Telling as Woman

Most of my choice to not self-identify as trans* has resulted from what I now know to be clinically-derived and perhaps unfairly “psychological” conditions (or, according to psychology, “symptoms”), primarily gender dysmorphia, which by most people’s definition usually includes body dysmorphia. I will not claim to never experience ‘dysmorphia’: I have, at various times, been uncomfortable with and even resentful of aspects of my gendered self, particularly my physical self, including my breasts and much more frequently my hips, butt and thighs. No, male-identifying friends, your comments that my figure is womanly, that I have a nice butt, that it is only natural for a woman to have hips [like mine?], that certain clothes are flattering in a feminine way, etc. do not improve my self-image or make me feel better about my body. Feel me? Female-identifying friends who assure me I’m not fat, I know you mean well, but we are trapped in this constant-body-analysis thing together, the thing where we worry about our bodies more for how they translate in the eyes of others than for our own Selves. And it’s because we are trapped in this together that leads me to my next reason for not self-identifying as trans*.

By being myself but also associating my Self with that category Woman, I think I (and others like me) are consciously doing two things: 1) we are decisively stating that Woman is not something to fear, resent, or despise. ‘Woman’,  whatever that is (and I’ll get to that) deserves recognition, deserves to be loved and embodied. Woman is not Lesser Than, Woman should not be shied away from. Woman should be confronted, thought about, challenged, forwarded. 2) We are demonstrating, with our bodies, minds and spirits, that there are many ways to do Woman, many ways to be It. There are so many ways to do and be It that one must wonder what the necessity is of having the category Man, at all. All of those things which can be done, embodied in Man can be also be done in Woman. Maybe Woman/Man are too essentialist, universalist, generalized, specified to be useful anymore. Maybe we need a different way of understanding, thinking about, talking about and being human. These categories feel spent, outdated and inaccurate.

Yet. They still shape our realities in unwelcome and harmful ways. So while we are working towards a new conceptualization of Human, I will choose to associate my Self with Woman. This is not to say that I do not value trans*; I consider Trans* extremely important. Trans* is transcendent. But let me clarify my feelings about Woman.

Culture is not finished shaming and hating Woman. I think a huge difference between Woman and Trans* is that the latter is much more Self-aware, much more politically conscious, and much more active in terms of that consciousness. Their ball is picking up speed fast. Woman’s ball, however, will sometimes gain momentum and then be kicked in a different direction, hit walls, keep going, roll to a stop. Women who self-identify as such (as Woman) are still invested in hating and confining Woman. Woman hates ItSelf, and unlike Trans* does not understand why this does not need to be.

Thus it is a conscious decision for me to associate myself with Woman. Do I self-identify as female? Not particularly. Do I call myself cisgender? Absolutely not. But is an embrace of Woman necessary to end Its Self-hatred? I believe so.

I realized this at the same time I realized I do not clinically want to be seen as trans*; I do not want to feel shame and hatred towards my body, I do not want to look at my body and say it is Not Woman (because I will not look at it and say it is Man– or Not Man). This is the only body I’ve got; culture has attempted, as it will, to shape it in terms of its conception of binary sex/gender, but I have moved beyond this. Culture’s binary sex/gender construct is inadequate for describing me and other people I know (and others I don’t know). I do not need to alter my body to more closely align with this construct, or even to move away from it (eg towards Trans*).

The body is a terrific, awesome vessel for transversing this reality. It holds my Me-ness, in many ways it is my Me-ness. Without it, I couldn’t fathom my Self, and probably neither could anyone else. We are living in a very interesting and pivotal time in which binary sex is being confronted and it cannot withstand the pressure of this. Gender is all kinds of confused. Yet we’ve not thus far reached a point where we can even begin to dream of calling our culture ‘postgender’. Gender is still very relevant and meaningful. Can I do both: can I stand inside of Woman but also self-identify as not a woman (or as a man, or as trans*)?

