Quick clarification [Added 09/05/15]: Please read the full article before commenting. This post is primarily meant to explore the confused, defensive, and sometimes outright racist/sexist/etc. reactions to a call-to-action around language use in the polyamorous community. The specific linguistic issue is concretely addressed in the final section.
Doesn’t it suck when someone tells you to stop using a word you’ve been using for years because they say it’s oppressive or harmful to their community?
Do you feel personally angry and/or persecuted when a term you use suddenly comes under attack? Do you think “this is political correctness run amok“?
That’s how a bunch of polyamorous folks felt when they were asked to stop using “poly” as an abbreviation. In case you haven’t stumbled upon this (I just heard about it two days ago myself), here’s the scoop—a Polynesian person on Tumblr made the following call to action:
Hey, can any polyamory blogs with a follower count please inform the palagi portion of the community that “poly” is a Polynesian community identifier, and is important to our safe spaces.
Using “polyamory” is cool just like using “polygender” and “Polyromantic” and or Polysexual” is cool. But the abbreviation “poly” is already in use.
Then, when people pushed back saying “chill out, lots of words have multiple meanings” or “people have been using poly as an abbreviation for polyamorous for decades already,” they responded with this. Now, do I agree 100% with their statements? Nah. And regardless of my post’s title, I don’t actually want to obliterate “poly” from your vocabulary. But before you breathe that big ol’ sigh of relief, keep reading.
Poly: Polynesian, Polyamorous, PolyWrath?
People are now discussing this debate on various Facebook groups dedicated to sexuality education and polyamory (one of the biggest has over 18K members), on Reddit (as well as the cesspools of Reddit) and on Tumblr. It’s apparently been brewing for a few months, if not longer, and some people are PISSED. Those under the delusion that polyamorous people are all kinder and more open-minded than the general population clearly hasn’t been in one of these circles and looked at it through a social equity lens. But that’s a post for another day. Back to the anger.
Being on the receiving end of “stop using a word” or “you’re being oppressive” isn’t an easy pill to swallow. Whenever I get called out for something—most likely ableism since it’s an axis of oppression I don’t personally experience and am still learning a lot about—there’s often a knee-jerk reaction in there. A “don’t tell me what to do” demon on my shoulder who loves getting self-righteous and hates being wrong, whose first line of defense is “it’s not even that big of a deal.” Heck, I’ve definitely felt it as a sexuality educator when I’ve merely read up on newer sexuality labels and no one is even talking to me. Though most of the time the reaction is “COOL, NEW WORDS,” I’d be lying if I said I never think “this is just going TOO FAR” or “WHY SO MANY LABELS” when hearing some new categories of identity, especially if people are getting defensive about them. That gut reaction is normal…
But then I take a breath and realize I’m being ridiculous even if it’s normal.
I’m not being my best self in those moments, and I need to hold compassion for my own feelings but also push past them if they’re not serving my values of kindness and justice.
Overall, individuals and communities are perpetually trying to find ways to describe themselves and their lives, and that can be really tough especially if the words are related to identities that are devalued and marginalized. While “labels are for soup-cans” and we’re so much more complex than words could ever describe, language is a powerful thing that helps both reflect and create our world. It helps build communities, express our emotions, and even pass down our histories. It helps us name our struggles, craft banners for solidarity, and connect for change. It makes sense people have a lot of feelings about it!
Language is ever-evolving and it’s a beautiful thing when more words can become available, when more ways of understanding our world are accessible. But that doesn’t happen without friction. Sometimes our knee-jerk reactions to new words or identities come from a place of holding onto what we’ve been taught and being uncomfortable with change. Sometimes the new labels contradict, criticize, or make obsolete other labels we’ve been using—or even identifying with—and that can feel like a punch in the gut.
Often, and as I recognize is the case with me and my pride, immediate rage comes from not wanting to think that we’ve been ignorant and/or messing something up THIS WHOLE TIME. If XYZ person is right that usage of a particular word is oppressive, then what does that say about me, who has been using it for years? Does that mean I’m an oppressive, irredeemable jerk? (The answer is often “no, it just means stop using it” but the visceral reality doesn’t allow us to understand that quickly.) For more on this phenomenon, check out this video by Ian Danskin [one of my partners] and his overall series “Why Are You So Angry?”
Point is we need to evolve with language and work through our gut reactions to change.
Now, that’s not to say we should forget about the roots of certain words or suddenly say that terms like the n-word and the r-word are chill because “we’re past them being a slur” [hint: we’re not, and racism/ableism aren’t over either]. What I mean is that we need to hold space for growth and be willing to move in new directions with our terminology—that regardless of how defensive our initial “Don’t Tell Me What To Do” shoulder-demons might be, we MUST move in a direction of empathy and kindness, particularly to those in marginalized communities with long legacies of experiencing colonialism and other forms of structural oppression.
