Steve, and as a ringleader for the rest of the indentured girls who genuinely cares about their well-beingwhen Steve asks her to run away she refuses to leave them behind, the implication being that they might be punished on her behalf. She also seems to be observant and cool-headed, which comes through when the Tong mistress, Auntie Blossom, threatens to send her to the brothel. Xiulan coolly reminds Auntie Blossom that she was likewise trafficked and is now in a guilded cage and doesn’t have true freedom either.

From the look on Auntie Blossom’s face, you can tell that Xiulan is right. Speaking of Auntie Blossom – I haven’t seen the actress before but she put on a formidable yet nuanced performance. She combines the standard brothel madam type with a keeness and commanding presence that strongly suggests a back story of have toughened up while climbing to the top of a man’s world (or underworld). Although their characters are slightly different, I was reminded of Cheng Peipei’s performance of Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: clip here, with spoilers.

Thematic Development

Ethnicity and interethnic love

I have heard some complaints that Steve’s character is unnecessary, either because he distracts from Bruce Lee, who is supposed to be the main character, or because he repeats the White saviour trope. I suppose that he needed to be non-Asian to further the theme that cross-cultural exchange is a good thing – if there’s a debate around whether cultural practices need gatekeepers, there’s no debate that the human traffickers are even more wrong for denying indentured servants access to cultural knowledge that would help them survive in the US.

Unfortunately, the love-at-first-sight trope is too worn be convincing, especially when it multitasks as a love-transcends-cultural-barriers trope. It’s not that this trope is inherently offensive, it’s that the film would need to focus on relationship development for audiences to see more evidence of love. Unfortunately, because the relationship is meant to provide the reason for the Lee vs. Wong match, the relationship subplot has no time to develop specifics and remains a trope.

It’s also not helped by Bruce Lee stating that his wife is a White American, but then we never see Linda Lee at all. Bruce and Linda Lee would have been a story of interethnic love that has  the details to be convincing. I remember reading that their personalities complemented each other (In The Tao of Bruce Lee, the author mentions that filmmaker George Tan joked that Bruce and Linda Lee were like Popeye and Olive Oyl), and Linda saying that they’d run home right after kungfu class to catch their favourite TV shows. They also faced opposition from Linda’s parents but managed to convince them. If it was a problem of representing Linda Lee, who is still alive (though I don’t see why it would), even some more reminiscence from Lee about her would have helped.

(Bruce Lee’s) personal and professional growth

Overall, I understand the arc that the film was trying to establish for Bruce Lee – someone who is rather self-centred and arrogant to begin with, but due to the match with Wong, is able to see flaws to his character and his practice. By some accounts, while Bruce Lee was charismatic, he was not necessarily nice; I remember reading an account by Danny Inosanto who said that once Lee surprised him with a punch as a way of saying “happy birthday.”  I understand that Bruce Lee’s daughter and manager of his legacy, Shannon Lee, criticized the film for not reflecting her father’s life and philosophies, and is making another film (source). Her appraisal is true, but I also don’t necessarily wish to see a film that sanitizes and deifies him either. His legacy and fandom already does that. A film would be an opportunity to show him from the point of view of those close to him, which would show him as human.

In addition to limited view of Lee as an instructor, the film didn’t even flesh this role out very well. It’s hard even to tell what he thinks about using his kungfu to help Steve and Xiulan. At first, Lee believes it is not his fight, and mentions that the Tong don’t collect a bogus protection fee from his establishment because he reached a deal where they steer clear of each other. However, the film seemed to be trying to get at some personal or philosophical reason, because the deal would still be in effect after fighting Wong, but Lee changed his mind anyways. Perhaps the film was trying to say that the match with Wong made him less self-absorbed, and he does make a statement to this effect, but it’s still not clear how the match with Wong taught him this lesson specifically, and how it could have come out of Wong’s philosophy.

Finally, it is true that the film’s events in no way logically lead to him developing Jeet Kune Do. Bruce Lee diverged from other kungfu masters in that he repudiated the mysticism that went into kungfu. Jeet Kune literally means “intercepting fist,” which describes the objective point of self-defense, not something abstract and philosophical like “eternal spring” (Wing Chun). In the match with Wong, there is a scene where Wong floats down from a 2-story height based on powers from cultivating his chi. This was meant to be a point where Bruce recognized the limitations of his own practice, but due to willpower (or something), he also floats down to join Wong. Instead of further pushing him to develop a new practical style, the scene seems to show that Lee was convinced that mysticism was right, which isn’t true to his later philosophies.

The nature of kungfu

Cultural appropriation of kungfu by non-Chinese ended up being a red herring. The film actually takes both Wong and Lee’s historical accounts into account, which is quite an achievement since they directly contradict each other. In the film, Wong is true to his word and does not challenge Lee’s right to teach non-Chinese, but he also doesn’t let the matter slide. Steve asks why anyone would want to guard the knowledge of kungfu, and Wong replies, “Would you give away your nuclear codes?” Steve is taken aback.

Wong has two main misgivings about Lee’s practice, the first of which is that Lee’s kungfu has little spirituality involved. From Wong’s perspective as a monk of Shaolin, kungfu has a deeply spiritual element that cannot be reduced to technique.  Steve is initially a kungfu practitioner who doesn’t seem to have any cause for learning kungfu in particular, and doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing with his life; Bruce Lee teaches people simply to deliver the maximum amount of pain in the minimum amount of time.

The second misgiving is that and Lee teaches whoever wants to pay for his instruction, as long as they are interested. This is very different than a master and disciple relationship, where in theory the master assesses the student’s need to learn, and after taking on a student, teaches the discipline comprehensively regardless of whether the student pays or not (Wong doesn’t actually say this, but since he’s from Shaolin, I’m speculating this is what he would have in mind). Wong specifically asks Lee if he’s aware of his similarity to the Tong, who do not see a sanctity in human beings and traffic them for profit. This comparison and the nuclear weapons one seem out of proportion, but we also need to keep in mind that in the contemporary moment, most martial arts practice is devoid of spirituality and instruction has become a service in the market economy.

When Lee challenges Wong at the regional competition / demonstration, one of his parting shots is “I am the future of kungfu.”  Later, Wong meditates that Lee is right, but also believes that he should make clear to Lee that Lee’s technique and perspective on kungfu has shortcomings. Yet how to convince Lee of this remains a problem – knowing Lee’s personality, beating him would humiliate and anger him, which may actually prevent him from seeing his limits. And so onto the final theme.


Victory and defeat

In the last section I covered the film like an imdb summary that doesn’t give away the ending, but a discussion of this theme requires knowing how the film ends.

When I went into the theatre, I did not actually know that some witnesses had reported that the match ended in a draw, and it was a surprise that the film showed the match in this way. The last scene of the match shows Wong and Lee facing one another and positioned like how the match started, both exhausted, but seem to have reached some kind of unspoken agreement about what the match meant.

The second surprise was that the match wasn’t the end of the film. The Tong want their money, and without a clear winner the bets they ran mean nothing. They put extra pressure on Steve to convince both masters, since he would have vested interest in Xiulan’s freedom. In separate conversations with Steve, both Wong and Lee express an aversion to saying they themselves lost, but they are also uncomfortable with releasing an independent statement that the other lost. Frustrated, Steve goes to the restaurant to try and rescue Xiulan by himself, which results him being beaten up and thrown out.

Lee and Wong decide to team up to save him since their it was partially their indecision that led to this predicament, and they both feel some obligation to Steve as their student. They prop Steve up in the alley and fight their way up through the restaurant building to the Tong’s offices (most likely referencing the pagoda in Game of Death). Having just had most of their muscle decimated, the Tong agree to strike a new deal with Lee and Wong, which is that in return for a winner and loser, all the trafficked women in Chinatown go free. Under these circumstances, Wong tells the Tong that he lost and Lee says that he is satisfied with this statement.

This caps off every character trajectory. Xiulan is free and she and Steve are reunited, and all the other girls are free. Steve witnesses and understands what kungfu can truly do and what is at stake. Vinnie, the other student with gambling debts, earns it back from betting on Lee. As for Lee, he tells Steve that at one point during the match, Wong had him in a headlock, during which Wong actually asked him a question: “Do you understand?” The technique where Wong floated from a 2-storey height, the effort it took Lee during the match, and using kungfu to help Steve has made Lee understand that he still has a lot of room to grow and a lot to think about regarding what kungfu means.

The significance of the (essentially fabricated) match results is the most interesting for Wong though. Since he knows that defeating Lee would teach Lee nothing, and a draw puts other lives at stake, the only choice is to lose. It is not spelled out in so many words in the film, but actually physically losing the match would also not teach Lee anything about his limits, since victory would confirm that he was the best. Thus, the only option is for the match to end in a draw, and for Wong to say that he lost. The generosity of this gesture would be an added bonus to demonstrate to Lee that the discipline of kungfu is about inner character and not just technique. Finally, saying that he lost also rounds off Wong’s mission of humbling himself. In the beginning of the film, Wong’s desire to win outweighed his respect for his opponent and for the rules of the match, but by the end he is able to put his ego aside and prioritize contributing to the future of kungfu and saving the women from exploitation.

The film portraying the match between Lee and Wong as a draw, and how the two characters handle this, makes it very unique and different from Hollywood sports films. I can’t think of a feature film where a draw or losing is productive and desirable. The closest would be war films where soldiers sacrifice themselves for fellow soldiers, but the thematic point of that is teamwork between people on the same side, which doesn’t apply here.

Thematic Analysis

Here I’ll get political – I think the film’s message is important for American audiences to understand. First, as numerous commentators and media personalities have observed, both sides of the political spectrum try to vilify the other and shout them down. This approach may not convince the other side of their shortcomings, but only makes them more trenchant in their beliefs. Birth of the Dragon suggests that by having some humility, or making concessions on some personal matters, we may be more convincing in others. Second, Wong takes Lee’s pride into account when he is pondering a means to change Lee’s mind. This demonstrates something I mentioned in a previous post: when trying to create change, progressives often insist conservatives should know better, without actually taking ignorance and human foibles into account when strategizing. Wong is someone who adopts both humility and strategic thinking, which is lacking in current approaches to social change.

Regarding interethnic romance, there’s still the question of if not Bruce and Linda Lee, whether it could have been another Chinese man and another White woman. After all, it’s not only women who are trafficked and in need of help. While I was distracted instead of offended by the representation of Steve and Xiulan, and I understand other reasons that the filmmakers decided Steve to be White, it certainly does nothing to refute charges that the US is still uncomfortable with seeing men of colour with White women, and overuses White audience-insert characters because it assumes that the audience is White and needs / wants to see themselves.

Finally, even though cultural appropriation didn’t end up being a source of conflict in the film, it still presents a good opportunity to consider how Wong’s perspective fits into this argument. Wong’s lines indicate that the main issue is that he has high and very specific standards for kungfu that he does not think Bruce Lee and his non-Chinese students are meeting. The issue of kungfu as a property of a specific community is secondary, and the nuclear armaments comment is the only thing Wong says about this.

To tackle the secondary issues first: Those who know the history of Shaolin would know that it has been attacked across history by bandits, warlords, and the government. The kungfu practiced in Shaolin is rooted in spiritual cultivation, and has been developed to defend a community’s way of life. If we accept for a moment that kungfu could allow practitioners to use their chi to accomplish superhuman feats such as levitation or kill in a single strike (which Wong of the film could do), then it is not much different from superior technology rooted in scientific cultivation used to defend communities at the scale of a nation-state.

Seeing it in these terms also helps to unpack the primary issue of standards. When it comes to cultural or artistic matters, because standards are often immeasurable and subjective, appealing to standards can seem to be a means of evading objective mass deliberation and thus hoarding the power to assign value. This is not always false. However, if we accept for a moment that spiritual cultivation adds a unique component to cultural practices, the lack of spirituality would result in an incomplete art. Although Wong does not explain it in these terms, if kungfu becomes simply a set of physical techniques that can be bought and sold, there are less checks on the kind of people practitioners are, consequently kungfu could more likely be used to hurt others. Going further with his nuclear power comparison, no scientist in their right minds would think of teaching nuclear science without teaching how to safely use it. Kungfu, like any other system, needs to have an internally coherent set of checks and balances.

Wong is a master of kungfu who has devoted his life to it, and his concerns for the future of his life practice cannot be reduced to a fear of cultural appropriation. However, cultural boundaries may play a part in his misgivings, and an explanation of why they can be legitimate would also clear up criteria in cultural appropriation in general. From Wong’s perspective as a Chinese person in the 1960s (either the real Wong Jack Man or the character), how would non-Chinese access the spiritual dimensions of kungfu if most Chinese masters can’t speak English, if non-Chinese students don’t read Chinese, if these materials have not been translated, and if they live an urban American life that is out of touch with Chinese philosophy and spirituality? In other words, if other social structures are not conducive to sharing the full meaning of a cultural practice, some may legitimately elect not to share it.

In addition, the historical context between the cultural in-group and out-group matters as well. I have already mentioned the history of Shaolin having an impact on what kungfu means to practitioners there. There are also events like the Boxer Rebellion, where allied Western powers decimated Chinese country folk who were trying to use kungfu to stave off an invasion. Not that the Boxers were interested in cultivating spirituality in the same way, but it makes sense that a few generations later, Chinese kungfu masters would still hesitate to teach foreigners.  Thus the burden isn’t on these masters to share cultural practices, but on interested members of the out-group to demonstrate that they and their society have changed. These two examples of cultural boundaries also point to the implications in resistance to cultural appropriation – masters are not saying that cultural practices can never be shared, but that contemporary factors are not conducive for sharing to be genuine, or for what is genuine to be shared.

From the themes presented in the film to the discussions it generated, I think Birth of the Dragon is worth watching, even if it is incredibly uneven. DVD release is on November 21.


