Every era strives to make its mark on civilization. The Stone Age gave us fire. The Neolithics rolled out the wheel. And us? Well in addition to iPhones 2/3/4/5/5c/5s, we have...the spork. Spawned by Canadian Inventor Hubert Gagnon in the 1800s, this spoon-fork hybrid is special not just because it gives you the ability to eat soup and pasta with the same object, at the same time, but because it transcends the fork-spoon binary. As Bee Wilson, author of A History of How We Eat, once wrote, “A spork is not one thing or another, but in-between." Unfortunately, many still eschew the ambiguity of the spork in favor of more traditional cutlery. Which leads to my concern.
A binary is too basic to describe reality, so conforming to one means missing out on meaningful complexity-- the stuff that makes life, and the spork, so interesting. This problem pervades our culture, political system, and even our views of gender and sexuality. So let’s take a stab, or slurp, at the problem and find examples of this black and white thinking, before we finally bite into some solutions to satisfy our hunger for understanding.
While the spork was popularized by KFC and Taco Bell, my cultural heritage is more Panda Express, a delicious but confusing blend of East and West. As a Taiwanese-American, who was born in California, looks Korean, goes to an international school in Taipei, and speaks more Ancient Greek than Taiwanese, I’m a third-culture kid. According to sociologist David C. Pollock, a third culture kid is someone who lives simultaneously in multiple cultures, not fully belonging to any. But this spork-heritage dilemma isn’t unique to internationals. According to Yale University Professor Astrea Greig, multiracial people are often excluded from both cultures. For biracial Actress Rashida Jones, who stars in NBC’s Emmy nominated comedy, Parks and Recreation, her early career was marked by casting directors telling her that she was too exotic looking to play white characters or “too light” to play someone black. And in an interview with Glamour magazine Jones said, “When people don’t know “what” you are, you get your heart broken daily.” Though Rashida’s heritage showcases the best of both worlds, the world shunned her for failing to fit the cultural binary, and left her excluded.
On the other hand, Bill Clinton claimed the spork was “the symbol of [his] administration”...He was wrong. The modern American political system is divided into distinct warring, binaries. According to David Knowles, of the Wall Street Journal, “[in politics], a binary mind-set reduces complex issues into...red versus blue.” And any position reaching beyond theses binaries gets left behind. In 2007, Lincoln Chafee became the first independent to serve as Rhode Island governor in over a century. However, up for re-election, Chafee switched to the Democratic party in 2013. According to Sean Sullivan of the Washington Post, Chaffee picked his party not because of “a principled change in beliefs” but because he felt aligning himself with a major party would make his re-election easier. Ultimately, he was not able to even secure Democratic endorsement because he previously bucked our political binaries and was viewed as a flip-flopper. Likewise, partisanship has hurt progress in the government. Because political parties are so unwilling to compromise with one another, issues that are universally popular, such as background checks for gun sales or immigration reform, are unable to get off the ground. Binaries limit not just our choices, but our thinking.
And while sporks are commonly found in office bag lunches, even the workplace has rejected ambiguity in favor of binaries. Princeton Professor Anne-Marie Slaughter argues that society places an ultimatum on women, preventing them from having both a career and family. Author Jennifer Barbintells her own story , her pregnancy prompted “performance concerns” in Barbin’s male supervisor. Using hiring freezes as justification, he tried to deny Barbin maternity leave, forcing her to ultimately quit. And Barbin is not alone. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claims of pregnancy discrimination have increased by 35% in the last decade. While we think we’ve broken through the glass ceiling and shattered sexist binaries, in reality, we still compel working women to choose: career or child.
But our refusal to embrace the in-between becomes even more piercing when it affects our grasp of gender and sexuality. We’ve come so far in accepting non-traditional identities, yet we’re still stuck on the idea that you can only be straight or gay, male or female. That a choice must be made. According to bullying expert Dr. Dorothy Espelage, 49% of bisexual teens report having been bullied for their sexuality, the highest percentage of all sexuality groups. When we create false binaries, when we break life into black and white, we are breaking those around us. According to BBC News, Dwayne Jones was a gender non conforming teen from Jamaica. He was known as “Gully Queen” among his friends, and had dreamed of becoming a teacher or a performer. Last July, he attended a house party in female clothing and makeup. When the partygoers found out he was not biologically female, they formed a mob and began to chase him. They fatally beat, stabbed, and shot Dwayne.
His death shows the seriousness of allowing ourselves to become blinded by false binaries. Dwayne wasn’t completely male and he wasn’t completely female, but he was a person. And he did not deserve to die.
It’s time we banish these destructive binaries and become more spork-centric in our thinking. According to Dr. Jack Denfield Wood, Professor at the International Institute for Management Development, we tend towards binary thinking because it gives easy solutions to complex problems. But we must stop shortchanging ourselves with these shortcuts and learn to mentally make room for the multifaceted. In Pixar’s “Wall-E,” the robot Wall-E, is sorting plastic cutlery, when he encounters a spork. Initially perplexed about where to put it, he finally makes the choice that we, too, must make, giving the spork a place of its own. As Morgan Peck, author of The Road Less Traveled, said, we need to” begin to think multidimensionally.”
And in 2013, pastry chef Dominique Ansel did. Looking beyond the binaries of breakfast pastries, he created the cronut. Part donut, part croissant, completely delicious. TIME magazine named the cronut one of the top 25 inventions of the year. According to Chef Ansel, the cronut “represents innovation and creativity...it’s about doing something different”. But perhaps the most profound change of all came from Facebook. rolled out 56 new gender options for users, ranging from “gender fluid male“ to “agender.” According to Facebook software engineer Brielle Harrison, who helped implement the changes and herself is transgender, "All too often transgender people like myself are given this binary option, male or female. For the first time I get to specify what my gender is." We must continue to take ownership of the complex and multi-dimensional, and to incorporate them in our everyday lives.
Therefore, I nominate the spork to symbolize our era--to represent the space between spoon and fork, donut and croissant, black and white. So next time you’re left with a binary, take another look. Maybe that fork in the road is actually...a spork.