I think we can, and in fact I think they compliment each other. We can simultaneously embody something that we feel is other-than-Woman, but we can also tell our Selves as Woman. If you self-identify as a man and have a penis and have never had a period, will you suddenly, by telling your Self as Woman, know what it feels like to shed the lining of your non-existent uterus every month? Will you suddenly know how it is to carry a baby to term, or to be fired from a job because you are pregnant? Standing within Woman is not the same as being Woman. I will never carry a baby to term and when I dress as a boy I am relieve of being sexually harassed on the street, but I can and do choose to stand within Woman. Many women do not have breasts or uteri or ‘typical’ levels of estrogen or even xx chromosomes, yet they self-identify as women and culturally ‘read’ as women. And I promise you, if you read as male but tell others you’re Woman (are Woman, as a distinction from ‘are a woman’), you will know not only know some of the feelings of being Woman, but also some of the feelings of being Trans*.

Why is this good, or useful? I believe empathy is a powerful tool, an element which is not just human but which shapes Human at its core. Maybe we are interesting, naked social hominids who we need empathy to survive within human culture, and to survive, at all. Let’s take empathy and extend it beyond survival, into cultural transformation.

Addendum: This ‘Statement‘ was recently brought to my attention, and it illumined another aspect of ‘standing inside of Woman’, for me. I take it as further evidence of the validity of Woman as a subversive, radical and activist identity in that trans* people are also firmly included inside this ‘category’. Self-identifying trans* women and men can both comfortably assume a place within Woman, should they choose to. I imagine there are those who are concerned with this conception of Woman: how generalized can it become before it loses all meaning? I would argue that I am not attempting to broaden or generalize Woman out of existence, in fact I am not broadening Woman in an unproductive way. The way in which Woman has traditionally been used within whitestream feminisms implies a unity and universality that is pure fiction, and (as pointed out in the aforementioned ‘Statement’) remains incredibly transphobic and queer-phobic. Such a category has long been discussed, forwarded and reconstructed always within the Binary and ever in opposition to Man. How subversive is it to critique, deconstruct, reconstruct inside the Binary? We are always operating on the Binary’s terms if we continue to determine eligibility for entrance into Woman based solely on a traditional, whitestream, or oppositional view of Woman. Thus, I am more interested in the capacity of Woman to turn the criteria for eligibility on its head, and through this, to expand our gendered consciousness beyond Binary thinking, (perhaps idealistically) gendered and otherwise. In the same vein of the Statement, I question the stability of the identity known as “woman”, and wondered what new paradigm awaits us as our consciousness transforms.

Humanity has reached an incredible and transformative period in its life, one in which those of us who question, reject or simply do not “qualify” for membership in the oppositional Binary (or even Binary spectrum) are feeling the pushback of those who are invested in its maintenance and propagation– or should I say survival? Some of this pushback has even come from my fellow feminists (“feminists”? [Feminism only serves to aid women?]*). Some feminists seem to be highly invested in Binary (e.g. sex binary, race binary, etc.) for its ability to distinguish between oppressed/oppressor, but as intersectional feminists like Kimberlé Crenshaw and Patricia Hill Collins have argued, identity is not simply black/white, literally or figuratively. If we really want to make progress on issues that matter before it’s too late, we are going to need to overcome the false sense of security and comfort we derive from the Binary, and one stepping stone along the many paths to accomplishing this is a rethink of Woman.

*One might also argue that investment in the Binary has long appeared in a seemingly unlikely place: parts of the trans* community.

Who Writes the Rules

Who decides what the rules are when it comes to gender and sex?

The short answer is, the People at the Top. You may not be surprised to discovered that, in patriarchal cultures (which describes most cultures), this is men. We can be more specific, however: bottom-to-top position in this hierarchy is determined by many things, and the closer one gets to the top, the richer, more educated, and lighter-skinned these men get. Upon discovering that the People at the Top are predominantly wealthy, white, Western males, understanding gendered rules and expectations becomes a lot easier. Patriarchal hierarchies of dominance vary from place to place (and even time to time), but the patterns of wealth, education, skin colour, ability, age, sexual orientation, and so on are fairly consistent.

