Reblog: Can the suicidal (academic) speak? Personal reflections on depression, suicide and research.

Want a taste of the future of Critical Suicide Studies? Check out this blog.
CW for suicide, suicidality, sanism/ableism.

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Review: The True Cost

The True Cost: A Review.

Industrialized clothing production has always been problematic, but those problems have become intensified and have much more far-reaching consequences in recent decades. This is due in large part to a phenomenon known as “fast fashion.” In the not-so-distant past, the fashion world had two, at most three “seasons” of new clothing. However, global capitalist markets and industrialization have sped up production, shipping, and other processes that bring new styles to market, so much so that new fashions can hit shelves practically weekly. Hence, “fast fashion,” which encourages consumers to treat clothing as disposable.

The True Cost (2015) is an exploration of the causes and consequences of fast fashion in particular, and global capitalism in general. The film’s creators journeyed from Texas to the UK, from Bangladesh to Cambodia, from China to Haiti, and other places around the world. The film features interviews with experts from a multitude of fields, including ecofeminist Vandana Shiva, Free Market Institute director Benjamin Powell, physician Pritpal Singh, and animal rights activist and fashion designer Stella McCartney.

Perhaps most importantly, the film prominently features individuals struggling against the systemic problems associated with global capitalism in their own niches. Though they may be less famous in Western contexts, their stories are no less important. They help to shed light on the day-to-day consequences of the capitalist system, the ways in which seemingly disparate sectors are intrinsically connected within this system, and what individuals can do about it. Bangladeshi union leader Shima Akhter, American organic cotton farmer LaRhea Pepper, and Cambodian parliamentarian Mu Sochua are among these voices.

The True Cost takes a wide-lens view of the garment industry and the various economic pockets tied to it. I’ll discuss a few of the major themes that are the focus of this film here.

Agriculture

The huge growth seen in the fashion industry would not be possible without accompanying intensive industrialization of agriculture. As infrequently as we ponder the impact on garment workers as we shop for clothes, much less frequently do we think about farmers, who are one more step ‘removed’ from the final product. These industries appear disconnected to most of us, yet our constant consumption of “disposable clothing” would not be possible without industrialized agriculture. The industrialization of agriculture includes the mass use of herbicides, pesticides, and other agrochemicals that are not only dangerous for the natural world but also to human beings.

When her husband died of brain cancer, Texan LaRhea Pepper realized that organic farming isn’t just important, it is “imperative.” While she doesn’t have “a smoking gun” that directly connects the agrochemicals used on the farms surrounding her community to the many farmers she personally knows who have died from cancer, she has more than enough evidence to know that there is a dire need for organic farming techniques. She echoes ecofeminist Vandana Shiva’s sentiment that nature is the original economy, and when the land and waters suffers, humans suffer. Pepper says that we must “respect the life that’s in the land,” a lesson passed down to her in her farming family.

For farmers around the world, ‘modern’ agricultural products and techniques are tempting, despite the harm they can do to people and the environment. Yet it is a hard trap to escape from once signed onto, especially for farmers in “developing” countries, such as India. GMO cotton and other patented seeds have proven to be “ecological narcotics,” as Shiva calls them, because they require ever more chemicals (e.g. pesticides) to maintain their productivity. This in turn creates a dependency on GMO-patenting companies like Monsanto—which are the same companies producing agricultural chemicals. Even more disturbingly, Shiva asserts that the corporations selling carcinogenic farming chemicals are also investing in the development of cancer treatments and pharmaceuticals. In other words, these corporations benefit from causing, as well as treating, human ailments. It is easy to see that there is little incentive for this system to change itself, particularly when it prioritizes profit over human well-being.

