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  • Barrie Kreinik

Defying binaries—the trouble with either/or

What happens when we refuse to choose?

Photo by Barrie Kreinik: Dublin, Ireland

binary (n.) a division into two groups or classes that are considered diametrically opposite

I’ve been thinking a lot about binaries lately. In fact, my thoughts are so complex and so numerous, I could write a thesis about them. This post is the tip of the iceberg, full of curiosity and questions. I encourage you to engage in this exploration with me by leaving a comment or sending me a message.

As I discussed in an earlier post, I’m not a huge fan of identity labels. I believe they can be useful in certain contexts, but I think when we over-label ourselves, we limit ourselves. Human beings are full of complexity and flexibility, as is language. I for one prefer to use language to express myself more than to define myself.

Labels can be limiting in any array, but they’re particularly constraining when they come in the form of a binary. Our world is full of binaries: we find them in biology and chemistry, in religion and philosophy—in nearly every corner of society. Male/female. Acid/base. God/no God. Good/evil. Urban/rural. In fact, we’re programmed to see so many aspects of our lives in black and white, it can be hard to perceive just how much gray lies in between.

The binary that has gotten the most media attention lately is the gender binary: male vs. female. Gender nonconforming and nonbinary folk are becoming increasingly visible, causing many people to reexamine their views on the concept of gender. My hope is that our growing acceptance of those who don’t fit into the gender binary will help us to interrogate the binary itself. When we talk about male and female, masculine and feminine, what are we really talking about? What does it mean in our society to be a “man” or a “woman”? If we feel that we do fit into one of those categories, how can we expand their definitions to be more inclusive? If we can choose to dwell outside of binary identities, perhaps we also choose to redefine the identities themselves.

The gender binary is often reinforced through clothing, but it’s important to remember that clothing norms have changed tremendously over time. A few centuries ago, men who wore tights, high heels, and flowing wigs weren’t drag queens, but macho aristocrats. Women began to experiment with more “masculine” ways of dressing over 100 years ago. Even the pink/blue binary for girls and boys didn’t develop until the 1940s. (For a discussion of the history of gendered clothing, click here.) I could write an entire article on this subject alone, but it’s merely one example of a binary system that actually contains an infinity of nuance.

Another binary that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is the political one. There are two binaries at play in American politics today: Democrat/Republican and liberal/conservative.

The party association is the simpler one: if you register as a member of one or the other party, or if you mostly vote for politicians associated with one party, you “are” a Democrat or a Republican. The ideological binary, however, is far more complex. What do we really mean when we claim to be “liberal” or “conservative”? And do we fully understand the ideological baggage we take on when we claim one of those labels for ourselves?

The U.S. government is a two-party system, and in recent years those two parties have become increasingly polarized. But in actuality, political identities are like snowflakes: no two people have exactly the same set of beliefs. What if a person supports gay marriage but doesn’t believe in abortion? What if a person believes that abortion is wrong but doesn’t wish to limit others’ access to it? What if a person wants equal pay for women but is concerned about immigration? What if a person believes in climate change but doesn’t want to lose their job in the oil industry? None of these people fit neatly into the categories of liberal or conservative. Which begs the question: outside of the polling station, what purpose do these political identity labels serve in our lives?

If we didn’t feel the need to squeeze ourselves into rigid groupings, our political discourse might be less inflammatory and more equitable. If we talked about ideas and beliefs instead of ideologies and dogmas, we might find more common ground. There are, of course, many moderates and independents who fall somewhere between the two poles, but their political choices are limited by the binary system in which our government functions. (Or doesn’t function.) They might feel pressured, given the current environment, to take a side—or worse, they might feel so disaffected by the dearth of choices that they choose not to participate at all.

I think one way to counter the limitations of binaries is by recognizing the existence of a spectrum. Sexual orientation is now commonly viewed as a spectrum, and gender is increasingly being viewed that way as well. People sometimes refer to the political spectrum, but more often than not they’re talking about its opposing ends, or about the broader spectrum of government systems. There are a few terms used to describe the gray area between liberal and conservative, but they’re mostly variations on a theme: liberal conservatism and conservative liberalism. These two words have been weaponized, demonized, glorified, and bandied about for decades, creating a polarized image of society that grows more divisive by the day. It is my hope that, as we’re beginning to do with gender, we can interrogate the labels themselves—and the binary system that requires their use—and find a way toward more connection, more inclusiveness, more mutual understanding, and most of all more compassion.

Compassion, nurturing, empathy, and sensitivity are stereotypically feminine traits. They have therefore been viewed, through the lens of patriarchy, as signs of weakness. But if we’re to dismantle—or even just to question—the binaries that limit us as human beings, these are the qualities we need to foster, in ourselves and in society.

How can we begin?

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