Unpacking Western Dichotomy

An Intersectional Exploration Into Oxymoronic Equity

When delving into the feminist statutes that have manifested across time and location, it is difficult to believe that hindsight is really 20/20. For if this cliché were doubtlessly true, as so many assert, then how can incessant discriminatory practices against women across the globe be explained? How can it be assumed that since humans have the capacity to look back on failure and call it by its name, that humanity is somehow endlessly inclined to a perfect equilibrium? This rhetorical strategy chooses to posit the now as so different from the then, and the here so different from the there. These distinctions therefore dissipate empathy into a scaled system of oppression that views idealism as anything better than what used to be. Now, buckle up, keep all hands and legs in the analytical vehicle, and get ready to take a second glance at the accepted mythology of natural dichotomy. This gaze will challenge binary conceptions within global discourse, highlight the ability for idiosyncrasy, intersectionality, and unity to coexist within feminist action, and illustrate examples of the different phenomena- expanded upon shortly- from a cross-cultural perspective.

Dismiss The Irony, Embrace The Oxymoron

Before trekking into an abyss-like analysis of binary thinking on women globally, it is imperative to point out the instances of women placing women as the “them” over “there.” These ironic scenarios- ones in which women side with the oppressor, ignore the exponential strides already made by women, and craft hierarchies within movements based upon race, age, sexual orientation, or geographical location- are often used as social roadblocks in the fight for gender equity. Such is shown when Tomi Lahren, an American conservative political commentator and former television host, criticizes feminist movements, such as equal pay, while all the while utilizing her ability to be involved in such conversations, a human right that was fought for by generations of women before her. A battle that is, clearly, still trudging along.

However, it is beyond paramount that in acknowledging these ironic misfortunes, scholars and strategists do not throw out the baby- necessary oxymoron- with the bathwater- illogical positioning of the they by the they.  In other words, an empathetic society that rejects an either or mentality is deeply rooted in intentional contradictory introspection. Oxymorons, such as intersectional unity,  allow for a refusal of the binary and an acceptance of Audre Lorde’s erotic. The erotic is a beautiful antithesis to a primarily western ideology which poses power and strength as the inverse of femininity. Lorde explains, “When I speak of the erotic, then, I speak of it as an assertion of the lifeforce of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our languages, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives.” The mentioned energy is too often rejected due to its proposed oxymoronic nature throughout history.

This Is To That and The Dangers of Archetypes

The following binary couples are to be explored not through a lense of minority versus majority, terms that are now inherently wrought with stigma, but through the sifting of unequal power dynamics throughout cultures. In the day to day lives of countless humans, here is contrasted to there, we to they, and us to them. These deictics are both shaped by their environments and shape their environments. Imagine a high school basketball captain at their final home game: in saying “We are going to beat them, here in our house, they don’t stand a chance,” she is building, both intentionally and not, a wall between people; and does so in a way that only allows for two sectors. Following with this situation, she is ensuring that the endeavors of the evening will be a zero-sum game, in which someone will not receive a slice of the pie.

Words have the capacity to do that. Words have morphed equilibriums into pyramids. Words have something that touches the human psyche in a way that resonates to unconstitutional heights. Words as commonplace as here, there, we, them, us, and them. Before continuing, let it be known that these utterances are not bound by geography, but rather exist in a fractal manner that expands at the whim of the orator. Thus, “here,” could mean a relationship, a room, an organization, a race, a nation, a territory, an ideology, etc. By defining here as the individual sees fit, they are then able to compose entire dichotomies in their reality, while never stepping out of their front lawn. Also, in defining here, it is almost a certainty that the one with the power to denote will judge their here to be the archetype, or, in some cases, the ideal. By doing so, these individuals, groups, and nations enter into a dangerous hypothetical that ignores the problems “here” and projects solutions to problems unsolved. These inclinations, although not natural, are normalized and further ingrained to an extent that its appearances are inconspicuous. Hence, a second glance.

