Climbing Spectrum 

What is the opposite of up? What about love, male, day, dog, hot, and fast?  

The ancient Greeks held the belief that everything necessarily had an opposite.  Their influence is so widespread that even today we consider opposites to be necessary and obvious.  For the most part when one is tasked with identifying an opposite, they have no trouble offering an answer which is consistent with that of the majority of the people in western society. 

What is the opposite, of up, love, male, day, dog, hot, and fast?  Most of us would reply “down, hate, female, night, cat, cold, and slow”.  As it turns out, most of us would all be wrong.  A common refrain about opposites is that without one the other would not be possible, e.g. we couldn’t have love without hate, or we couldn’t have good without evil.  Of course, this is nonsense!  Day is not dependent upon night, good is not dependent upon evil, this believe is just residue from a time when human discovery was still at its infancy.

Such is the power of language.  When terms and ideas are so common that their use is practically universal, it becomes nearly impossible to course correct.  Even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

This is not to say that dichotomies do not exist, they do, but there is a real problem when we treat contraries like ‘love’ and ‘hate’ as contradictories.  If ‘love’ and ‘hate’ were truly opposites, i.e., if they were in fact contradictory terms, then experiencing both at the same time would itself be a contradiction.  Cleary one can both love and hate someone or something in the same respect and at the same time ‘love’ and ‘hate’ are not opposites.  They are just terms along some spectrum of emotions.  They do not preclude or exclude one another in any way.  The same can be said about nearly all perceived opposites.

Looking at temperature makes the point even easier to understand.  There is no absolute that demarcates something being ‘hot’. The same can be said for ‘cold’.  These are relative terms that fall somewhere along a spectrum of temperatures.  When I was a little kid, I was so impressed with how “hot” my grandma would make the water while washing the dishes.  I didn’t like when she would fill up the sink with dish water because it was too hot for me to even touch.  I had baby hands.  However, she would just dive right in like a polar bear in an ice bath.  The water was hot to me, and not hot to her.  The same idea unfolds when thinking about what is considered hot weather in a place such as Florida, and what is considered hot weather in place such as Ontario.  There may be a fact about the temperature, but the notion of “hot” is relative. It’s somewhere on a spectrum, and it has no actual opposite.  The same can be said about love, cold, male, dog, and almost every other “opposite” that we have been incorrectly ascribing since the ancient Greeks popularized this idea thousands of years ago.

Hot and cold, love and hate, these are pretty superfluous examples, but things start to get testy when one has the audacity to suggest that things like sex, nationality, race, and political affiliation are also non-binary/spectrum-based ideas.

How dare we suggest that dichotomies we’ve embraced since before Hannibal and his elephants crossed the Alps could possibly be wrong.  Sex is binary, and it’s always been that way.  There is a penis and a vagina, and that’s it!  A person is either XX or XY and that is it!  The sun is obviously going around the earth, and that is it! 

Except it’s not!  

The sun isn’t going around the earth, and while that may have been a hard pill for some to swallow it’s still a fact.

The geocentric model of the universe was based on limited data, ancient rituals, faulty beliefs, and outdated traditions.  So too is the notion that a person is either female or male, XX or XY, and just like the geocentric model of the universe, this archaic notion of binary sexes has always been doomed to fail.

Prior to Copernicus, medieval thinkers had to do some innovative mental gymnastics in order to merge what they believed with what they perceived.  But dammit if they were going to let a little thing like verifiable data get in the way of their ignorant and peaceful slumber.  And so, they resisted, and they were wrong!

Just like geocentricism can’t be vindicated, and weather can’t be reduced to hot or cold, sex can’t be reduced to male or female.  XX and XY are interesting data points, but they don’t paint the whole picture.  Binary notions for sex don’t account for people missing a sex chromosome (XO), it doesn’t account for Klinefelter syndrome (XXY), it doesn’t account for XXX, or XYY chromosome combinations.  Guevedoces are a people from an isolated village in the Dominican Republic who are born as girls, but when they hit puberty around the age of twelve, they get a surge of testosterone, and grow a penis.  Guevedoces literally translates to ‘penis at twelve’, and that just doesn’t seem to fit into the overly simplistic dichotomy of male or female.  Sometimes people are both, sometimes people are neither, and sometimes the complexities of sex force us to create new words and recalibrate the entire system.

Simple dichotomies aren’t always helpful, and false dichotomies can be downright hurtful.  Expanding our conceptual framework from binaries to spectrums is long overdue.  We don’t need all things to come in pairs, we don’t need to cling so tightly to tradition, we don’t need to be so dogmatic.

