16 February, 2021
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.
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.
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.
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.
16 February 2021
By Kate Maskalenka