Marketing

We think of propaganda “as a foreign thing,” says Mark Miller, professor of media studies at NYU, “but it’s actually as American as apple pie.” Advertising is essentially a form of propaganda that encourages us to buy stuff. Psychologist Tim Kasser has found that increases in materialistic values are associated with increases in anxiety and depression. After reviewing research on marketing, this is perhaps a predictable outcome of advertising that is designed to makes us feel insecure, incomplete, and incompetent—problems that can be ‘solved’ through the constant consumption of new products. Modern day marketing has become the art and science of what 19th century advertising copywriter Samuel Strausser called “consumptionism.” Miller explains that the logic of consumerism wants people “to treat the things we use as the things we use up.” This model is plainly unsustainable, but as economist Richard Wolff points out, American capitalism is treated as above criticism, regularly getting “a free pass” on its dysfunction.

Waste

Most of the waste we produce is non-biodegradable. In recent decades, a growing proportion of that waste is clothing. Increasingly, people think of fashion “as a disposable product,” according to journalist and True Cost producer Lucy Siegle. Many of us try to be more conscious of this, and believe we are doing good when we donate clothing to charity. But the “journey of a t-shirt donated to charity is unpalatable in itself,” says fashion designer Orsola de Castro. For example, almost 90% of the clothing we donate to local charities actually gets shipped to “developing” countries, such as Haiti. The unintended consequence of this is that it puts Haitian clothing manufacturers out of business, so there is less home-grown business and less local capital.

Consumer Capitalism as a Worldview

The True Cost creators interviewed Kate Ball-Young, a former sourcing manager for retail chain Joe Fresh, and in many ways her worldview neatly encapsulates the abstracted beliefs about globalization and capitalism held by most Americans today. Of garment factory workers, Ball-Young asserts that “they could be doing something much worse,” like coal-mining or something. She clearly has no idea just how hazardous garment manufacturing in countries like Cambodia, China, and Bangladesh truly is, both in the short and long-term. “There’s nothing intrinsically dangerous with selling clothes,” she says with a laugh. Perhaps that is true, but she appears to be disconnecting her own work from the very industry that provides her with a source of income in the first place. Ball-Young is emblematic of a Western mindset that as long as we can’t see where a thing came from, then we don’t need to ask hard ethical questions of ourselves, even when we sell or consume that thing.

For me, one of the most serious problems with this mindset is that we are not just cultivating an ignorance of where things come from, but indulging in a fantasy that real people did not create those things. Whether it is clothing or cars or food, we would much rather purchase and enjoy the end product guilt-free than contemplate the journey from field or mine to factory to storefront that a product must take. In doing so, we can overlook the human element of global capitalism—especially human suffering. Maybe we take it a step further by patting ourselves on the back for ‘supporting livelihoods’ overseas. Accompanying this belief is the attitude of TINA: “There Is No Alternative.” When we as consumers choose to believe that “there is no alternative” for the people producing our goods, we can excuse human rights violations, environmental devastation, and other associated problems because—well duh, what other choice do those people have? But what happens when we confront someone who believes this with, Well, aren’t we complicit in a system that has eliminated alternatives? We can’t abstract ourselves as individuals from these complex and interconnected systems in which we participate—and, frequently, which we benefit from. We must acknowledge that our choices as consumers has the power to perpetuate or alter these systems.

Some Criticism

As can be seen from this brief overview of a few of these major themes, the scope of the film is daunting. In its attempt to be accessible by not getting too deep with any one topic, The True Cost touches upon a variety of interconnected issues only superficially. This ends up becoming a core critique from film reviewers, such as Vanessa Friedman. In her New York Times review, she wrote of The True Cost’s director Andrew Morgan, “it’s hard not to feel in the end that he was overwhelmed by the scale of the problem. In trying to do everything, he skirted a lot of things, including acknowledging the shades of gray in this subject.”

Another shortcoming of this film is that it is not explicit enough in stating the disproportionate effect of exploitative industries like fast fashion on people of colour, most of all people of colour in the ‘Global South.’ To put it into perspective, (particularly white) Western consumers are exempt of accountability for their part in exploiting the time, health, and labor of people of colour in ‘distant lands.’ So while I commend the film for putting women of colour’s voices and experiences front and center, it cheats its own argument by shying away from the ways in which gender, race, and nationality play into global capitalism’s systemic violence. The film also does not in any way note how global capitalism is in part an expression of Western colonialism and imperialism, and how people of colour (especially women) continue to suffer the greatest burden of this legacy.