3 Points Toward a More Receptive and Conciliatory Left, Part III

1) Is objectivity really impossible, and what are some pitfalls in valuing subjectivity?
2) Have we placed an undue emphasis on cultural and linguistic factors when considering inequality?
3) When should we commit to ideological positions, and when should we compromise?

Trump is now president, and the Republicans have gained majority in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. In the post-election analysis, blame has been laid on 3rd party candidates, the media for covering Trump and giving him free publicity, Clinton’s past indiscretions, unreliable projections, and the electoral college system. One possible factor that the Democrats have identified is that they hadn’t reached out enough to white working-class voters.

I can’t speak to campaign strategies and their miscalculations; however, as a graduate student in a leftist interdisciplinary department, I have been frustrated for years at my fellow scholars’ ideological purity. I believe that a deterioration of civil society is scary, but I also fear that Trump being elected has vindicated a belief on the left that the right is so far gone that we have nothing to work with, while believing ourselves morally and intellectually superior. The use of “social justice warriors” and “feminazi” in dismissive and derogatory ways certainly speaks to resistance on the part of conservatives, however the sheer frequency of these labels makes me believe that the fault does not lie entirely with them.  Finally, the fact that many college-educated men backed Trump, and that even great numbers of White women voted for him, says that there is something we’re missing in the work we do in humanities and liberal arts research and higher education, even as we are trying to educate the electorate.

This is a part of a series of 3 posts that will try to answer the 3 questions above. Each of the 3 questions tries to interrogate a concept that, as I see it, has become common sense to thinkers on the left to the extent that we cannot apply it with nuance or communicate its value to non-believers. Each post will explain and give examples of one concept and its goals, then a response discussing its shortcomings and misapplication.

As this is the last post in this series, I will end on an interpretation of the “urgency” to respond to the world, how we can tweak the concept of radical pedagogy, and finally discuss incentive and not condemnation as the basis of social change.

Progressive Concept #3: Social change requires a revolution that fundamentally changes social structures. Those seeking change have less power and access to resources, and therefore should give no quarter to avoid legitimizing the current status quo.

First, I think American culture has a implicit culture of competition rather than cooperation. Our democratic political system and  legal system are both adversarial: individuals represent their own ideas in the public sphere for contention, where achievement is defined by the ability to maintain one’s ideas and to convince others, not by achieving harmony. Deferring to others is not seen favourably. We have sayings like “give an inch and they’ll take a mile,” and we also attach shame to being a “sell-out.” These are commonly held cultural attitudes that both shape and are shaped by social processes.

More specifically, even when people from historically dominant groups may mean well, they are unable to step outside their own common sense to critique  themselves, and they also have less incentive to create change. For example, in the Reconstruction Era after the Civil War, measures such as the Grandfather clause were set up to limit voting for newly emancipated Blacks; even recently, Voter ID laws disproportionately affected older Black voters. While Republicans have denied that this was their intent, the fact that they did not change this policy after criticism from multiple groups suggest that they at least implicitly or unconsciously protect their own interest. To mitigate this kind of problem, social change needs to arise from the people who best understand their needs, and need to work against the entrenched common sense of those in power. In addition, social structure and social rules have been created based on those common sense ideas, further naturalizing them. This means that separatism, which is self-determination apart from the interference of dominant groups, is a legitimate demand.

Groups who have been in power have more access to social and political resources, and thus they can enact sweeping, multi-sited  policies according to their common sense; an example is lobbyists who represent industries, which have more resources and networks with which they can push for favourable policies, whereas a non-English-speaking and less educated neighbourhood living near a toxic waste dump would not. Multi-sited policies are a key difference. Discriminatory voting laws, residential segregation,  employment discrimination, differential taxation and funding, high school tracking, and law-and-order policing are some of the different aspects of social life that cumulatively form a racist social structure in the US, which also accumulates over time. The left, especially Marxist-informed radicals, have argued that reform can only change these issues superficially and in isolation, and only revolution (fundamentally reorganizing social relations and hierarchies) would redistribute power and advance social justice.

If those in power have advantages, the oppressed have limited tools and avenues; thus, their action should be assessed with this in mind. This is the logic behind the left calling civil unrest “uprisings” or “rebellions,” whereas mainstream and conservative media calls them “riots.” Those who have instigated uprisings had few advocacy groups to represent their interests, were unlikely to have access to mass media, and also do not have the educational background and network to investigate or communicate the causes of their oppression, so they may resort to violence. Rather than fault them for this, uprisings and other forms of violence should be seen as a legitimate, if not ideal, expression of an overall social symptom.

Response #3: (since this is quite long, each point is linked to its respective section)

a) Sometimes the left advocates for separatism, yet denounces the right for being intractable and stuck in echo chambers

b) even as we allow that revolutionaries might not get it right when they are creating change, we are not forgiving or encouraging when the right and people in power fail to understand progressive perspectives

c) Radicals on the left advocate a complete overhaul of society by any means necessary, and this is sometimes reduced to disrupting the status quo without a corresponding emphasis on how to reconstruct our ideal world.

+Last bits on “urgency”, radical pedagogy, and incentives.

a) I should note that I support voluntary separatism in private life. In Part I I mentioned Black students at Scripps who asked for a room mate of colour in an ad, which lead to charges of reverse-racism. While I take issue with the singular focus on race, I do not categorically take issue with excluding certain people in the ad. To me, whom to bring into your home is part of your private life, should be allowed as long as there are no demonstrable wide-ranging or public effects (ie, Black students asking for a non-White roommate would not cause a housing shortage for White students). To a certain extent I also support separatism for Indigenous communities because there is material resources at stake with quite a different view on how to manage the resources, which is unlikely to find compromise under the current world order that emphasizes automation and economic growth.

It is also true that many progressives were set on their path due to having endured discrimination. I am also not saying that the burden is always on the oppressed to understand their oppressors.  However, researchers, educators, journalists and other social critics in their professional careers should not isolate themselves from dissenting opinion, and should take on responsibility to understand all elements of society, including those who have oppressed others. This is especially the case for academics on the left whose research rests on the premise that prevailing social structures and discourses are faulty and that those outside the prevailing social discourses, ie them, can do better. If they have taken up the mantle of being a social critic or an academic, they should then not refuse to entertain ideas that might help advance society because it infringes on their personal comfort. If they cannot do this, they need not become social critics or academics.

In addition, exposure to the hurtful actions of the right does not equal exposure to the complexities of their position and ideology. As per Part I, one of the interventions of progressive thinkers is to deconstruct the universal subject. In doing so, many people who have been disenfranchised for not fitting into the universal mould have been somewhat redeemed. However, leftist separatism, taken too far, can replace the universal subject with the good liberal subject in a way that does not necessitate an understanding of why some people do not have access to liberal beliefs. I will give a few examples from my graduate student time that demonstrates how separatism and its simplification can induce backlash, and how seeking to understand can be constructive.

My first time TAing was for a Women’s Studies class, and after a few weeks other students started acting out. On November 11th, the professor discussed how celebrating veterans and soldiers (often male) ignores how female civilians can become collateral damage or the target of sexual assault, and a student interrupted the lecture to ask for a moment of silence for the troops.  Students who weren’t enrolled in my classes started dropping in. Other TAs reported that students didn’t read course materials yet argued with them in class. The year after, a classmate told me that one of the TAs had started her term by telling both her classes that she hated men. I recalled that once during lunch she had also told me that she refused to read novels written by men. Her students got a negative impression of women’s studies from her statements, and acted out indirectly or behaved in a confrontational manner. This TA was not in general an unpleasant or unintelligent person, and seemed to have truly believed that her actions were feminist, yet her oversimplification of men and the oversimplification of appropriate attitude towards gender inequality turned students against Women’s Studies.

On the other hand, one of the most positive experiences I had was seeing a professor encouraged a fellow student, who is White, to stop thinking about her family merely as perpetrators. The student comes from a family whose male members have enlisted in the military for generations, and are firm believers of traditional masculinity and straightness, the American right to power, and a firm division between good and evil. However, the professor said that working-class White men are easily targeted by sociocultural discourses such as masculine pride and white supremacy. At the same time that these narratives are harmful and her family members have perpetrated harm, it is also possible to see that they have been targeted by these narratives, which cannot be reduced to individual actors.

These 2 contrasting ways of characterizing the right also emerged after the election. From observing people in my department, on the one hand there have been professors and graduate students who stated that Trump’s victory cannot be rationalized, that economic arguments are not an excuse for supporting Trump, and characterized Trump supporters as a simply taking pleasure in being racist and misogynist. To me, this attitude is exactly the same as White attitudes during the Watts and Rodney King uprisings, which characterized Blacks as having no economic excuse to riot, and it’s just that Blacks are simply more predisposed to violence. It disturbs me that academics, who are professional thinkers, can be blind to the fact that they lodged themselves in the same position as those that they critique on the other side of the political spectrum. Thankfully, on the other hand, there are grad students who have said that they see a greater need to go back to their White working class families on holidays for dialogue, and professors teaching ethnic and gender studies who have revised their syllabi to include readings on how inequality involves and impacts Whites and men.

b) When enacting change, the disenfranchised and those in power do differ in their ability to enact policy. However, while at the group level access to social resources is vastly different, on an individual level access to conceptual resources may not be that different.

To me, common sense and values for the average person does not come from either book learning or from access to social and political resources. These sources can expand possible perspectives, but these impersonally learned perspectives are not substantiated without long-term exposure involving personal relationships. Ie, abstract and impersonal stakes such as social well-being, or the pursuit of knowledge, are not as good motivators as a personal connection that you might lose if you can’t come to an understanding.  The most fundamental shifts in my thinking have come from having built a social circle among societies with very different values. I would say that the size and internal variation of this personal and most immediate social circle is probably roughly the same for most people in North America, regardless of identity categories, especially when young – ie a wealthy young White person is not likely to have more friends and family, or friends and family with a greater range of values, than a poor young Black person. And thus, people with privilege are not better primed to understand kinds of common sense that are not their own, even if they have more opportunities to learn about differences in an abstract way.

In other words, I believe that no one can really help the way they think and see the world, privilege doesn’t make much of a difference, and any changes made to one’s thinking would take concerted effort. Expecting otherwise, it seems to me, contradicts the point made about subjectivity and objectivity in Part I. If those on the left insist that people who have been in power have not succeeded in being universal and objective, then they are just as subjectively positioned as anyone else; if they are as subjectively positioned as anyone else, there’s no reason they would be better primed to change their subjective positions. This may sound patronizing, but what the left can do is lower our expectations of the centre and the right (while not categorically denouncing them, as per the (a) section).

Thus, when the centre and the right haven’t grasped or enacted what we think is right, our response should not be condemnation. Many of my friends are international students who do not understand race relations in the US, and have had negative experiences with American people of colour who cannot understand their positionality. A friend from Asia related an experience in an MFA filmmaking program where another Asian classmate casually commented that she would not like to live in a neighbourhood with high crime rates, such as X Black neighbourhood. Another Black film student overheard and refused to come to class, petitioned student services who in turn mandated  extra readings and lectures on cultural sensitivity for the international students, and used her racism as the topic of her MFA project that was later showcased to the whole class. The international students, my friend included, felt singled out and punished for being ignorant of something they had no opportunity to learn about, and certainly did not feel more motivated to learn about US race relations afterwards.

Similarly, another case is the film Selma, about MLK’s organization of the Selma to Montgomery marches. The film depicts Lyndon B Johnson as being obstructionist, which caused a great deal of controversy, as historically LBJ seemed to have done the best that he could (though I’m not a Historian and can’t attest to the details).The controversy was framed in terms of historical accuracy vs artistic license, where the director defended their choice to have characters in diverse political positions for a good story. To me, the issue with Selma is better framed in terms of encouragement vs condemnation. Especially since Selma was a widely-released film in 2014, its depiction of various parties involved in Civil Rights can serve as examples of how to overcome new forms of racism in the 21st century. This includes allies in the 1960s setting an example for potential non-Black allies in the present. Discounting LBJ’s efforts and accomplishments seem to be counterproductive for gaining new allies, since one interpretation of the filmmakers’ decisions would be that White people’s efforts would be unrecognized or even falsified by Black activists, so why bother?

A rejoinder to what I point out above might be that achieving social justice for the disenfranchised is more important than protecting the feelings of the privileged, which is something I hear radicals say often. While I don’t disagree with this in an objective sense, subjective experiences are immediate and real to the individuals who have them. Especially for people who did not grow up with a liberal arts education that reinforces for them a sense of objective equity, what is left is their feelings, and it seems an oversight for the left not to factor that in. The behaviour of Trump’s voter base shows that there is a cost to steamrolling over someone’s feelings in an attempt to achieve justice. Moreover, the example I gave of international students bewildered by American race relations point to a danger of leftists becoming imperialist without knowing it. Saving face is an important concept to people from Asia, and I don’t think achieving social justice for the US should bear the cost of so casually steamrolling over other cultures’ sense of appropriate behaviour.

To wrap up points a) and b): by virtue of sheer logic, isolation works both ways – if the right is isolated from the ideas of the left, then the left is also isolated from the right. This isolation can only be breached from both sides trying to establish a dialogue. An acquaintance once joked about how radicals and missionaries respond differently to people who are unconvinced: leftists say “you’re a horrible person,” whereas missionaries say “it’s fine, I’m sure you will find your own path to God.” This is true – missionaries derive from their beliefs a capacity to be patient with nonbelievers, whereas those on the left often write off those on the right as lost causes. I’m not religious myself, however I think it’s a shame that religion has a bad rap for those on the left – at the same that that we are attentive to abuses perpetuated in the name of religion, we can learn a lot from them regarding how to practice and disseminate what we believe in.

c) a) and b) addressed how those on the left may simplify and condemn those on the right, and this last section will address how internally on the left, radicals often adopt a purist position that invalidates work being done by liberals and the centre. In this politics of purity, change is conceptualized as effective only if it it comes out of tearing down the status quo, and not working within the system. Part of this does come from the fact that inequality necessitates fundamental changes, as I have discussed in the first half of this post. However, a politics of purity fosters a mentality of “if you’re not with us, you’re against us,” and this can relegate radicals and their visions to the fringe because they cannot reach others who want change (As I come from an academic setting, most of the examples I give are observed from fellow academics who identify as radical).

