Thinking beyond binaries
How often do you categorise things as either good or bad, success or failure, normal or weird? Binary thinking is one of those cultural ideas we absorb from a young age and everyone, no matter their background, education or intelligence, sometimes struggles to avoid thinking in harmful stereotypes. This affects all aspects of our life but it happens without us realising it. Why do we do this? I wanted to broaden my understanding of how we, as humans, communicate with and adapt to our environment so I picked up Life Isn’t Binary by MJ Barker and Alex Iantaffi. Developing their thinking from their own experiences dealing with binary attitudes around gender and sexuality, they discuss the broader implications of the rigid binary manner our society operates in – and why it affects every single one of us. I learned a lot that challenged my thinking so I’m sharing my main take away messages in the hope of inspiring others. Disclaimer: I am a white cisgender woman and can’t speak for everyone. This only reflects my thoughts and views.
- Being beyond binary is not niche
While some things might seem novel, like non-binary genders, binary categorisation has never been accurate enough to reflect reality. By subscribing to a ‘normal/abnormal’ way of thinking, we can forget that our identities belong to a diverse landscape rather than to an oppositional binary. Our behaviour, thinking and gender are all affected by race, class, culture and ethnicity. All these categories intersect in such a fundamental way that cannot be disentangled. Challenging binary thinking is a great way to understand ourselves and to relate to others around us. Failing to do so, we risk letting the less binary aspects of our identities to be erased or marginalised.
- Trying to ‘normalise’ things can reinforce ‘abnormality’
The word ‘normalise’ seems progressive, with an intent to educate people on how diverse our environment is. However, it can make marginalised groups uncomfortable, as it reminds them that their existence is considered ‘abnormal’ and they are still marching towards occupying their space in the ‘normal’ camp.
A lot of things are inaccessible to ‘abnormal’ individuals. Many trans* and non-binary people choose to take hormones just to feel ‘normal’ but in order to do so, they have to prove that they are ‘abnormal enough’ to access to necessary medication. Cisgender people face far fewer barriers to receiving hormones or changing their appearance, because their reasons for doing so are more socially acceptable. This automatically makes them more privileged and safe.
- Us vs. them polarisation prevents us from connecting with others
Polarisation is an obstacle to one of the main human needs – the need to belong. If a person is marginalised by the dominant culture, they can feel that their identity and existence lacks value. If we are lucky enough to belong to a privileged majority, our life becomes more comfortable. However, we are still susceptible to the right/wrong binary thinking paradigm, which can prevent us from connecting with others.
Another big danger of dividing people into ‘rational us’ and ‘irrational them’ is treating every social issue as a debate. We can certainly discuss opinions, like which colour to paint a building, but some topics, like the existence of transphobia or climate change, are not up for debate. We need to remember that opinions and facts are not equal.
- Learning to think in a non-binary fashion is possible
People are always changing and developing and our preferences and interests morph with time. We may not be able to simply walk away from our culture and erase our upbringing but we can make a conscious effort to change how we think and speak. Perhaps, the most effective way to improve our world is to learn to embrace its complexity and, rather than demolishing ourselves by trying to match restricting ‘norms’, to each value our own unique identity.
In my experience, scientists are very open minded people. It’s in our job description to question and challenge our own thinking on a daily basis but it’s all too easy to see how scientific research is still hindered by binary thinking. For example, when PhD students (‘us’), who learnt to see their teachers in school as scary examiners (‘them’), polarise themselves against more senior colleagues by thinking of themselves as inferior which slows down the collaborative process. The same goes for the senior researchers who do not recognise their younger peers as a valid source of advice and knowledge. Scientific workplaces still have common gender and race inequalities too. For example, female scientists are asked to contribute to journals less frequently than men and science is still less accessible to people of colour. In spite of our collective awareness of this, we still haven't achieved a fair and realistic representation of society in scientific workplaces.
In my view, a major reason for the persistence of these issues is that people often claim not to ‘see’ the differences between people: that they don’t care about skin colour, accent, gender, cultural background, education, career level, or any other characteristic. The problem here is that these differences do exist, and by choosing to ignore them (thereby projecting our own limited perspective onto others) we unintentionally erase someone's experience. Only by actively listening to and amplifying the voices of others and embracing, rather than ignoring, this diversity can we begin to move beyond this traditional rigid behaviour and towards a society that works for everyone.