I recently heard a surprising piece of gossip. But what surprised me later, more than what supposedly happened, was my initial emotional reaction to it, the assumptions therein, and how it led me to a realization about why I am a libertarian and a social liberal.
The gossip concerns a married man. We’ll call him Jack. Jack was unambiguously propositioning a woman who is not his wife. My first reactions were, in order, “No way!” and then “What an asshole!” But then it occurred to me that those reactions were very—I’m going to make up a word here —monoganormative.
My “No way!” thought came from having spent a little bit of time with this couple. I’d taken note of how sweet Jack was to his wife. He went out of his way to compliment her to my partner and me. He took pains to involve her in conversation, despite her apparent shyness. He opened doors for her and generally seemed every bit the doting husband. I had assumed that hitting on another woman was an act not in keeping with loving your wife.
But I don’t actually believe that’s true! I have consciously rejected the idea that love requires monogamy. I believe love happens in open relationships and polyamorous ones. I believe that for many people, love doesn’t have a one-at-a-time restriction. And I know that some people can love one person while being sexually connected with another or multiple others. In short, there are all sorts of ways to love.
So why would I assume (if the story was even true) that she was a victim and Jack was a perpetrator? Why assume she doesn’t know about and even approve of his dalliances? How do I know she doesn’t have her own something something on the side?
I think that for me, accepting and internalizing the validity of the various ways people form and maintain relationships is a continual process. I was taught from a very young age that there is only one right way to have sex, and that’s within a life-long marriage to one person who is of the opposite sex. I need to give myself a break over the fact that the journey from firmly believing that, to truly accepting the validity and even beauty of the multitudinous “right” human sexual relationships, isn’t a simple or fast process.
I think most people are still somewhere in between those two extremes. Most people probably wouldn’t describe sex outside of opposite-sex, lifetime-long marriages as unambiguously wrong. But I suspect from my own knee-jerk reactions and from what I hear and read, that the idea that there are right and wrong ways to love and have sex does persist.
I now think of love like I think of every other decision. There is no one universally best way to live. Every person will maximize their happiness by choosing their own ways to live, learn, and love. That means that for some people, monogamy is their very best way to love. For some people, monogamously is the only way they can love. The point is, best varies from person to person. Love isn’t one-size-fits-all.
Examining this led me to another realization. Penn Jillette and I are libertarians because we don’t know what’s best for everyone. This humility leads me to turn a skeptical eye toward central planners who claim to know what economic choices are best for me and everyone else.
And it leads me to turn a skeptical eye toward social conservatism. By socially conservative I don’t mean to describe people who choose to live their own lives conservatively (whatever that means) while respecting the validity of life choices that don’t work for them. I refer instead to people who claim to know which choices concerning sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, and more are best for them and for me.
That skepticism over whether there is one best way, and whether anyone knows what it is, underpins why libertarianism and social liberalism are, for me, inextricably intertwined. I know, if anything, less about the best way for you to conduct your personal life than I do about how you should spend your money.
So, to that wife whose victimhood I assumed, and to all the varied and various couplings whose validity I forgot about while I reacted to the story, I apologize. But I also thank you! Examining my assumptions and newfound beliefs led me to a greater understanding of where my beliefs on politics, economics and sex cohere. And I hope that it can help others humbly evaluate their assumptions concerning universal bests as well.