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“The art of letting go of things”: Toilets as places of refusal

The art of letting goEarlier today, I went to the small store around the corner from my Mom’s house. Their magazine exhibit is usually filled with trashy gossip magazines. but as someone who studies sanitation and wastewater governance, the cover of this magazine caught my eye immediately: it’s a photograph of a toilet being flushed (lucky for the readers, it only contained clean water!). The words in Spanish inscribed in the cover say something to the effect of: “The art of letting go of the things that are no longer useful to you: the past, your job, your work and everything that breaks you down“. Toilets have been used as dumpsters for a very, very long time. As Dr. Jamie Benidickson (University of Ottawa) aptly said in the title of his book, “The Culture of Flushing” (published by UBC Press), there is a culture of flushing in developed countries like the US, Canada and the UK.

Once you flush the toilet you absolutely forget about what you just dumped in it. This is not an uncommon sentiment and approach. On the contrary, it’s pervasive everywhere in the world. Toilets are the places where you go to let go of things, specifically human waste. Access to toilets, as I’ve written elsewhere, is highly political and politicized. It’s also gendered (as Cooper et al show in their 2010 article on New Zealand) and has disability dimensions to it (as Kitchin and Law show in their 2001 Urban Studies article). I’m particularly sensitive to issues of access to toilets because that’s what much of my scholarship has been about, so Kitchin and Law’s work resonates because disabled people face enormous challenges regarding public toilet provision, as they show with their study in an Irish town, Newbridge, County Kildare.

To be perfectly honest, I found the visual imagery and publicity strategy of using a toilet as a metaphor for flushing unwanted things quite offensive. In a world where more than 1 billion people still lack access to the dignity of a toilet, and where the global targets for sanitation improvement are far from being within reach, to flippantly use toilets as metaphors for places of refusal is really uncouth. Also, lack of access to toilets leads to violence against women in countries where open defecation is a regular practice. So, the idea of using a toilet as an amenity where you can simply discard “everything that makes you feel upset” showcases people’s unrecognized and differentiated privilege.

There are many problematic sides to this visualization of toilets but one of the key ones is the assumption that there is infrastructure in place. This is an important, and non-credible assumption. As I have argued before, the act of supplying (or denying) access to toilets is highly political and politicized.

This is where the spatial and geographical elements of sanitation governance come into to play. Toilets become places of refusal. Not only do we generate urban solid waste through our daily activities (anthropogenic garbage is also often called refuse), but we also refuse to keep unwanted stuff within our bodies. Though I hasten to add, the visual I show in the first photograph refers to EMOTIONAL things that you need to let go of and refuse to keep inside yourself. So, in a way, the metaphor becomes embedded within everyday practices: having a toilet allows people with the privilege of access to use it to dispose of things that they are refusing, without even realizing that that’s what they are doing. It’s simple, it’s automatic, and it’s easy to do because it’s there. Just ask people in India where more people have access to cell phones than to toilets.

The most upsetting part of using a toilet as places for refusal is that it implies access (which isn’t a given), agency and ownership. As Dr. Malini Ranganthan (American University) has shown in her research, paying for piped water access in Bangalore was in and of itself a political act that middle-class dwellers engaged in, instead of protesting. In fact, I think that is the part that really annoyed me about the magazine cover I show above: the falsehood of implicitly assuming that everyone has the agency and ability to own and/or access a toilet. This assumption is entirely false.

The latest counts released by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) as of July of 2017 indicate that 892 million people defecate in the open.

That’s a wildly high number of people who lack the dignity and agency of accessing a toilet, in many cases, because of lack of ownership. Think about this the next time you feel compelled to use toilets as places of refusal, even as a metaphor.

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