17 July 2008

Twitching at Binaries I: Us and Them

Right then. I suspect that my sexuality has a wee bit to do with my uneasiness at (some, perhaps even most) people's tendency to neatly parcel up the world into opposed pairings: good/evil, black/white, gay/straight, left-wing/right-wing, sane/insane, able-bodied/disabled, right/wrong, kinky/vanilla, us/them.

I could go on listing for a while, but I think that, ultimately, the majority of these binaries are just rephrasings of the last one. Us vs. Them.

It's a tempting way to view the world: on the one side of this imaginary line in the sand, there is us--a group of people just like me, who share my views and/or background and are the right people for me to associate with, because they are like me, and that makes me comfortable--and on the other side are those people who are against us. Their disagreement, or fear, or difference frightens me. It's alien. Maybe even a bit icky. I don't understand it. So I dissociate myself from their difference: stop listening to their arguments, cross to the other side of the street when I see them coming, and seek out people who are comfortingly like me.

There is a certain value to this approach, especially for more marginalized groups who often fall on the "wrong" end of the binary for the majority of people, and need to come together to create a safe space. I get that. I've done it myself, sometimes, when I want to just wall myself off from hatred, bigotry or just plain ignorance. The trick is to not let it become permanent. The only way to make the things I don't understand become less frightening is to engage with them.

When it comes to ideas, exposing myself to those I disagree with is key to my forming my own--if my beliefs don't stand up to opposition/counterargument, I seriously need to reconsider why I hold onto them at all. Disagreement will either make my ideas stronger or it will shatter them, and if the latter is going to happen anyway (it always does, so long as a weakly constructed argument keeps running up against reality), then the sooner it does the better. I can pick up the pieces, start thinking about the issue again, and not be a closed-minded idiot the second time around.

When it comes to people who are different, who don't fit with what I consider us, I have a lot to gain by stepping out and getting to know them. After all, there's always a humanity behind the difference. Seeing people as people, not ideologies (a "communist" is a person, not the faceless drone of an -ism I might disagree with) and not representatives of a particular group (I am a woman, an immigrant, and a thousand other things, all of which represent me, and none of which I am the sole representative of) can be difficult sometimes, but it is necessary. Ignoring others' humanity is what allows one group of people to deny others basic human rights, or one person to bully/abuse another because of their difference, it's what allows us to go to war over ideas. On the other hand, seeing the person behind the idea, and finding some common ground with them, or learning to like them despite disagreement, means that the circle of us expands to admit a new member. And anytime that circle gets bigger, it's enriched by new perspectives and experiences. I become better for letting myself embrace difference. And that disagreement on ideas? Still there. Association, even friendship does not require agreement. It only requires basic decency and compassion, and creates a space where disagreement can exist without it leading to destruction, because you can dislike the belief and still care about the person that carries it.

Of course, there are people out there that I doubt I'll ever accept into my us (which is starting to sound more like some kind of exclusive club and less like a metaphorical device, for which I apologize): I can't deal with people who are outright hateful towards any group, or who are proudly apathetic towards injustice. But I can learn to accept that they too are people with the same rights to exist as everyone else, and stop wishing painful death on then whenever I get in a bad mood.

ETA: this started out as a post about something different, but I like the "can we try to at least be civil?" direction it went off in, so I'm leaving it as is. I'll discuss my other big problem with binaries in another one.

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