Finally, although there is some discussion of disability and mental health throughout the documentary, this is done without exploration of the experiences of people who are multiply marginalized. That is, the film’s creators do not flesh out the ramifications of living and working within an oppressive system that contributes to mental and physical disabilities disproportionately in communities of colour and in the ‘Global South.’ And where women of colour are place front and center to tell their own stories in their own voices, disabled people are not afforded this treatment. Rather, they are featured more as props backgrounding the ‘horrible’ stories of environmental contamination explicated by the director/narrator.

The Bottom Line

Nevertheless, for people who have never met a garment factory worker (let alone are friends with any), The True Cost may bring the human element of exploitative industries, like fast fashion, to the fore of their consciousness. Maybe they will start to pay more attention to workers’ struggles around the globe, including in places like Cambodia and Bangladesh. Maybe it will start to sink in how these systems do much for the West at the expense of the Global South, especially women of colour. Maybe they will start to see how our decision-making processes impact the direction industries take, and thus how we need to take responsibility for those decisions and their effects on our fellow Earthlings.

This documentary is best for people with limited knowledge of the themes it discusses, as it provides some solid, entry-level information. It’s a great starting point for getting a big-picture grasp of the abusive nature of global capitalism. From there, hopefully viewers will continue to more deeply educate themselves on these issues.

Here is some literature that might prove helpful for such continuing education on global capitalism, the interconnectedness of its systems, and how this impacts all of us:

And for those specifically interested in “buying better,” check out this page on the film’s site.

 

 

Rape, and love.

I’ve been reading a lot about rape, as I try to finish my thesis, which deals with sexual violence as well as institutional violence. I’ve listened to and read a lot of survivors’ accounts of these types of violence. It’s too much at times, because this is how I spend my academic life, my intellectual life, but it’s also on the news all the time. It’s in songs, in movies, on TV, in teen fiction, in casual jokes and everyday conversation, in political discussions.

There was a time not so long ago (2008, 2009) where I would’ve been astounded and pleased to see nation-wide media discussions about sexual violence. So much changed in the time I was gone. It still blows my mind that we are including things like bystander intervention training in college freshman orientations, or that the FBI updated its definition of consent to condemn sexual acts against an unconscious or drugged person as rape. This seems like massive progressive. Seems like we’re headed in the right direction. Then why the fuck am I filled with anxiety, why am I drawn tight like a bowstring whenever sexual violence arises as a topic of conversation, a court case, a news story, a song lyric, a painted subject. Is it just because I’ve experienced it? Is it just PTSD, blah-dee-blah? Something tells me otherwise.

At certain times in the history of feminist theory and activism, some feminists have voiced the opinion that rape is a crime of violence, only, not a crime of sex. Susan Brownmiller has been cited as supporting a view of rape as a being about violence, not sex (see Cahill 2001, 16-28). While I was a SAC advocate and crisis counselor at the Listening Ear, I shared this view of rape. “It’s not about sex,” so the line goes, “it’s about power and domination.” Of course, this is coming from people who either cannot fathom an association between power, domination, violence, and sexual arousal, or who cannot admit to themselves that for many people, such a connection exists.

There are many people who associate violence, sex, and power. Sometimes this is enjoyable, and sometimes it is born of traumatic experience—undoubtedly sometimes it’s both. Many kinksters associate pain and pleasure and derive enjoyment and arousal from playing with power dynamics. However, kinky sex is not rape, due to the fact that communication, consent, and mutual enjoyment are central tenets of BDSM and fetish practices. Rape happens when genuine consent is absent, whether when a person says no, when a person is silent, or when a person feels that they cannot say no (e.g. because they are being coerced, threatened with the end of a relationship, etc.).

