Hissing Ducks and The LGBT Movement
Christ the Logos. Christ the King.
The basics of the ideas presented below were outlined first by Jonathan Pageau. He’s an Eastern Orthodox Christian, icon carver, and a bit of a genius. Please click the link on his name to check out his YouTube channel. He is, unfortunately, also Canadian however. Fair warning.
Attribution out of the way, I am now going to try and flesh out some of the thoughts he presented some time ago around the LGBT movement in light of the recent (alleged) shooting in Tennessee.
Everything has a margin. An edge. An end point (and, conversely, a beginning). Tell me where, exactly, the Pacific Ocean stops. Where, exactly, does the Atlantic Ocean begin? Is a platypus a mammal? Really? I mean, it lays eggs. For that matter, what is it, exactly, that makes a timber wolf different from a grey one? They can interbreed, yes? Wouldn’t that mean they’re the same species? At what size does a loveseat become a couch? At what point does something stop being blue and start being cyan? If a man is born with XXY chromosomes (Klinefelter Syndrome), is he a man… or a woman? Are light-skinned Arabs “white?” Is a hotdog a sandwich?
Every category has margins. Take a picture. Right now. Of anything, doesn’t really matter. Got it? Okay now zoom in. Zoom in further. More. MORE. Note how the edges of things tend to blur together as you look at them more closely.
The world, especially the biological world, is actually not black and white. It’s green and grey, and language is a tool we use to navigate this imprecise blurry reality we inhabit. To do that, we must invent categories. We must invent Identities. “Plant” is an identity. “Mammal” is an identity. “Woman” is an identity. “White”, “black”, “gay”, “straight”… all of these are identities. They are categories. They are sorting bins we put things in in order to be able to talk about them.
People don’t like that.
“Don’t put labels on me,” they say. “Don’t assume you know me just because of the color of my skin or my sexual preferences.”
Fair enough. Categories are necessarily abstractions. Generalizations. Broad brush stroke ideas which never fully apply to any member of their group. “Apples are red.” No they aren’t. Not all of them. “Bananas are yellow.” Again, not true universally. “Dogs have tails.” Some have had them cut off. “Ducks quack.” Actually, the Muscovy breed hisses. This is very off putting. We used to have some at our pond.
Categories do not capture the individual.
But… we still need categories.
Go ahead. Try saying anything useful about farming without using the terms “apple” or “cow” or “carrot.” In every case I can promise you I could find an apple or cow or carrot which didn’t conform to whatever definitions those words conjure up in our minds. Cows without udders. Apples which look like bell peppers (wax apples, fyi). Deformed carrots. But you’d die of starvation if you had to talk about each apple in your orchard as an individual. If you had to go out and mark, individually, which ones needed to be picked by your farm hands because you lacked the ability to use a single word which caught all of them in its wide net… why, you’d be there for ages.
Languages need categories.
Languages need identities.
And, unfortunately, to some degree you don’t get to pick yours. To some degree you do of course, but not 100% of it.
See, society needs to be able to talk about “women” in the abstract, because there are particular problems and challenges that most people to whom that word refers face. The fact that not everyone whom that word refers to will have those challenges is kind of irrelevant. Women will have uterine issues in their lives. No, not all, but enough that it’s a valid statement. For some their uterus is a lifelong friend who provides regular periods and conceives children on demand. Some women, on the other end, won’t even have uteruses at all! They’ll have been surgically removed, or malformed at birth, or damaged beyond repair by disease. The statement, “Women will have uterine issues in their lives,” isn’t universally true… but it’s still true. A category is a big net meant to capture a lot of stuff in one go. It’s a useful linguistic tool. Very useful in fact. Unfortunately one side effect of its usefulness is that it is not necessarily very precise, and either misses, or includes, things it probably shouldn’t.
Language is imperfect. The boundary between blue and cyan isn’t well established. A hotdog fits the strict definition of a sandwich, and yet, we all sort of feel somehow it isn’t one.
Language is imperfect.
We can try to make it better, sure, but you’re never going to solve the problem of categories missing things at their edges. It’s a problem of resolution. The resolution of human speech is inherently limited.
Normalizing the Impossible
Okay so what do we do about that?
The LGBT debates over the past twenty years have really brought this problem of categorical resolution to the fore. One the one hand, we have conservatives, who, generally speaking, are proponents of black and white thinking. You know, “A man is a man if he has an X and a Y chromosome.” That kind of thing. On the other hand we have progressives who tend more towards green and grey thinking. “Some women don’t have XX chromosomes.” “Some women don’t have uteruses.” etc. The first group is concerned with the rule and the second with all the exceptions to it. The first sees the exceptions as an existential threat to the rule itself. The second sees the rule as a genocidal attack on the exceptions. “Trans people exist!” is a strange battle cry if you don’t understand that this is where it’s coming from. Many people are confused. “Huh? I never heard anyone say that they didn’t? What?”
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