Monday, August 11, 2008

It's Hard Out Here for an Infidel

Yesterday, I did an "all sad songs" episode of my Rhodes Radio show Americana the Beautiful. (If you're interested, you can listen to or download the podcast here.) In the process of putting together my song list, I was struck by the fact that so many of the songs involve some kind of cheatin', lyin', stealin' or other variations on infidelity. Well, actually, that's not true. I wasn't "struck." Of course people write sad songs about that stuff. That stuff makes people really sad.

On Saturday, in my post about John Edwards' extramarital affair, which was mostly an apology for Edwards, I added the following caveat: "I am not issuing a blanket excuse for infidelity, which I really do believe is one of the most painful things that one human being can do to another." As is often the case with blog-prose, I may have been a little sloppy with my formulation of that claim, and Booga Face took me to task for it. He wrote:

"Actually, I'm going to have to take strong issue with your statement that infidelity is one of the most painful things one human being can do to another. Really? Murder? Rape? Economic exploitation? In my view, the real violence is in the social order that demands a monogymous nuclear family, persecutes people who don't fulfill that role, and demands that we all subscribe to some crackpot theory about true, everlasting love. What a load of horse manure. Why would any sane person want any of that?"

Ouch. So, now I'm turning my apologist skills away from defending Edwards and back toward defending myself, because I think I actually did mean what I said.

First of all, Booga, let me concede a little. Yes, of course, "murder, rape, and economic exploitation" are also very painful things that one human being can do to another. And yes, of course, the fact that our social order imposes a kind of heteronormativity on all of our romantic and kinship relations is a particularly insidious form of violence, one that is often extremely painful for those who, for whatever reasons, do not or cannot abide by that cultural code. Most forms of subjection involve pain-- physical, emotional, or psychological-- and although I am generally disinclined to "rank" the terrible things that human beings do to one another, I am willing to say that for the most part, the more pain that is caused, the worse the offense.

But, strictly speaking, "infidelity" is not really a form of subjection. It is, rather, the abrogation of a certain set of implicit or explicit obligations between two people. Now, it may be the case that those obligations were already problematic or unrealistic (as is arguably the case with monogamy), and I certainly don't want to reduce all human relationships to contracts, but for better or worse, we depend on our fellow human beings to be fidēlēs. When the faithfulness to obligation only involves, say, keeping an accurate putt-putt score, it's not that big of a deal... but when it involves matters of the heart (or, as you rightly note, the family), things can be very painful. And that pain is a very different sort of pain, I think, than the pain of subjection.

Is it worse, though? Again, I don't think such things can be accurately measured, much less ranked, but it seems to me that at the very least the pain caused by infidelity is painfully protracted, thus possessing the added disadvantage of handicapping one's ability to engage in good-faith relationships (of any kind) in the future. Your quasi-defense of infidelity (which amounts to something like "it's not that big of a deal because everyone does it and, furthermore, the rules that were broken were unfair in the first place") does nothing to diminish the very real pain that is caused by it. I'm no saint, either, and I agree with your metacriticism of the "institution" of monogamy (which may not be for everyone), but when it comes to infidelity, I just don't think that one can justifiably enter into a good-faith relationship with another human being, then betray the trust upon which that relationship is built, and then still object that the other person isn't significantly pained. A little more than a year ago, I posted on this blog about what I called "The Problem with Infidelity," in which I basically made this same argument. So, you can read the whole thing there.

Sure, we're all guilty. Because I know that, I can empathize with Edwards instead of passing some FOX-news-ish type judgment about his "character." But, as I said in the previous post, I'm not his wife, and it's not my charge to judge him as a husband, which would make a world of difference in my opinion because it would necessarily include factoring in the tremendous amount of pain that he has caused me. Maybe that pain is not "the worst" that one human being can cause another, but I still think it's one of the worst. And, more importantly, I don't think that protesting the "fairness" of the obligations Edwards violated is any more sufficient than I think that saying "hey, it could've been worse" dimishes the pain that a jilted lover suffers.

1 comment:

Booga Face said...

First off, sorry for not responding sooner. It's been a very hectic past couple of weeks for me.

And I'm also really impressed by how much you are blogging these days -- I mean, like, wow!!!

I see what you mean about the role of "faithfulness." And I agree that "good faith" is necessary for all sorts of relationships, ranging from the purely contractual to deeper and more complex commitments. I'm totally with you there.

And as a side note, I didn't mean to suggest that infidelity is acceptable or OK. All I meant to suggest is that people make mistakes and do bad things all the time, which doesn't make bad things right, but AS YOU SAY, we're all guilty of making mistakes. (In the grand scheme of life, extra-marital sex seems somehow a less significant wrong to me than rape, neglecting to pay child-support, or bombing a village. But the 10 commandments categorizes murder and adultery together, so maybe I'm wrong.)

But I think your definition of faithfullness needs more elaboration. There are many ways in which one individual ought to be responsible to another -- and the sex act is just one of many.

For instance, what if we have one man who was regularly abusive towards his wife, repeatedly undermined her ambition to better herself, didn't help take care of the children, amd simply neglected to do his fair share around the house, but never "cheated" on her "sexually." Then we have another man who was a doting husband, helped to take care of the kids, did his share of housework, encouraged and supported his wife's ambitions to fulfill herself, etc., and then also had sexual adventures when he went on business trips. Who is the more faithful here? Who is the less? Why is the sex act the thing that becomes the measure of faithfulness? That's ideological, in my view. What about the person who is "faithful" in terms of the sex act but undependable in other ways?

And what of the situation in which a married couple has completely fallen out of love, and are in fact estranged from each other emotionally, but they want to stay together for the sake of their children. Maybe I'm mis-reading you, but it seems to me that you are sugggesting that they CANNOT have extra-marital relations. But in my view, even if they do have extra-marital sex, they are still remaining faithful to each other and --more importantly-- reaminding faithful to their children. In fact, in a sense, it's possible that having extra-marital sex might even help them emotionally to be better parents!!! (And being faithful to the children is a much bigger deal, really, than being faithful to each other. Romantic love is a trifle next to other forms of love, and it sucks that television and movies have so successfully elevated romantic love to such a dominant position in our consciousness. As far as I'm concerned, a marriage ceremony doesn't really mean much at all until the couple has a child or shares some responsibility for something else... a house, a car, a dog, a political campaign, whatever... then the ring on the finger becomes more than just a symbol; then it has some real weight. In other words, we ought to be defining "faithfulness" in a way that involves more than just two people -- there is always a third (and actaully a fourth, fifth, and....))

It also seems to me like you want to have things both ways, as if you are saying, "I know full well that transcendent, eternal love is an ideological fiction, and I know full well that our legal system is in many ways bizarrely based on this romantic fantasy and that this fantasy has had terribly unfair consequences for some people... I've read my poststructuralist theory after all... but I still think all of that should be upheld anyway." Maybe that's an unfair reading of what you're saying, and I admit I'm exaggerating, but...

One last thing, because the comparison of Edwards to Clinton is unavoidable. I was living in Japan when all that shit hit the fan. And my French and Japanese friends all came to ask me, "what do you think about Clinton's sexual affair?" You may be surprised at my answer. It was, "what?" Because at that time in my life, I really did not care about anything going on in America. It might as well have dropped off the map for me, and I didn't know about any of it. Then, after the situation was explained to me, my friends said, "because we don't understand why everyone is making such a big deal about this. Who cares if Clinton had sex with another woman." And I bring this up just to emphasize that the cultural codes surrounding what "faithfulness" means are not in any way universal... as you already said in your own blog, so I apologize for being such a pedant.