Something that strikes me is that among all these discussions of the relationship between violence, rape, and sex, something that never seems to come is the subject of love. Now, we know that the vast majority of rapes are perpetrated by people known to their victims. In fact, they are often the closest people to us. They are our friends, our parents, our pastors, our teachers, our siblings, our neighbors, our lovers, our partners. They are people for whom we often feel a great deal of trust…and love. This doesn’t strike me as coincidental. It is the people whom we love the most that can often get away with doing the worst kinds of things to us, because we cannot admit to ourselves, let alone anyone else (e.g. a court of law), that they would do something to us that contradicts our understanding of their love for us. This seems to cross boundaries of all kinds of love. The love felt between parents and children, teachers and students, spouses, siblings, and so on—these are all very different kinds of love. But it seems to me that all of these kinds of love (perhaps all kinds of love) are founded upon trust.

This is what makes rape so devastating. It is a violation of bodily autonomy, it is a violation of the mind, and it is a violation of trust and love. Even where trust is broke, even again and again, love remains… Maybe it gets chipped away, maybe it wears like beaches shaped by waves, maybe it erodes into nothing, over time. But when it comes to the people we love most, we will suffer the worst kinds of betrayals, even more than once. We tell ourselves whatever is necessary to endure this kind of abuse: we put the people we love before ourselves, that is what true love is; we keep faith in them even when they fuck up, because love conquers all, and through love they will change and improve; love doesn’t always come easy, sometimes it requires work, maybe it even requires sacrifice; we can’t betray love, even when the people we love betray us.

I feel compelled to say something that I have suspected before, that makes my stomach turn and that I know the thought of which makes many people feel ill. Rape and love are connected. I won’t claim to understand their relationship. Either rape and love are connected (hence why it is most often the people we love who perpetrate our rapes), or we do not yet understand rape, or love. Quite possibly I think it is both. I suspect that until we better understand both rape and love, sexual violence will always be a normative aspect of our culture. Even as we say, “Rape has nothing to do with sex, rape has nothing to do with love,” we lie to ourselves that our rapists—our parents, our pastors, our best friends, our partners—love us. Maybe it is not a lie… Maybe they do love us. Maybe we do love them. Then we’ve got it wrong… Rape and love have something to do with each other. It seems fucked up, it seems unimaginable. But we also say that rape, itself, seems unimaginable. We say bizarre things about rape: “I’d rather die than be raped”; “I’d kill anyone who raped you/me.” We say sensical things about rape: “I can’t believe that person committed rape”; “I don’t understand how that person could have rape their best friend/spouse/child/classmate.” All of these utterances seem to me to indicate a serious lack of understanding about rape, but also love.

Something that we fail to talk about and to really seek to understand are the motivations of rapists. We pass them off as deviants, as psychos, as one-offs, as aberrations, as monsters under the bed, as strangers in the shadows. When it’s the people we love who fit this description, it’s like they become unknown, unknowable to us. It stops making sense. Our relationship stops making sense. Love stops making sense. Our bodies stop making sense. Our will stops making sense. It’s unfathomable, it goes against everything our culture has taught us about love, it goes against everything we feel and understand about love, about relationships, about ourselves, about the people we love. This isn’t how it’s supposed to work, it doesn’t make any sense. It’s incoherent, it’s like living in a horrific faerieland where nothing makes sense, nothing ever coheres.

It makes no sense to me whatsoever that a person whom I love and trusted very much raped me repeatedly. They made me feel like I was wrong for refusing them. They made me feel that I was saying “I don’t love you” whenever I said no. They made me feel that I was hurting them by saying no. They made me feel that they had a right to my body—more than that, they had a right to my bodymind and they had a right to believe I enjoyed it. Eventually I ran away from them because I felt like I was going to die—on some level I believed that it was me, or the relationship. One of us was going to end. I had come to believe that it was my destiny to kill myself, and that I wasn’t deserving of love, and I believed everyone who made me feel that my partner was ‘putting up with me’ and that I was abusing them. Probably most of those people had no idea what my partner did to me for more than two years. Sure, a lot of them knew that that person had jerked me around and gone out on me, had manipulated me and lied to me and so on and so forth. All part of the game that is college relationships, I suppose. But they didn’t know that my partner would touch me against my wishes, even in public places, like work. My partner wasn’t afraid of consequences, I think; I suspect that they felt they were in the right. They made me afraid to be alone at work with them. They made me afraid to walk up the stairs first. Eventually I couldn’t let anyone walk up a flight upstairs behind me, because I’d start having a panic attack. Of course, I wouldn’t figure out for a long time that that’s what they were.

