One Sunday afternoon a few months ago, my roommates and I were channel-surfing. The TV landed on a women’s softball game. The player at bat struck a home run. There was a chorus of cheers and the roommate next to me exclaimed, “Dude, she hit that ball just like a guy!”

I knew exactly what I was getting into the moment the question left my lips: “Why do you say that? Why is it a good hit because she hit it like a guy? Why couldn’t she just . . . hit it well?” He said, “C’mon, Matthew. Everyone knows guys are athletically better than girls. There are statistics, and people have written about it.” When I protested, the entire room began to decry me as a feminist heretic and referred to the existence of a vast academia that proved me wrong.

In one article from such studies, called “His Talk, Her Talk,” author Joyce Maynard describes her husband’s recent conversation itinerary with his friends as consisting of sports, trucks and religion — then converses with her girl friends about clothes, daughters, and divorce and groups those things together as “life, love, happiness and heartbreak.” This implies that it is easier or better to talk about life, love, happiness and heartbreak by discussing shopping instead of sports.

Immediately following, she says, “I don’t want to reinforce old stereotypes . . . we’re really talking about the same eternal conflicts. Our styles are just different.” However, the reader may infer from her previous paragraph that one style, likely “clothes and diets,” is “her talk,” and
“machines and philosophy” is “his talk.”

An article by Mark A. Sherman and Adelaide Haas titled “Man To Man, Woman To Woman” addresses similar issues but does not seem to do much better avoiding stereotyping. Sherman and Haas go about their approach by backing up every argument with statistics. However, they come from a questionnaire that samples only 66 women and 110 men. The reader does not know where these men and women live, when the questionnaire was published, or why there are more men than women. Sherman and Haas conclude, “There is no reason each (gender) must adopt the other’s style. What is necessary is to recognize and respect it.”

There are certainly millions of different factors between male conversations and female conversations. But what is worthy of investigation is WHY those differences exist and where they came from, not if they do and how one can tell. Men talk about clothing trends just as women talk about religion and sports – there’s a mix. It’s not about feminism at all. It’s about how we use words.

There seems to be a need for binary opposition in our culture, a need to separate things by black vs. white. Some like to find numbers about the two sides. What deserves more attention is the language we use to create that “vs.” — how it got there, and why it is needed. Is it all too human, or is it that we just can’t seem to kick a habit? Why is it “necessary to recognize and respect” such oppositions, especially when in reality most of us “swing both ways”?

African American author James Baldwin commented on the civil rights issues of the late ’60s, saying: “What white people have to do is try to find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a ‘nigger’ in the first place.”

Binary oppositions — blacks and whites, men and women, liberal and conservative, gay and straight — are all inventions of language. We know such language exists because we use it almost absent-mindedly, just as my roommate did. What we must do as a society is determine where we came up with these words and why. Why we need and rely on opposites, and why we sometimes set up an opposite as a scapegoat for society’s faults. As human beings, we probably think in black and white. But we act like we are gray.