At the top of my list of most disliked physics analogies is Schrodinger's cat. That quantum mechanical cat that is neither dead nor alive. It was meant to illustrate the idea of a thing having a state that is neither one thing or the other until you examine it, which in doing so you fix.
A better example would be daring to ask your partner if they were having an affair, or an old friend if they were gay. Simply asking the question changes the relationship into a state it was not previously in. The possibly dead cat is a terrible analogy. True, particles can be in an undefined state, but cats cannot be neither dead nor alive.
The physics experiment referred to is easy to observe. All you need are three polaroid lenses. Look through two, one in front of the other and rotate one slowly till no light gets through. Put a third lens between them and slowly rotate that. At some point you can magically see through them again. It turns out it is impossible to determine beforehand which light particles will and which will not go through such an arrangement. All the light particles are neither yes nor no until they are made to become one or the other. Just as we have no opinion on this or that until we are asked. The polarisation is created by asking the question.
Journalists often report the polarisation of society as being a state where some view is split about 50:50. But things can be polarised 90:10 or 999:1. It is not the proportions but absoluteness of the difference. It is as if when analysing complex issues, we each in our head have those polarising filters. Presented with an identical argument and identical data, we split into groups that come to different conclusions that seem entirely true to each observer. One can see light coming through, the other does not. No amount of discussion will change what either sees because their views are not opposing. They are perpendicular.
I went for a pee in a pub a few weeks ago and, after seeing the paper mush and poo blocking the disabled toilet, proceeded to the gents. On the door there was a sign that read: 'This toilet contains a urinal and cubicles', with an extended explanation below reading: 'Gender diversity is welcome here. Please use the toilets that best fit your gender identity or expression'. That's a lot of words for one toilet door. While standing at the urinal, I wondered who would come in after me? It seemed indeterminable. Man, or woman, or some undefined polarity? I was hoping it would be that nice barmaid.
What is funny about that? Nothing or something? Smutty. Cheap. Listening to a podcast of Frankie Boyle, I hoped he would explain this secret to me. Alas, he too seemed to have a Schrodinger's cat view. He didn't know until people laughed or did not.
Years ago, at a staff Christmas disco, I got talking to someone who worked in 'Admin' to use a typical academics prejudiced term. A young man who had by chance been a pupil in a secondary school I taught in 10 years previously. After updating me grimly on the classmates who had since died of drugs, alcohol and suicide, he shared that my nickname in that school was 'Hop-along', an abbreviation of 'Hop-along Cassidy', the star of a series of cowboy movies from the 1950s. Oddly, I was called that same name in primary school 20 years before that.
After that booze-up, he took to calling me 'Hop-along' whenever we bumped into each other, most often at the photocopier. 'You alright Hop-along?' he would say warmly, and it was warmly received. For where is the offence? I am disabled and I do indeed hop-along. It's funny and I liked him.
There are many names for people with disabilities. Handicapped is my favourite as it evokes thoughts of sport, like golf or horse racing and some attempt to make things fair. I'm not so keen on invalid, the foreshortened pronunciation of a military term in-valid, used to classify someone not fit enough to be recruited into the army. When the Scottish Council for the Care of Spastics changed their name to Capability Scotland, due to the common use of the word 'spastic' as an insult, a disabled friend and brilliant activist quipped: 'They'll start calling us cape-os now'.
Have I ever been discriminated against? Yes, but no more than many other people are and always will be. Perhaps up to half the population are discriminated against because they are overweight, unattractive, a little slow or simply odd. The other half are discriminated for because they are stunningly beautiful, too clever for their own good and successful. You might want to be in the latter group but I'm not sure. Every other week, we read about some young celebrity taking their own life having found themselves in a world of never-ending parties, unable to tell which of their hundreds of friends really is a friend.
In the weeks in-between we read about some titled academic, a chancellor's fellow, dean or professor caught in a me-too moment, invariably reported as charming and impeccably honest by peers but found repeatedly to be manipulative, bullying and dishonest by people of lower standing. It's that damn cat again. And they have often got away with it for years. How? Positive discrimination can have negative consequences. It seems they simply act as if they have done nothing wrong, casually dismiss the anger of their accusers as madness and are believed by their admirers.
Discrimination is only occasionally overt, most often we are not at all aware of it happening. Who knows how many parties I have not been invited to because of my appearance? Who wants a man with a big shoe on crutches spoiling the coolness of a gathering of the coolest people? Big Shuey Douglas maybe? Discrimination is most often one of those undetectable things, like dark matter, that missing 'stuff' that must exist or else galaxies would not orbit each other so fast, and the universe would not be quite the right age. Many of us have some invisible undetectable, unseen prejudice acting upon us just as many of us conceal our prejudice against some other.