First, among radicals, agency and complicity are often diametrically opposed. That is, someone who goes along with the status quo (complicit) has been brainwashed into doing so and are not exercising their agency, and only standing against the status quo is proof of agency. This is an overly simplistic view of choice and leaves out the possibility that someone could have used their agency and chosen to be complicit, or that someone who stands against the status quo had been coerced into doing so. This creates a scenario where radicals become pressured to disagree because this more easily demonstrates that they can exercise agency, rather than reflect on what they are disagreeing with.  An instance from a PhD class reflected this. We read an academic book called X-Marks: Native Signatures of Assent, which argues that the “X” signatures made by Native leaders on unfavourable treaty documents in the past should not be seen simply as a sign that they gave up, but that they exercised agency in assenting to certain forms of colonialism. Almost everyone in the class criticized the book for being an apologist for colonialism and capitalism. In doing so, they implicitly communicated that the only those who have stood against capitalism and colonialism are worth studying. In addition, in a class setting they seemed to have been trying to show their critical thinking abilities and leftist tendencies by criticizing the book rather than reflect on its argument.

The emphasis on disagreement can lead to a progressive politics that is increasingly negatively articulated. Recently I saw an article in the New York Times asking the same question: “A ‘Resistance’ Stands Against Trump. But What Will It Stand For?” One section goes as follows: “A call to resist is different from a call to ‘organize’ or — to borrow a word from the long-ago Age of Obama — to ‘dream.’ Those words conjure visions of better worlds. Resistance names what you don’t want and leaves the vision thing for another, less urgent situation.” The article also ends by saying that “But the mere act of refusal often turns out to have its own momentum. As people learn that they can indeed say ‘no,’ they may begin to find new ways toward saying ‘yes.'” While this is hopeful, I believe it further strengthens the negative articulation of politics, and it is also a little naïve to think that criticism of the status quo has a direct throughline to enacting change. It is definitely urgent for Middle Easterners excluded by Executive Order 13769, refugees and otherwise, but I do not think that Trump is such an urgent matter for most of the US such that we only have time to say “no.” In fact, I think those most urgently affected by the travel ban are preoccupied with surviving day to day or visiting immigration lawyers, not taking the time to demonstrate just so they can say “no.” In other words, being critical of the status quo is the beginning to change; criticism and disagreement is a necessary, but not in of itself sufficient, condition for social change.

Second, I’d like to address radicals aiming to fundamentally change society. While this is a noble goal, i) it discourages social engagement that is currently possible while not offering any paths to the ideal, and ii) lead to radicals accusing liberals of pandering to the system when they try to work within it, which can alienate potential allies. An example of this attitude is a blog post on Occupy Wall Street by Judith Butler, one of the most influential thinkers on the left, especially with regards to how gender is a socially constructed concept. In this post, Butler responds to criticisms against Occupy that they did not make a coherent list of demands. She argues that a list of demands does not explain how these demands are related to one another, and “We cannot fix the one form of inequality without understanding the broader trends of inequality we are seeking to overcome.” She also responds to criticisms against Occupy that demands should be realistic, saying that a demand that the government is willing to fulfill usually means that it would not be a demand that fundamentally challenges government. In addition, “to appeal to that authority to satisfy the demand would be one way of attributing legitimacy to that authority” – that is, at the same time as disagreeing with the government on policies, appealing to the government to change policies still implicitly agrees with the government that they should be in control.

While all of this is true, and while I appreciate that much critical theory and cultural studies do point out assumptions we hold, often I (and my undergrads) are left with a question, “So what should we do?” Last September, when TAing a general education course that included a book with a similar position to the blog post regarding Occupy, a student asked in frustration, “Does this mean we shouldn’t vote?” A rejoinder has been that it is not the job of the liberal arts and critical theory to prescribe, but challenge us to think differently. While this is also true, I believe that these disciplines that challenges us to think different operate at a level that is disconnected from Business, Management, Accounting, Policy, International Relations, Economics, Law, and a whole host of other disciplines (not even counting the Sciences and trade jobs) that focus on things to be done. Without some gesture to possible actions based on leftist critiques, the demands to act in mainstream disciplines and to earn a living in those jobs might overwhelm any critical thinking in the abstract. In addition, critical theory can choose to position itself against these disciplines to critique them, but in doing so, it may fail to speak at all to their adherents.

This leads me to an issue with the radical left condemning politically neutral humanities and social science disciplines. It’s understandable to be critical of professional disciplines like Business Administration, however it makes less sense to be categorically critical of a research field like Political Science. As I talked about at the end of Part I, social science disciplines are suspect because they rely on implicit assumptions which have biases towards those in power. For example, Political Science to a certain degree assumes that we need a government of some kind, which leftist anarchists would reject. In addition, I have seen fellow scholars argue that disciplines that rely on big data cannot address inequality because the complexities of personhood and subjectivity becomes lost in the data. While all of these criticisms might be true, saying that data-driven disciplines are entirely complicit with power would be writing off knowledge that can look at broad material differences in society.

It also conflates what a discipline tends not to do with what it cannot do. It is true that Political Science might get funding from the establishment, or that International Relations are located in a country which seeks to use IR training for is own advantage in world politics. However, this does not mean that those disciplines are inherently uncritical; if we can historicize the reasons that they developed to be such, we can change the discipline. An example of a discipline which has changed is History, which had almost entirely been about monarchs, wars, and territory, but increasingly taking into account the histories of topics such as immigration, women’s movements, and cultural practices such as theatre-going. A discipline also has recourse to multiple methods which can offset one another’s weaknesses, for example using oral history along with census statistics.

What it comes down to for me is a different definition and approach to “urgency.” To me, urgency is not about demonstrating on the streets to express disagreement with the status quo. It is about being able to proactively engage the system as it is, because the consequences of not engaging can be immediate and severe. I’d hate to think, for example, that teaching radical theory to undergrads meant that we had dissuaded some of them from voting in the last election.

I also disagree with radical thinkers who suggest that having short-term goals with a focus on results undermines our ability to imagine long-term ideals (see, for example, the first comment to the post regarding Occupy). To me, this position does not give thinkers on the left enough credit to simultaneously hold short-term goals and long-term visions, or to implement short-term goals with an awareness that they might be provisional, and also to think of how to pre-empt ways provisional goals might be co-opted. Finally, incremental goals should also not be conflated with isolated goals, which the post on Occupy addresses. It is true that we cannot take one aspect of social life, ie policing, or education, or employment discrimination, and hope to solve all inequality, which impinges on many different spheres of life. A more realistic model that still can lead to the abstract ideal would be incremental changes in each sphere of life, with dialogue between the spheres to evaluate the synergy of changes over time.

Engaging the world with a sense of urgency is different from wanting an overnight revolution.   First, there is the matter of material infrastructure for a new way of life. Second, people and their mentality are like an infrastructure that needs to be built up so they can fit into a new way of life. I think this is what revolutionaries on the left forget. People on the left have spent a great deal of time thinking about and acting on their ideal world, that they have already mentally primed themselves to be part of it. They cannot imagine the mindset of someone who has not, for whom the new ideal world necessitates a longer transition period.

I think that many people can be negatively affected by change, even if it is a change for the better, because it requires effort to break old patterns and attachments and to learn new skills and ways of being. It is probably only the people already very committed to change who are willing to wade through the mundane realities of setting up a new infrastructure. People who don’t care strongly either way, which are most people, may oppose change just to keep the pattern they are used to. Instead of characterizing this tendency as reactionary, I think it is more generous for the left to recognize it as human – that most people want familiarity and want what they know and do to be valued. From a subjective perspective, I think it may be just as hard to ask people on the right to change their world view and way of life as asking an inner city worker to learn new professional skills when those jobs move offshore. It might take generational turnover for attitudes to shift. So, even as we engage with world with urgency for specific concrete problems, we should also be patient and acknowledge the deep time of social change. Reform is not opposed to revolution; I would say that revolution only occurs superficially without a longer history of reform.

Building the material infrastructure of a new society requires a new mental and affective infrastructure, which brings me to pedagogy.  I think academics and other thinkers should do theoretical research that has no immediate application, even if staving off social disintegration is urgent. However, pedagogy may not take the same approach as research. Academics on the left have espoused a concept called “radical pedagogy,” which is that education should help build students’ political awareness and advance social change, rather than just giving them technical knowledge. While I fully endorse this as a goal, radical pedagogy should not simply comprise of telling students about radical positions. In Part II I mentioned professors who took grades off if students did not use specific terminology, such as “undocumented” instead of “illegal” immigrants. To me, this is a lazy way of exercising radical pedagogy, as it punishes people for the beliefs that they had been previously taught. To truly succeed, radical pedagogy (or any education for that matter) should begin from the positionality of the learner and build upon what they know, rather than invalidate it. Understandably this is difficult, since due to inequality and segregation, upcoming privileged generations have very little on which a leftist educator can build upon. However, I think that because we are in the role of educators (and older and more experienced people), the task of finding how to work with very little falls on us. Since Trump’s election, there has been a growing blacklist of university professors who are accused of disseminating leftist propaganda and brainwashing students. This is alarming, however at the same time I also think that professors should not be shielded from public critique just because they are part of an institution, and I also hope that the silver lining would be that it enables educators on the left to revise their pedagogy.

To wrap up this series of posts, I’d like to bring in Part II’s point about paying attention to resources rather than attitudes, into the points here about understanding, encouragement, and being realistic.

Stokely Carmichael, a prominent thinker of the Black Power Movement, was disillusioned with Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent approach that tried to instigate social change by gaining sympathy for Black suffering. Carmichael notably said, “In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The United States has none.” Given Trump’s election, I would amend this to, “In order for nonviolence to work, our potential allies must have an incentive. We have not given them enough.” While I do think the Black Power Movement’s recourse to violent resistance is  justified in their historical context, I also don’t think that a minority in the US can cause enough disincentive to really outweigh the US’s promised incentives, or outweigh the desire on the part of the privileged for things to stay the same.

Part of this may be needing centrists who are committed centrists, rather than people who don’t care enough to be on the far left or the far right. I traveled to Australia for a conference recently and read on the in-flight magazine about Waleed Aly, who got an Australian of the Year Award for being nuanced and understanding when approaching Australia’s equally divisive political scene. I doubt someone like Aly would win an award in an American cultural context, due to a legitimization of what he calls “the cycle of outrage.” I think the issues covered earlier regarding a negative articulation of politics, and a general American culture of adversarial democracy and justice, has made extremism and and expression of outrage the most valid expression of dedication, when there is really no inherent correlation between the two. I mentioned earlier that the left choose to disregard the feelings of the right at our peril. If we do, we fuel backlash and and contribute to a cycle of outrage.

In the carrot and stick analogy, the criticism and negative articulation of politics that I see on the left is like the left attempting to beat the right with a small stick. What I am advocating for is a shift to thinking about social change motivated by carrots for as many segments of society as possible. This involves acknowledging the right as human, with both shortcomings that we need to work with rather than demonize, and with potentials that we can play into. It involves understanding their positionality so we can imagine a future that takes in account their benefit, and pitch it convincingly. Instead of seeing the right, centre, and even liberals as opponents, we need to see them as potential allies; even when they oppose us, we can see them as a source of critique through which we can refine our visions for a better society that is productive and inclusive.

3 Points Toward a More Receptive and Conciliatory Left, Part II

1) Is objectivity really impossible, and what are some pitfalls in valuing subjectivity?
2) Have we placed an undue emphasis on cultural and linguistic factors when considering inequality?
3) When should we commit to ideological positions, and when should we compromise?

Trump is now president, and the Republicans have gained majority in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. In the post-election analysis, blame has been laid on 3rd party candidates, the media for covering Trump and giving him free publicity, Clinton’s past indiscretions, unreliable projections, and the electoral college system. One possible factor that the Democrats have identified is that they hadn’t reached out enough to white working-class voters.

I can’t speak to campaign strategies and their miscalculations; however, as a graduate student in a leftist interdisciplinary department, I have been frustrated for years at my fellow scholars’ ideological purity. I believe that a deterioration of civil society is scary, but I also fear that Trump being elected has vindicated a belief on the left that the right is so far gone that we have nothing to work with, while believing ourselves morally and intellectually superior. The use of “social justice warriors” and “feminazi” in dismissive and derogatory ways certainly speaks to resistance on the part of conservatives, however the sheer frequency of these labels makes me believe that the fault does not lie entirely with them.  Finally, the fact that many college-educated men backed Trump, and that even great numbers of White women voted for him, says that there is something we’re missing in the work we do in humanities and liberal arts research and higher education, even as we are trying to educate the electorate.

This is a part of a series of 3 posts that will try to answer the 3 questions above. Each of the 3 questions tries to interrogate a concept that, as I see it, has become common sense to thinkers on the left to the extent that we cannot apply it with nuance or communicate its value to non-believers. Each post will explain and give examples of one concept and its goals, then a response discussing its shortcomings and misapplication.

Progressive Concept #2: Power is the ultimate axis along which people differ, however, it is an abstraction that can only reproduce itself through discourse.