“But Poly Is a Latin Prefix; You CAn’t Claim It…”
Yes, poly is a prefix for dozens of words and it actually comes from Greek. Even the “poly” in the naming of Polynesia came out of super uninventive naming schemas (Polynesia means “many islands”). So? No one is saying the prefix needs to be eradicated. When talking about polycarbonate lenses, polygraphs, polygons, or polydactyl kittens, they’re not being referred to as “poly[s]” on their own. There’s the qualifier afterwards, but that is not always the case when talking about people. If someone states “I’m poly” you can’t immediately tell if they’re saying they’re Polynesian, polyamorous, polysexual, polyromantic, polygendered, or a host of other identity labels [without further context]. Heck, they could be a FEW of those labels.
So what we’re talking about here is clarity as well as empathy and willingness to listen.
Whether these Tumblr folks represent a few dozen, a few hundred, or a few thousand, the questions remain the same: what are we, non-Polynesian “poly” people and our allies, going to do to provide clarity to our language and stand in solidarity with however many Polynesians want this change? More importantly, what does this situation, and the pushback from members of “the polyamorous community,” tell us about language adoption and resistance to change in our communities?
When people say this is “being politically correct,” they are trying to make basic decency into a politically contested issue and make it sound bad. Some people even think they’re brave if they’re politically incorrect, conflating deep-rooted anti-authoritarian work that seeks to dismantle structural power with, like, flipping the bird to someone on Tumblr talking about racism. Being a jerk and using oppressive terminology isn’t brave. Whining about trigger-warnings and “preferred pronouns” and “social justice warriors ruining fun” isn’t bold or radical. Saying we’re “coddling our new generations” and actually harming survivors of trauma by being more thoughtful is missing the point (and it’s not even medically accurate). Being unwilling to even consider a minor shift in language to give space for another community to flourish is not living in a space of goodwill.
So What Should We Be Doing?
As someone in the sexuality field AND a polyamorous person with a big tech geek streak, I value useful search terms and disambiguation. Heck, as a super Type A person that drools over nice spreadsheets, regardless of other sexual or racial identities, I think it’s crucial that we make the Internet an easier, more organized place to browse. I already avoided using “poly” online in any meaningful capacity because it felt too ambiguous for searches and helpful tagging, and this debate is just another great reason to avoid it: because it’s a term that a racially marginalized community uses to self-identify and build community. If “poly” on its own works for them, more power to ’em. Even in sexuality-specific circles, using “poly” can be possibly misunderstood because there are other labels that start with poly- as well, so again, not the most useful.
Some have suggested “polya” or “polyam” as possible abbreviations that don’t conflict with usage by other groups. Personally, I think “polya” looks ugly as a word and makes me think of Dubya [never a good thing]. I feel “meh” about “polyam” but could see it as a better alternative, I guess. To each their own, and I won’t be adopting either of these abbreviations soon, but what I do advocate for is mindfulness around when and where we use “poly” to mean “polyamorous.”
Here are some questions to ask ourselves:
- Is the word being used in a space where the meaning is clear to everyone witnessing the content?
- Is using “poly” for “polyamorous” making it harder for another community to disambiguate and find “their own kind”?
- What impact does the term’s usage have on search results, tagging systems, and online spaces?
- Is the decision to keep using “poly” for “polyamorous” coming from a place of spite and thoughtlessness or from a place of informed compassion?
Personally, I will continue to use “poly” in private situations or verbal conversation where people know what I mean, BUT in tagging things online—a place where categorizing information is important, where people use those systems to search for others like themselves, and so on—I will use polyamory specifically and avoid “poly.” Again, this is work I was already doing, but something that is generally not a huge effort for folks to start doing if they hadn’t been. I encourage this level of specificity in others, for the sake of more than just random Polynesian folks on Tumblr.
But in regards to those “random Polynesian folks” on Tumblr, it doesn’t matter if most of us “don’t think about Polynesian people when we say poly” or that “our Polynesian friends don’t care.” While that may inform how radical our changes are and where we enact change, it shouldn’t mean that we ignore the issue entirely or dig our heels in the dirt because we don’t want to change. To questions of “couldn’t they just as easily pick a new tag/abbreviation?” my answer is just “maybe.” But when it’s a horde of predominantly White, Western polyamorists asking that question and refusing to consider where they may change, that says something.
At the end of the day, these are people asking for us to collaborate in making the Internet and its communities easier and better to navigate for all.
If you live in a place where you are guaranteed free speech, calls for space and respect like this aren’t censorship—they’re calls for consideration. You still have the power and right to make whatever decision feels best for you, but my hope is that you will prioritize the expansion of kindness and reduction of harm in the process.
Header image of Moorea in Polynesia shot by Loïs Lagarde and used under Creative Commons license. The only change to the image is that it’s cropped a bit differently.
Update 09/04/15: Poly as a prefix actually comes from Greek, not Latin as I originally wrote. Made the correction. I always get those mixed up because they’re both present in the full word [polyamory]. Thanks for the person that caught that!
Update 09/05/15: Unsurprisingly, I’ve heard from Polynesian folks on both sides of the issue. Some use “poly” while others don’t. Some think it’s useful while others don’t. Some use the ‘net regularly while others don’t. Interestingly, the “poly-as-Polynesian” definition got added to Urban Dictionary back in ’06. Anyway. I clarified a bit of language in the post, most notably in a sentence that could be interpreted in two ways and most people were reading it differently than I intended it [the one about calling something “‘poly,’ period”].