Despite all this, I loved my partner so much, I couldn’t imagine my life without them. They were so smart and considerate and creative and funny and good-looking, they were going places, they had a good head on their shoulders, they were kind, everyone said so. Many people said I was lucky to be with them. I believed this. But in order to keep my partner happy, I had to do what they asked. If that was holding hands, or kissing, or letting them touch me, or having sex, then that’s what had to happen. It took almost four years for me to figure out that all of that was wrong, was not my fault, and the sex we had wasn’t ‘sex’, it was rape.

The part that is now very difficult for me to get my head around is that that person thinks they didn’t do anything wrong. No, scratch that, I can get my head around that. We live in a culture that tells some groups of people they’re better than other groups, that they are entitled to things from groups which are beneath them. Shrug. I can understand that. I read books and shit. What I can’t understand is how that person can live with themself, because they work in a place that is directly involved in people’s sexual health. What makes them think that they have even a modicum of understanding about sexual health? They made me feel that there was something wrong with me, with my body, when I didn’t enjoy having sex with them. Having sex you don’t enjoy over and over again—this is the opposite of healthy.

Writing helps… I’m feeling a bit better for having written this. Writing is a Lens of Clarity in faerieland. Maybe now I can get back to my thesis…

Crazy Is as Crazy Does

I’ve been wanting to write on here about neoliberalism for while. This post should most likely be preceded by a post devoted solely to neoliberalism, as a concept: where it comes from, what it entails, how it shapes our lives and worldviews.

But this particular post feels more pressing. Maybe it will even help clarify things for me later when I try to write other posts about neoliberalism.

I want to talk about mental health. It needs to be talked about in a different way than the mainstream tends to talk about it, and I want to attempt that, aided by against-the-stream or on-the-edges-of-the-stream perspectives from those I’ve read, those I know personally, those who have spoken to me and others about it.

Mental health is something that most people would rather put on the backburner as far as topics of conversation go. Mental illness is one that most people would rather avoid altogether. It is, admittedly, uncomfortable for speakers and listeners, those who have been diagnosed or treated for it, those who haven’t but feel or fear that they should be, and those who never have and never wish to be.

I wonder what this says, if anything, about the sorts of people who end up in fields and disciplines connected to the study and treatment of mental illness. Are they more compassionate, maybe? Trying to do people and society a favor? Are they ‘atypical’, themselves, perhaps trying to understand their own behavior or suffering? Are they just morbidly curious? (Friends and relations of mine who work in such fields, know that whatever we agree or disagree upon, I am not passing a judgment, but rather posing some earnest questions about the nature of these fields– if anything from a cultural, not moral, position of questioning.)

Whatever their motivations, there is frequently a common thread running through mainstream study, prevention, and treatment of mental illness. This might be hinted at by the very term ‘mental illness’. If it is an illness, it arises within a single person; it is an individual, not collective phenomenon. The same ‘illness’– schizophrenia, OCD, or manic depression, for instance– can present in many individuals, but it is nevertheless an affliction of individuals, not of society. As such, it must be studied, treated, and prevented at the level of the individual.

I recently discovered that there is a thing called dermatillomania— a ‘condition’, I suppose, also called Skin-Picking Disorder (SPD)**. People ‘afflicted’ with this condition pick at their skin: face, arms, legs, backs, scalp. Lips. Cuticles. It is cataloged in the DSM-V under Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Those with a related condition, trichotillomania***, pull out their hair, strand by strand. Eyelashes. Eyebrows. These disorders are also considered to be Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors (BFRBs), and is sometimes seen as a symptom or manifestation of Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD).

If you followed any of the above links, you may have been struck by a commonality among several of the treatments offered: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Habit-Reversal Training (HRT), and Mindfulness training and practices are by and large focused entirely on the individual. They encourage patients to think about what they can do to change their environments, their routines, themselves in order to change their ‘habits’. Habits which, while they may be harmful in various ways to that individual, are most like to disturb, embarrass or repulse others– that is, society.