Discourse is how we constitute and communicate knowledge, and then act upon that knowledge. In other words, following from Part I’s concept that absolute objectivity does not exist, knowledge is never neutral, and it usually created by those in power to serve their own power. For example, during the election, detractors of Hillary Clinton have either described her as shrill, which confirmed that her gender identity made her a weak candidate, or they described her as hawkish, which meant that she was denying her gender identity, which made her a badly-adjusted candidate. Thus, this kind of criticisms she faced were based on a discourse about appropriate gender behaviour, and not necessarily her merit, and was leveled against her by people who saw her as a challenge to their preferred status quo.

Discourses generate prototypes and stereotypes that guide further action. Research and theories about discourses (most recently stemming from the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault) have instigated something called “the cultural turn,” where scholars, and the broader public, have come to believe that culture is the realm where people have been indoctrinated with biases, and these biases in turn perpetuate inequality (or the opposite, that culture can give society news ways of thinking that can fix inequality). The most significant carrier of meaning in our culture is language, and so closely aligned with the cultural turn was “the linguistic turn,” which called attention to how language has the power to perpetuate or dissuade action. The idea behind the linguistic turn is that language does not transparently represent reality like we think it does, because language is more or less arbitrary symbols that we create to refer to what we decide is important out in the world. The story that Arctic peoples have a hundred words for “snow” may or may not be accurate, but they definitely have more words than English; it matters to their livelihood that they distinguish different kinds of snow through language and we don’t, even though in “reality” we get as much different kinds of snow as they do. Having more words for snow also means that Arctic peoples will more likely notice the differences between subtypes of snow, whereas we won’t. Thus, what snow “really” is depends on whose speaking and their language. This position can be summed up with the phrase “words have power.”

On the academic front, the discipline of Cultural Studies is where scholars can research and teach about how culture and language has developed to privilege certain kinds of common sense over others. Combined, the linguistic turn and the cultural turn help us by point out the constructedness of concepts, ideological motivations of people who have lead us to believe in those concepts, and how to imagine better alternatives. Criticism of Trump, for example, has called out his rhetoric as being misogynist and racist as part of this academic/cultural trend.

Response #2: Despite attention to power, in the US class is subordinated as a dimension with which to critique inequality. I believe that 3 broad tendencies have contributed to this:

a) the suppression of Marxian critique despite being in a society of advanced capitalism

b) the obviousness of race and gender as markers of difference in the US

c) theories of discourse and language have been reduced to political correctness

I would not say that Marx is entirely correct, however the essence of the definition of class is socioeconomic status, whereas neither race nor gender are defined essentially by socioeconomic status. In other words, in an alternate time / place, poor people will still be poor, but poverty may not be aligned with markers of biological difference. Obviously, whether one has power or not does not depend entirely on one’s socioeconomic status. For example, historically a woman who has high socioeconomic status based on her relationship to privileged male family members would still be unable to vote on legislations or shape public discourse if women were categorically denied the vote, especially on issues pertaining to gender. However, the current US is a country of advanced capitalism (especially in the post-New Deal era) defined by individual labour and commodification, and thus the extent of one’s abilities to sell one’s labour and buy life necessities in a large part determines how one lives life.

In the US, critiques based on this has come largely in the form of advocacy for more public spending on the part of the government, however prominent civic groups have not coalesced around class but ethnicity and gender, such as the NAACP and Planned Parenthood. Academic departments reflect this; we have departments such as Ethnic Studies and Gender Studies where class is taken into account, but not Class Studies or Marxian Studies. The organization that is meant to address class is labour unions. However the US has transitioned out of an economy based on large-scaled industry into an economy based on the service industry (which actually need people on the ground and thus cannot be outsourced) and professional labour.  Thus, this means that there are less and less work places where there are enough employees for collective bargaining. With small businesses, workers can legally unionize but are much less likely to due to the low number of employees. With subcontracting, workers don’t count as employees. Apparently some agricultural and service industry workers cannot unionize either (Though I am not a labour historian or economist by training, what info I got from here). The bias in public discourse around gender and race that leaves out class may discourage working-class and poor people to organize.

In very broad strokes, I think the lack of a developed class-based critique is due to a chain of eras: the US not being a feudal system with a large wealth gap among its “free citizens,” the Roaring 20s and “fighting the good fight” in WWII creating a good economy and national cohesion, and subsequently the Cold War and anti-Communism. In addition, the Civil Rights movement was focused on rights on the civic level for people who had been denied them based on factors other than class, which was primarily race. It was not a revolution that fundamentally dealt with inequality generated by capitalism, much less global capitalism (though from starting to read scholarship on the Black Panther Party, it seems like they tried).

An example of how Civil Rights-era critiques can miss the mark in current times was when Black students at Scripps College posted an ad asking for a roommate who is a person of colour. I take no issue with the students wanting safe spaces with race as a factor, or even that the students specified this directly on a public posting (more in Part III), but I take issue with the fact that they only specified race as the determining factor for feeling safe. American colleges attract an increasing number of students from Asia, who are broadly defined “people of colour” (and know themselves to be such), however with absolutely no correlation between their race and their political commitments. I live in a Black neighbourhood in LA where I am the only person of Asian descent, though I had temporary Chinese neighbours who moved away because they felt unsafe. One international student from China even called our neighbours “gorillas.” The Black-White paradigm has indeed been salient for the US, however continued migration from Asia in the past forty years has been a part of new global capitalism, leaving Civil Rights-era ideas of where social change comes from narrow and inadequate .*

In addition, I believe that the linguistic and cultural turn, combined with the weight we have collectively given to race and gender, has become a cut-and-dried tool to call out inequality that does not require us to actually look at material factors. Thus, it is easy for liberals to denounce Trump and Trump supporters on their rhetoric, while not explaining in detail why his economic plan is unsound, or explaining what economic factors might have driven his supporters to adopt racist and misogynist language.  Even advocacy for cultural issues that have a significant monetary dimension usually gets couched in a cultural justification first, and material effects second, if at all. An example is the LA Times article where the creator of #OscarsSoWhite was interviewed about diversity in Hollywood. Among her answers, there were multiple mentions of needing to highlight the achievement of people of colour, or that their stories need to be heard; twice she mentions profit motives in the industry as the reason for discrimination; however, nowhere does she talk about how more diverse filmmakers and actors would mean more people of colour getting professional jobs in a massive industry.

This is also a factor in the backlash against political correctness. While I don’t disagree with the spirit of political correctness, it is a mass application of the linguistic turn in a very reductive way. This is especially the case when people understand political correctness as being the change of a few isolated words, such as not calling Natives “Indians,” or asking people to stop saying “hey guys” when talking to women. Most people who follow political correctness do not have much of an awareness how the language they wish to use would address actual material inequality, or fail to explain it in a way that convinces people who do not agree. Some professors I have worked with ask that undergrads to stop using the term “illegal immigrant” and instead use “undocumented immigrant,” which is a way of getting students to stop treating law as though it was naturally-occuring. While this justification makes sense, a teaching strategy that does not make sense to me is taking off marks for writing “illegal immigrant,” which professors have done or have threatened to do. To me, this is in part an undeserved attention to one linguistic term at the expense of other means of demonstrating critical thinking, and in part the uncompromising attitude demonstrated by radicals, which I will discuss in Part III.

Finally, notice that most of not all of the politically incorrect words that we have sought to change are about race, gender, sexuality, and (dis)ability, and almost none are about class; in daily discourse, there is no such thing as an obvious, single-word expression or even a phrase that signals a class-based offense (though “redneck” comes close). This means that disenfranchisement based on class is harder to detect, and unfortunately liberals often avoid doing that work and stick to pointing out linguistic or cultural offenses instead.

In an academic setting, unfortunately the superficial application of the cultural turn is also exacerbated by these scholars negatively judging other social science disciplines. For people in Cultural Studies or Literature, Political Science and Economics have been seen as less suited to social change or even suspect – less successful because their priorities are not conceptual, and suspect because they rely on a structure that, like language, has implicit rules which have biases towards those in power. For example, Political Science to a certain degree assumes that we need a government of some kind, which leftist anarchists (and libertarians) would reject; Economics positively appraises allocating work to decrease opportunity costs and increase specialization to boost overall productivity, rather than question who gains from productivity. In addition, I have seen fellow scholars argue that disciplines that rely on big data cannot address inequality because the complexities of personhood and subjectivity becomes lost in the data. While all of these criticisms might be true, saying that data-driven disciplines are entirely complicit with power would be writing off knowledge that can look at broad material differences in society.

* A further note about the relationship between race and class:

I don’t mean class in terms of any specific ideology or its application such as Marxism or Maoism, and I don’t mean race in terms of the 5 categories offered on the US census. By “race” I mean any constructed definition of a group of humans with unique characteristics linked to their biology. By “class” I mean someone’s economic position relative to their society’s economic range, that comprises their income, inherited wealth, properties and other assets, and how much these things are worth.

I don’t believe that someone’s class is more important than their race when it comes to personal experience, especially not in the US (a historically-grounded and clear essay from Cornel West is helpful to elucidate this). In West’s essay, he points out that one failing of Marxism is that it is too focused on modern industrialized capitalism and the class divisions it generates, and cannot explain pre-modern kinds of racism. This is true. However, class in a Marxian sense is different from economics in a general sense. While I do not believe that the resulting class divisions coming out of industrial capitalism is more important than race for a given individual, I also do not believe that large-scaled demonization of another group based on biology can occur without an economic (or some other resource-based) motivation. The enslavement of Africans did occur before modern capitalism, but they provided cheap labour so that plantation owners could turn a higher profit; thus, while it is not necessarily class in the Marxian sense, there is still a clearly definable economic motive (see Cedric Robinson’s book Black Marxism).

I do not dispute West’s and other cultural studies scholars’ point that relations of power are ideological as well as material (Stuart Hall gives a great integration of this). I also do think that because racially-based ideological justifications for economic domination have happened for so long that they have taken on a life of their own. Thus, even when there are no longer discernible competition over resources, racism still continues. While I don’t dispute radical ethnic studies scholars about how we got here, to me, solving the problems we have comes down to 2 things – 1) whether you think it is easier to change people’s minds or change socio-economic organization, and 2) whether we are focusing on undoing the wrongs of the past, or preventing new wrongs from taking shape in our present.

For me, I believe that it is difficult to change people’s tendencies to band into a group and to demonize other groups based on simplistic reasoning, though we can try to improve on this point. It is more effective if we change structural and economic factors so no group can hold enough power in a way that their demonization of others carry weight, and the potential for economic gain would not be so great that dehumanizing someone else might be worth it. As for the second point, ethnic and gender studies scholars and activists have a very difficult job in working against the discourses that have collected through time. What may have started as economic motives have turned into self-justifying discursive biases, such that in the US, race has determined whether one can participate in civil society or live in certain neighbourhoods. However, this does not mean that all forms of inequality are driven by the same discourses as before. Following from the above post, economic motives now have more subtle means of fulfilling themselves than a recourse to racism. With global capitalism, nationality and class become determining factors on a world scale, even if race is still a determining factor in the US. Even as we attend to how wrongs in the past have happened, it is important to recognize when and where they might have changed.

My discussion about how defining inequality by race is inadequate is also relevant for the debate about whether Black people can be racist or reverse-racist. An explanation of the assertion that Blacks cannot be racist would be helpful: this position says that because Blacks have been on the bottom of the racial hierarchy designed to disenfranchise them, what seems to be reverse-racism is just to mitigate previous racism. This position relies on a metaphor of a numeric scale, where equality means all groups sit at 0, and racism is any racial group trying to rise above 0 by pushing those below 0. This has happened, as Whites have risen in wealth and status over history due to the exploitation of Blacks. Contemporary Blacks, who I think are predominantly still metaphorically below zero, can use means such as affirmative action to get to 0, and insodoing can pull some Whites down to 0. However, until Blacks rise above 0 and push Whites below that, reverse-racism has not occured. This position also takes an overall structural view of racism not as individual acts of discrimination, but an overall social effect of one race rising above another race. Thus, it is not addressing whether individual Blacks can be discriminatory.

I largely agree with this view of racism and fully endorse affirmative action and other efforts at equalizing opportunity. However, while I don’t think Blacks can be racist, I also think that Blacks can be nativist, homophobic, and religiously bigoted. As someone who is not American myself but in American Studies and Ethnic Studies, what I found surprising was how American Black Americans are, especially those who have been in the US for generations and have not lived anywhere else (so not immigrants from the Caribbean, like in Canada). Two of my neighbours, for instance, are older Black Christians who are very nice to me but told me that they believe Mexicans are engaged in a silent but hostile takeover. I think race is a factor that needs to be addressed, however it should not eclipse the real ways that Black Americans can speak from the position of Americans, Christians, and cis-gender and straight people. However, I also think that this is a conversation to be had internal to Black communities rather than have outsiders who don’t understand their positions swooping in to accuse them of wrongdoing.

3 Points Toward a More Receptive and Conciliatory Left, Part I

1) Is objectivity really impossible, and what are some pitfalls in valuing subjectivity?
2) Have we placed an undue emphasis on cultural and linguistic factors when considering inequality?
3) When should we commit to ideological positions, and when should we compromise?

Trump is now president, and the Republicans have gained majority in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. In the post-election analysis, blame has been laid on 3rd party candidates, the media for covering Trump and giving him free publicity, Clinton’s past indiscretions, unreliable projections, and the electoral college system. One possible factor that the Democrats have identified is that they hadn’t reached out enough to white working-class voters.

I can’t speak to campaign strategies and their miscalculations; however, as a graduate student in a leftist interdisciplinary department, I have been frustrated for years at my fellow scholars’ ideological purity. I believe that a deterioration of civil society is scary, but I also fear that Trump being elected has vindicated a belief on the left that the right is so far gone that we have nothing to work with, while believing ourselves morally and intellectually superior. The use of “social justice warriors” and “feminazi” in dismissive and derogatory ways certainly speaks to resistance on the part of conservatives, however the sheer frequency of these labels makes me believe that the fault does not lie entirely with them.  Finally, the fact that many college-educated men backed Trump, and that even great numbers of White women voted for him, says that there is something we’re missing in the work we do in liberal arts research and higher education, even as we are trying to educate the electorate.

