The problem with 'us vs. them'

It’s Us or Them. America seems settled into the notion that there are only two kinds. We are the good people. They are the bad ones. Once you find out who’s who, the issue is settled — whatever the topic, from politics to sex to sports to raising your kids.

Amazingly, during the past year, grown-up Americans seem to have taken the side of one or the other based on gender — the abused and the abuser, the males being either sexual harassers or sexual attackers and the women being the victims. It seems that almost every day we hear about bad behavior by males against females. The truth about what happened seems to fall entirely into only one of two possibilities. No more needs to be said.

I got interested in this issue recently when the headline of an opinion article in The New York Times grabbed my attention: “Why Sex is Not Binary.”

Wait — what’s that? Aren’t we either male or female? Don’t genitalia tell which is which? That’s what I would’ve said a few weeks ago.

The piece, by Anne Fausto-Sterling, a biologist at Brown University, was prompted by the Trump administration’s wish to make it illegal to claim a person’s gender is anything other than a “biological, immutable condition determined by genitalia at birth.”

Ms. Fausto-Sterling, backed up by many scientific studies, asserts that there is no “single biological measure that unassailably places each and every human into one of two categories, male or female.” That’s what “binary” is — a word I’ve never used before.

According to Ms. Fausto-Sterling, at fertilization there is no guarantee that the number of fusing X and Y chromosomes will be the same in all instances. Also, she says, later on in embryonic development newly developed testes or ovaries will produce different amounts of hormones. As gestation continues, the sex organs of developing embryos may vary quite a bit. As a result human beings will not be males or females to similar degrees. In other words, there are not just two set genders.

President Trump wants Americans who have dealings with the federal government to check one or another of two boxes — male or female. That puts people in a box. But what that checkmark reveals is very limited. Any two “males” or any two “females” may be very different.

So what else is considered binary but shouldn’t be? Black or white comes to mind. As with the concept of only two genders, the concept of only two skin colors is an inaccurate biological description. Skin color should never be an issue. It’s like saying there are only “big guys” and “little guys.” Among Americans there are many different body builds, just as there are many different skin colors.

Indeed, almost all of us have different sets of chromosomes. The success of those TV-ancestry companies is largely based on the excitement people feel when they learn they have ancestors whom they never dreamed of. Those ancestors contributed chromosomes into family lines that most people alive today had no awareness of. Without DNA investigations, the fact of centuries ago would be totally unbelievable.

The past few months brought out another important example of binary thinking. Jordan McNair was a 19-year-old, 325-pound football player at the University of Maryland who suffered heatstroke last May and two weeks later died of its effects. As the case received more and more publicity, the campus became more and more divided into two groups with strong opinions.

After an investigation, The university’s governing regents concluded that the head coach, DJ Durkin, should not be fired. That set off a movement with students, football parents and politicians clamoring for “Justice for Jordan” to ease the grief of Jordan’s parents. The issue was settled when University President Wallace Loh overruled the regents and fired Mr. Durkin. To me that was a decision more emotional than rational.

Intelligent, experienced, knowledgeable people don’t fall for the idea that there must be either one or the other — us or them. To insist that there are only two possibilities is the mark of a closed mind, a mind resistant to persuasion and not open to new knowledge. There will always be new knowledge, but closed minds won’t be interested.

Paul Marx’s writing has appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Education Week, Yankee, The New Republic, The Nation, Commonwealth and elsewhere. His email is pppmarx@comcast.net.

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