Saturday, September 3, 2016

Living on the Spectrum

Of sexuality, and other existential dimensions.

It is common now to refer to people diagnosed with autism as being "on the spectrum". The disorder is unusual for the number of genes whose mutation can contribute to it, estimated at about 100 to 400. Thus it is easy to see why affected people turn up with a wide spectrum of phenotypes, and indeed why that spectrum extends well into the "normal" range- people who may be only slightly odd, but never formally diagnosed.

But we live on many other spectra of talent, capability, being. Indeed everything about us is variable. Height, color, sociability, musical ability, extraversion, intelligence are common examples. A recent story in the New Yorker profiled a London police unit of specialists who recognize faces. It turns out that people occupy a wide spectrum of facial recognition talent, from those who can not recognize themselves in a mirror, to those who never forget a face, no matter how briefly glimpsed. It is a capability that is so private and obscure that people typically do not realize what the normal range is and where they fall in its spectrum. So it is only with the burgeoning video surveillance carried out in Britain that high levels of this talent became belatedly recognized as relatively common as well as useful.

One of the most interesting spectra is that of gender. The Olympics reminded us (among many other forms of diversity) that diversity among humans extends to a spectrum of gender. Indeed, one's biological gender, and the gender one feels oneself to be, and the gender one is sexually attracted to, each seem to lie on spectra that, while usually correlated with the "normal" axes and occupying a bimodal distribution, can range spectacularly, and independently, to far reaches.

This is particularly interesting in light of the tight and binary social construction that has traditionally been put on gender. Why is that? Why enforce uniformity where there is variability? An interesting book about the philosophy of the Matrix series of films poses a similar question, in the context of Zion, which tries to be a gender-neutral society, as opposed to the Matrix, which is conventionally normed. Can we escape binary thinking? Should we?

I can think of three general hypotheses. First is pure patriarchy and power. The clear delineation of gender, as also happens in white/black racism with the one-drop rule, eliminates ambiguity when power is being divided up, with all power going to one group, and not the other. Oppression is much harder to institutionalize (and tribalize) without simple rules about who is in, and who is out. Setting the "normal" standard for each class is also a form of social power, as everyone in junior high school learns. When power and attractiveness are properties by definition of the "typical" and "normal", the social system maintains itself in a consistent, conservative way.

A second reason is simply our way of thinking. We are habitually reductionistic, thinking in cartoons and schematics. Cars are reduced to metaphorical "wheels", men and women are objectified mutually to their most basic aspects and organs. With a natural bimodal distribution of gender, it is natural to schematize them as two clear classes, declare those as "normal" and then be made uncomfortable by deviation from that simple mental model. Perhaps, conceptually, humans do not "do" diversity terribly well, since our understanding of the world depends so strongly on our capacity to make "sense", i.e. rules and schemata, out of the welter of reality.

Thirdly, one might turn to deeper psychology, seeing that our models for existence come from complex, unconscious archetypes. The mother/female and father/male archetypes are probably the most powerful we have. Whole religions have been founded on each, with the father especially blowing up to cosmic, infinite, and omnipotent proportions. Conversely, the Catholic church has a difficult time controlling the growth of the mother archetype in the person of the Madonna, which in some regions such as Mexico can even put Jesus in the shade.

So we have to fight on numerious psychological fronts to deal with reality in an honest way, especially to interact with the reality and psychology of others fairly.

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