This is a part of a series of 3 posts that will try to answer the 3 questions above. Each of the 3 questions tries to interrogate a concept that, as I see it, has become common sense to thinkers on the left to the extent that we cannot apply it with nuance or communicate its value to non-believers. Each post will explain and give examples of one concept and its goals, then a response discussing its shortcomings and misapplication.

Progressive Concept #1: Objectivity is a fallacy, but the personal is political.

We are taught that it is impossible to hold a belief that is uncoloured by attributes historically deemed to be personal, such as race, class, gender, and sexuality. Following from this, absolute impartiality and apositionality is impossible.  This critique has been leveled the most often at ideas received from straight, Euro-American men of middle and upper classes who have assumed that their ideas are universally applicable and objective. For example, Enlightenment Humanism in Europe established that autonomy and rationality should be recognized as universal human attributes that justified freedom from religious and feudal tyranny, instigating the development of the middle class and the early modern society; however, the rise of a core middle class that came about due to denigrating Black Africans as non-human and profiting from their slave labour (ie in Sylvia Wynter’s scholarship). In the 3/5th Compromise of the US, the Northern, predominantly anti-slavery states did not want to count slaves as human for taxation and representation, because this would give Southern states more power; actual costs and benefits overrode principle. Thus, supposedly universal and objective concepts like humanism cannot be assumed to really be truly universal, because they are contradictory and have been applied selectively to benefit certain groups.

If nothing is absolutely objective or universal, then nothing is absolutely personal either; personal background are informed by forces outside of oneself and have effects outside of oneself. If middle-class White men have failed to generate and apply truly objective or universal principles, then we must ensure that all backgrounds are represented so a diversity of subjective perspectives have the opportunity to reflect upon public matters together. These theories have influenced and are influenced by postmodernism in general, which insists on relativity rather than absolutes.

Finally, because nothing is absolutely private and personal, there is also no such thing as absolutely personal achievements, nor absolutely personal failure. Failures get pinned on people who have been the most directly involved, however there tends to be a lack of awareness of how they have been constrained. One example is attributing healthy dietary habits and weight management to personal effort, and a backlash against obesity being counted as a disability that people could claim benefits for. I have lived in South Central LA for 5 years and seen 2 supermarkets shut down in my neighbourhood, while there are multiple fast food restaurants and liquor stores on every block. Juvenile diabetes is also rampant in my area, as evidenced by multiple PSA posters at bus stops. Even I have difficulty maintaining a healthy diet when busy and stressed, so it would be unreasonable to expect a single mother working multiple part-time and low-paying jobs to provide and teach her children about healthy diets all on her own personal effort. This is a fundamental issue in the disagreement between proponents of more public spending and proponents of less public spending – the former criticizes the latter of mistaking structural benefits for personal attributes and effort when it conveniences them to do so.

Response #1: The personal is not always political, and the personal does not have desired political effects without contextualization and connections to political aspirations.

I should make clear that, as per the first half of this post, I take no issue with explaining personal achievements and failures through structural factors. What concerns me is that valuing subjectivity has been reduced to personal expression, which has been emphasized through consumer culture and mass media. The constant valorization of personal expression leads to:

a) individuals of historically disenfranchised or under-represented groups presenting a personal opinion as representative of their whole group without contextualization

b) disenfranchised groups emphasizing evidence that support their ideological commitments while ignoring evidence that does not, or use the impossibility of being perfectly objective as an excuse to not try to be.

I am also not saying that groups in power have avoided these pitfalls (from the first half of this post, I definitely don’t think they have) but I don’t think that progressives can change things by fighting fire with fire.

That we attribute so much power to personal expression has to do with a system of adversarial democracy and an adversarial justice system (more in Part III). These civic systems lead to a cultural practice of representing one’s own argument, such as in the argumentative essay. However, to me these are not the most significant factors; it is consumer culture and social media that has made the last couple of generations predisposed to broadcasting personal expression with the assumption that the act in of itself is political.

Consumer culture is a significant force in the West: with industrial standardization, most of our jobs are specialized roles that does not allow us to express ourselves, so the only means of expressing ourselves through our personal lives. However, most of what we need in life comes in commodities that someone outside of our society as made. Thus, we create our own sense of self through buying things and paying for services. Marketers take advantage of this through market segmentation, where consumers are divided into smaller subgroups based on different needs; thus, when we buy something, we feel like it is tailored to us, and that we can express ourselves through it, and even become better through it. Car commercials, for example, tell us that the specific car would make us into an urbane professional or a rugged outdoorsman. L’oreal’s famous tagline is “Because you’re worth it.”

More recently, social media can also be seen as a way of marketing ourselves (and also as an extremely specialized way of marketing to us). Self-expression on social media garners positive feedback often not on the content being shared, but the act of sharing. For example, selfies will almost always garner positive feedback about how confident the person is in showing their face / body and sharing it with everyone. This cycles into people posting things online for the positive feedback they get on the act of expressing themselves, rather than deliberating on whether the content of what they are posting actually moves discussion on a topic forwards or achieves any material effects.

Feminist popularized the statement “the personal is political,” however it has been corrupted in recent generations of both men and women. However, I am more critical towards contemporary liberal feminism, partly because I think the burden of doing better should be on the actors who claim they can do better than the status quo, and partly because of negative personal experiences with individuals claiming to be feminists. Two articles about gender representation in videogames each illustrate the 2 pitfalls of emphasizing subjectivity.*

The first is an article about the update to Lara Croft’s representation in the Tomb Raider franchise. Peacock, the author, expresses disappointment that the realism of recent games reminds her too much that Lara is a frightened and vulnerable young woman as opposed to a badass tomb raider on par with men, citing examples such as Lara saying she’s cold, or Lara being assaulted, a scene which evokes rape. It is not that Peacock’s points are invalid, and I appreciate that she describes these conclusions as her own opinion. However, for the Women’s section of a mainstream and prominent outlet such as the Telegraph, I believe that Peacock could have better contextualized her opinion among other divergent feminist perspectives, even if this was an editorial. The new Lara Croft facing realistic obstacles that women face and giving realistic responses for a young woman most likely comes out of ideas that to be equal to men does not mean to be the same as men, and that the capacity for women to show vulnerability means that they have not been brainwashed by patriarchal society to believe that masculine toughness is the only valid state of mind. Giving Lara these traits makes her more of a complex and evolving character rather than the sex symbol of before, and more relatable for female players.  Feminists writing articles based on personal experiences is not invalid in of itself; however, I do think that this partly explains why men (and non-conforming women, such as in the above link) have a hard time approaching feminism, when individual women give divergent arguments, yet each woman insists or implies that their own personal belief is the political reality for all women.

Another article illustrates the problem when ideologically driven research ignores counter-arguments and evidence that does not support their claims. This article is about Rimworld, where the player is in charge of a colony of initially 3 people on another planet and assigning them tasks so they survive and prosper. The gender of the colonists determines different programming for thoughts and behaviour. Lo, the author, takes issue with how, among other things, female colonists are programmed to rarely initiate romance and to be not affected when rejecting romance, and male colonists are never programmed to be bisexual. The effect of this article on me was different than the piece on Tomb Raider, since I know less about programming than about representations and was impressed that Lo managed to dig into the code at all. The tone of the article also seemed fairly objective and her conclusions were not opinions, but rather fairly objective descriptions about the game mechanics. However, I cannot write off the developers’ objections in the comments as he explained that there was a updated version of the game where many of the issues Lo points out had been fixed, but she did not examine that version, and in addition he had asked that his full explanations be reproduced in the article but was refused. The Editor’s Note from Rock Paper Shotgun is that agreeing to reproduce the developer’s interview in full would be ceding editorial control. To me, this says that Lo and the editors already have an angle in mind based on preliminary research, and would exert editorial control to convey this angle even in the face of contradicting evidence. Similarly to representing individual opinions as representative ones, this lack of objective methodological rigour allied with strong ideological commitments can also drive away potential supporters who do not yet share those ideological commitments.

To me, the latter is a more serious issue for society, even though the former bothers me more personally. The reason for my personal discomfort at the former is that I have often run up against 3rd wave Euro-American feminists who assume that their perspectives, aspirations, and standards of femininity apply to me. At the same time, they reinforce one another’s personal expressions while denouncing critique as being anti-feminist, which prevents them from hearing about alternate feminisms. One particularly troubling incident occurred in a senior undergrad art class where the class votes on a semester theme, and the White female majority of the class chose sex; they then voted to replace the usual year-end gallery exhibit with public art installations around campus. Muslim student groups objected when they saw sexually explicit material being displayed in public space, however the art students wrote them off as being repressed and oppressed by their religion. I did not have the language to convince my class and thus my arguments weren’t particularly effective. To this day I am not sure how the professor could have not stepped in to at least clearly lay out what was at stake for my fellow students (There was also an incident where a fellow Women’s Studies TA told her classes that she hated men, which I will discuss more in Part III).

I do think that implying that personal opinions are representative of one’s identity group can be mitigated by having multiple individual opinions in the public sphere, and giving more critical and integrative tools to everyone so they know how to evaluate personal claims together to arrive at a bigger picture. Ideological-driven research that ignores evidence would be more devastating on a larger scale, since it is exactly what the far right does when they ignore how free market capitalism coupled with a limited government would produce mass inequality, and insist it would be better for everyone. At the very least, ideologically-driven policy-making it would lead to ineffectual leadership because certain groups and their interests would be not consulted based on ideological differences, leading to factors that the governing group cannot foresee or harness. Just because everything is at some degree ideological does not mean that we have an excuse to not examine our ideologies and positionalities.

* I chose articles that have to do with video games because gender and gaming has been a very hot topic after Gamergate, and it is the area where men have explicitly and unilaterally defended their identity as men. In addition, as a woman who has recently discovered gaming, I read more about games than any other medium (maybe other than comics, and my own academic reading). Regarding the issue of gender in video games, I think the above post undergirds my opinion. I agree with women who believe that video games and the culture around them exclude women and perpetuate harmful gender standards and should change to keep pace with a changing society. However, I also think that women have been asking for change in an antagonistic, unilateral, and internally contradictory way that doesn’t actually give much constructive plans to work from (such as the article on Lara Croft).

I say “unilateral” because while gender is the most salient factor, it should not be the only factor being considered. Most of my male friends who love games are nerdy Asian immigrants, who would have to combat an equally detrimental system of negative racial imagery to be fit in with mainstream men, and even more so to be desired by mainstream women. I would hazard a guess to say that many people (including men) who are die-hard fans of anything (including games) got into it because they were not welcomed into many other things society has to offer. Men who are excluded on factors other than gender can find community in video games, and thus I do think that gaming culture, if not the maleness thereoff, can be defended to a certain extent against mainstream feminism and its exclusive focus on gender. However, this defense should not be couched in purely gendered terms, and cannot take the form of personal attacks on women and their private lives. Ideally, neither side needs to throw the baby out with the bathwater; both sides should come up with ways to reject gender stereotypes and exclusion in games while maintaining games as a unique culture that many men have deeply identified with.

A Traditionalist’s Guide to Thinking About (and Going About) Non-conventional Intimate Relationships, Part III

I. Personal experiences that have contributed to both pro- and anti- ideas

II. Different relationship formats, relationship components, and how format affects the maintenance of these components

III. Analysis of relationship formats and principles, and how to discuss and go about them while maximizing potential and minimizing harm

Part II was getting long, so here are some summative analyses of the relationship formats I discussed, and a discussion of the possible issues with how to sort out and fulfill so many formats fairly for everyone.

All is resourceSecurity vs. democracyClash and compromisePossible negative significances of intimacyAssumptions and cultural bias in public discourseGendered dimensionsIntimacy in an age of flexible accumulationFinal thoughts

All is resource

When I was reading up Polyamory on Wikipedia, I saw the following endorsement: “The more you love, the more you can love — and the more intensely you love. Nor is there any limit on how many you can love. If a person had time enough, he could love all of that majority who are decent and just.”

This is true in theory. Love itself is definitely not a limited resource, and individuals indeed love multiple people at the same time and in different ways without the feelings competing with one another. However, I do not think the quotation works in practice. Love cannot be expressed in its pure form. It has to be expressed through things that are finite resources, time being the one that controls everyone regardless of their mental or emotional capacity and wealth. Emotional and mental capacity are also not infinite. Regardless of the size of one’s capacity, adding another person to one’s life is significant undertaking – even a casual sex partner requires time to browse, converse, plan, get frequent STI tests, etc. Thus it is naïve to think that resources are not involved in love, or that love can transcend resources.

However, thinking about relationships in terms of resource can help change the tendency to judge them on moral terms. For example, I had thought that I would not like to be in an open relationship because I thought they were irresponsible and thus immoral. However, if I were in an exclusive relationship but my partner had a full time job that demanded a lot of overtime or travel, had a big family and friends who needed his help and attention, and a number of activities that he wanted to attend which I weren’t interested in, my feelings of insignificance and indignation would be very similar to those I would have in an open relationship. Thus it is not some abstract morality but preference over how much resource is due to me that is at issue here.

I think when people worry about society when they look at intimacy, their worries are actually grounded on a perception of society having scarce resources. When there is no consistent contraception in a society with little infrastructure or few resources, raising the healthy next generation requires people sticking to familiar family structures. As Jarrod Carmichael says on his show about the correlation between income and cheating, “100 grand to half a mil means he’s definitely cheating, and anything over half a mil just means his wife knows his mistress by name.” This assessment, while comedic, relies on the same resource factor. So, those who can afford to have unconventional relationships literally can afford it.

