Monday, February 18, 2013
UP & DOWN LIFE'S CONTINUUMS
One of my constant preoccupations is that of resisting binaries. So much of our thinking is dominated by the syllogism -- the idea that if two opposed ideas fight it out agonistically, the product will be good. Politically it doesn’t seem to be working out very well. Life is not full of on-off switches and even x and o are not meant to be simple oppositions, but rather codes in sequences.
I go for the continuum, in part because it reveals gradients in value of all kinds: happiness, wealth, prestige, maturation, energy -- endlessly. A gradient always means some kind of forces that move the process back and forth. If you can find something at the low end of a gradient (tulip bulbs) and move it to the high end of the gradient (acquisition, prestige, exclusiveness, elegance), you can get rich. But it is almost too easy to let something creep in that moves you down the gradient. Or maybe it will come upon you apocalyptically, a meteoric explosion of the housing bubble. That could FEEL like an either/or, but probably had been moving along the continuum of investment risk the whole time.
Sexual binaries are presently decomposing themselves into gradient continuums. Hurray! I mean, permission to be unique is developing at last. "Male" (culturally defined as macho, dominant, and desiring of females) is sliding along a line of variants (LGBTQ) to "female" (defined as soft, supplicant and desiring of males). What’s more, other continuums besides sexual interaction are coming into play: high intensity along to peaceful co-existence, or maybe the attraction of the highly intellectual along over to the attraction of the warm and simple flesh. Fun to think about. But how will the commercializable gradient get to it? How will opportunists convert it into “love for sale,” since it’s hard to even recognize as “love”?
Another problem I see is that the two ends of the continuum, defined as opposed binaries, will drop out the middle ground: the two ends become invested in stigmatizing each other. We already know that the healthy, wealthy, educated, powerful, racially and religiously “in-group,” is prejudiced against the sick, poor, stupid, ignorant, weak, dark, overemotional. This is how they justify avoiding them, criminalizing them, punishing them, non-funding them, and altogether trying to eliminate them.
What is invisible to the “high” end is how much they in turn are stigmatized by the “low” end. The “winners” are seen as callous, selfish, ignorant, weak, empty, and murderous. Persons who try to help the “losers” are often stickered with these opinions. Even in perfectly respectable small towns, “outsiders” are stigmatized as arrogant, unable to cope, parasites, smart alecks, and so on.
One of the unexpected resentments of Indians against white people (I was late realizing this) is that white people are obligated (since they have all the advantages) to be successful. (That means employed, clean, well-dressed, driving a good car and living in a nice house.) If they are unsuccessful white people, there must be something wrong with them and they should be avoided. Unless you can get something out of them. I once worked in an office with a young black woman in Chicago who always declared that she knew white people better than they knew themselves because she saw their soft and rotten underbellies. But I thought it was no better than looking at their rigid, bony spines from the top.
I’ve learned a LOT about the long continuum of gays. In terms of male alone there is a line from what I think of as closeted Fifties gays -- that is, upbeat, clean, admirable, humorous, handsome guys about whom we stupid girls used to exclaim “oh, what a waste!” -- along to the adaptable fellows -- the perfectly nice but not very exciting guys -- on to the teddy bears -- campy queens -- until we come to the really scary brutes that are supposed to make penitentiaries about penetration as punishment. Somewhere in there is black leather and motorcycles. The whole lineup is suspicious of my motives, disapproving of my tactics, and impatient with my learning curve. This seems natural to me.
But that’s nothing compared with the internal stigma along the continuum. The two ends despise each other, one end trying to say, “Look, homosexuals are just like everyone else except that we were somehow born desiring other men!” The other end saying “I am tougher than anyone else on the planet. Only another man is worth my attention. And most men are too weak to be respected.”
So now leave that continuum and think of the continuum of people with HIV-AIDS, which these days includes babies, children, women, men of all sorts -- some of whom have never had sex with anyone or had sex with married partners they never suspected of being at risk. How can all these people deserve the stigma that comes with associating a virus with anal sex and illegal drugs?
A new continuum: the distribution of those who don’t even know they are infected. Either you’re infected or you’re not -- no ambiguity there, except that with medication the symptoms and molecular detection of the virus can be reduced to almost nothing. BUT there are other variables: like, willingness to get tested -- ranging from total denial; through the knowledge that it would be a good thing to do, maybe; to knowing where and how to gets tested; to obsessive re-testing with the new home kits the way some women do when they dread pregnancy. Gradient-making forces include the capacity to handle the regimes of meds, both in terms of body consequences and living arrangements that support the protocol; cultural pressures from family and friends or work; emotional ability to handle threats; and so on. Arrows both ways.
Outside that is the massive complexity of modern society where some nations live in the high-tech highly regulated world with salaries high enough to pay out five figures a year for meds, and others are back there walking with their babies across the desert in the Neolithic Era without even drinking water.
So here I am, solitary and celibate, known and unknown, not infected and not likely to get infected -- at least not by HIV -- but caring about people I know and love. I’m not much afraid that Valier and Blackfeet people might decide I’m an HIV carrier. I mean, come on! In a town this small they know exactly what I do. But I AM worried about the HIV-AIDS community being so scared by my speaking out that they cut me off, they misinterpret me, they blame me. Maybe even go on the attack. Nevertheless, though I’m not a direct care provider, I’ve signed up for a training workshop in Great Falls Feb. 26-28. I haven’t heard from them. Maybe they’ll say I can’t attend.
If the truly compassionate do-gooder meets the truly suffering victim, then all the power is in the victim. Scorning help is one way for the victim to hold onto that power. But it means choosing power over relief for the suffering. It might even mean choosing death for oneself rather than surrendering power. (Suicide is AIDS-related.) Or in the case of insincerity on either end, it can mean games instead of progress.
Rarely, so rarely, does the truly compassionate do-gooder meet the truly suffering victim, both of of them accepting humility. And then what? It is a terrifying intimacy. These roles are not age specific. A child can be compassionate; an adult can suffer.