The Deeply Incomplete History of Rose-Colored Disasters

In the earthly system of oppression that regards “here,” and therefore “us,” at the top, perpetual erasing of history and ignoring of injustices is not only to be expected, but is likely to be praised. The aforementioned fictitious idealism thrives upon this robotic lack of humanity. This is not to imply that different clumps of human populations should not be hoping, working, and praying for an idealistic society. Alternately, this is to ensure that in the quest for a “more perfect union,” those same clusters be weary to mistake familiarity for perfection. To combat this, the following typifying examples demonstrate the importance of a cross-cultural analysis on any given phenomena, including here versus there. Particularly when, as has been expounded above, the happenings do not respect boundaries or borders. With this mindset, the following dives into different manifestations of binary ideologies in geographical, temporal, and contextual spheres.

White:Non-White

In a culture that allows for no grey, race, regardless of social scientific research arguing differently, is the poster-child for an us versus them state of mind. In line with the statutes of intersectionality, women of color suffer being characterized as the “they” twice. By being labeled they by men and white people, these women are placed at the cornerstone of all binary thought processes: apathy. In her text “Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center,” bell hooks follows this apathetic thread within feminist circles, focusing on how “women’s lib” defines itself. A common misconception, she notes, is defining feminism as “a movement that aims to make women the social equals of men.” Yet, this ignores the blaring actuality: not all men are equal in a divericate society. Instead, hooks argues:

“Feminism is a struggle to end sexist oppression. Therefore, it is necessarily a struggle to eradicate the ideology of domination that permeates Western culture on various levels, as well as a commitment to reorganizing society so that the self-development of people can take precedence over imperialism, economic expansion, and material desire.”

This definition, being poignantly different than the former, attempts to tear down the very real disparities between white women and women of color in feminism. hook’s efforts should be a roadmap for an oxymoronic approach to intersectionality: united and idiosyncratic.

Masculine:Feminine

There are more misconceptions about femininity and masculinity than there are women in the senate: at least 20. Due to time restrictions, only a few will be adequately unpacked below. Primarily, masculinity does not equal men, nor does femininity equate to women. This delusion, like several others, is fueled by the same divorcing intent of those who believe there are only two genders. On the same page, there exists a misconstruction of feminists as wanting to be like men in their physical attributes. This claim cites women’s body hair, their “aggressive behavior”- such as standing up for oneself- and sometimes comically, just wanting to be involved in the same areas of life that have been deemed “masculine”- a concept further explained later in this text. The compulsion to delineate between these two ebbing and flowing tendencies is apparent in homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia. The validity of a spectrum of gender and sexuality is regretfully counter-intuitive to an exorbitant amount of humans taught that these concepts must interact only in opposition to one another.

Returning to Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic,” the feminine emotive angles are often suppressed and defined by men to use against women. Henceforth dispelling binary thinking, Lorde expounds:

“The dichotomy between the spiritual and the political is also false, resulting from an incomplete attention to our erotic knowledge. For the bridge which connects them is formed by the erotic- the sensual- those physical, emotional, and psychic expressions of what is deepest and strongest and richest within each of us, being shared: the passion of love in its deepest meanings.”

Through these words, Lorde pokes holes in fragile masculinity by accentuating the interconnectivity between the feminine- nurturing, empathetic, emotional- and the masculine- steadfast, rational, responsible.

Public:Private

In Susan Gal’s exploration “A Semiotics of the Public/Private Distinction,” she argues that such separations occur with a fractal recursivity. Meaning, public and private distinctions occur in patterns which create themselves through a process of widening out or contracting inward. Throughout Gal’s claims making, she exhibits that “‘public’ and ‘private’ are not particular places,” but are always relative, dependent for part of their “referential meanings on the interactional context in which they are used.” Taking a feminist perspective, Gal emphasizes that throughout past centuries patriarchal power dynamics have persisted in pigeonholing women to the private, and thus devalued, sector of work and life. This reformation of binary units transcending temporal and geographical boundaries falls in line with the other clarities represented amidst the examples. “Rather, the definitions of public and private are partially transformed with each nested dichotomy- each indexical recalibration- while (deceptively) retaining the same label and the same co-constituting contrast,” Gal shows. Due to its fractal nature, this form of “here” versus “there” is unendingly transcendent and, because of such, must be infiltrated from a comparable amount of angles.

