Natty Seidenverg is a writer and an activist from the high desert region of Cascadia. She's been giving radical love workshops for about three years and was kind enough share her thoughts with me, via e-mail. Here's the result:
Mickey Z.: What do you mean by the term "radical love"? Does it automatically imply polyamory? Does it automatically exclude monogamy?
Natty Seidenverg: Radical love does not have a concrete definition, and that is purposeful. I came to my understandings of radical love and radical environmentalism at the same time, so for me, radical love is literally against concrete. Rather than offering a single, universal definition for “radical love,” I think we need to pay more attention to the heterogeneity of love in varying circumstances, and we need to become attuned to the fact that just as most living things change across time and from one bioregion and one person to another, so do ideas about love. Love is not manufactured, and it defies stasis or universality. That said, radical love as a term does have some broad and important currents. Unlike monogamy or polyamory, radical love is about quality, not quantity. For me, radical love simply means applying my politics to my way of loving.
MZ: I'll assume you're talking about something deeper and more venerable than a 1960s "love the one you're with" philosophy- something more rooted in social activism. Can you offer a little historical context for radical love?
NS: The stereotype about the 1960's free love movement has to do with the patriarchal appropriation of freedom and sexuality—the idea that the only place for a woman in a movement is prone, or that women are not "radical" enough if they do not succumb to the desires of their male comrades. But the 1960's/1970's free love movement was rooted in an earlier free love movement of the late 1800's. The first wave was basically an overlap of the anarchist movement (which was male dominated) and the women's rights movement (which was mostly statist). At that intersection, free love as a philosophy was born. At the heart of free love at that time was not only women's right to say yes to sex outside of the traditional strictures, but also their ability to say no. Marital rape was not condemned back then. The early free love movement was about the right of everyone to say yes to love and sex, as well as to say no. That is the fundamental difference between the 1960's stereotypes and the root of the free love movement. My understanding of radical love is informed much more by the earlier movement.
MZ: Wow...this sounds like yet another example of our (sic) history books failing us miserably. All right, with a flexible definition and some historical background as foundation, let's bring radical love into present day perspective. As you well know, human society and culture are dominated by hierarchies, profit margins, and a dangerous disconnect between humans and their natural habitat. How does one love ethically in such a corrupted environment?
NS: Well, first of all I want to say that we live in a dominator culture that is globalizing and everyday making the existence of healthy, land based communities more impossible. In this particular culture, imbalance and exploitation are so common that many people fail to perceive them. We have imbalances in power between people—or what bell hooks calls a “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” We have devastating imbalances between humans and the more-than-human world. How can we expect to have healthy relationships when our most basic relationship of survival—our relationship to the natural world— is based on exploitation and alienation? And finally, we have imbalances in human values. In a capitalist society, greed, control, and ownership are privileged values and even necessary to survival. Rather than the values of generosity, community, communication, and consensus, it is the former values that gain “freedom” in this society. So how do we love and live in a balanced, ethical way when we are surrounded by this world of imbalance? I would say the first step is to name the disconnections, exploitations, and power imbalances, as I have briefly done here. Secondly, we need to consider how each of these imbalances are “normalized” through the institution of compulsory monogamy. And finally, radical or ethical love relationships requires challenging ourselves at each level of imbalance—between humans, humans and the natural world, and human values. Only when we begin to think of our relationships as deeply entwined with these other processes will we begin to live in full, healthy, empowering, free, and abundant communion with others.
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NS: Institutions are “mechanisms of social order and cooperation governing the behavior of a set of individuals.” As an institution, monogamy is enforced via state, church, and social coercion. Monogamy, similar to heterosexuality, intra-racial dating, and conforming to gender binaries, is compulsory. Most people don’t know they have other options. Monogamy is reinforced at every level of society, whether through jokes at the family dinner table, sneers at the strange neighbors, legal mandates enforced by state and federal governance, codes of conduct in employment contracts, or morals preached at the local church. Monogamy is culturally and institutionally enforced as the only, the natural, and the moral way to live. I like to talk about “Monogamy with a capital M” to differentiate this pattern of social coercion from the individual act of two people choosing to be in a loving relationship without other sexual partners. Such a choice is no less beautiful than any other loving formation. Once a person starts thinking outside the Monogamy “box,” a one-on-one relationship becomes freer, and one begins to see all her partner’s relationships as valuable, nuanced, and meaningful. It feels very powerful to understand oneself as a single thread in the web of a lover’s relationships, and to want to support that web rather than wanting to dominate it.
MZ: What seems most interesting and perhaps daunting in a way is how radical love (or polyamory) differs from other non-traditional choices. If someone swears off the animal-based diet and becomes vegan, it's clear: you will not see them eating a Big Mac. If another person renounces, say, Catholicism and becomes an atheist, well, you're not gonna run into them receiving Communion at Sunday Mass. Defining radical love, on the other hand, appears to be more like trying to define "art." You know, the whole eye of the beholder deal. How would you counsel someone seeking to break free of compulsory Monogamy and instead embark on a personal journey of ethical loving?
NS: You are absolutely right. Radical love is a different way of thinking about the world that defies easy categories. It involves being perceptive, nuanced, and communicative to no end. It involves having the self-awareness to know when we might be making assumptions or following pre-conceived narratives. It involves creativity, clarity, care, consent, and confidence. It involves having a sense of security in ones' self, so much so that the integrity of a lover is more important than the stability of any particular form the relationship might take. Most of all, it involves a very wonderful word, "compersion," which poly writers describe as the opposite of jealousy. It is the feeling of being happy, even elated, for your lover when s/he embraces other relationships, sexual and nonsexual alike. It takes a strong heart to love deeply and freely at the same time. That strength does not come overnight, but it is a small form of liberation which informs and shapes a foundation for all our political and social struggles.
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