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The Myth of Binaries

Updated: Apr 21, 2021

Trigger warning: discussion of medical racism.

Human cognition tends to revolve around finding patterns. We are excellent at finding faces in clouds, recurring behaviors in others, and evidence in the world that supports our beliefs. All of these are patterns we are noticing (or creating) as we perceive and make sense of the world.

The easiest pattern to recognize is a binary. A binary is an “either, or” kind of pattern; it is either a or b, 0’s and 1’s, etc. Because these patterns are so recognizable to us, and so easy to process, we tend to use them as an immediate filter as we move through the world. This is not to say that deeper analysis doesn’t occur in the human mind (it definitely does!) but the most fundamental pattern we can recognize is a binary.

Binaries become harmful as they become naturalized, or established as being an objective part of nature and society. In reality, binaries are a pervasive myth that manipulates many aspects of our society. Binaries are everywhere; the more you search, the more you’ll discover. Often when we hear the word binary we think immediately of the gender binary; that is the classic “man or woman.” This binary has been repeatedly debunked; both gender identity and gender biology do not operate under binaries.

Gender identity is inherently non-binary, meaning that gender identity encompasses vast and deep complexities and variations (see our Gender Identity zine!). One way to debunk this binary is by recognizing the existence of gender identities that lay outside the binary, such as gender fluid or non-binary identifying folks. Another way to debunk this binary is exploring how gender identity changes throughout time. For example, centuries ago the gender binary we have today looked a lot different, especially if we’re looking at non-European cultures. In addition, gender identity can change throughout an individual’s lifetime. A child’s gender identity looks a lot different from someone going through puberty.

Debunking the myth of a biological gender binary has proved to be harder. Binary biological gender is based on out-dated evidence that makes claims about four aspects of biology: genetalia, hormones, genetics, and physical or secondary sex characteristics. In recent years, each of these foundations has been dissected. Let’s take a look:

So gender is not binary. But why do we see it that way?

First of all, our minds have the tendency to collapse big, complex patterns into digestible ones. This is known as reductionism; the practice of measuring complex phenomena in terms of smaller, more digestible parts. The world is hard to make sense of, and our brains have the job of running everything on a tight budget of energy. We will simplify instinctively when we can.

Second, binaries are so common and so reinforced because they have a cultural function. They serve to allocate social power and reinforce imagined hierarchies. We are socialized to see binaries in many places that they are not, mostly because someone benefits from the imbalance of power created by relying on such an unforgiving structure of classification.

Let’s look at more binaries:

  1. Human vs. nature

  2. Whiteness vs. non-white

  3. Innocent vs. incriminated

All of these binaries create a power differential where one side of the binary is bestowed with significant more power than the other.

Let’s deconstruct these:

  1. Humans are a part of nature. The separation was created as land was colonized.

  2. Genetically, there is more variation inside racial groups than between racial groups.

  3. Identical crimes may not receive identical punishment; more often than not, punishment is based on race, and class status.

The maintenance and reproduction of these binaries serves distinct purposes, often contributing to one group gaining capital at the expense and exploitation of the other.

Science and binaries

Historically, science has the tendency to reinforce binaries.

One example is the U.S. history of medical racism, where scientists and doctors conducted (and manipulated) studies to reinforce their own preconceived belief that the races are physiologically different, and genetically distinct. This is a harmful myth that, although thoroughly debunked by geneticists and current medicine, still manifests in dangerous medical practices.

The world we exist in is far too complex to be accurately captured in a collection of binaries. True recognition of the nuances of nature and the intricacies of the universe, identity, and human behavior may require the abandoning of a system of binaries that has constructed our social cultures for centuries.

It’s important to note that in many cultures throughout time and history (and even in some of our own cultures today) binaries and the power hierarchies they inspire are not present. Binaries can be directly correlated to colonization and white supremacy. In Western society, binaries function to create and maintain imbalances of power and oppression.

Maybe it takes more time and effort to eliminate the reductionist tendencies of our minds, but the outcome is worth it, because the alternative is oppressive.

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