As many people have discussed, not only in terms of gender but also in terms of race and other categories, the People at the Top do not actively and consciously determine and define gendered rules, necessarily; rather, it is largely through their mere existence as Normal and Best (or Default, as some say– I like that) that definitions of other persons are shaped relative to them. Male equals normal, female equals abnormal or deviant; male equals default, female equals Other.

That’s the short answer, but it’s not whole answer. The more accurate, complete, and much longer answer is: everybody. We all decide what gendered rules and expectations will be, by following them. And perhaps even more importantly, by punishing those who deviate. It comes so naturally to us it seems biologically innate to call the boy in your eighth grade class who was caught wearing toe nail polish a fag. Hatred and fear of deviance, however, is not innate; it is learned. We are taught early and often that deviation is bad, most appreciably by being punished, ourselves. Normal/good little boys do not play with dolls; they pretend to shoot each other. Normal/good little girls do not pretend to shoot each other; they sweetly and passively care for their dolls. Full-grown men do not cry. Full-grown women do not have double mastectomies. Et cetera. This is reinforced to us all our lives. We witness what happens to those who deviate, and we learn to participate in their persecution, be it in the comments section of Youtube or NPR, or on sports teams, or in ballet class, or in our classrooms, or within our own families (this is often referred to as gender policing). If you are not doing the persecuting, chances are you might be persecuted– so which side would you want to be on? This is the question faced by every single person who lives within the confines of patriarchal culture.

The next time you hear someone tell a young man “boys don’t cry” (or “you throw like a girl”, or whatever), call to mind the question: Who decides what the rules are when it comes to gender and sex? You do. Either through your inaction or by validating that young man’s feelings, you are helping to decide what the rules are.

In order to contemplate the rules and think about how you’d like them defined, they first have to be recognizable. For most people, gender rules are normative and it would never occur to them to question them. Those who do are said to be “challenging Nature” and pushing “unnatural ideas”. Challenging our conceptions of “natural” is a good place to start.

I found this through one of my friends, who has found her calling working with people with special needs. For all the deservedly-critical rants feminists have directed at Ann Coulter, none are quite so poignant as this letter from Special Olympics athlete John Franklin Stephens. He goes straight to the heart of the matter without blinking, calling her out powerfully yet compassionately. Brave, honest, humane: an example for us all to follow.

The World of Special Olympics

The following is a guest post in the form of an open letter from Special Olympics athlete and global messenger John Franklin Stephens to Ann Coulter after this tweet during last night’s Presidential debate.

Dear Ann Coulter,

Come on Ms. Coulter, you aren’t dumb and you aren’t shallow.  So why are you continually using a word like the R-word as an insult?

I’m a 30 year old man with Down syndrome who has struggled with the public’s perception that an intellectual disability means that I am dumb and shallow.  I am not either of those things, but I do process information more slowly than the rest of you.  In fact it has taken me all day to figure out how to respond to your use of the R-word last night.

I thought first of asking whether you meant to describe the President as someone who was bullied as a child…

View original post 260 more words

Destroying the Ultimate Dichotomy

The Multeity Manifesto, pt.1

Under the influence of heteronormative and sex/gender binary-normative (largely Patriarchal) culture, the world’s progression towards a deeper understanding of gender has inched forward slowly, out of the assumptions of “natural gender roles” and related gender mythology and into a more complex analysis of gender that acknowledges the influence of social construction. While perhaps the majority of people still hold the view that gender traits and roles are inherent and immutable facts of Nature (e.g. “girls are naturally more talkative than boys”, “boys are naturally more gifted at math”, “girls are natural nurturers”, “women are nurturers”, “men have a higher proclivity to violence than women as dictated by their nature”, etc.), there is growing acceptance of the theory of gender as a social construction— in other words, as not natural.

