Religious questions play no role in this boring Chronicle of Higher Education look at polyamory

One of the questions that your GetReligionistas hear from readers all the time is this: "What is the mainstream press?"

That isn't the precise wording, of course, since readers are usually asking about specific publications. They want to know if The Daily Beast is "mainstream," which is a question that we've been asking for years. They want to know if MSNBC and Fox News are "mainstream." The answer is "yes," but you have to know the difference between news shows and opinion shows.

It also helps to remember that these are strange times. These days, one is just as likely to see a hard-news story from Baptist Press (or the Catholic News Agency) that quotes several qualified, on-the-record sources on both sides of a debate about a hot-button social issue as you are to see that happen in, well, the New York Times. On most religious and social issues, the Times is mainstream -- but with a doctrinal point of view. Sort of like Baptist Press?

This brings me to an interesting feature that ran in a very, very establishment, mainstream publication -- The Chronicle of Higher Education. The doubledecker headline proclaims: " ‘I Have Multiple Loves’ -- Carrie Jenkins makes the philosophical case for polyamory."

Now, this long piece is called a "review," since it sort of focuses on this scholar's book "What Love Is: And What It Could Be." Yet anyone who has lived and worked in the world of higher education knows that, in the format of the Chronicle, this is actually a first-person, reported feature story about an important news topic. What is the topic, in this case? Which word is more important, "philosophical" or "polyamory"? Here is the overture:

Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins and I have plans to meet her boyfriend for lunch. But first we have to go home to walk the dog. Her husband, Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa, is out of town at a conference for the weekend, and earlier that morning Mezzo, their labradoodle mix, got skunked; Jenkins says Mezzo is still feeling shaky. Before I traveled to meet her in Vancouver last June, she told me on the phone that most "mono" people misunderstand the challenges of polyamory -- the practice of being openly involved romantically with more than one person at a time.
"People ask, ‘Tell me about the downsides,’ " Jenkins says. "They expect the answer to be that it’s so hard jealousy-wise. But the most common answer is timing and scheduling. I’m a fairly organized person, so I don’t find it super challenging."
The claim is easy to believe. In her professional life, too, Jenkins is managing to do several things at once. Since 2011 she has held a prestigious Canada Research Chair in the philosophy department at the University of British Columbia; she has taught 200-person lecture courses in metaphysics to undergraduates and advanced graduate seminars in epistemology. This semester she is co-teaching an interdisciplinary survey on the theme of "Knowledge and Power," introducing students to Freud, Russell, and Foucault in short order.

The key word in this news story, you see, is "philosophy." The crucial question in the piece does not center on polyamory. The question is whether debates about the work being produced by Jenkins on the nature of romantic love are being shaped by the fact that she is a woman in a male-dominated field -- philosophy.

Polyamory is, to be blunt, just another soon-to-be-normal subject in the world of higher academia. Jenkins and her husband are simply another boring couple in a world full of choices.

What role does religion play in all of this? No role whatsoever, of course. It does not appear that religious questions ever entered anyone's mind.

This surprised me, to be honest. I assumed that this trio would be presented (a) as openly secular atheist-agnostic types, (b) as spiritual-but-not-religious trailblazers or (c) as liberal religious believers in the context of modern Canada, maybe Unitarian-Universalists or Anglicans or modern Buddhists. Asking the religion question would, you see, place this scholar's moral choices in a social context of some kind, other than academia.

The article does concede that many people have doubts about polyamory. Thus, Jenkins addresses whether the trio's lifestyle is "unhealthy," "psychologically damaging," "unethical," "promiscuous" or "unnatural."

As one can see, no one asks whether this state of affairs might be "immoral" or (trigger warning) "sinful."

Just about the only hint of a religious reaction is provided by an online critic of Jenkins, who bluntly states: "Sharia law looks more attractive by the day." Ah, but wouldn't that raise questions about tensions between polyamory and polygamy? That's another question that is never raised in this news feature. Some might ask if bisexuality is a relevant topic, in many polyamory arrangements, but that topic is never raised.

No, this is all a matter of "applied philosophy." Jenkins is simply writing about the philosophical implications of romance and the whole idea that people fall in and out of love. Meanwhile, looming in the background, is the question of whether sexism against freethinking female philosophers, or female philosophers period, is a major problem in the academic world.

