Tomorrow you can hear me being interviewed for the Explore More Summit about love, sex, and relationships. There’s a quick teaser of me talking pressures on relationships and reminiscing about old episodes of Sex and the City here!
Explore More is a free online summit which include talks by some amazing experts in their fields speaking on topics like navigating jealousy, opening your relationship, building intimacy, exploring kink, overcoming diet culture, radical self-care, cyber infidelity, trauma, how to talk dirty, somatic healing, tantra, processing feelings, loving your body exactly as it is now, and so much more.
There’s also a private Facebook group where you can have more conversations and ask questions of the people involved. You can check it out and sign-up here if you’re interested in finding out more:
My wife and I are participating in the Explore More Summit, and though I have not listened yet to your talk, I thank you for taking the time to give a presentation to us.
(Intellectual Disclaimer):What follows is a question, or rather, a series of questions, that are sincere and (as best as I can make) honest attempts at understanding some phenomena that have popped into my mind as a result of this website. Please know that I am a philosopher, and that it is from my particular area of expertise that these questions arise. Perhaps some of the questions will have been answered in other published works listed here, (there are only so many hours in the day, and I will, alas, be unable to explore those other published works.) In light of the comments policy, please feel free to post this, or not, and even if it is not posted, I would appreciate a response for my own edification (or at least, so that I might see whether the questions I ask can indeed be answered.)
For ease of expression, I beg of you exemption from the personal labeling preferences mentioned on the front of your website (which preferences will arise in my questions.)
1. When I read about your website and its general theme of “rewriting” the rules, along with the comment policy in which respectful disagreement in these matters is permitted, so long as it is not degrading or derogatory, you mention the rationale behind such “openness” to disagreement as part of the idea of “rewriting.” To wit, you mention that there is no one set of rules guiding things. Is not the rule of having no rules acting as an overarching and universally applicable principle in which the ability to challenge anything is accepted without fail? What I mean is, is there not, inherent in the notion of rewriting, the principle that things can be rewritten, and that such a principle applies to all things? If so, then would it not be the case that there are certain inviolable aspects of the nature of things (e.g. that they can be rewritten) and if so, how is it that we know that the only one of such things (perhaps there are more?) is the rewritability of rules (which rule cannot be re-writable if that be true)? The point I am trying to establish is the inability to act in a manner in which all rules are re-writable, even when trying to express this idea, and the subsequent dubious truth claim that such a thing is in itself true (as it cannot stand even on its own based upon such a principle.)
2. Regarding your labeling preference, I have two sincere questions:
a. First, would not your particular preference of being called a ‘they’ obscure the distinction between singular and plural entities? That is to say, is not the point of language to bring to the mind clarity of distinction (a ‘this’ is not a ‘that’) between things that are in fact in the world? In other words, if I were to ask you to give a presentation to a group, and you were to agree at some agreed upon rate, could not I, in light of the principle enumerated in your labeling preference, give you $1, saying that I prefer to understand it as $1000, and would you not be compelled, given that it is my preference for such things, to accept? If not, presumably the reason for that is the fact that $1 is not, in fact $1000. That is, language points at things as they are, and it is employed (else does not exist) in such a fashion.
b. Second, regarding your gentleness in those who do not fully express your labeling preferences when they first meet you, you mention that they can apologize and move on. My question is that, could not they expect of you to conform to their speaking preferences, which are part of their own identity. In other words, if they somehow owe you an apology for not meeting your expectations of personal pro-nounal (fabricated word 🙂 ) labeling, that you might be transgressing on their own ability for self expression, and hence, equally owe them an apology. The point I mean to make here is that, (and especially in light of the no-rules principle) how is it that your expectations of others in the way they address you based dictate how they are able to express themselves (which is an equally valuable trait of personal identity.)
b.part 2 I have a sub question to b that involves the principle behind the website which is to allow people sincere access to truthful discussions about things. How is it, if your personal preferences re: pronouns has a governing authority over others who mean to address you and who, if they misaddress you, are placed in a state of injustice towards you (that is, they owe you an apology) and furthermore if your personal preferences are outside the bounds of normal expectation (like being the only one who likes mayonnaise on pizza and getting upset at the one who threw the pizza party for not having mayonnaise available) how is that not to be perceived as an attempt to make any interlocutor stumble on his own words before any question can even arise? (I would like to mention that it took a considerably longer time to write my first paragraph (the one before I exempted myself from your personal labeling policy) than it did the entirety of the rest of this message.) If you question my sincerity, please note the effort in that, at least.
