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.