But while we can tolerate theories of gender norms and roles as rooted in sociocultural construction, there is very little tolerance of theories that question the absolute validity of dividing all human beings into two categories of biological sex. The notion of biological sex seems infallible: at birth, a child is clearly determined to be either male or female, typically based on their genitalia (when possible). Broader definitions of biological sex consider hormonal and chromosomal makeup in addition to anatomy– which is where problems begin to arise, but doubts are quelled by labeling any individual body which resists sex binary classification as “deviant.” Indeed, “biological sex deviation” is seen as “abnormal” and, perhaps ironically, “unnatural”; this is reinforced by highlighting the adverse health affects of chromosomal or hormonal “syndromes“, depicting these “deviations” as clearly problematic.

Some biologists and scientists of the human body resolve such difficulties by redefining biological sex as a two-point spectrum, rather than an absolute binary. Such a spectrum, with “male” at one end and “female” at the other, allows us to consider variations of biological sex which fall “somewhere in between” these two absolutes. The problem with this spectrum is that it positions “male” and “female” as opposite, and further assumes that any deviations from “properly male” and “properly female” still land between them somewhere, thus being either “more male” or “more female”. The idea of “properly male” or “properly female” implies an unquestionable truth, thereby maintaining the correctness of binary categorization where possible.

This construction of biological sex as dichotomous or oppositional is extremely limited and inadequate. The diversity of human biological sex simply cannot be described or conceptualized by attempting to position “deviations” between two “true” or “real” points. It certainly can’t be done so without marginalizing those persons who defy the “reality” of sex binary or two-sex spectrum.

This reveals a very deep-seated problem, which is the fundamental assertion that there are correct sexes (namely, xx with socially-defined “female” anatomy and hormones, and xy with socially-defined “male” anatomy and hormones), and any sex (or a-sex) which cannot be described in these terms is deviant, abnormal, wrong.

Human investment in this conception is so deep that we go to great lengths to reinforce and protect it, even so far as “correcting” individuals who pose a threat to its stability and infallibility: there are standards by which we determine the correctness of the sizes of penises and clitorises, standards against which we measure the correctness of male and female hormones, standards which dictate the correctness of one’s chromosomes, standards which dictate the correctness of one’s reproductive tissues, et cetera.

At birth, doctors and medical staff examine the infant’s genitalia to determine its sex. Sometimes this is very difficult to do, as many infants are not born with what is obviously a penis or obviously a clitoris. Sometimes a penis is “too small” (less than an inch long) and needs correction. A common way to “correct” an “abnormal” penis is to cut it off and remake the infant as female. Similarly, infants may present with a clitoris that is “too large”. An “abnormally large clitoris” is usually shortened (sometimes called female circumcision or female cutting). Normality and abnormality defined by what Martha Coventry calls “the tyranny of the esthetic”, or more broadly what I will term the Sex Binary Construct.

The Sex Binary Construct identifies only two “real” or “true” categories of sexual distinction. To account for all individuals who do not fit neatly into this paradigm, the SBC labels them “deviant”.

The idea of “remaking” or “assigning” an infant into one sex or another is evidence of the elastic and abstract nature of sex. Indeed, the very notion of “reassigning”, “remaking”, or “defining” a newly born human as either male or female seems to discredit the SBC, even as these are the methods used to uphold its infallibility.

Many other challenges have been posed to the concreteness of SBC. Apart from “intersex” persons (individuals whose sex cannot be established as “typical”), persons self-identifying as transgender, Third Gender, asexual, or otherwise genderqueer contradict the fundamental tenets of the supposedly infallible SBC.

The power and authority of the Sex Binary Construct appear to be absolute. Its tenets are supported by reputable and highly-respected scientific institutions such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, which call the intersex birth a “social emergency”. As a social emergency, the concerns of society are placed above the welfare and human rights of the individual. These institutions have control over decision-making processes about intersex bodies. Some have tried to argue that when children and infants fall prey to such decision-making processes, it is in violation of their human rights. This argument could also be made on behalf of queer persons who are declared mentally ill when their behavior and/or attitudes fails to conform to the SBC.

There are countless examples of the harm done to individuals and overall human rights by the Sex Binary Construct, which are not even remotely limited to intersex, transgender, or genderqueer persons. But what is the solution? Simply banishing “gender” and “sex” to the dustbins of history would not truly resolves these problems– not to mention the notion is unrealistic.