But I do think it’s useful to let go of the scarcity mentality when dating, not in the sense that relationships don’t use resources, but in the sense that people are not a finite resource. From my experiences, I tend to be a pessimist about relationships, and I also feel I don’t fit in with my peers very well. So, in relationships I have tended to think that my partner was the only one in the world for me, and I found that I have tended to burden them with too many expectations. For someone like me, dating multiple people (at least when looking around initially) might actually be a good idea so that I can distribute my care and expectations, and also gain more confidence in my ability to relate to people.

Security vs. democracy

I started Part II by saying that I am not a traditionalist in the sense that I believe traditional relationship formats like marriage are the best, but in the sense that I believe in using guidelines to ensure that people treat each other fairly and with consistency. A general principle from all the formats in Part II is that there is either a pre-set relationship format with clear guidelines to maintain proportionality and reciprocity, or there aren’t strict guidelines but then details need to be worked out according to the needs of the individuals involved.

This is a case of the tradeoff between security and democracy that also applies to national security. In America there seems to be a lot of emphasis on individual freedom, which I personally feel can sometimes be a reductionist emphasis that views any guidelines whatsoever as invalidating freedom (eg the anti-vaccination movement). I think this is a misrepresentation; guidelines can be repressive, however having some guidelines ensures that all people can have equal opportunities to exercise their freedom. I don’t think this changes when we talk about interpersonal relationships just because they are more personal.

I understand that not everyone has a lot they want to share intimately with others, or they can give more when they give to many. In this case the conventional exclusive and lifelong marriage can be indeed stifling. In this case, the onus has to be on individuals involved to know themselves and know what they want, and communicate it to people they are involved with. The Mic article I mentioned in the last post discussed the “dating partner” format, where two people expressed their relationship thus: “Eliza tells Mic they only broached the topic of exclusivity after two months and even then, ‘It wasn’t a conversation I definitely assumed we’d have.’ The talk, when it happened, simply established that they wouldn’t hook up with other people.” Using the components above, they had established reciprocity.

However, I am not sure what Eliza meant when she said that it wasn’t a conversation she definitely assumed they would have. It sounds like she meant that they would just keep dating without communicating what they were doing. To me this sounds like a bad idea, due to the component of reciprocity of information – there is no way to assess whether this reciprocity has been achieved without a talk. What if Eliza’s partner believed that dating multiple times meant they were official, and he also didn’t say anything because he couldn’t conceive it might be different?

And if we are meant to believe that anything in the relationship is possible without having a talk, a) who were supposed to have taught us this? It is unfair to others to assume that everyone knows these implicit dating practices. They do not hold across all human societies, but people are intermingling more and more. b) this creates a level of uncertainty which I am not sure is fair to ask others to deal with. Even if my relationship with Partner #1 ended badly, I think he brought up obstacles to our relationship in a timely manner and did not avoid it. So, I believe that communication is absolutely necessary. The right time depends on the circumstances, however if individuals have been engaging in sex, going on dates, and bonding emotionally, I can’t see some kind of discussion being pushed farther than 2 months. These conversations also don’t necessarily need to establish a relationship status, but should serve to help individuals check in about being on the same page.

I still believe that the majority of people, especially young people who are more likely to engage in relationships without fixed guidelines, aren’t very good at knowing what they want and communicating it. But there’s no solution to that except to guarantee a socially open environment to all young people, encourage them in soul-searching and discussion (esp with young men), and encourage young people that there is nothing shameful in going to a therapist, even just to find out more about themselves in a structured setting.

Clash and compromise

I have tended to want marriage and the kind of exclusive unit-forming relationship with mutually high reciprocity. That is aligned with what I have been taught regarding living life in general: a) don’t do a half-assed job; if you take responsibility for something, then see it through to the end, or don’t pick it up at all b) sharing is caring.

I still believe that these principles are good ones, however when I act according to them in intimate relationships, I seem to be taken advantage of. With Partner #2, my acts of giving and tolerance were assumed to cost me nothing, and when I communicated that they did and asked for reciprocity, he stated that it wasn’t that kind of relationship and I knew it, so if I gave a lot that was my choice and not his problem.

Not all of the above relationship formats are equal, and when two people with expectations of different formats come together, they are not equal in their difference. Partner #2 and I were equal in terms of him feeling stifled and my feeling betrayed, however in terms of resources expended and benefits gained, I gave a lot more at more cost and he received a lot more benefits with less cost, because I was the one who involved myself more. This is not just me being biased – at the end of our relationship, Partner #2 admitted that I had given him a great deal whereas he had displayed a great deal more behavioural problems that demanded more of me.

Sometimes I would stumble upon similar cases as me with Partner #2, where the advice is to care less, or break up. I find this advice unfair. If we ask people who are by default responsible and caring to step down, why do we not ask others to step up? In addition, I believe that those who want and can achieve involvement tend to be those who can compromise better too, and when they are with someone who can’t or doesn’t want involvement, it would most likely be one-sided compromise. If the spirit of having many relationship formats is to validate all ways of interacting with one another intimately, this is contradicted by regularly asking more involved and caring people to step down and match the levels of those less involved.

I point this out to utopians who think that having multiple relationship formats means that everyone would be happy. People will indeed be happy when (and if) they find the most suitable format, however while they are on their search and meet people they do not match, individuals who espouse aspirations to a high degree of involvement and exclusivity, and who are able to accomplish this, can be at a disadvantage.

I believe that people who know they are not involved or caring can try to make up for this: first, they should believe that all relationship desires are equal, and not automatically label people who want involvement as “needy” or “clingy.” Second, if they have legit reasons for not wanting high levels of involvement, they should be mindful of the other partner’s needs, instead of saying that it’s not their problem or using proportionality to cooler feelings as an excuse. Less involvement should mean that a partner is not obligated to help their partners plan their next career move, but it should not mean that each partner can excuse themselves from making sure the other is satisfied with the relationship.

Possible negative significances of intimacy

Detaching sex from love can also detach sex without love from judgments of immorality – for example, I believe that legalizing prostitution would minimize harm to prostitutes. However, sex can become either meaningless (which is neutral) or – my worry here – has a higher chance of being attached symbolically to traits that can be harmful.

For example, when I was dating Partner #1, I told him that I had never had sex before. He was extremely surprised and said that he lost his virginity at first opportunity. Since my friends up to that point had been those who never dated or married the first person they dated, I didn’t know why someone would be in such a hurry to lose their virginity. He said that as a young man, being a virgin is like carrying a burden and he would have been ridiculed. He also said that his first time having sex was rather unpleasant, though at some point he also mentioned that he and co-workers took a younger staff member to a prostitute to make him lose his virginity. What I gathered from this exchange is that among young men, there is a lot of peer pressure to have sex not necessarily to enjoy it or for love, but to prove one is a man.

Or, it’s to prove that an individual is an adult. When I was still a virgin, I revealed it to a temporary housemate; she said that had she been younger, she would have dragged me out and found a way to help me lose it. She was only half joking and I was very disturbed. A lot of popular culture, like the film The 40 Year Old Virgin, also seems to perpetuate the idea that there is something wrong with people who don’t have sex, don’t have it as soon as possible, or don’t enjoy casual sex. In this case, the discourse of normality that used to be attached to marriage is flipped now to designate other people as strange, and the tendency to label others based on intimacy hasn’t improved on the whole.

As I mentioned, Partner #2 frequently asked if I would be willing to have a threesome with him and another woman. When I asked him why he wanted this, since he was already dating multiple people at the same time, he said that it meant to him the greatest expression of heterosexuality and sexual success.

One person that Partner #2 wanted to hook up with was a female student at our university who had sex with many people to get back at her boyfriend for something, supposedly a rumour circulating among undergrads. Similarly, as I mentioned in the previous post, my parents divorced because my father was cheating on my mother. I didn’t mention that he did this because he thought that she wasn’t spending enough time with the family and not giving him enough attention, and cheating was a way of acting out.

Perhaps young men of any age used sex to evaluate masculinity, and sex as a form of revenge also happened all the time too. But still I worry that detaching sex from love would create more opportunities for these kinds of abuses of sex to fester, especially if many people endorse it as a part of freedom without question. I have doubts as to whether the benefits for having a relationship format to suit everyone outweighs these negative associations.

Assumptions and cultural bias in public discourse

I mentioned already that there tends to be a lot of articles encouraging casual sex and open relationships, whereas there aren’t many offering the opposite opinion. I think articles that encourage these unconventional relationships are meant to counter assumptions that exclusivity is a moral imperative, or that marriage is the most legitimate way to be intimate. However, I find that current articles about casual relationships also rest on a number of unexamined assumptions.

The first one is the pursuit of individual happiness is good, and that people should be responsible to themselves before being responsible to others. Most of the articles with tips on how to conduct non-conventional relationships are written in a way where tips are meant for self-protection, eg this article on how to make friends with benefits work, or this one on casual sex tips. Few of these are written to teach people how to treat others with respect.

A second assumption is that articles encouraging casual relationships are often culturally biased towards a western culture with abundant resources and decent infrastructure, and an emphasis on individuality. While this bias exists because the audience they want to reach live in these societies, often markers in conventional relationships get slapped with negative connotations without an examination of whether those connotations are true, or true of all societies. For example, the Mic article includes the statement that non-committal dating allows for “cuddling and engaging conversations without the pressure of family visits.” It is assumed that family visits are pressure and the statement is tossed out as such. Family could just be more people to interact with and befriend; and in other societies, family constitutes a support network that might be vital to one’s partner. None of these possible connotations are mentioned, and so at the same time that these kinds of articles deflate assumptions in conventional relationships, they set up their own assumptions. I think writers should be more culturally sensitive and relative.

Gendered dimensions

Third (following from before), the venues for these articles and the tips for self-protection also seems to have a gender aspect – that is, it seems to be largely women’s magazines encouraging women to have casual relationships and instructing them to protect themselves, often implicitly against men. I have to admit I’m a bit unclear as to how the multiple waves in feminism got us here, since for me as an immigrant from the PRC, feminism was more like first and second wave feminism focused on breaking the patriarchy of one’s immediate family and getting women access to public life and work opportunities. For me, again it’s the step down / step up problem of why it is predominantly women being told how to adopt casual relationships while we aren’t asking men to approach relationships more seriously or ethically.

I also know that a) women don’t automatically want more commitment, b) that marriage had been damaging to women in history as they were often property traded among male heads of households when forming alliances and so forth, and c) that women face more disparagement from social and family circles for having more sexual partners. My responses would be that a) I still find that women are better at being committed and are more likely to want at the present social moment, regardless of whether they have been educated to be this way or not. For example, Partner #2, being bisexual, hooked up with both men and women, and while the men never wanted a relationship, almost all the women did in some form. This means that regardless of the reason for women being different, the gender of one’s partner and the gender of the other people they see has different ramifications on the relationship. b) I don’t believe current laws in the Euro-American world regarding marriage, divorce, property and child custody are biased against women. And so c) The object of feminist critique should be the against gender bias in specific people as private individuals (again plus a corresponding address to men), and not against the idea of long-term commitment itself or an “institution” of marriage, which I find to be somewhat of a straw man argument.

Intimacy in an age of flexible accumulation

This part is probably more academic. A lot of the research in the humanities and social sciences come out of social theory regarding state repression or profit-driven capitalism; sometimes the state devalues certain people because it wants to maximize opportunities for others to pursue capital gains. For example, the Enclosure Acts in England and the Industrial Revolution were cases where the state failed to regulate property and industry, leading to uneven displacement of peasants, who then faced exploitation in urban industries.

At least in the Euro-American world, things are better now, but there are still concerns over job security affected by firms seeking cheaper offshore labour, subcontracting, and hiring at part time without granting benefits, in addition to a great deal of freelancing and self-employment where the onus is on the individual to keep up. There are numerous articles showing that people tend to have multiple career changes in their lifetimes. In this kind of work climate, social life has also become unstable. My immigrant family epitomizes this kind of social instability – before I entered high school, I had gone to 6 different schools, and to this day I had never lived in a city for more than 4 years.

I have wondered about the appropriate reactions in interpersonal life to an unstable public and work life. Either interpersonal relationships (including intimate relationships) could offer increased stability to compensate, or they could match the instability out there and be likewise flexible. I think the latter has taken place, and all the formats in Part II are for situations when it is no longer possible to marry, have children, and live and work in one place.

I am not sure which reaction is more appropriate. I said earlier in this post that it is naïve to think that love can transcend resources, but here a part of me hopes that it might transcend social instability. Immigrants of my parents’ generation, for example, had long-distance and exclusive relationships as the norm when one partner immigrated earlier to set up life for the family. I think it is good to have someone you know you can depend on emotionally regardless of where you are or what happens to you. On the other hand, consistency also involves a lot of personal sacrifice. If I want to hold strictly to dating to find a long-term married partner, I would have to abstain from dating completely as I go around the world for advanced degrees and work, knowing that I might only stay in one place for a few years. Asking this of people also doesn’t seem quite fair, and so I have to allow for dating in the short term with less involvement and commitment. For some, this lessened involvement and commitment might involve dating other people at the same time.

Final thoughts

It has been my (female) friends who have exhibited more ethical ways of dealing with non-conventional relationships, and it is they who have saved me from being in total despair about it. First, I found that the friend who judges relationships using quality of sex isn’t too off the mark. I reconsidered her approach when I realized that while I was attracted to Partner #2 and enjoyed spending time with him, sex wasn’t that great because he was rather inconsiderate and was often unwilling to negotiate. Soon I saw the same tendencies in other aspects of our relationship as well. I do think that if a partner can be mindful of me in the throes of passion and that sex is egalitarian, it bodes well for the relationship as a whole, and so I also understand now why some people would have sex first and ask questions later.