When you put that into personal terms, it looks like this:

As we walk Mezzo around Mount Pleasant, a leafy neighborhood about 20 minutes away from campus by the green electric scooter that Jenkins drives to work every morning, she starts explaining why she prefers the term "polyamory" to "nonmonogamy."
"Nonmonogamy can include so many forms," she says. "You could just be ‘monogamish’ " — a term coined by the advice expert Dan Savage for long-term relationships in which partners allow each other to have occasional flings. "You could be swinging; you could have a ‘friend with benefits’ while looking for more-traditional romantic relationships. I sort of switched over to using the ‘polyamory’ label because this really means multiple loves. I have multiple loves."
Over lunch, she and her boyfriend, Ray Hsu, explain that it took a little while for both of them to realize how deeply they felt for each other. They met in 2012. (Jenkins and her husband married in April 2011; they have always had an open relationship and wrote their wedding vows to reflect this. They made no promise to "forsake all others.") Hsu is a poet who also teaches at UBC. He and Jenkins worked in the same building, but they met through OkCupid. They still communicate primarily through text messaging and social media.
"I think we broke Facebook," Jenkins laughs, when Hsu brings up how many messages they have sent over the past four years.
It took about a year, Jenkins recalls, before "I started to realize that I was in love with Ray as well as in love with Jon. And it probably took even more time to acknowledge it." After that, "the poly label started to feel like more of a useful fit."

The ultimate social questions then emerge, as a philosopher simply builds on the foundations of giants such as Bertrand Russell. We are not talking about a book such as "The Ethical Slut." This is very serious business.

Despite the personal clarity that she has gained on these points, socially the relationship has not been easy. Even in liberal settings, where people might not blink at the idea of a friend sleeping around or dating someone of the same gender, Jenkins says that "mononormativity" persists: The ruling assumption is that a person can be in love with only one other person at a time. (She recalls a colleague becoming extremely discomfited recently at her husband’s birthday party, when Hsu introduced himself as "Carrie’s boyfriend.") Still, Jenkins believes that we are in urgent need of a more expansive concept of love. And she believes that philosophy, the discipline named for the "love of knowledge," needs to become more expansive -- treating a wider range of questions and addressing a broader audience -- in order to help create it.

There's more, in terms of the academic issues involved:

In characteristic fashion, Jenkins rejects the aversion to reflecting on love for fear of destroying it, professing to be "more worried about the tangible dangers of underthinking than the putative dangers of overthinking." And so she proceeds to examine how experts, including philosophers -- from Plato to Nietzsche to Russell, and to her contemporaries, like the University of Miami’s Berit Brogaard -- have defined romantic love, and works to break down common assumptions about it. Some of those, like Nietzsche’s assertion that a woman "wants to be taken and accepted as a possession," are easier to refute than others, like the idea that "if you’re not in romantic love, or at least looking for it, then you’re doing life wrong" -- an idea Elizabeth Brake calls "amatonormativity."
"While I don’t agree with that on an intellectual level, the internalized attitude is hard to dislodge," Jenkins writes. "In the same vein, I can’t just stop caring about monogamy norms because too many other people care about them. And last but not least, it’s impossible for me to stop caring about whether my situation counts as a genuine case of romantic love because I know that its being recognized as such could be a powerful way of convincing people to take my relationships seriously."

Read it all. It's pretty boring, normal, National Public Radio, academic stuff. That's kind of the point.

But here is the interesting journalism question, for me. Did the Chronicle editors make the right call when they decided that -- for their mainstream audience in higher education -- to leave questions of religion and morality completely out of the article? Let me stress: I am not asking about religious judgments of any kind. I am simply asking about QUESTIONS.

Would it be relevant, to their readers, to know if the members of this sexual trio have ever asked the big religious questions about their choices? Would it be relevant if they had moved into the world of "nones" or "SBNR" life long ago? Would it matter if they were still -- in their own minds -- Jews, Catholics, Anglicans, Buddhists or some combination of the above? Are questions about faith and morality still relevant on postmodern university campuses?

Just asking.

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