There can be liberation when we open the door to a different way of thinking.  The world isn’t black and white, there are shades of grey everywhere.  One person can be both liberal and conservative, one person can be both a believer and a doubter, and one person can be both accepting and skeptical.

Rejecting opposites/binaries/dichotomies (where needed) takes work, we’ve been trained to think this way since before we could walk, but there are advantages to looking at the world through a colorful lens.

I often doubt whether I am a “real” climber or not, I often doubt whether I am a “real” writer or not, but like most things, climbing and writing aren’t as simple as an on/off switch.  I climb, and that puts me somewhere on the climber spectrum.  I write, and that puts me somewhere on the writer spectrum.

In the end the great philosophical school of Skittles may have been right all along!  Embrace the rainbow!!!  Or don’t?


22 Replies to “Climbing Spectrum ”

  1. I really enjoyed this article. Thank you.
    For my hardened belief (Fact) There is no grey area in a “sterile field”. If a single non sterile
    item touches or is placed in the field it is no longer sterile.
    That is the only exception I have pertaining to this conversation.
    Thank you again.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. If said sterile field is not in a vacuum, is it truly sterile, or do we call it sterile relative to its environment? Is there nothing in the air in an OR or other environment that would render that field non-sterile even though we continue to call it and relate to it as though it were sterile? It’s close, but still on a continuum, not an absolute.

      Liked by 4 people

  2. Interesting what you said here, however I must disagree. You say that sex is grey, not black and white. Sure, there are instances where a person is born with both sexes, but not many are. Those that are born without one of these issues are Male or Female. Like cats, a cat is not a dog, and it can never be a dog. A black person can’t be a white person, and they shouldn’t want to! A single mind can’t hold contradictory ideas and still be considered logical; if you hold the beliefs of a liberal and a conservative then you are a walking contradiction. I am interested in discussing your thoughts.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. I appreciate your comments. Your point about cats and dogs makes sense, but they would be examples of the continuum along a spectrum of mammals. Within the species of cat however there is a lot of variety. From lions to house cats (another spectrum). And it may be true that there is something that constitutes being a male and a female, but those are just points along the sex spectrum. A problem is when people see a penis and conclude male when there are literally over a dozen alternatives. To use a sexual organ to demarcate sex we ignore all the actual biological intricacies that make someone what they are. As for a black person not being a white person, this is yet another spectrum. A persons color is based on the amount and types of melanin relegated by an enzyme called tyrosinase. This is changed based on where a person was in the world, some environments selected for lighter pigment and some for darker, but until nearly 100,000 years ago all humans were dark skinned. As far as wanting to be dark or light skinned, if I were in sub-Saharan Africa, I would want darker skin because of the benefits it would offer. The reverse could be said if I were in Northern Europe. I’m not sure why someone shouldn’t want a different color pigment if it suited them? But again, there are an array of different color skin pigments, all of this still ignores albinism, which also wrecks any binary notion of skin color. As for being liberal and conservative at the same time, again these are not opposites. Cleary one can be more liberal with some ideas and more conservative with others. Just because some countries are dominated by a two party system, it doesn’t mean one needs to align entirely in one camp or the other. One can be fiscally liberal, and morally conservative, one can be fiscally conservative and morally liberal. One can be more liberal or less liberal, one can be more conservative or less conservative. There is a spectrum.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. I understand why you would say gender and skin colour are a spectrum; so I will change my wording. A female dog cannot become a male dog, it is physically impossible. The spectrum for male and female has been widened by some genetic oddities, but those cases are extremely rare, and they can’t be used to show the big picture. In most cases a person is male or female on the spectrum, black or white, and other then by a genetic oddity they cannot enter the grey area. And yes, there are many different shades of skin colour, but you can’t change the colour you are, so wishing to be a different colour is pointless. A person shouldn’t wish to be something they can’t be, it can be harmful to them and to others. A person can have more liberal ideologies and more conservative ones, but their core belief is what matters in either. And not everything is part of a spectrum. A person can be either a Catholic, or not. You can’t be a Catholic and go against the Churches beliefs. You can’t be a Catholic and believe in abortion or gay marriage.