I cannot purport to have a definitive solution; I do wish to join my voice to those seeking alternatives to the current reality. If in seeking to dismantle the SBC we have no adequate (and accurate) conceptualization to take its place, the old tenets will continue to shape sociocultural consciousness. Thus the first thing to go should be our cognition of gender as a dichotomy, and even as a two-point spectrum. In place of it I suggest a radial spectrum, upon which any “point” is not more or less “true” than any other, and which can describe an infinite number of sex possibilities. A radial spectrum would also solve the problem of oppositional categories, for “points” may be unfixed and mobile. The symbolism of the circle also invokes images of fluidity and changingness, which more accurately embody the lived human experience of gender/sex and sexuality. Does this disrupt the “scientific ideal”? Is it imperfect? Probably so. But our current science is hardly ideal, and very much imperfect. All communities with an interest in seeing the SBC on its way out should be coming together for dialogue, idea exchange, and redefinition of gender/sex. In that vein, I welcome comments and criticisms on these subjects.

Two Views of the River

Mark Twain struck a chord with me in high school when our American Lit teacher made his essay “Two Views of the River” required reading. The students moaned and groaned about it, including me; I had little appreciation for nonfiction at that time, especially essays.

Yet what I read changed my perception of reality both profoundly and subtly.

“Two Views” is about seeing versus knowing, grasping intuitively versus logically. Twain grew up with the Mississippi, and it features in many of his works, both fiction and nonfiction. In his essay, recognizes that his initial view is romantic, uninformed, and unshaped (unwarped?) by Knowledge. He is held rapt by it. But when he becomes the pilot of a riverboat, the River loses its mystery, and as a consequence some of its beauty. Perhaps the greatest loss, though, is that he loses some of his original Knowing of the River. As a child and a young man, he knew the River in such a way that he will never get back after he has “learned” it; learned its hazards, its turns and bends, its sandbars and eddies and hidden dangers.

In the same way, I have lost my original Knowing of Cambodia: the more I learn, the less I remember of my first impressions. The more I learn, the more the romanticism and beauty wear away. This is not to say I “know” or “understand” Cambodia, in some larger or more profound sense; I can only compare these Two Views between my younger Self and my current Self. And they are different.

I do feel this as a loss, just as I feel the loss of my original Perception. Everyone experiences this, I imagine– perhaps this is a sign that one has “grown up”? Slowly but surely, our original Knowing transforms and transforms again, and maybe what was once Known can never be known again.

A Conversation with Vishnu

A device was recently invented which instantly translates the language of chickens into human languages, like English, and vice versa. The following is the transcript of a conversation between myself, Lee Solomon, and Vishnu, a chicken, which was held using my newly-purchased device.

[Transcript opens.]

LS: Testing, testing.

V: I got that.

LS: Okay, me too. We’re good. [Clears throat.] This is Lee Solomon speaking with, with my friend here… For the record, can you please state your name and species?

V: I’m Vishnu, I’m a chicken, Michigan-born and raised, and I’m 25 years old. In chicken years.

LS: Wow! Me too! What a coincidence. That I’m 25, and from Michigan, that is, not…that…I’m a chicken.

V: Right. Ha.

LS: Say, isn’t Vishnu a boy’s name?

V: No.

LS: Oh…Okay, anyway, let’s get started. I have a few questions lined up, but whatever you feel like discussing, let’s just go with it.

V: Shoot.

LS: I hope this isn’t too predictable, but it needs to be asked. You are aware that I technically bought you from a chicken farm, right? [V nods.] And how do you feel about this?

V: Pretty horrible. I’m sure you can imagine how horrible you might feel if your life was a commodity, especially given your interest in human trafficking. It’s the same concept.

LS: Hm, yes, I suppose it is. But humans have had a long relationship with many domesticated animals, including dogs, sheep, and cattle, going back thousands of years. Would you say these relationships are symbiotic?

