Archive for May, 2010|Monthly archive page

Binaries Aren’t Intrinsically Bad

There are some people out there who want want to wage a battle against “the gender binary”; in their eyes, dividing people into two groups, men and women, is a mistake.   And from their perspective, transsexual people are part of the problem, because they aren’t embracing “the middle” (which is where they believe all gender-variant people belong), but are instead supporting the bad binary bifurcation.

I think there is a logical error here.  The existence of things in the middle between two categories doesn’t invalidate the usefulness of (or the existence of) those categories.

To understand why I think this is a flawed way of looking at things, let’s look at another binary categorization: bagels and donuts.  Ask people about them, and they’ll tell you various things: bagels are savory and donuts are sweet; bagels are boiled and donuts are fried; bagels are bread and donuts are cake.  Yet there are bagels that aren’t boiled, only baked, and donuts that aren’t fried but are baked; there are sweet bagels and savory donuts; and some donuts are made with yeast, which clearly qualifies them as a bread.  With so much variance and so much going on in the middle ground breaking the stereotypes of what a bagel or donut should be, shouldn’t we abandon these categories?

I would argue that we shouldn’t abandon categories—bagel and donut are still useful categories even if there is a grey area in between the two.  If I tell you I’m serving you a bagel, you’ll be primed with a certain set of expectations, and most of the time those expectations will be useful, even if the particular bagel you get doesn’t quite fit all the aspects of the classic bagel stereotype.  It doesn’t make sense to say that people should avoid categorizing toroidal wheat-dough-based foods into these binary categories of bagel and donut, or that if such a food isn’t explicitly labeled as a bagel or a donut, we should avoid prejudging its category, but instead refer to it using the neologism tordo to avoid accidentally calling a sweet bagel a donut. (And people’s heads will spin all the more if activists argue over which neologism to use, is it tordo (toroidal dough-based food), banut, dogel, or something else?)

I’m not opposed to variant bagels and donuts, nor to toroidal dough-based foods that aren’t really bagels or donuts at all, but are their own thing, but being okay with things that exist between and outside existing categories does not require you to support the elimination of those categories.

Activists who advocate for the elimination of binary categories often seem to portray those who use those categories as being too rigid, and themselves as the free thinkers, but to my mind, the real rigidity comes from their viewing categories rigidly.  Every bagel doesn’t have to match the stereotype, and we don’t need to say that a donut should embrace its true foodqueer nature as “other” just because it began its life as an unsweetened yeast dough.