        Liked by 3 people

      2. You are absolutely right, not everything is based on a spectrum. I am not familiar enough with current Catholic Doctrine to comment with certainty, but my guess is that there is a difference between a youngster who just makes their first holy communion and the Pope. But again I am not 100% sure about this I would have to consult a theologian for more clarity. But even if Catholicism is based on a spectrum there are plenty of things that are not. The point of this article is just to point out that many of the things we once thought were binary are not. As for being male or female, I lack the confidence that you have in asserting that in most cases a person is one or the other. Our language is set up to make it seem that way, but chromosomal studies is still a very young science, and in its short lifespan it has already shown that how we typically think of sex is incorrect, I tend to err on the side of caution in instances like this. Where the evidence is mounting and growing, relying on an older way of thinking doesn’t tend to be fruitful. At this point we know there are more than two, and have discovered up to 16 variations on what has previously been considered binary, where the majority of cases lie I cannot say, and so until we have an abundance of data, suspending judgement on that conclusion may be the most prudent course. I appreciate the thoughtfulness of your comments, and I hope that my replies although divergent from your perspective are nonetheless comprehendible, writing on the fly has never been my song suit.

        Liked by 4 people

      3. Well, as a catholic I can confidently say that every member must hold true the truths of the church. And I don’t know much about these variations, but what I do know is that about 50% of the population is male and about 50% female. About 50% have a penis and about 50% have a vagina. Women can carry a baby, and men cannot. From this point on the variations have little consequence. The majority of people fall into these categories. Thank you for this discussion.

        Liked by 3 people

      4. I had a cat, Nigel. Nigel was something other than his intrinsic biology proclaimed. All the boy cats — neutered and not — wanted to “do” him. He also had the ability to lean far forward and suck on his own teats. Since knowing Nigel, I keep the possibilities open for a whole range of cat gender-ology.

        Liked by 3 people

  3. For me it’s not that you can’t have love without hate, it’s that the contrast makes one or the other recognizable. I see the problem is that we go around confusing the word for the thing all the time and then dismissing the experience of the thing because we have a word for it and therefore, think we know what it is. And then we defend the “identity” of the thing we’ve dismissed because we “know” what it is. And so…male and female become words that “cover” a lot more than they should. Can’t have a baby without an egg. Can’t make one without a sperm. Beyond that?

    For me the gender thing has always been weird. I am not “feminine” in the sense that I don’t like gewgaws, makeup, “feminine” clothes. I don’t get it. The only time I DID get it was back in the island days (what I call the horny teens who have just DISCOVERED and INVENTED sex) when young people should be sent to an island to fuck each other while they’re in their biological prime, making babies for older, more mature, well educated people to raise. And, when the “hot blood” phase is over, the kids come back to the civilized world and finish their education. They, in their turn, get the infants of some other hot-bloods when they’re ready.

    That tells you what I was like as an adolescent. Once I outgrew the plumage era, I just wanted clothes I could do stuff in. Men complained. “You’re too independent for a woman.” “You’re scary.” All this taught me that there are unwritten gender expectations that go along with prominent mammary glands. But, I am not that woman and I don’t even know what those expectations are.

    So, yeah. Again, to me, it seems like labels — that Alan Watts thing of “eating the menu” — subvert reality, obscure direct experience with the expectations inherent in the labels, and challenge the authenticity of each of us and our relationship to the observable world (and the other one). It keeps us from questioning things, just as you say here. It kills curiosity.

    I mean I don’t think I’m a “real climber” but you think I am. Are you wrong? I don’t think so. With your sense of climbing and what makes a climber I’m there. For me, going through life, there seems to be a constant transformation of identity that is, I think, true for most people if they are paying attention. All that said, I believe there is objective reality — helio-centered system, for example. I think it’s worth looking for.

    I hope at least one sentence makes sense…🤣

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Of course it makes sense!!! I love your use of quotes around things like “identity” and “know”. There is a philosopher named Edmund Husserl who recommended that we use brackets for all things that were outside the realm of our certainty, which means we would use brackets a LOT. But I think in a system like that we would be able to really tell who held strong convictions on any particular topic. I would probably just put brackets around nearly everything.

      I agree fully with the idea that we get caught up with a word, and then act as if that word is limit of any further possible understanding. It’s presents an unfortunate limit that is frustrating. Language studies can give me such a headache, but not necessarily in a bad way, just in a way that would force me to use a lot of brackets.

      Always grateful for your thoughts Martha!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for this one! Doubting whether you’re a “real” climber or “real” writer . . . I know the feeling! In the other part of my life, I’m a teacher and one thing that I want my students to walk away understanding is that the world is complex. If it were simple, if problems were easy and obvious, there wouldn’t be problems. I think an appreciation of complexity, which seems to me a theme behind your piece here, is something that we’ve lost in an age of cancelling those who disagree with us, reducing expression to a few hundred characters, and driving a media narrative that is always evolving and therefore always incomplete. Thanks again 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

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