V: No, because they are not entered into mutually, but are assumed. By humans. Even now that we have a voice, chickens are not being asked for their consenting participation in their own domestication. That participation is still being assumed, because humans don’t want to hear what we have to say.

LS: Mm. So you don’t see the chicken-human relationship as mutually beneficial?

V: That is not the point. A marriage can be mutually beneficial even if it’s arranged, but that doesn’t make it consenting. Whether or not “real” [makes quotation motion with wings] symbiosis is occurring is secondary. What’s missing is consent.

LS: Okay…Okay, my next question is even more complicated. Now let’s say I want to enter into a mutually beneficial, consensual relationship with you. I will agree to– [V interrupts.]

V: Wait, wait; aren’t we getting ahead of ourselves?

LS: What?

V: You paid for me, remember? So that makes you, like, my slave master. Before we can even begin to use words like “mutual” and “consensual”, you need to acknowledge the illegitimacy of your action of purchasing me, and denounce your superior status. Then we can actually get somewhere. [Murmuring, background noise.]

LS: [Nodding.] Ah, all right, all right, you’re making sense… So, I acknowledge my “master” status as false, that it arises from my privileged position within a social hierarchy, and not from some inherent or “natural” superiority as a Homo sapien. And, although we may be trapped inside this human-created hierarchy, I want this relationship– you and me– to exist outside of that, on the same level.

V: Okay, well, that last bit might be a bit too unrealistic, [both talking at once] but this is a good starting point–

LS: Wait, why is that, why is that unrealistic?

V: Because we would need to have a dialogue in which we rethink what it means to be human, what it means to be chicken, what it means to think, what it means to be alive–

LS: I see…I see. All right. Let’s go on.

V: [Scratching on the couch cushion.] So you want to enter into a relationship with me.

LS: Yes, and in that vein I agree to provide food for you, aah, shelter, protection from predators…

V: And in return you’re asking…?

LS: I’m asking for your consent to consume your body for sustenance after you’ve passed on.

V: You want to eat me after I’m dead.

LS: See, I went to such effort to phrase it so nicely, and– [both talking at once.]

V: Yeah, well, I don’t usually care for niceties. [Smiling.] You know that I may die from disease, in which case my body would be unsafe for, for consumption.

LS: [Shrugging.] That’s a possibility.

V: You’re also aware that people don’t often eat old chickens, because we just don’t taste that good after we get on in years.

LS: I’m more concerned about caloric intake than flavor quality.

V: The other problem I see– well, let me ask you this: are you an organ donor?

LS: Yes, I think my organs should be harvested, but I really want my body to be donated to science. For instance, to a medical school for use in the practice of autopsy. [Laughs.] I’d rather not be “wasted” [makes quotation motion with hands], you know. I mean, I’ll be dead, so I won’t care– I just hope my body is used in the best possible way.

V: [Nodding.] Well, you must be aware that some people are morally– religiously– opposed to the, to what they see as the desecration of a body? Of a human body.

LS: Yes.

V: You think chickens aren’t like that?

LS: Oh, I…Well it never occurred to me before.

V: [Clucking.] Obviously. Well, I’m okay with you eating my body after I die. But for the record, something to keep in mind for the future, not all chickens are the same, hold the same beliefs.

LS: Oh, no, of course not.

V: Yeah, so, it seems to me like you’re getting the shorter end of this stick. You provide me food, water, shelter, protection– can we add entertainment? I saw part of an episode of “How It’s Made” once; I’d really like a TV.

LS: Well, there is, there is one other thing… I mean, sure, of course, TV. Um, so the other thing is…

V: Is what.

LS: Is…[both talking at once.] I’m just, well, it’s–

V: Are you gonna make me say it? Are you gonna make me say it?

LS: It– [Pause.]

V: Eggs.

LS: Yeah, all right, eggs. [silence for several more seconds.]

V: What if I don’t want you to eat my babies.

LS: Well technically they won’t be babies– [both talking at once] you would need, you would need–

V: Are you saying, you’re going to deny me the right to reproduce?

