I hadn’t gotten very far into Rebecca Solnit’s essay in Orion magazine (courtesy of Longform) when I read and re-read this sentence that had sent a jolt of reason through my mind:
Truth for me has always come in tints and shades and spectrums and never in black and white, and America is a category so big as to be useless, unless you’re talking about the government.
Far more often than finding reason at the center of someone’s clumsy argument, I find more frequently a direct bias for black and white reasoning, the worst reasoning of all. Solnit presents her case for the trouble with categories by blurring the boundaries that often limit, well, categorizing people, places, and things. I have never been fond of boundaries myself. And I am in favor of softening the edges whenever possible.
Take for instance one category Solnit touches upon: prisoners. We can point to any number of “prisoner-types” like prison inmates, prisoners of poverty, prisoners of war, people imprisoned by their own limited imaginations, those wealthy individuals whose freedom has been squelched at least as much as lack of wealth ever has, and gender, intelligence, size, race, religion, and culture may imprison any one of us if we choose to be a victim, rather than tearing down the boundaries others build around us. Our victim-minded reaction, though, causes us to draw boundaries right back at them. Instead of seeing them as just like me, I can only envision them as "one of those."
At the center of Solnit’s essay sits Henry David Thoreau, a particular favorite of mine in the “literary category.” I have always thought Thoreau wanted to defy all boundaries, which makes sense given his reputation at civil disobedience. He wasn’t perfect at being disobedient, as it turns out. Critics, who usually argue over his philosophy, also argue over how true he was to his cause as expounded upon in Walden. And if he could not be bothered to wash his own clothes, to defy the gender boundary of his day limiting laundry to the category of “women’s work,” then maybe we cannot hold him up as an iconic boundary bender for today.
Maybe no one can be a perfect boundary bender, but I like to think it’s possible to come close. The more we try, the better at blurring the lines we become. Not that I am attempting to build boundaries around a category of “boundary benders.” The world could be a better place with more porous edges of human categories. If we cannot eliminate categorical boundaries altogether when building personal, local, national, and global relationships, let us at least live with flexible boundaries.