I want to preface the rest of this by saying that I do not believe that we as individuals should not in some way be responsible for our own mental health, treatment or improvement of well-being. To the contrary, I think that such participation can be an empowering and transformative experience. However, we should note a few disturbing observations about this schema.

To begin with, such treatments begin from the presumption that illness like dermatillomania are problems of the individual: that is, they are disorders of single and separate minds. For instance, we might acknowledge that two different people who are each suffering from schizophrenia are experiencing a similar phenomenon, but we wouldn’t suggest that the experiences of those two individuals are in any way correlated– this person is not suffering from schizophrenia because of that person. They might be suffering from schizophrenia due to similar psychologies or circumstances, but this person’s illness is not the direct cause of that person’s illness. As such, being an illness of an individual person, it is up to that individual, or up to us on behalf of that individual, to take some measures to treat it. In any case, it’s the individual that requires treatment.

Now, in all fairness, many people who work on treatments for mental illness acknowledge that it is often the product of exterior factors or circumstances. A person close to you dying might cause severe depression, intimate partner violence might produce anxiety attacks, wartime violence and near-death experiences can cause PTSD. There is also a recognition that many circumstances cannot be changed: we can’t reverse the loss of a loved one, domestic violence can be difficult or impossible to escape, the violence of war may reside in the mind long after the war ends. Keeping this in mind, let’s look again at illnesses like schizophrenia, manic depression, OCD, borderline personality disorder.

Is it possible that the majority of responsibility for mental illness should rest on our sociocultural surroundings? What if, instead of beginning with the individual, we began with society as the place from where illness arises? What if we assumed that it is possible that society– the sociocultural structures by which we are all bound, though in different ways– needs to change in order to ‘cure’ mental illness, not the individual? I’m not suggesting that all mental illness could be solved merely by finding the most ideal sociocultural circumstances, but it isn’t a coincidence that some societies have higher rates of certain types of mental illness and suicide than others; varying societal factors must have a major impact on definition, prevention, and treatment of mental illness. I’m quite ignorant here, and many posts could be devoted solely to this topic, but among ‘modern’, ‘industrialized’, and ‘developed’ countries, there has come to be a very particular way of approaching mental illness, and that is by focusing on the level of the individual.

I want to suggest that this a symptom of the neoliberal worldview. Neoliberalism focuses almost entirely on the level of the individual, even when talking about phenomena like globalization and transnationalism. States, corporations, and organizations are compartmentalized and atomized into individual units: citizens, consumers, employees, members. As members of a neoliberal culture, we see ourselves as part of organizations and states, but at the same time as self-contained, discreet Selves, part of and yet apart. Those who feel their identity to be part of a common or collective consciousness, who ‘lose’ their individuality, must have joined some sort of cult.

Mental illness is often talked about in terms of individual shortcoming, weakness, or failure. Those who kill themselves or attempt to are considered selfish, short-sighted, making excuses and lacking accountability or self-control. Solutions for individuals include being mindful, focused more the present, utilizing coping skills, and so forth. All of these are individual behavior and attitude changes; society is not required to change its behaviors or attitudes. Basically, by trying harder, individuals can work towards greater self-reliance, independence, responsibility and strength. The idea is, after all, that healthy individuals do not or should not have need of a therapist and do not excessively burden those close to them with the side effects of their mental illness or mental health needs. Well, and the therapist exists for that very purpose: to unburden those around us, which contributes to the notion that mental illness is a private and shameful matter. Yet the person who kills themselves for the very purpose of permanently unburdening those around them (and they are likely thinking of the individuals whom they love, not their school or company or country) is considered selfish. We need to have personal accountability to ourselves and others regarding our mental well-being– society is not accountable to us. As such, society should be right to fear, berate and institutionalize the mentally ill individual. Music, TV shows and movies often reflect neoliberal ideals, perhaps unconsciously and unselfcritically.

