The Either/Ors That Box Us In

Paul Griffiths is trying to defend the biological either/or of male and female. The coauthor of Sex and Death: An Introduction to Philosophy of Biology, he wants it understood that even if not everyone lands neatly in one or the other, there are only two sexes.

If we are talking sexual reproduction (which he is), that is hard to counter. Not one species on the planet has come close to the five sexes Kurt Vonnegut created for Slaughterhouse-Five. The best so far is an amoeba that can snag some mitochondria from a third “parent.”

Yet as Griffiths rolls through examples, they only serve to remind me that the minute you take sex out of the equation, the possibilities are infinite. There are simultaneous hermaphrodites and sequential hermaphrodites. An earthworm needs only to get along with itself, because one part makes eggs and the other part makes sperm. Male saltwater crocodiles have no sex chromosomes at all. Some species reproduce sexually but have only one sex; the gametes that merge are identical. Other species have hundreds of “mating types.” Worker bees are sterile, not-quite-female; they call to mind the Victorian scorn heaped upon an “unsexed,” meaning unwomanly, woman.

These days, a lot of us unsex ourselves deliberately. Procreation is less urgent, and the old insistence on certain expressions and behaviors has begun to feel … odd. Gender is acknowledged as fluid, balancing easily on a continuum. Pronouns are up for grabs. Why did we find categories so comforting anyway? Instead of gay or straight, it might be fun to be demisexual, or asexual for a while, or bisexual, or polyamorous (though I am far too jealous to sustain that).

Point being, we have fewer locked boxes these days. Generations wear labels, but there are so many X and Y and Z variations that the sharp old divide, parents versus freethinking youth, has been blunted. Mediators (and improv coaches) teach us to use “both/and” constructions, not throw out hurtful, rigid, exclusionary assertions that bring everything to a grinding halt. People say they are “spiritual not religious,” which frees them to explore all sorts of truths.

And yet, the binary still looms.

The alt newsweekly where I once worked had a smartass tagline: “You either get it or you don’t.” That felt just right, cocky and automatically cool. Never dawned on us that its crisp dismissiveness was a symptom of much that was wrong in Western culture—and that our stories railed against.

Americans still fail to realize how absurd the tensions over race are, given how few of us are purely Black or White. And when we who feel ourselves White reach across that imagined divide, we still have trouble landing where Pat Parker pointed years ago: “The first thing you do is to forget that i’m Black. Second, you must never forget that i’m Black.

Rich and poor do not even get far enough to forget. By and large, they have no real wish to connect. The middle-class was the bridge (that, and the money the rich paid the poor to serve them), and now that bridge is crumbling.

Our games are all about winners and losers, zero-sum. I once demanded a board game that emphasized cooperation instead of competition, and thirteen years later, my husband actually found one. It was so complicated and bland, we never finished the first round. Why is this so hard? Why is it never possible for everybody to “win”—and I do not mean one of those sops to the ego like Miss Congeniality or “Tried Hardest.” A game could be triggered by a social problem, a need for creativity, a puzzle—and no, you do not need to set a bloody timer to ramp up the drama. When those Done in a Day (and now they are down to an Hour) home improvement shows yell their countdown, I know they are either sneaking back to finish properly or leaving the homeowner with paint slops on the trim. But we have to beat the clock and beat each other. Popular culture has us well trained to look for the last one on the island, the last one standing, the survivor, the winner who takes all.

We like those victories clean and clear, too. We may say we are willing to compromise, but in English, “compromise” leads nowhere good. The word’s past-tense adjectival form means something has been weakened, made vulnerable or dangerous: Passwords are compromised; secret missions are compromised; immune systems are compromised. We prefer all-or-nothing, no compromise required. Gray areas, replays and squabbles, indeterminate status, and in-between, liminal states annoy us. The current president instantly categorizes everything he confronts as good or bad, successful or failing, wonderful or terrible, and people applaud.

This has consequences. Our nation has split itself into mask-wearers and rebels, and Republican leaders who might otherwise be sensible nervously bare their faces and risk their lives to prove their solidarity. Even epidemiologists fell into the binary trap for a while, thinking of the virus as transmitted either by droplets or by aerosols, when in fact most viruses are maybe ninety percent droplet or ninety percent aerosol, and that other ten percent has major implications.

So does talking about “normal” versus “lockdown” and “open” versus “closed,” because we are not going to “return to normal,” as it was once defined, ever. And the longer we sit around waiting for that magic step backward, the more frustrated we are with a reality that could become bearable if we just accepted it. But we do not like partial shutdowns and gradual reopenings and a virus we will never entirely vanquish.

A friend is suffering, depressed and anxious over all the limitations, all the uncertainty that refuses to be either this or that. I listen, and even my compassion feels binary to me, as though I have to choose between hovering on the polite edge of her pain and diving all the way in, knowing full well that she might pull me under. My husband tries to steady me, reminding me that her pain is not my responsibility, just as I try to steady him when he gets sucked into political news and emerges from his screen hours later, angry and frustrated and worried sick about the state of the nation.

We both tend toward an either/or notion of loyalty, duty, obligation. I adore people who are “all in,” passionate and wholehearted. Andrew is forever irritated by those who “try to have it both ways.” This culture has not trained us to lightly move in and out of categories, emotions, attachments. But all-or-nothing can be childish, and in many situations, it has ceased to be sustainable. Gradual, intermittent, partial, tempered, blended, some of each, a bit of both—these are the gray places waiting for us.

We need the wisdom that Eastern cultures grasped centuries ago and, in his conversion poem “Ash Wednesday,” T.S. Eliot begged for: “Teach us to care and not to care.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.