LS: That would require me to buy– I’m sorry, that would mean we’d have to find a rooster, you know, and…

V: And who are you to decide when life begins? Just because my eggs aren’t fertilized doesn’t mean they don’t carry the potential for life. [Silence for several seconds.] As it happens, I agree with you; I don’t think an unfertilized egg is “alive” [makes quotation gesture with wings], and I don’t think that just because I have a fertilized egg means I have to keep it. [Stares up at the ceiling.] Listen to me, I’m speaking in the language of the Masters! [Laughs.]

LS: I take your point.

V: You look upset.

LS: I’m not.

V: You sure look upset. [Both talking at once.] You look, really, you look upset.

LS: I’m– I’m not– I’m, okay, yeah! [Slaps the side of the chair.] I’m…I’m upset!

V: What are you upset about.

LS: I’m…I guess this is all really overwhelming. [Takes a deep breath and then releases it.] Please, continue.

V: I think what it comes down to is, are you prepared to sell me one of your ova?

LS: Wh-what?

V: Would you sell me one of your ova?

LS: Ye—yeah, I think I would.

V: Would you give one to me?

LS: Well, we don’t really know each other that well…

V: But you want me to give you– [both talking at once] you want me to give you one of mine, several, so you can eat them?

LS: You brought it– you brought it up! [Pause.] You brought it up.

V: I just said what you couldn’t.

LS: So…Okay. Eggs are off the table.

V: I didn’t say– [interrupted by LS.]

LS: Eggs are off the table.

V: Okay, eggs are off the table. Literally. Haha. [Flutters wings, settles again.]

LS: Wow, damn, I never though one day I might be eating chicken, but not eggs. [Silence for several seconds.]

V: You might be eating eggs. Everyone feels differently about their bodies. I’m okay, actually, with my unwanted eggs being eaten, but I would like to be appropriately compensated for them. [Silence for several seconds.] You look upset again. [Pause.] I’m guessing this is not how you imagined this conversation going down.

LS: Uhm…[Rubs face.] Well god, I never had to think about all this stuff before! I mean, not like this.

V: Why not? I mean, take this as a for-instance: the FBI recently changed its definition of rape to a broader one, of which I’m sure you’re aware.

LS: [Nodding.] A step in the right direction.

V: Sexually touching an unconscious person is considered a violation of their body. They do not have the ability to consent if they are unconscious. Anyone who does not have the ability to clear communicate– because they are unconscious, intoxicated, mute, cognitively impaired, whatever– cannot give consent. So, before this device [gesturing to the translation machine], all kinds of things were– are still! Are still being done to chickens without their consent. And you can have the same dialogue about dogs, and sheep, and cattle, and pigs, and fish, and animals kept as pets, animals kept and bred for commercial usage, animals used for experimentation…

LS: Kept in zoos…

V: Exactly. [Several seconds of silence.] Exactly. [Pause.] It’s going to be a long road to change.

LS: It’s a struggle. I see myself as an ally in that struggle– [interrupted by V.]

V: And while I think you’re moving in the right direction, you really have a long ways to go, in terms of self-reflection, reassessing your values, your definitions, rethinking reality…

LS: I think so… I think so….

[Eng of transcript.]

Categorization, Racism, and Alternative Paths to Enlightenment

All racism is an outcome of the phenomenon of categorization.

I have been told over and over that human beings seek to categorize, to group everything in the world into ways that “make sense”. I have be taught in high school and told by educated people that this is a natural function of the human mind.

Not true. It is learned behavior.

The systematic categorization of everything in the universe is ingrained in us from a very early age, and only grows deeper and more complex the older we get. As children, we are given blocks to play with, of various shapes, sizes, and colours. We are encouraged to group these blocks: by colour, by shape, by size, by overlapping commonalities. If a child groups their blue blocks with other blue blocks, or triangular-shaped blocks with other triangular-shaped blocks, they are affirmed as “correct”. If a child groups their blue blocks with red blocks or their triangular-shaped blocks with round blocks, we shake our heads and say they got it wrong. (I think this “block test” was similar to a test a friend of mine took as a kid to determine their ADHD status.) The SAT, ACT, and IQ tests feature questions based on the same principle. We’re given questions that tell us to identify “the one that doesn’t belong”. Analogies are based on the same principle, only we’re told to identify pairs of things which have a like function or relationship. There is always a correct answer to these questions.