Briefly returning to dermatillomania: the websites referenced above readily admit that researchers are unsure of the causes of dermatillomania. In spite of this, treatments are still focused upon the individual. Why should this be, if we can’t even be sure the individual is necessarily able to stop these behaviors?

I want us to thing about new and different ways of looking at the treatment of individuals with mental illness. Is it so outrageous to imagine accommodating certain aspects of mental illness? Or better yet, to change sociocultural structures that might be catalyzing mental illness in the first place?

More thoughts to come… In the meantime, what are yours?

**I am wary of any group (bureaucratic agencies, NGOs, academic disciplines, whoever) who are overly fond of acronyms. Fuck, acronyms are annoying.

***How interesting, the insertion of “non-cosmetic” into their definition.

How We Read

Today at work, while I was running the register, a girl of about 6 or 7 wondered aloud to her mother, “Is that a boy or a girrrrrl…?” Since this has happened to me about a million times (to be fair, Cambodia about tripled my score in this count), I was neither offended nor caught off guard, but I did do something a bit different than I have usually done. Before her mother could scold/shush her, before she could apologize to me, I smiled slyly and said, “What do you think?”

“Ummm…” said the girl.

“It’s okay, you can take a guess.”

“Ummmm…. A girrrrrrl?” posed the girl.

“Close enough,” I said.

The girl, whose named turned out to be Moon (it wasn’t actually, but to protect her identity I’ve swapped it out for something equally celestial), seemed quite delighted and gratified. What surprised me, though, was her mother’s reaction. She was neither embarrassed nor angry, not awkward, not anxious. She seemed perhaps relieved, or even glad. She said, only mildly apologetically, “When she wants to know something, she just asks!”

I praised Moon for her bravery in asking questions, and encouraged her not to be afraid to be curious. They went off to have their breakfast.

Later on, while making coffee, I got to have another short conversation with Moon and her mom. I said I liked her name, it was quite unique, and mentioned that I coincidentally had a friend named Sky, which really got her excited. She confided loudly that there was a boy at her school named Creek (also not his real name, but similarly earthy), and that he liked her and wrote her love letters. But she didn’t like these love letters, she exclaimed! She always threw them away, but he wrote her persistently, anyway.

“You don’t have to put up with that, Moon,” I assured her. She assured me that she could stand up for herself. I believe she can. Remarkably, through most of the conversation, Moon’s mother let her talk for herself, occasionally contributing but never overriding or trumping Moon’s voice.

I’d be lying if I said I don’t mind ambiguity; in many ways, I despise it. But in reading the works of Gloria Anzaldúa, Donna Haraway, and Riki Wilchins, I am more and more interested in the power of ambiguity to disrupt and confuse our cultural tendency towards binary thinking, dichotomous worldviews. Dichotomies relieve the frequently awkward, at-times painful tension of ambiguity; much of our modern-day logic wouldn’t function without what Patricia Hill Collins calls “either/or thinking”. Everything in our world should generally be called one thing, or another, but it must be one or the other and it certainly cannot be both.

Every human being must be male, or female, but they cannot be both and of course cannot be something else entirely. Why are we so utterly disturbed by this notion? Why is any transcendence of the binary sex construct considered heretical, perverse, unnatural?

Why are children more easily able to cope with this ambiguity? I didn’t give Moon an answer; I let her think what she wanted to think, which could have included not making up her mind, or not caring. For most adults, not making up our minds or not caring are quite implausible in regards to sex/gender: we need to know, we need certainty. A lack thereof, the presence of ambiguity is weird, disconcerting, frightening, even angering.

I’m not going to suggest that ambiguity in all situations is positive or appropriate, but I will say that most cultures could do with a higher tolerance for it. After all, the notion of the ‘false dichotomy’ is sort of redundant in the sense that most dichotomies are false, perhaps the most pervasive of those being ‘male/female’ and ‘black/white’. For Moon, I fell into enough of a grey area that it prompted her curiosity; her reaction was neutral, or maybe even positive by some views, but unusual, regardless. What if more of us were curious about the grey area? What if more of us embraced living in the grey area? How might that begin to affect the currently [harmful] dichotomous worldview we insist on passing down to future generations?