Where does the physical start and end? Photo by Ahmad Odeh on Unsplash

How our acceptance of one simple binary opposition is lethal.

“No pain, no gain.” “Mind over matter.” “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak”. Materialism. Carpe diem. Spiritualism. Metaphysics. Ars longa, vita brevis. Reincarnation. Psychosomatic illness. Willpower. Mens sana in corpore sano. Hysteria. “Women are emotional, men are rational.”

For a very, very long time, humans have asserted a distinction between an aspect of ourselves that is tangible — the body — and an aspect that we believe we can identify but can’t sense — the soul, spirit, mind, reason, consciousness (sometimes we distinguish those intangibles from each other, and sometimes we collapse some or all of them into one imagined portion). This partitioning derives from the experience of being human, to be sure, the dual mystery of embodiment and of consciousness. The conscious mind, seemingly almost by its very nature, refuses to accept that it is a bodily phenomenon, and there we go: a history of philosophical rumination that refuses to see the body and mind as one.

From that dichotomy, countless influential binaries have arisen, splitting us down the middle time and again. In skirmish after skirmish through time and space, a line has been drawn to keep the body on one side and all else on the other, a fence separating two territories, collecting herds of associations on either side, lining up, facing off.

The animal flesh or the ineffable spirit.

The concrete or the abstract. The real or the imaginary. The mortal or the immortal. Life or art. The personal or the universal. Pragmatism or idealism. The private or the public. The local or the global. Women or men. Black or white. Followers or leaders. Emotion or reason. Temporal or eternal. Relative or absolute.

Although we can, if we wish, acknowledge that a live body seems to be a prerequisite to possession of a soul/mind, let alone to a discussion of their relationship, that acknowledgement hasn’t done much to prevent humans from creating a hierarchy of value when it comes to the parts we’ve subdivided ourselves into. Traditionally, the top of the hierarchy is occupied by the intangible — soul or spirit, mind or reason — and whatever else seems to arise from it. Emotions, though we can speak of them as concepts, are still manifested physically — tears, sweat, flushed skin, laughter — and so, they’re bound to the body, adding to its burdens, aligned with its shortcomings.

The body, being mortal, is earthbound, freighted with earthy “wickedness,” and our challenge, so the various “wisdom texts” tell us, is to subdue it. The soul, being ineffable and immortal, is pure.

Anything that can be attributed to the yearning, beastly body can be shamed, is punishable: sex, hunger, weakness, illness, odor, fat, skin color, asymmetry, all the evidence of tribe and ancestry that someone or other decided that our bodies carry indelibly. Things that can be chalked up to the soul — or its adjuncts, spirit, consciousness, conscience, reason, mind — can be revered and excused from the degraded state of the body’s existence.

But wait, shouldn’t this idea, rooted in the body’s mortality — EVERY body’s mortality — give rise to a belief that all humans are equal, since their bodies are, when it comes down to it, equally deathbound? And shouldn’t the idea that each mortal body possesses an immortal component reinforce the perception of equality? Perhaps. That’s not what happened in the western world, however.

Maybe it’s unavoidable, when you’re trying to talk about something that your senses can’t perceive, that you look for a physical index to the invisible. A burning bush. A hand writing on a wall. A comet in the night sky. You rank bodies according to their strength and size. You rank bodies according to the closeness of their resemblance to your own. You embrace violence rather than gentleness, because it tests bodies to see which ones are more or less worthy.

Maybe when you can’t perceive something through the senses, you can just as easily imagine that your invisible part, rather than being equal to that of others, is different, just as your body is different.

Eventually, you look for scientific proof of these customary associations. You see symmetry of the body as proof of the harmony within. You measure skulls, as did Samuel Morton, the 19th-century American researcher, in order to offer “physical proof” that caucasians had greater intellectual capacity than the other “races,” and men more than women, thus reinforcing the hierarchy of white, brown, black, male and female, with self-justifying science.

Nearly two hundred years after Morton and his ilk (among them, Louis Agassiz) found a way to rationalize race and gender discrimination, despite Darwin, despite the refutational work of Franz Boas and his dedicated students, among them Zora Neale Hurston and Margaret Mead, we’re still ensnared, some of us fatally, in the trap sprung by what must’ve looked, thousands of years ago, like a harmless and useful idea.

Now, in the battle between patriarchy — attended by its lackeys and ministers, misogyny, xenophobia, racism, arrogance, hypocrisy, and entitlement — and all of those humans subjected to and marginalized by patriarchy’s norms, this is an essential front-line, often obscured from view because it’s easily dismissed as being “natural.”

It’s more clear than ever that devalued bodies are dying, not of natural causes, but in the service of ideas that have proven, over time, to be toxic.

Whether we’re looking at maternal mortality rates among black women, the almost routine murder of black men by whites, the rape and sexual abuse highlighted by the #MeToo movement, violence against members of the LGBTQIA+ community, or the physical risks faced by Mexican and Central American immigrants in US detention facilities, a set of ideas is what’s fueling a culture that’s bent on destroying certain bodies in order to exalt others.

Is is so very difficult to change our minds? Shouldn’t it be easier to reform bad ideas than to continue punishing bodies? Why is it that our own mortality can’t inspire in each of us sufficient reverence for life that we strive to care for others’ bodies as if they were our own?

Copyright © 2019 Jennifer Brown. All rights reserved.