First World:Third World

Egocentrism is principally inbred into North Americans in such a way that it is put into schools, churches, and other institutions. “The War Effort,” a wholistic mobilization of society’s resources, both industrial and human, towards the support of the military, provides a keen model. Take the emblematic lyrics of the tune “Over There” by George M. Cohan in 1917 for instance:

“Over there, over there,
Send the word, send the word over there,
That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming,
The drums rum-tumming everywhere.
So prepare, say a prayer,
Send the word, send the word to beware,
We’ll be over, we’re coming over,
And we won’t come back till it’s over over there.
Johnnie get your gun, get your gun, get your gun,
Johnnie show the Hun, you’re a son-of-a-gun,
Hoist the flag and let her fly,
Like true heroes do or die.
Pack your little kit, show your grit, do your bit,
Soldiers to the ranks from the towns and the tanks,
Make your mother proud of you,
And to liberty be true.”

The rhetoric oozing from this century-old chorus is almost too preposterous to parse. Almost. Looking at the verbiage alone- grab your gun, send the word to beware, and we won’t come back till it’s over over there- is enough to give someone ceaseless déjà vu. For, treacherously, hoards of people on United States’ soil are still shouting these words in relation to Syria, Afghanistan, and other infiltrated lands.

As with all most all power imbalances, adding the layer of gender identity amplifies and intensifies the dynamic at play. Chandra Talpade Mohanty notes and expands upon this truth in her document “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses.” As the title hints, Mohanty probes into the different ways in which Western feminism places itself at the epicenter of morality, and in doing such, automatically instills a hero saves victim pattern to action. This sequence, being incessent by nature, “discursively colonize[s] the material and historical heterogeneities of the lives of women in the third-world, thereby producing/representing a composite, singular ‘third world woman’- an image which appears arbitrarily constructed but nevertheless carries with it the authorizing signature of western humanist discourse,” Mohanty contends. Fundamentally, by employing a first-world versus third-world disposition, feminist scholars attempt to paint over the peculiarities of these individual women for the, admittedly sometimes unintentional, purpose of enforcing the savior complex of binary western thought into women’s equity movements.

Conqueror: Conquered

It’s the business of the oppressor to take another’s “here” and call it their own. When occupying Native American lands, Christopher Columbus and his men (keyword) pervade, without consent, the hearts of their environment: nature, women, and ritual. This form of exploitation deals with a literal and symbolic form of here. The conquest of North America many moons ago aptly illuminates how foundational looting of peoples can have nearly eternal consequences. In Adrea Smith’s book “Conquest,” she details, in gruesome specificity, just what legacy their aggressive bifurcation has left behind. While she does mention different forms of violence against native people, Smith hones in on sexual violence against the women of the tribe. Keeping in stride with the overall dispelling of binary “logic,” Smith reveals the rationalization behind assaulting certain bodies placed on the unfavored side of the dichotomy:

“Because Indian bodes are ‘dirty,’ they are considered sexually violable and ‘rapable,’ and the rape of bodies that are considered inherently impure or dirty simply does not count. For instance, prostitutes are almost never believed when they say they have been raped because the dominant society considers the bodies of sex workers undeserving of integrity and violable at all times. Similarly, the history of mutilation of Indian bodies, both living and dead, makes it clear that Indian people are not entitled to bodily integrity.”

By synonymizing native bodies with sexual impurity and dirt, conqueror’s verbiage reinforces the “us” versus “them” mentality in nearly unparalleled ways that are still being felt. So much so that even today Native Americans are being seen as less than human. Smith continues on:

“The extent to which Native peoples are not seen as ‘real’ people in the larger colonial discourse indicates the success of sexual violence, amongst other racist and colonialist forces, in destroying the perceived humanity of Native peoples.”

Thingification, as pursued by Aime Cesaire, French poet, author, and politician, is a often-seen side side effect of thinking in binary couplets, and a heartbreaking one at that.

Medicalized Birth:Reproductive Justice

The last typifying example deals with an oft overlooked phenomena. The senseless medicalization of reproduction is neglected due to its institutionalization and the identity of the victim- women, especially women of color. In North America, considerably one of the most “advanced” nations, women are facing innumerable hardships before, during, and after pregnancy. Marsden Wagner, author of “Born in The USA,” recognizes “The problem lies not with individual doctors but with a system in which stretched-thin doctors have an unjustified monopoly and women and babies are left to pay the price.” This lackluster attitude, infused with “us,” the doctors, versus “them,” the ignorant pregnant women, materializes in shaking testimonies, like that of Doña Hilda. Doña Hilda’s story demonstrates that the medical industrial complex is marked as “here,” as compared to women in nearly all health scenarios. Her experience is edited to contain the highlights, although the entirety of her words in the book “Matters of Choice,” count everlastingly

