The beauty of bell curves, and the power of both-and
I'll start by stating my bias, just to clear the air: I love bell curves. They're everywhere I look, they're lovely, and they can do (mostly) no wrong.
A bell curve is the shape of a distribution graph, one you're probably familiar with:
Named for their bell-like shape, the curves are largest at their exact middle (the median is also the mode, and the mean) and taper on both ends. Used in statistics and mathematics and so on, there are many specific rules that distinguish these curves from other bell-like distribution curves… but my observations are more about their general shape, and what social inferences we can wildly extrapolate from their properties.
Some years ago, one of my favorite college professors sat at the wooden seminar table, chin burrowing slightly into his steepled hands. His signature expression -- a blend of empathy, intelligence, worry, and humor -- creased his forehead and he pursed his lips and exhaled. We held our breath. As a small class of senior English majors, we looked up to this man and his (infuriatingly always correct) views on the world. One of us had just offered up an observation on the text during our typically heated group discussion, when a small but distinct cough stopped us.
"Has it ever occurred to you," he mused, as much to himself as to the hapless undergrads in front of him, "that it is so very seldom a question of either this, or that… but rather, almost inevitably, yet another instance of both-and?"
He glanced around at us each in turn, and we stared back. Not sure where you're going here, prof. He sighed. "Consider that when you examine any binary, any polarizing view, any dichotomous pair, any unyielding choice between good or evil, poor or rich, right or wrong, and so on -- you are almost certainly facing both this and that."
I have quoted this story ad nauseum (sorry, friends and family, this was probably the zenith of my education) in the years since because it has not yet ceased to be revelatory to me.
Often, we present ourselves with a dichotomous choice of how to view the world because it is easier, and perhaps because it seems helpful in the moment. It is difficult to act on both-and, in the chaotic and turbulent waters of grayscale, so we stick to simplified black and white. Absolutes do give a general idea of the range of reality, after all. It is just that in between those poles, there is so much more -- perhaps even, rather, almost inevitably, most of our human experience.
Back to bell curves. Let's take gender for our first example, shall we? Oh good, my favorite.
An opinion that exists: there are men and women. Boom, a binary! We found it.
But what about gender identity (how you feel)? What about gender expression (how you present) and presentation (how you are perceived)? What about biological sex (birth assigned)? What about sexual orientation (who you like)? …… and on and on? What about humans?
Humans (as you know, you are one) are messy, and both a little bit of this and a little of that. And that. We are composite, complicated, beautiful. On top of all that, we are constantly growing, changing, and in flux.
Somewhere along the spectrum of gender identity, society places labels so that we can quickly (note that I do not say easily) navigate. These markers denote this or that. Everything else is grayscale. In reality, we exist all along the spectrum, and I think more to the point is that the majority of people do not identify purely as an arbitrary societal pole. We are the middle. This is what rainbows are all about, people.
I'll borrow this tumblr image (thanks artivismproject.com!) to illustrate:
Yes, those pink and blues exist, of course they do. Those either/or options are part of the both-and spectrum, and those are valid lives, too. But if you perform all the role expectations that a binary identity demands, you risk denying various and sundry aspects of yourself. Spectrum means that there exist people who happily fulfill these roles, no more no less. But, for so many, gender expectation means that nonconforming aspects get tucked out of sight, suppressed in nascence, dismissed by others, or outright squashed and oppressed. In my mind, so much of gendered violence and oppression and injustice stems from just this:
We are uncomfortable with both-and because it means that us vs them is actually us-them, as we are all somewhat us.
Gender is just an example I chose because it is relatively familiar and accessible. This is everywhere, though, in all facets of our lives.
I am allowed my prejudice and my privilege only if I believe that fundamentally, I am different than you. This is not only dangerous and dismissive to others, it's also unhelpful to growing your self as a person. Dwelling safely within the proximal limits of a label (I am only this) denies all that you also are, and might be (unknowns are scary, possibly threatening, possibly unwelcome). It attempts to distance you from all the other lives you might have led (a near miss, or the narcissism of small differences, or jealousy, fear, sadness...), and still may yet (there but for the grace of god go I). To view ourselves in mid trajectory is frightening; it's that falling off a cliff realization that nothing is static -- except possibly the ground. But we are always amidst, in some way or another, if we are honest with ourselves.
This is the power of both-and; to enable this growth and accept it, in ourselves and others. To acknowledge and revel in us. To let live.
Everywhere along that curve of the bell is us. And what's more, it isn't just one curve. In the many roles we play, on the many developmental platforms we traverse, in the relationships we forge and through the skills we learn, we are constantly evolving and placing ourselves in new relation to everyone else. We exist at the intersection of so many gradients, so many distribution curves. That one speck of modality, that axis of symmetry, is us -- each of us, as individuals.
And, rapidly panning out here (catching a solar flare across the tipping curve of the globe), it is all of us, too. We exist in this thriving throng, shifting along a series of intersecting spectrums, and changing moment to moment. The crux is the human experience.
And it is so important to accurately understand the wealth of difference within that curve, and to have our world reflect that shape by allowing space for everyone in between two polar ends to exist. Because that is all of us.
january 2016. copyright sarah hirsch.
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