Binary Oppositions

One of the big traps in thinking about the world is binary oppositions. Male/female. Rich/poor. Black/white. We use these oppositions as a shorthand for complex ideas, and to a limited extent, they are useful for that purpose: for simplifying the complex world so we can get a handle on it.

The problem is that, as Richard Rorty and many other social theorists have argued, the way we talk about the world we live in ends up creating the world we live in. If we overuse these binary oppositions, we end up oversimplifying the world, reducing it to categories that have real consequences.

Our favourite way of dividing up the world is with the labels "us" and "them." These are wonderfully flexible terms. These days, in the West, "them" is Muslims. Forget that fact that millions of "us" are Muslims. Forget the fact that being Muslim can mean a multitude of things. Just divide the world up into "us" in the West and "them" in the Muslim world.

This makes us feel better because the effort of understanding the complexity of the Muslim faith has been avoided. Of course, the effort of understanding the complexity of the West has also been avoided. We end up with two categories, both of which are undifferentiated and absolute.

When we do this to the world, divide it in two, inevitably one of the categories takes on a dominant position in society. Even if we think we are being balanced and nonjudgmental, the sides of our binary oppositions never remain equal for long. White people dominate black. Men dominate women. Protestants dominate Catholics. Domination breeds disdain. Resentment breeds despair. Our ways of dividing the world end up dividing the world. What happened in Brussels on March 22, 2016, is a direct result of this kind of thinking.

Binary oppositions don't all end in bombings, of course. They typically affect our world in much less obvious ways. When we divide the world up into male and female, for instance, we lose sight of the fact that many people don't fit into those categories. We limit our possibilities of being.

We end up with the kind of problem we're seeing in North Carolina at the moment, where transgendered people are being told to get back on the side of the binary opposition they came from, when they use a public washroom. (As one transgendered male tweeted to Donald Trump, "It's now the law for me to share a restroom with your wife.")

Rorty argues that dividing the world up into binary categories like this isn't particularly helpful. He's right. So what do we do?

One of the things we can do is introduce more categories. Hey, two categories isn't working. Let's try three! Think about male and female washrooms again. What's the other kind of washroom? Right, accessible ones. In many buildings in Canada, the enlightened requirement that washrooms should be accessible to people with mobility impairments has been interpreted not to mean "make all washrooms accessible," but to mean "create a third kind of washroom and put a wheelchair symbol on it."

This effectively creates a third category of person: "disabled" persons. People in this category are labeled by the rest of society as different, as a category of their own that doesn't belong to the rest of us. Not only does this exclude people with disabilities from full participation in society, it reduces them -- in the minds of the rest of us -- to a single notion. When we think of "them," all we think about is their disability.

People with disabilities, subjected to this reductive gaze, are understandably not very happy. They want, like everyone else, to be understood as fully human, as more than just a white cane or a set of wheels.

This is the logo of, a Spanish organization dedicated to upsetting people's notions of what it means to be disabled. What the logo says to me is that people are more than the categories we place them in. Adding new categories doesn't really solve the problem of reductionism that our use of binary oppositions creates.

Another way of dealing with the problem of binary oppositions is to think of the opposition as representing a spectrum of possibilities. Let's not just add one or two new categories in between the opposite ends, let's fill it in with an infinite number of categories, so that people can choose to be wherever on the spectrum they feel comfortable.

This is much better as a way of thinking about complexity, but it's not so easy for people to choose to live anywhere they want along a spectrum. Society asks them not to, and it doesn't ask nicely. Binary oppositions get reinforced in countless hurtful and unthinking ways, and even if we reconceive the opposition as a spectrum, people are asked to get back in one of the two boxes at the ends.

Judith Butler, an American philosopher who has spent a lot of time thinking about gender, explains that such boxes are not inevitable and unchangeable.* She argues that the binary categories that dominate our thinking are reinforced on a daily basis by the way we ourselves perform those categories. Each woman, for instance, chooses certain attributes of what it means to be a woman when she lives her daily life. She may wear a dress, or stay at home with her children, or paint her nails, or adopt any of a countless number of stereotypical ways of behaving like a woman.

She is not limited to those ways of being, however. She can choose to wear pants, for instance. Today, in the West at least, this is not considered strange at all. But once upon a time, back in the early 20th century, it was scandalous for a woman to wear pants. Some women did, however, and by performing "woman" in that way, they encountered opposition but also stretched the category of "woman" to include wearing pants.

Our categories are somewhat malleable, therefore, and can change over time. They still remain categories, however. They are useful, to an extent, but they have all the limitations that go along with sorting the world into boxes.

The most helpful way of dealing with binary oppositions is to deconstruct the categories completely. We can stop thinking of "male," for instance, as representing a specific kind of person, and recognize that there are billions of ways of being male. We can stop thinking of "Black" as representing a specific kind of person, and recognize that to be "Black" can mean just about anything.

This doesn't stop the world from acting on males or Blacks or females or people with disabilities according to its preconceived, structured notions. But thinking and speaking differently about the world will, gradually and over time, redescribe the world, and thereby change it.

* Judith Butler is not easy to read, but her book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990), is readily available and well worth the effort for those who are inclined to philosophy.

Photo of the European Parliament in Brussels, taken in 2014.

Logo courtesy of and the Canadian Abilities Foundation.