“Whenever I had sex it would hurt. I told the doctor and he said it was nothing; this went on for years. […] After I found the cyst, I went to the hospital. […] [The doctor] asked me if I wanted to be operated on and I said yes. He also asked me if I wanted to have children. I told him that I did. He said that was going to be a problem [and it] would eventually lead to cancer. Because of this, I told him to operate me. After the hysterectomy, I developed other complications, like I couldn’t hold my urine. I went to the hospital and a different doctor scolded me for having had a hysterectomy because of a fibroid tumor. He said that the other doctor could have taken out the cyst without removing my uterus. I was devastated.”

The latter doctor blamed her for the former’s malpractice. Because, as the above synthesized information exemplifies, he had assumed, simply for being a woman of Puerto Rican descent, that she was ignorant about the thing she knew most: her own body. An altogether avoidable consequence of binary thought processes changed Doña Hilda’s life forever.

So, What’s Missing?

Now that everyone involved is sufficiently depressed by the above information, it appears time to both get to the root of the unfortunate phenomena that is binary thinking and try with all of the might in the world to switch to a solutions framework. First, let it be fully understood that “here” is to be imagined as a television screen in a dimly lit room in which the person in question is inseparably engulfed in their favorite television show, while the aforementioned examples dance around the room in the fading periphery. With this and the other illustrations in mind, it is time to unearth a couple, few, several ways in which this binary framing of society may begin to be transformed. Given the above testimony and theory, there are two ways in which hyper-binary thinking can begin to be dismantled: mindfulness and the coexistence of adjectives viewed as repellent magnets.

The former is most concisely defined as the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something. Yet, if there is to be a deep and intersectional analysis of what is missing in this westernized fallacy, then any well-intentioned perspective ought to dig further. On those grounds, mindfulness can then be duly defined as the ability to live in, and consequently embody, presence, while still fully acknowledging the past, and creating an ever-revolutionary future. For the activist, fighter, theorist cannot just have one or two of these temporal attributes, being that any couplet of the three will serve insufficient in making real, hopefully tangible, change. If the actor chooses the past and the now, they have the benefit of the rear view mirror but suffer with a dirty windshield. Meaning, they never ask the question “Where are we going,” because they are swallowed up by where the world has been and is now. Nonetheless, the actor that prefers past and future is not better off. This individual, perhaps the most common, is continually railing forward, never stopping, never breathing, never thriving in the strength of stillness. Lastly, the human that pairs the now with the future has the capacity to fail two-fold. They either dismiss the progress that has been made by past changemakers or wipe away, in a apathetic, passive manner, the crude acts inflicted upon people of color, women, and other disadvantaged groups. To be all at once in a conglomerate that adjusts for specificity is to be concurrently in a state of empowerment, mindfulness, and peace. A necessary footing for the overthrow of western dichotomy.

The latter, a necessity for a coexistence of adjectives viewed as repellent magnets, is equally vast, murky, and fundamental to the furthering of a more inclusive ideology. In the current social order, the following adjectives are deemed as feminine, unnecessary, and oxymoronic when placed together, and thus are not licensed to coexist: global, empathetic, transcendent, individualistic, oxymoronic, intersectional, contextual, historical, and cultural. If thrown together into a structure in which all of the parts stay whole and are able to mingle, these modifiers would foster an environment that rejects a dichotomous view of social phenomena and delves into an oxymoronic perspective which posits “here” as a transcendent term to be at once idiosyncratic and inclusive.

Bibliography

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses.” Feminist Review, no. 30, 1988, p. 61., doi:10.2307/1395054.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses.” Feminist Review, no. 30, 1988, p. 61., doi:10.2307/1395054.

Susan Gal, “A Semiotics of the Public/Private Distinction,” differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 13(1): 77-95, 2002.

“Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, by Audre Lorde, Crossing Press, 2015.

hooks, bell. Feminist Theory: from Margin to Center. South End Press, 2010.

Wagner, Marsden. Born in the USA: How a Broken Maternity System Must Be Fixed to Put Women and Children First. University of California Press, 2008.

Smith, Andrea, and Winona LaDuke. Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide. Duke University Press, 2015.

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