Trashing diversity


I am an old woman sitting in a cafe wearing a wedding dress. I am eating alone. I have a moustache and I’m singing ‘I like Chinese’ as I eat a bowl of cereal and drink straight out of a bottle of red wine. Its 3pm. I burp loudly. I then get up, do an Irish jig and strip down to my underwear before sashaying out the door. Tipping my top hat to a wide-eyed audience as I go.

I’m clearly insane.

Or am I?

I’m definitely living outside of, not just social norms but social categories, and in doing so I have become ‘matter out of place’. Your response would have been a) amusement, b) disgust, or c) a bit of both. Why? Because I am dirt.

Anthropology 101 will introduce you to Mary Douglas, an American anthropologist synonymous with dirt. Not the ‘in the garden’ kind, but the kind that is out of place - that messes up the order of things. She proposes that ‘where there is dirt, there is a system’[1]. Systems are dirt creators. And they love putting out the trash.

Let’s go into the garden. There ‘dirt’ is called soil, and we spend a great deal of time selecting the right type for our vegetable gardens. But when we walk it inside on the soles of our shoes, that same ‘dirt’ is now ‘matter out of place’, and it must be removed.

This does not mean that neatness and cleanliness are ‘order’. For an artist, a room of disarray may be just as things should be. To be neat and clean may throw her ability to create into disarray. For her, if you were to go in and tidy up her workspace, you would be creating a different kind of chaos. Your cleanliness would be her ‘dirt’.

Let’s go back inside the house with our dirty shoes. After you’ve cleaned up, take a look around. Is there a bedroom? Kitchen? Laundry? Bathroom? Why is your home arranged like this? Why do you do things in one room that you wouldn’t do in another? Because your home is a system born of categories handed to you by the society within which you live. It makes sense. If your bed was in the kitchen and you did your cooking in the hallway, well, that would be … odd. Over time, systems change (as do the layout of homes) but they do so very slowly. Because change, at first, is always disorder.

And this brings me to a particular kind of dirt: diversity.

Diversity is ‘matter out of place’. A discarded food wrapper in the middle of the hallway floor. An individual facing the ‘wrong’ way in the elevator. A man in a wedding dress. A woman with a moustache. We laugh or we recoil because, it’s weird. It pollutes the usual order of things. Comedians love it.

The ‘stay-at-home’ Dad. A Graduate in her 50s. A female engineer. A male midwife. A female entrepreneur. Employing the unemployed, the refugee, the pregnant woman, the lesbian, the elderly. To borrow from another anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, these categories are ‘suspended in the webs of significance [man] himself has spun’. The system, in a particular time and place, deems them ‘matter in place’ or ‘matter out of place’. The system creates the ‘dirt’.

We often denigrate those who label, who categorize, who prefer order. Not because it’s inherently bad; nor because it’s a weakness or a fault. It is, in fact, a critical tool for human sense-making. But because, like most things, it has its limitations and drawbacks. Too much order and it begins to feel like a straight-jacket. Sameness prevails. Boundaries between categories harden and what doesn’t belong within those boundaries, becomes dirt.

So what we really have here is not so much a bias for particular categories, but a bias for order. What we really need to get comfortable with is disorder. With mess. Because until we do, diversity will continue to be trash, and the boundaries around familiar categories will remain firmly in place.

Cancel the cleaner. Don’t put the trash out just yet.

[1] Douglas, Mary 1966, Purity and danger: an analysis of concepts of pollution and taboo, Routledge and Kegan Paul Limited, London