Second, I think there is a tendency for traditionalists to believe that if a person frequently changes partners or is relaxed about sexuality, they are incapable of commitment. I have found that this is not true. I mentioned a friend in Part I who believes in open relationships. She also has tended to also seek other sexual partners when there are major problems in her main relationship. At first I thought this was unhealthy, however I also saw that having sex with other people actually enabled her to relieve pressure and then return to work on her main relationship. She might as well have gone hiking with a friend. In addition, when she found a more suitable partner than before, her tendency to seek out other partners has been less and virtually non-existent, even when the new relationship is a long-distance one. Before I thought of traditional and non-conventional approaches to relationships as mutually exclusive, however now I no longer think this way. I understand that I can still hold ideals of commitment and a long-term partnership, but I can also adopt other relationship formats as strategies until I find someone suitable, or until my own life is more settled.

Third, I have found that women tend to be quite good at compartmentalizing, perhaps due to women being more encouraged to think about their own interiority. My friends who seek multiple partners tend to not let it affect their behaviour in their main relationship or other aspects of their lives, even when they don’t turn out well. They are also able think in nuanced ways about communicating other partners to their main one if they have one, instead of seeing honesty in black and white terms. A friend has said that she tends to not tell her partner about other strictly sexual partners and does not need to know about his. However, if she sees relationship potential in someone she meets but wants to keep dating her current partner, she would find it ethical to immediately communicate this to her current partner so he could choose whether he would stay or not. This is more than what a lot of people would do when meeting others not through sex.

Accepting that oneself and others can engage in non-conventional relationships can be freeing. It enables me to make friends and keep them without prejudgement and also to cut myself some slack. Partner #3 that I mentioned in Part I is a friends with benefits situation that I will probably not pursue, but because it comes from someone who I have known for some time and think about positively, it has been an opportunity to dissociate nonconventional formats from betrayal. In addition, I also realized that in the years that we have been friends, he has been a very consistent and generous friend (and I’m not in a position yet to worry about who will help me with mundane life tasks when I’m 70). So if my goal is to have someone care for me no matter where I am, I’ve already achieved it, even if on the face of it the format doesn’t seem like it.

I also know now that accepting that oneself and others in non-conventional arrangements in no way obligates me to accept every form these relationships might take. Also, trying to accept something unsuitable for me really proves nothing. Sex doesn’t matter to me a great deal, so it would be pointless for me personally to have casual sex with someone or to have one-night stands. I also don’t feel comfortable dating someone who dates many other people, because usually I do seek high levels of involvement of people in general. I also tend to move to new places where there is not a lot of social life to occupy my time. It makes sense to find someone else who is more like this, so we are balanced. Currently, I have also managed to detach sex from love, however based on my experiences with Partner #2 and my friends, I believe that compartmentalization is necessary, and there needs to be other actions in the relationship to build trust and bonding. Someone who cannot do these things are also not suitable.

With regards to intimate relationships, on the physiological side of things we have a good system of teaching about sex early, making contraception easily available, encouraging frequent screenings for STIs, and discussing how to be have sex responsibly. I think we need more infrastructure on the emotional and interpersonal side as well to encourage deliberate, nuanced, and consistent discussion about how to responsibly conduct all kinds of relationships. To be honest, I would rather have gotten any STI (short of HIV) than some of the emotional toil and confusion I had been through. Through these 3 posts I have clarified my ideas and preferences a great deal, and hopefully they’ll also suggest an approach to others who are thinking these matters through.

A Traditionalist’s Guide to Thinking About (and Going About) Non-conventional Intimate Relationships, Part II

I. Personal experiences that have contributed to both pro- and anti- ideas

II. Different relationship formats, relationship components, and how format affects the maintenance of these components

III. Analysis of relationship formats and their principles, and thoughts about how to discuss and go about them while maximizing potential and minimizing harm

These are the formats: One-night stands, Marriage, Sex work, Dating, Open relationship, Multiple dates (w/ Group relationships, Group sex), Recurring casual sex, Friends with benefits, and Cheating.

A few caveats: These formats I discuss below reflect the relative ease or difficulty of achieving the format in its ideal (roughly in order of easier to more difficult). In its ideal, no format is better or worse than the other. This also leads to the definition of a “traditionalist” in the title – I am not a traditionalist in the sense that I believe traditional relationship formats like marriage are the best, but in the sense that I believe in using guidelines, whether pre-set or arranged cases by case, to ensure that people treat each other fairly and with consistency. From my experiences discussed in Part I, I have doubts about whether certain formats today can smoothly facilitate this. So, this post is to try and, as objectively as possible, break relationship expectations down to common components, and evaluate whether various formats can or cannot easily allow guidelines to be created and followed based on these components.

These components are not really rules; I don’t necessarily believe that there should be laws governing interpersonal life. I am also not considering the wider social ramifications of intimate relationships, because I’m not even sure there is a correlation between them. My focus is the individuals that are involved in conventional and unconventional intimate relationship and what contributes, or does not, to them treating one another with fairness, though I will go more social in the next post when I discuss the valence media attaches to them and the meaning they have for peer or family groups in the next post.

Components in intimate relationships:

1) Informed consent: the hard legal version, or a soft non-legal version that involves disclosing or failing to disclose information that would influence another’s decision to stay in the relationship.

2) Resources: both material, like money, or immaterial, like time, used to calculate components below.

3) Proportionality: an individual tends to expend resources for / ask resources of another individual (level of involvement), proportionate to the type of relationship or proportionate to how they feel about them. The feeling can be varied, such as affection, duty, sense of social status.

4) Reciprocity: of both feelings and expenditure of resources; all individuals involved tend to reciprocate one another’s feelings at roughly the same levels, and tend to contribute resources on equal levels with the others, even if these resources take different form for each.

4.5) Agreement – ie, reciprocity of opinion / information. Does the same intimate action or the same relationship label mean the same thing to all individuals involved? Does having a relationship take up equal importance for all individuals relative to the rest of their lives, and does everyone agree on what “important” entails? When this factor is at play regarding future prospects, the expression is “having expectations”.

I believe that these components are all involved for intimate relationships, whatever their format. When they all exist (or when they can be easily evaluated and deemed to exist), it would be a satisfactory relationship. When there is no informed consent or resources to spare at all, relationships tend not to happen; when proportionality and reciprocity are lacking, conflict arises. The complaint “I do X but you never do X” is a matter of reciprocity, or an issue in communication problems like, “You don’t need to yell about something like Y” is a matter of proportionality (is yelling proportional to the gravity of the issue?).

However, a satisfactory relationship doesn’t necessarily mean a happy relationship, or vice versa. The 3 relationships I listed in Part I brought me a lot of happiness in various ways but none of them were satisfactory, and so they attracted me enough for me to begin, but they tend not to last.


As mentioned, the formats and components I discuss below reflect the relative ease or difficulty of achieving the format in its ideal and no format is better or worse than the other in its ideal. I will go in the order of the most easy to achieve to the most difficult.

One-night stands

Hard informed consent is covered by laws regarding rape and sexual assault and there is a robust structure facilitating precautions taken against STIs. In casual sex, resources aren’t much of a consideration. As interaction is brief, there are also no major concerns over proportionality. The reciprocity and proportionality is based mainly if not solely on attraction; whether the criteria of attraction is present and reciprocated can be easily evaluated. Finally, most likely people who participate in sex with others they have just met understand that the meaning of intercourse is just the intercourse, and so there is unlikely to be any disagreement.


By this I mean the conventional kind where 2 individuals establish an exclusive emotional, sexual, and life unit with informed consent. I am not dealing with marriage as a form of economic transaction or arranged marriages with non-consenting partners. Those would have criteria working in reciprocity and proportionality determined by local laws and customs that I am not qualified to assess.

Exclusiveness is to establish high reciprocity, ie it ensures that resources of each partner goes mainly to the other. There is usually a statement of great feeling to the other, and high involvement counting in all of emotional, sexual, and life events establishes a high level of proportionality to the feeling. The commitment of one’s whole life in marriage is a pre-established high reciprocity regarding the resource of time. The format of marriage demands a certain degree of reciprocity and proportionality in the first place, which is a basis for those involved to work out its details.

Some people, such as Partner #3 that I described in the previous post, believe that there is no use for the institution of marriage and that it should be abolished. I do agree that in certain (if not most) cultures, marriage can often be used to measure a person’s worth and to determine if they are “normal.” As a Chinese woman, I feel this acutely when some friends of my parents in China think that I am strange when I choose to do a PhD at 30 instead of finding a husband. Again, this gets into the territory of how intimate relationships impact social functioning, which I don’t think it does.

I believe there is no use for an institution of marriage whereby society judges the whole person based on their inclination/ability to form a highly proportional and reciprocal relationship. Maybe it made sense as a litmus test in a society where fealty to a lord or monarch ensures stability. However, I do believe that it is useful to keep marriage as a personal shorthand for those involved in it to register an agreement on their level of reciprocity and proportionality. People who know they want it and are good at it can use it as a kind of benchmark for themselves in terms of how they treat their partner. To me, marriage without institution should be like designing one’s own workout regimen with specific activities and goals to facilitate improvement. There is no publicly mandated workout regimen, but it would be a good idea to stick to the one you designed to achieve the goals you want to achieve.

Even so, I do find that marriage as an external institution to adopt might be useful to keep as well. I do think people are generally more motivated when there are others external to themselves to make them accountable when people get lazy or lose their way. So, marriage should be like your personal fitness trainer.

Sex work

There is a very clear structure for reciprocity in this as sex is exchanged for money. But if all sex workers perform the same sexual acts, why are some paid more than others?

I’m actually not being facetious. I think all prostitutes should be paid the same amount, probably quite a high amount. Previously I mentioned that marriage has clear guidelines for reciprocity and proportionality. The institution of marriage can be repressive, but as an institution outside the individuals involved in marriage, it is also easier to appeal to when proportionality and reciprocity are violated. Prostitution frequently violates reciprocity and proportionality since many cases of it occur in societies where some group (usually women) are trafficked or pressured due to the lack of resources in their daily lives. If marriage can provide external guidelines to ensure proportionality and reciprocity, then prostitution should have it too. Ie. Sex work should be legalized, with standards for the workers’ well-being, guard against exploitation and give high and equal compensation.

Dating (exclusive but short term, or as long term but not mutually involved as marriage)

This is what I had to come to terms with Partner #1 in the original post. In that case it was an issue of proportionality – we liked and admired each other very much, could empathize and open up about our deepest issues that we couldn’t with other people, and had a lot of common interests and common aspirations about our lives. It seemed, then, a chance at an lifelong partnership would be proportional to what we shared, but the environment did not allow this to happen. Had we been able to spend time together, it would have been more like a short-term marriage without the paperwork.

Dating can mean less involvement. When holding back involvement despite strong feeling to share one another’s lives, there is lower proportionality and this might be a unsatisfactory if dragged out. For example, two people who would like to buy their own home and have a child but cannot due to insufficient resources might find this frustrating.

Dating can lead to marriage with increasing involvement, or not. Previously I had believed that dating should lead to marriage, however now I realize that if there is less involvement but individuals dating can consistently maintain reciprocity selectively, then perpetual dating can be satisfactory. When people have different expectations of dating, there is a lack of reciprocity in information, for example one person believes that dating would lead to marriage, whereas the other does not. Then it becomes a problem.

Open relationships

I think people should think about aspects of relationships they value for exclusivity – sex, emotional bonding, life activities, or the expenditure of resources. I pointed out in the last post that with Partner #2, who is bisexual, I didn’t really mind him having sex with men at all. This was because sex isn’t as important to me as emotional bonding, and I do believe it is true that when men hook up, they tend to not be looking for emotional bonding or even need much time. His male partners spent a couple of hours with him and then left, and didn’t need his companionship in any form until the next time.

The biggest source of contention between older and younger generations can be that older generations are taught to increase sexual exclusivity proportional to an increase in love, but younger generations do not. I would say that sexually open relationships are fine as long as the terms are clearly negotiated so that they do not get in the way of reciprocity and proportionality in the main relationship.

Reciprocity would be most easily established if both partners had other partners outside the relationship. One of the reasons Partner #2 didn’t work out was because he dated 25 women and I dated only him. However, reciprocity can be established in other ways; for example, when one partner’s work takes up a lot of their time.

In open relationships, though, there is always the chance that what started off as a purely sexual encounter might become something else. I do believe that sex is categorically different from other interpersonal activities because it occurs when people are exposed, vulnerable, and triggers hormones that stimulate increased affection. Even when taking precautions such as not staying over, there is also no such thing as purely having sex with someone because other aspects of the person come through. This may threaten proportionality and reciprocity in the main relationship. Thus, I think open relationships are a bit problematic even after clear negotiations. This threat may be neutralized by the fact that there is reciprocity in the importance each partner attributes to their relationship, which can be demonstrated in other ways. For example, if neither cares for the relationship much, the risk of finding someone else might be high but neither care; if both cares a lot for the relationship, they would take proportional steps to minimizing the likelihood of finding someone else when sex is involved.

Dating multiple people separately

This has largely the same issues as open relationships to a greater magnitude, and requires even more negotiation of what constitutes reciprocity and proportionality for each person involved.

There is also the specific issue of compartmentalization or its failure. By “compartmentalizing,” I mean emotionally, mentally, and materially containing the effects of one event or interaction so they do not affect another event or another interaction (usually the concern is affecting another for the worse, which would usually tip proportionality or reciprocity). Solely sex outside a relationship can be compartmentalized more easily since biology are the only thing the individual needs to work against. When adding to sex with dating, so many other aspects of the person need to be contained. I mentioned that with Partner #2, for example, other women he dated would often discourage or upset him, and this frequently affected how he interacted with me.

Partner #2 was particularly bad at compartmentalizing, however I am not sure many people would be really good at it. Each aspect of our lives affect the others; a hard day at work would make most people a little short-tempered when they interact with other people afterwards. I think having stresses from work, duties to family members and friends, and then add multiple partners on top would almost certainly constitute a poor atmosphere in which to maintain proportionality and reciprocity for each partner, if it is as simple as spending enough time. Partners might choose to negotiate what needs to be compartmentalized, however this would take a lot of self-knowledge and discussion to cover everything that matters to them, which I am also not sure the majority of people are good at.