By chance, while flicking TV channels, I stumbled on an 80's video of Marvin Gaye singing Sexual Healing
. As he sings, a story is interlaced. In the story, Marvin is not feeling too well and goes to the doctor, a beautiful young woman who takes his blood pressure. When she crosses her legs, the mercury shoots up. When hooked up to an ECG machine, she happens to bend to open a filing cabinet. The sight of her gluteus maximus even under her doctors' coat, sends his heart rate racing and the pen on the graph makes a trace like an earthquake. Are we to pretend this is not true? That men do not think or feel these things?
People are often criticised these days for speaking out of turn. More than one friend has shared the same Fakebook poster that reads 'He Who Hath Not A Uterus Should Shut The Fucketh Up' in relation to the American abortion debate. I respect that view but, as one of the few people on the planet described by a doctor as having 'no gluteus maximus on the right side', I feel in this way qualified. I make light of it now but as a young man I was horrified by it, convinced that women would be horrified by it too, as I am sure indeed many would be. Disfigurement is a difficult thing.
It is common for a flower to be bell-shaped. Look at any rhododendron in flower, daffodil or bluebell. It is likely that bees are attracted to such flowers as the passing bee will hear a fantastically magnified echo of its own buzz, stop and investigate. You can see them doing it. An experienced bee can probably tell from the echo just what kind of flower it is. The buzz and the bell shape have evolved together. What if bees were to realise this and stop and say to each other: 'Why are we attracted to only flowers, why not any part of the plant? It is nothing but a social construct'. Where would the bee be then?
Should I claim that my body is as beautiful as Michael Angelo's David
? Rage and threaten people who do not believe it? It seems unlikely to me that the attractiveness that a man feels for a woman's gluteus maximus is nothing but a social construct. It seems much more likely that it is a hard-wired product of millions of years of simultaneous evolution, a symbiotic thing. That the beautiful form that the human body now has, was hued over millions of years, sculpted by men and women's desire and before that the desire of the Proconsul primate to the Proconsul-ette, all the way back and beyond the Tiktaalik to Tiktaalik-ette.
Many causes are compared to the suffragettes, whose cause was undeniable to most readers, but the comparison is often not quite right. The suffragettes' claim did not impinge on the rights of others and for that reason the right was an undeniable right. No man lost the vote as a result of women gaining it. Some rights currently being claimed do impinge on the rights of others and so they are questionable, and as soon as that question is asked, society is polarised, whether 50:50 or 1,000:1, some absolute difference of view comes about inevitably.
The award for the most determined attempt to make a society of equals must surely go to Saloth Sâr. He studied electronics in Paris in 1950 though really spent more time studying politics. When, in 1975, he took over the government of the former French protectorate of Cambodia, he extended the class system of Marx to its absolute conclusion. He thought even academics were a class unto themselves, as indeed many of them do seem to regard themselves.
To create a classless society, teachers and doctors and lawyers were forced to go back to work on the land. Understandably, they resisted and violent coercion was required turning the paddy fields into killing fields where over 1.5 million people died. About a quarter of the population of the country. That is horror but what is in some way more horrible is that enough of society believed it to get involved and implement it. True, Pol Pot, as he later self-identified, introduced conscription but many people were proud to be activists in a just cause. The complete elimination of inequality.
There are an infinite number of questions that can be asked that result in the quantum polarisation of society. Such questions split religions, split islands, split neighbour from neighbour. They are the sort of questions that you should hesitate to ask.
When we come to such basic questions as: 'Who is a man and who is a woman?' and the answer comes back: 'That is up to the person', really, we should not be surprised that many disagree. I cannot speak for the young people who choose to self-identify with the gender of the opposite sex, because I am old and each has their own individual reason that seems clear to them. I cannot pretend I fully understand it, but they can be inspiring and have inspired me at least to realise that the answer to the question: 'Am I British or Scottish?' is to declare myself most certainly 'non-binary'. It's a pity this was not an option in the recent creepy Scottish census. If gender is a social construct, then nationality is surely more so.
Benjamin Franklin pointed out that lightning takes the path of least resistance to the ground, much as humans each take the path of least unhappiness through life. If the path these young people are taking makes them happier and does no harm to others, then that must be a good thing. Help them along. While I do hope it does make them happier, they must realise that in taking that step, that quantum leap, they enter into my world, where discrimination both overt and dark exists and always will. And, as it is with many who live with discrimination, some unpleasantness will be encountered and some conflicting rights will be denied. A Zen-like acceptance of that may be required.
John McGrath is a retired teacher of Physics and Maths who lives with his partner and daughter in Portobello