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.

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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.]