Shades of Gray

To many folks out there, the world is black and white. Humans, and our descendants, have evolved and survived for millions of years, in part because we can react quickly and make snap judgments that keep us alive.

Today, though, we live in a different kind of environment, one with a lot fewer life-or-death situations. In the modern world, there’s more than enough room for a bit of nuance, but that doesn’t mean our instincts don’t kick in and cause problems from time to time.

One of the easiest situations to think about in these terms is getting scared. The fight or flight reaction is one that is fundamental to all humans, and the accompanying rush of adrenaline comes straight from a time when every day was a fight to stay alive.

Another interesting example of these black and white situations is an allergic reaction. If you have ever suffered through any kind of severe allergy, you know how frustrating it can be to deal with itchy skin, a sore throat, sniffling and red eyes. These reactions are the way your body deals with foreign substances, but in the case of pollen, cat hair, or peanuts, this reaction is incredibly overblown, and can actually cause harm or death.

If our bodies were properly able to understand nuance and context, a scary movie wouldn’t send a rush of adrenaline through our veins, and an allergic reaction wouldn’t cause its potentially deadly symptoms. These reactions saved our ancestors for generations, and they stay in our genes even though the majority of humans don’t live under constant threats.

Take humans’ instinctive reactions as described above, and apply them to a society and world where there is room for interpretation, and time to make judgments. Suddenly, we’re dealing with sexism and racism and discrimination based on categories that make no sense.

For example, transgender people face harassment and judgment every day, in countries around the world. Why? Because large parts of the world believe that either you’re male, or female. Our instincts, which have kept us alive for millions of years, were honed by making quick decisions and placing people and things into groups. Anything that doesn’t fit that categorization has been automatically wrong.

And in most cases, animals (humans included) are male, or female. However, in this instance, the edge cases are pretty important, and not *that* uncommon. This is especially important considering a doctor has a few seconds to determine the biological sex of a child upon delivery, even though that decision will almost certainly impact the child for the rest of their life.

Scientific studies have shown that the standard XX and XY chromosome sets are far from the only genetic combinations humans can have. Not only that, but many genes controlling secondary sexual characteristics, like hair growth and other physical attributes, have little or nothing to do with the sex chromosomes.

And all of this discussion doesn’t even get into the fact that sex and gender have no strong basis in science, especially when it comes to gender roles, personalities, or hobby choices. We set societal expectations based on race and gender as we live our collective lives, these things are not set for us.

The goal of this blog is to explore the gray areas that lie between black and white (and no, there will be no 50 Shades puns).

Leave your preconceived notions and assumptions at the door, they are only relevant once they have been tested and re-tested. It remains a challenge to navigate the modern world without stepping on any toes, but empathy is perhaps the most powerful tool we have. Don’t forget about it.

Transgender people are still people, obviously

Imagine going through life every day and having so many of your interactions involve somebody trying to give you a hug and stepping on your foot while doing it,” Prince, a 31-year-old trans woman in Alexandria, Virginia, said. “And then when you ask them to step off your foot, no matter how polite you are about it, they respond with, ‘Oh, excuse me, I was just trying to give you a hug.'”

This series on Vox is remarkable and honest. I’m not sure I can do justice talking about it, and I encourage you to go read the whole series.

What it comes down to is that it doesn’t matter how people choose to live their lives. Being assigned the wrong gender at birth, or having genitals that don’t align with your perceived gender or don’t fit into our neat, tidy definitions of ‘normal’ doesn’t make anybody less of a person.

As anybody who has ever been bullied for being ‘different’ can attest, it absolutely sucks. For humans, it has been evolutionarily advantageous to sort things into distinct groups and categorize them as such. But treating human beings that way, as though some are inherently more deserving of human rights or legal protections than others, simply because of how they choose to live their lives, is absolutely devastating.

In the last couple of weeks, we have seen big musical acts like Bruce Springsteen cancel concerts in North Carolina over a terrible anti-LGBT law that passed there, and more of this needs to happen. Lawmakers need to be responsible and consider the needs of all constituents, not just those who represent the majority.

I don’t personally know anybody who is transgender, but it’s just so blindingly obvious to me that those people are just as deserving of love, care, and compassion as anybody else in the world, if not more so.

> Transgender stories – Vox

Car crashes kill an absurd number of people

The numbers are so huge they are not easily grasped, and so are perhaps best understood by a simple comparison: If U.S. roads were a war zone, they would be the most dangerous battlefield the American military has ever encountered. 

I take the bus to work, and I absolutely love walking and biking. There are certain niche uses where a car is essential, but in an urban centre like Ottawa, many people can get around without relying on a car.

Having said that, just as many people, if not more, absolutely DEPEND on a car every day for transport to and from work and other social obligations. Most of this is because housing in big cities (Ottawa to some extent, Toronto and New York, for example, just take the example to astonishing extremes) is very expensive, so people choose to live where it’s cheaper, work in the urban centre, and commute for 30-60 minutes by car.

That thought is crazy to me. Even though I spend a ton of my life listening to podcasts, which are pretty perfect for car trips such as that, the thought of getting into a car every day to drive to the office is not something I think I’d enjoy that much.

Adding to that, we tend to think of car crashes as a tiny risk in our day to day lives, and it gets worse as those lives come to rely more and more on absolute certainty of normalcy. If our pizza is late, it’s free. If our Uber takes 10 minutes, we complain. When a bus breaks down (or doesn’t show up at all), we’re late for work.

But in a life (and society) where things are so safe (#firstworldproblems, anyone), the fact that any of us could die in such a quick, violent way on any given day is cause for alarm. We put car traffic above everything else in our transportation system, and yet it’s responsible for so many totally preventable deaths on our roads every day.

At some point, self-driving cars will take over, and crashes between two of those will be as unlikely as a plane crash is today. But for now, we’re stuck with an incredibly convenient transportation method where countless unknown cars around you are capable of completely changing, or ending, your life in an instant.

That’s scary, but it gives us something to strive for, and I think car culture as it exists now might be nearing its peak.

> The Absurd Primacy of the Automobile in American Life – The Atlantic