Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Polarity and submissiveness: it's a loaded concept, depending on cultural and political context


During the 1970s, when I frequented the Ninth Street Center in New York City and became familiar with the theories of Paul Rosenfels, I was quite interested in the theory of polarity and how it might apply to me.

One of the basic links that explains this concept is on the NSC site, here. Check also the Carnegie Mellon English Server on the Paul Rosenfels collection.

The polarity concept was controversial, because when it is applied in the “adaptive” global world it tends to get mixed up with measures of people and takes on a political concept. It was a terminology that worked well within a relatively closed community, then mostly gay men in New York City, especially the East Village. The coordinated context was psychological surplus and creativity, and character specialization. There was an understanding that “adaptive” requirements of making it in the physical world were met, and that men (or women) had the resources to spend on relationships for their own sake. “Creativity” applied to psychological growth within a committed relationship or relatively close-knit community. External social supports (such as the legal supports for traditional heterosexual marriage) were at best superfluous and could actually get in the way of the relationship.

Great ideas may start with relatively free people in large cities, but in time they spread if they are good or if they seem to answer major questions. That’s always been true (Christianity started out small and closed, and gradually spread throughout the Mediterranean; Da Vinci spread his ideas in the 1500s) but it’s even more true today with globalization and the Internet.

It’s a bit arrogant to call the world of marriage, family and procreation “adaptive” although it may seem relevant if it refers to comparing focus on others to focus on the self. In fact, much of the traditional world of “family” starts with a presumption that biological lineage must be the most important Many people find that the socially supported structure of marriage and family, with religion around it, supplies them with a sense of identity (reinforced with appropriate and expected emotion) that relieves them of the need for too much self-evaluation or introspection. Any system of ideas that seems to call for that becomes threatening. Family socialization allows marriage to presume ownership of loyalty of adult children, in exchange for having nurtured and protected them, a process which the adult children used to be expected to continue with their own lineage.

The global, “outside” world, however, must deal with the reality that individual people are wired differently, especially with respect to extroversion and introversion. That concept tracks somewhat reliably with the “polarities” in Rosenfels. “Yielding” or “submission” in the “external” world, particularly in a male (and whatever the physical events are), sometimes still has a very negative cultural and possibly moral connotation. It is taken as a sign of disloyalty to blood, an invitation for abuse from enemies of the self and maybe even other family members, a denial of basic reverence for the continuation of life. It is seen as a refutation of a claim for self-respect. (That even tracks with the recent and surprising issue of “reputation defense” on the Internet.) It might, in some guises, be viewed as a "sadistic" celebration of the inevitable marginalizing of the "unlucky." But that interpretation assumes that the individual (who may be a homosexual male, particularly with “feminine polarity”) wants to or is expected to interact substantially with the outside world and compete by its rules and culture. That expectation has become more relevant again in the past couple of decades with globalization.

The cultural context of sexuality fits in with a delicate balance: society has to develop methods to maintain fulfillment of contradictory needs: one is for freedom, competition, self-expression; the other is to take care of less competitive members, especially rearing the young and caring for past generations, the latter having suddenly become much more important because of demographics. Radical individualism is concerned with “measuring” individual performance on some universal scale; but a practical world must protect people from external threats and from problems, like medical ones, that they cannot prevent, in a caring environment. The nuclear family, with all of its complementarity, has been expected to strike this balance, to keep government from becoming too intrusive; yet in doing so, the family may well believe it should impose on adult family members who do not have their own children. That could become an increasing problem with eldercare, and filial responsibility laws could become the next big (and ambush-generating) issue for GLBT people. The traditional family expected a “man” to compete to develop a human domain (including children) to address the adaptive needs of other family members, so that the leader could pursue his own pursuits. In the external world, there is a tendency to rationalize results with moral "principles"; the capability to pursue one’s own chosen expressive ends still comes across as an earned privilege, and family responsibility could be one component of earning it. Many will regard this as a "political" problem after all. Personal performance (even with "parenting skills") and adherence to a philosophy of "paying your dues" may become the main paths out of these existential moral problems.

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