Twas on the mountainside of Vesuvius that i first encountered non-binary thinking.
There. That’s a line you don’t encounter everyday. At the time though – and much easier times they were too, since it was permitted that i, a somewhat naive 17-year-old could take up my rucksack and hitch my way around Europe with not one raised Social Service eyebrow – it was a conversation and challenge to my pre-set way of thinking that has stayed with me ever since. Not quite life-changing. But pretty darn close.
Twas my first encounter with non-binary thinking – but not as most of you today would recognise it.
Say hello to not-Aristotle
Three of us had decided to explore the sights around Napoli. Being rank amateurs at this sort of thing, we decided far too late in the day to go visit Vesuvius. There was the embarrassment of a minor avalanche that i started. And then there was the walk back down, as we’d missed the last bus.
On the way, one of our number, a Canadian mathematician explained his PhD project. It was all about non-Aristotelian systems, which may sound a bit dry on a Sunday morning – but is absolute dynamite when you understand the dominant role that Aristotelian thinking has played in the development of Western thought.
Because Aristotle gave us the law of the excluded middle (as well as the law of contradiction) which have pretty much underpinned our thinking for the last couple of millennia or so. The first, you’ll most likely have encountered in everyday argument: it states that the world is essentially binary. For every proposition, either that proposition is true, or its negation is true.
Things may be A, or not-A: there is no other state of being.
Together, they make up something known as the law of identity, that states that “each thing is the same with itself and different from another”.
Very dry, Jane, very dry. And what difference does it make. I’ll politely tiptoe past A E Van Vogt’s sci-fi masterpiece, “The World of Null-A”, in which it transpires that non-Aristelian thinking paves the way for human teleportation and a fightback against a galactic tyrant. No. Probably a LITTLE bit implausible.
Non-binary thinking – and the ear trumpet of sex
But it set the stage for my own later love affair with statistics, and within that, with fuzzy logic which is akin to, but takes us way beyond probability theory. It sparked my own personal understanding of just how problematic probability is to an Aristotelian thinker…and it travelled me deep into the world of Schrodinger’s sad/happy pussycat.
At which point, i suspect some of you will be wondering just what a woman who is usually to be found spouting about gender identity and LGBT politics is doing in this area. Has she finally lost the plot entirely?
Well, no. In fact, this is as germane to gender identity – and the current spat around the use of the term “cisgender” as anything. Let’s digress one last time before arriving at the nub.
We happily use terms like straight and gay. A and null-A, if you like. Although in that case, we have also to deal with the categorical embarrassment of a third point on the scale – bisexual. And what about “asexual”. Where on earth does THAT fit? Is it sensible to talk of straight asexual and gay asexual? Or is that nonsensical?
What, too, of pansexual? Is that the opposite of asexual. I dunno. But then, i don’t exactly care. At least, the mathematician in me doesn’t. Because i have always had issues over the very idea of categorisation. Its a statistical ploy: sometimes useful, but almost always, an exercise in data reduction. Therefore, a removal of detail, richness and understanding.
Switching to n-dimensional space mode for a moment, because that is where we tend to build our categorisations (it is also the geometric analogue to political intersectionality, but that’s another thing entirely)…. i can envisage sexuality plotted now on at least two dimensions, with pan/asex along the x-axis and target of attraction – straight, gay – up and down the y-axis.
Although here i must confess to beating myself up over the precise shape of the space being mapped to and wondering whether sexuality would not be better mapped by an elliptical cone. Bear with me, here: we’re talking the ear trumpet of sex!!!
Yay for mathematicians!
Exploring the non-binary
As sex, sexuality, attraction, whatever, maybe gender. I’ve not leapt into the recentest spat over whether “cis” is an appropriate term to use to describe certain non-trans peeps because (see above) i mostly find argument over category to be pointless. I note some of the insults hurled at some of the cis-questioners, and i am unhappy to read them…though more of that later.
There is an issue over terminology because, as one individual i much like on Twitter highlighted this morning, there are people currently claimed for the trans umbrella who maybe would rather take shelter elsewhere. (Some) non-binary types, for one.
The view expressed by those seems to be – i paraphrase – a plague on BOTH your houses, cis and trans alike. Which is really a shame, because the solution is much akin to the one i just suggested around sexuality. Why not just add another dimension?
This time, though, the x-axis would be binary/non-binary: t’other axis would be cis/trans. That works for me (for now), and would explain why some people who probably ARE cis but non-binary or gender questioning or similar modifier, are objecting to a simple, er, binary formulation that forces choice between trans and cis.
Or you could walk the way of null-A, and simply accept that all of these (and more) are bipolar variables, with people taking up a range of positions between the two ends.
Sadly, i don’t envisage the subsequent geometry, in this case, as either conical or umbrella-shaped. But that’s a matter of detail.
Of trust – and a holy umbrella
However, i have been asked by various peeps as to where i stand on this cis/trans thing, and there, if you like, is a statistician’s answer. Its all about how you map the world – and whether you still see the world in much the same way as some 2,500 year old Greek.
Or if that feels all Geek (sic!) to you, try: “it’s a false dichotomy”. No? Still too academic? OK: its a daft argument…falling out over something that you don’t need to fall out over.
But then, that’s what some people are doing right now, and that feels to me like an issue of trust and good faith.
Because the last word has NOT been said on trans and cis and sex and identity and…well, pretty much everything, really. So debate is still fair game. And there are some very good, interesting, sensible thinkers out there just itching to scratch away the surface of this debate and grapple with the interesting stuff beneath.
And maybe, too, there are a few people for whom this debate is an opportunity to wind others up: because they know that the debate itself is red rag to some people, some communities. Which is why it is so difficult to debate at all…because it’s hard to tell who is dealing with these questions in a true spirit of open-minded inquiry…who is just leaping on the hate-wagon.
The answer, i guess, is to start, as always, by assuming good faith. The “trans umbrella” is a good metaphor and…it still serves its purpose. But there are holes in it…as there are in every theoretical framework.
And in the end we have but two (binary) options to choose from. We can go looking for a more solid structure under which to take cover. Or we can persist in saying “Holes? What holes?” and all get thoroughly soaked.