Polyamory or group relationships, however may be different if all individuals involved are all mutually involved with one another, and negotiate some sort of mutual support. I really haven’t seen an example of this around me, so I’m a little hazy as to what its strengths and pitfalls are.

Group sex can either have the same but more severe pitfalls as open relationships, or they might get resolved if they are so mutual as to constitute some kind of polyamory. Partner #2 frequently expressed his desire to have a threesome with me and another woman. I saw his problems with compartmentalizing already and refused. In addition, in an objective sense I saw that his desire for a threesome with 2 women was an expression of him wanting to master heterosexuality, which I thought was a problematic way of approaching sexuality (more on this in Part III). As I said, I had no problems with his male partners because I saw that they did not demand a lot of involvement, and Partner #2 was good at compartmentalizing them as just sex. This was a recurring male partner who I was even able to establish a rapport with.

Recurring casual sex with one partner

The reason that I put this quite far down the list is that the chance that a purely sexual encounter might become something else is increased when the sexual partner is a recurring one. If this happens, there is a high chance that a minimal reciprocity of information has been occurring, since casual sex is a relationship format that doesn’t emphasize exchanging information, and people tend not to choose casual sex partners based on similar expectations of relationships. And of course whether sex becomes something else it might not apply to both partners, which would make their relationship non-reciprocal. So, I think of casual sex as relatively difficult to maintain and have a high chance of being uneven when they are not maintained.

Partners may even interpret the act of recurring sex differently – A friend who has worked in France said that usually “the talk” about establishing exclusivity is not needed there, because most people agree that having sex repeatedly with one person means they are dating and the relationship has a high chance of being exclusive.

Friends with benefits

There seems to be different definitions to this term. Sometimes it means recurring casual sex with one person, which is above. In this separate section it means having recurring sex between two people who have been friends. To me this can be pretty problematic as it combines risks of recurring casual sex with one partner, to the same but greater issues with compartmentalizing in dating multiple people. By the latter I mean that to maintain both the friendship and the benefits, they need to be compartmentalized from one another to ensure reciprocity and proportionality in both areas.

This is also a format that I am the most hazy about, since I don’t quite understand the point of it even being its own format. If two people are friends and have a bond based on mutual understanding and share interests, and on top of that they are attracted to one another, why would that not be dating? Perhaps I just have very good friends with whom my emotional bond exceeds most other people’s bonds with their friends. Or perhaps when other people have distinguished it from dating, they define dating as exclusive, or as a commitment that eventually lead to marriage. There might also be specific considerations as to how to transition from friend to partner as opposed to from stranger to partner, and how to transition out.

Extra-marital affair (in a marriage not agreed upon to be open)

This is problematic, as the agreement about the meaning of marriage is not being reciprocated, faithfulness and most likely time and emotional resources not reciprocated. Most importantly, I find this to violate soft informed consent. The extra-marital individual and the cheating partner may both be consenting individuals, however the partner being cheated on is at a disadvantage because they most likely don’t know about it, and if they did know, would not consent to it. An objection might be that that consent only applies to the extra-marital individual and the cheating partner. However, I believe that people who get married tend to want to create one unit with their partner in some way, and believe themselves and their partner to be an exclusive unit with regards to the condition of the relationship. If the whole married unit does not give informed consent, informed consent cannot said to be given. To me this is like how a verdict cannot be passed by a jury unless all members of the jury agree on the verdict. If the partner being cheated on knows and consents, then regardless of the legal terms of the marriage, the marriage is by their subjective definition an open one and thus another matter.

There is an issue of whether cheating in a non-marital but exclusive relationship is better or the same. In terms of legality, I believe it is better, as no contract was violated, but in terms of morality, I believe it is the same.

Saying that cheating is problematic does not mean that I think all kinds of cheating are equally bad. Before I came to LA and met people with varied perspectives on dating and I was still upset about my parents’ divorce, I did think so. This was like how I was taught that all theft is bad regardless of what item was stolen. However, I have been forced to consider extenuating circumstances. For example, someone who has suffered sexual assault as a child might have been forced by their circumstances to take sex and sexuality lightly, and they might still want a life companion but have a hard time understanding why sex should be exclusive, when for them it was extremely indiscriminate. Another example might be a partner comforting a friend of theirs that they are emotionally close to, and in a state of high emotions and the lack of clear thinking, intimacy occurs without prior intent.

A Traditionalist’s Guide to Thinking About (and Going About) Non-conventional Intimate Relationships, Part I

This is going to be pretty long, so I’ll break this up into 3 posts:

I. Personal experiences that have contributed to both pro- and anti- ideas

II. Different relationship formats, relationship components, and how format affects the maintenance of these components

III. Analysis of relationship formats and their principles, and thoughts about how to discuss and go about them while maximizing potential and minimizing harm

These days there are many articles about young people who aren’t really thinking about marriage but want companionship and intimacy, and new kinds of relationships are constantly being defined (eg dating partner, casual sex). However, there seems to be a comparative dearth of reflective articles considering reservations or opposition, especially those that come from a secular perspective. Searching for “issues with casual sex,” there are a bunch of articles that point to how certain strategies weren’t suitable, but other than religious ones (ie here), there were very few that deal with concept itself.

Relationship issues is really not the usual wheelhouse on this blog. However, I increasingly feel like I need to think through my own ambivalent position with this, and sharing them has no additional cost, I suppose. I also want to share this because I get the sense that secular people can be turned off by arguments couched in religious terms. Whether being turned off is justified or not, at least I do think that religious terms might not be the most pertinent for seculars.

Anyways, I’m not a religious adherent (though I think of Buddhism as the most sensical). I am a woman around 30 from a PRC Chinese family, and mostly heterosexual. The most pertinent experiences contributing to my current thoughts were my parents’ divorce, a new crowd in LA, and a number of recent relationships where I found myself in arrangements I wasn’t entirely comfortable with.


While my parents are not really traditional and gave me a lot of freedom, they also believed that marriage was important and should last, and could not teach me, for example, that casual sex was okay. My parents divorced when I was starting high school, after my father was cheating on my mother with a co-worker of his.

The divorce had two rather unpleasant effects on my worldview: the first came from the fact that the co-worker was a woman who had affairs with men in the company in exchange for completing some of her work. Thus, I started disliking things associated with female sexuality, such as makeup, fashion, etc, and also affected my perception of women in general. The second effect was that I became deeply pessimistic about relationships. Upbringing aside, I have always been the romantic and sentimental sort, so it wasn’t that I repudiated the concept of love or didn’t feel it, I just didn’t think the chances of making one work was enough to put in the effort. Also, what my father did in itself was such a betrayal of my mother and I, and had unpleasant consequences for us, that when intimacy outside of an established relationship is mentioned, I associate it with betrayal.

Until recently, my Chinese upper-middle class sense of dating involved having meals and holding hands and getting to know someone through years, perhaps even a decade. I at least saw people moving in together, but it was for the two people gradually compromising with one another until they were one unit, ending in marriage.


From high school into undergrad and a master’s degree, my immediate circle were also other Asian immigrant children, who as of now have either married the first person they dated, or never dated. I was also very studious and wasn’t really in touch with mainstream culture – the things I do follow you can see from the rest of the blog, which aren’t exactly great places for learning this kind of thing. The only time I dated for 10+ years since my parents divorce was in undergrad, and the guy broke up with me after a month of pretty chaste interaction. Given my idea of relationships at the time, the breakup made no sense, but because nothing much happened, it didn’t ultimately change my concepts.

When I got to LA to do my PhD, however, I met a department full of queers and anarchists, and moreover they were Americans who were predominantly not immigrants. My housemate is a fellow grad student. She believes in the freedom to have sex with people other than her main partner but her partner did not, leading her to hide her hookups from him. This triggered a lot of issues with my parents and bothered me a great deal. She has a new long-distance partner who is also not entirely on board with open relationships, however at least tolerates them with some discomfort.

Another example is a mutual friend who is a lesbian and hiding her sexual orientation from her parents. Although largely monogamous, she has been in threesomes, believes in having sex very early in dating, using the quality of sex as a microcosm of the relationship, and her recurring definition of a date has to involve at least kissing.

I have disagreed with and have been bothered by how my friends live their lives, especially when they are hurting someone that in my view they are supposed to care about. However neither are malicious nor vengeful; they tend to have big hearts, are very responsible to their families, friends, and school work, and also thought through their ethics (more on this in the next post). I could either believe them to be bad people, or to believe issues I have with their behaviour aren’t that much of an issue. I’ve been trying to work on the latter.


When I got to LA, enough time had lapsed since my parents’ divorce where I was ready to believe I could find someone and establish a relationship. Having not really thought about it in practical terms and being rather sheltered, it wasn’t that I disapproved of non-conventional relationships, but that I couldn’t even conceive that they existed.

For example, I didn’t really know what “friends with benefits” was til a couple of years ago. My friends here still have goals of finding an emotionally devoted companion, so I also couldn’t conceive of dating someone long-term while knowing they are incompatible. I had wanted to be single, or married and monogamous, but could not conceive of wanting to be a swinging bachelor(ette) for one’s whole life, or conceive of having an open marriage. All of these formations appeared in 3 relationships I had in the past few years.

Partner #1

The experience that emphatically started all of this shock and self-questioning was a Korean man I dated long distance (mentioned here when talking about the unexpected entanglements we still have from history). A couple of months into our interaction, he told me that he was descended from a ancient royal lineage and his parents expected him to produce pure-blooded Korean children from a legitimately married wife. So, at some point he would have to break up with me and marry a Korean woman. First, I was deeply offended by the race factor (and I couldn’t even conceive that Chinese and Koreans were different races, even if races were a thing to begin with). Second, it was hard not to think of it as an insult that I was good for the short term but not long term.

I could handle it if doubts of my long-term suitability was a result of not knowing me well, but in this case the possibility of it being long-term was close to 0% and due to a factor I couldn’t change. I didn’t think that I could be treated fairly with a predetermined verdict, nor could I act naturally with this hanging over my head. I was angry, sad, and confused, and it took me a good week to recover. The Korean man also had mental health issues, and by then he had also irrecoverably spiraled into depression. He sent an email saying he was sorry but he had no control over his issues, and I never really heard from him again. This experience has left me heartbroken to this day.

Partner #2

The second recent relationship I had was with a fellow grad student who is also an international student, but not Asian. He is bisexual and had recently ended a long-term relationship with a man, but realized he was now more attracted to women. As this was new to him, he wanted to date around, me being one partner among many. I was apprehensive about this, but felt as though I didn’t quite do justice to the Korean man because I was too concerned about the form of the relationship over the person.

The relationship lasted several months due to the following issues: first, he accepted it natural that I should be the one to “loosen up” and found my adherence to “ancient morals” incomprehensible. He also believed that he would need to have casual sex after marriage. At some point I couldn’t keep compromising, and he also felt pressured every time I brought up my discomfort with his dating practices. Second, related to the first, was that he believed that in a relationship people should look after their own interests, whereas I believed that even in casual dating there should be some effort to learn about and cater to the needs of one’s partner.

Third, his sexuality and identity were also in flux, and was often distraught when his other dates didn’t go well (eg sometimes on a weekly basis women online would accuse of him being gay in actuality, or made fun of his foreign language name). In these moments he would need my help and even showed up unannounced at my home. So, I found myself in a dilemma; I did genuinely cared about him, however I couldn’t genuinely comfort him if what I really believed was that he wouldn’t have any of these problems with insulting dates had we been monogamous. Moreover, I felt like it wasn’t fair to be his go-to person for resolving any and all of his dating issues if was just (unwillingly) only one of all his partners. Even ancient imperial concubines had it better, I thought – if I had the primary duties of a first wife, then I should also have the privileges. At the end of the relationship he revealed that he had dated 25 other women in the months that we were together (not counting the men, who actually I had no problems with).

Partner #3

Some years ago, I had a big crush on someone in one of my classes. I never said anything at the time, though we became friends, and feelings abated. He would fall into the camp of friends who have never dated, and I just assume he wasn’t interested at all. Last year we were in the same city and hung out a lot, and I started to develop feelings for him again. I asked him to stay the night, but he said that because he needed to drop off his car before morning, he could not, but would if the circumstances were different. I knew from being friends with him that he was interested in intimacy, but not in having a girlfriend or marriage, and generally believed marriage and all social categories to be constraints. I have the feeling that we are supposed to consummate this relationship next time the “circumstances” are aligned, however I would be dissatisfied with intimacy without some form of dating-like activity. If there is none, I would rather not find out the hard way by being used and then tossed aside (one thing I am sure about is that sex for the sake of release is not for me. For me, attraction is predicated upon liking the person, and sex has to contain some affection for enjoyment).

Unfortunately I don’t think this is the kind of relationship where I can be up front and ask what is supposed to happen next, since I get the impression that people involved in casual relationships are in them precisely because they don’t want the pressure of thinking about the future. In addition, asking would make me appear decidedly un-casual about it and possibly rock the boat. So, my current struggles are not only with not getting the relationship I want, but being in a form of relationship where I don’t even feel I can ask about what kind of relationship I’m getting.

And so, I found myself having to readjust again – and getting the sense that every time I’ve adjusted to a new concept, I would be met with another one beyond my new threshold of acceptance. After I had reconciled that short term relationships with one person was okay, I was faced with the demand to be in an open relationship; after I had sorted through the nuances of that (next post), I was faced with a relationship that didn’t involve dating at all. Part of me is extremely tired and I’m approaching the point of wanting to completely abstain for the rest of my life again. Before I decide to do that, I had to sort it all out here.