Lastly, I would very much like a response to this email, even if it is to say that you would rather not respond. (which would reveal much, if I might say.) If I may entice you with a thought meant to facilitate your deliberations in whether you will reply): there is a difference between the certitude that comes from good thinking and dialogue that makes itself undeniable to the attentive mind and which, in today’s highly politically correct and micro-aggression-sensitive culture, gets confused with personal attack or accost. That is, people who find an argument with which they disagree and yet against which they can find no counter-point tend to think of themselves as having been aggressed, when they have just found themselves unable to deny something that is so apparent to their own mind. (I mention this in particular with regard to your statement that others might have equally good reasons for holding opposite opinions. This cannot, strictly speaking, be true. The purpose of reasons is to outline the ground for holding something to be true. However, two things that are opposites cannot be true at the same time (that is, the principle of non-contradiction is fairly iron-clad) and thus, one set of reasons must by its nature carry the day. It is impossible otherwise (else all thought and language are meaningless, and to convince someone is merely to exert totalitarian authority over them, which I know you would never do, nor think I was doing.)
Have a wonderful day, I look forward to listening to your talk this evening with my wife.
Meg John Barker
Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. I do hope you enjoyed the full interview when you had chance to see it.
You definitely raise some intriguing points here which have got my brain ticking. I’m sure I’ll continue to think on them more so this isn’t a definitive answer.
Regarding the rules or no rules question – this is something I work through in the book, Rewriting the Rules, in a bit more detail. Basically I’m using the word ‘rules’ in the context of ‘Rewriting the rules’ to refer to ‘cultural norms/ideals’ (like the ‘rules’ of relationships that are set out in a number of self-help books). That’s probably an important thing to be aware of – I’m not referring to all kinds of rules as a lot of them are really outside my area of expertise.
In each chapter of the book I try to outline what the current cultural norms/ideals are, then I ask why it might be useful to question them, then I look at alternative ‘rules’ which people have come up with (e.g. different ways of doing relationships), and then I questions what life might be like – in that area of relationships – if we tried to approach it without a clear set of guidelines or rules – embracing uncertainty and contradiction.
Vitally I don’t ever say that any of these answers (sticking with the normative rules, questioning them, coming up with different rules, or embracing uncertainty) is the ‘right’ way of doing things. Rather it’s for each person to think it through for themselves and come to where they are at. That might well be different for different themes (e.g. sex, monogamy, commitment), and it might well change over time.
I hope that clarifies both what I mean by ‘rules’ and my stance on them.
Regarding my own guidelines of behaviour on the website, thanks for drawing my attention to that because I wrote it a few years back now and it may well benefit from revisiting. I guess my sense is that I do get to decide about how I manage conversation on here. For me the guiding principle (or rule) is around consensual behaviour, which is something I think and write a lot about. If you want to read more about where I’ve got to on that – there’s a post here: https://rewriting-the-rules.com/2014/10/10/consensual-relationships-revisited/
Regarding gender pronouns I guess I do think that, as with names, the preference of the person themselves should be given more weight than the preferences of other people. For example somebody might decide that they’d rather call me ‘Bob’ than ‘Meg-John’ because it’s easier for them to remember (shorter, and I remind them of somebody else they once knew called ‘Bob’), but I think it’d still be kinder if they didn’t call me ‘Bob’, particularly if ‘Bob’ made me uncomfortable and didn’t fit with my own perception of myself.
Regarding the plural point, there’s a great YouTube clip by a linguist here which explains why the singular ‘they’ is perfectly grammatically correct and understandable: https://rewriting-the-rules.com/2013/09/23/diva-article-on-non-binary-gender/#more-850
There’s also a factsheet on non-binary gender that you might find helpful here: https://rewriting-the-rules.com/resources-2/non-binary-gender-factsheet/
I hope that answers at least some of your questions, and thanks again for getting me thinking. I don’t know if you’re on the Explore More facebook group but, if you are, that might be a good place for further discussion. I’m aware that I’m going to be pretty hectic for the next few weeks with my new book coming out – so won’t have much opportunity for discussing things here, but there’ll be a few more people keen to discuss these kinds of issues on there and hopefully I’ll get chance to dip into the conversations too.
All the very best.