As a child, I asked why? As I grew older, I wondered about the necessity of categorization, inclusion and exclusion. And finally (and possibly most importantly), I want to know why is the ability to “correctly” group things seen as an indication of our level of intelligence? We see this obsession with grouping and categorizing in everything from taxonomy to architecture to genealogy to astronomy.

“Without grouping and categorizing, too many things simply wouldn’t function.” Yes, maybe so, and would that be a bad thing? In any case it is a mistake to think that this habit is “natural” or “inherent” to humanity. It is also a mistake to assume there is a “correct” way to group something. To assume as much means that we also assume other conceptions of a thing are incorrect, which in turn excludes possibilities for a “better” way to conceptualize (or to group, in this case).

Once we submit to the process of categorization, those categories become our reality. I think this is why so many people believe that human thinking or human society simply couldn’t function without categorization– they cannot conceptualize a reality sans categorization.

Just as it is seen as natural to group all living things into Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and species (an admittedly imperfect system, just ask any biologist), it is also seen as natural to group people: by “race”, by “ethnicity”, by “gender”, and so on. These groups are seen as distinct: the “African” race has black skin, the “White” race has white skin, the “Asian” race has dark hair, and these things prove their difference. Even cultural anthropology, which after two centuries has still not settled on a definition of “culture”, is reluctant to give up the idea of distinct races or ethnicities.

Perhaps the most fundamental categorization of a human being is into one of two genders or sexes. That there are only two sexes is an imperative lesson in every form of our education, and is stressed to us over and over from childhood.

Continuous and Discontinuous Variation: A feature that shows continuous variation may vary in only a small amount from one individual to the next, but when the variation of a number of individuals are compared they form a wide range. Examples include the range of values seen in heights or body masses. A feature that shows discontinuous variation shows a small number of distinct conditions, such as being male or female, and having ear lobes or no ear lobes. There is not a range of values between the two, as there is between a short person and a tall person, for example. However, there are very few examples of discontinuous variation in humans.” (Italics mine). This excerpt is taken from a biology textbook belonging to one of my 7th grade students.

This biology textbook, as mine did in high school, speaks with absolute authority. It does not suggest; it makes statements. A young student who reads this book and then is tested on its contents is expected (forced?) to believe that this material is true. There is no disclaimer that says, “The statements we are making in this book should be qualified, and in fact we don’t necessarily know what we are talking about, we are just guessing based on our limited knowledge and the small amount of evidence available to us.” That is really frightening to me. At some point, I had some teachers who said, “The things you’re about to learn from us/this book/this film are based on incomplete knowledge; by the time you are my age it is likely that some of this knowledge will have been modified, or even proven false.” I was lucky. But there are plenty of children who grow up without the benefit of critical thinking. This book becomes their reality.

The dogma espoused by the aforementioned textbook is no different from that espoused in, say, a Baptist church: “Before you we have laid the truth; you need only choose to believe.”

How will we ever break free from the confines of “natural categorization” (and everything that spawns from it) if throughout our education we are told to place faith, rather than question?

Perhaps a better question is, why do we choose to submit ourselves to a reality that is not only limited, but which harms other living things and ourselves?

I think oftentimes most people don’t see, or don’t want to see, the existence or possibility of choice.

Sometimes I see monks here in Cambodia doing things “they shouldn’t be doing”: using banks, talking on cell phones, riding (though not driving) motor vehicles, smoking, taking walks on the beach and staring at women (especially foreign women in bikinis).

When I ask my Khmer friends why they are doing these things, some say “because they don’t know any better.” Others tell me, “because they are bad.” And some say that there is nothing wrong, per say, with the monks’ behavior: The Buddha did not write the law; the Buddha said only, “These are my suggestions to you. Who knows if they are right or wrong. There are many paths to enlightenment.”