Life may not be binary…

The following contains some thoughts I had in response to my mum’s most recent post “Life is not binary“. Let me just start off by saying that I love that first sentence, nice self-touché!

I agree with her basic premises, that life itself is not binary and that our fixation on applying categorically good or categorically bad labels to ourselves and others can be very harmful. Harmful to our happiness, social cohesion and progress as a force of nature. Given that I agree with this, I wondered:

Why is binary absolutist thinking so pervasive, and why do we engage in it ourselves?

In fact it has several appeals as a mode for looking at the world and our place in it, the most obvious one being that it is simple.

Right or wrong, binary is a time-saving device. A lot of people believe, use and propagate it as a way of thinking because a lot of people were exposed to it. And a lot of people were exposed to it because it’s the quickest way to teach or influence someone. Right/wrong is easy to impress upon kids. It’s easy to impress upon a group of people. You introduce nuances – you invite challenge, questioning, possible undermining.

It’s just easy to seize on the clearest, purest, most full examples of something when teaching. What’s more, clear examples elicit clear reactions from us. So there are two immediate satisfactions that come from using binary absolutism: the first from having nothing more complicated than an either/or framework, and the second from having clear responses associated with each option.

Binary is often used in stories, most often in stories for children. Maybe this is because adults expect that children cannot understand more complex ideas, or believe that cloudiness will only make their education (particularly if it’s moral) more difficult. Yet often the pieces of work that we admire or are the most reached by are the ones that spin “binary” on its head. We recognize that things are not as they seem, intuitively we know that reality is like these involved pieces of work rather than the fairytale. But we were fed the fairytale, and I still think there is something innate in us that relies on it.

Even without going so far as binary we create and rely on categories to reflect the differences and similarities we perceive between things. We know that a lot of the lines we draw are technically arbitrary; for although we see differences that doesn’t necessarily mean we know how to delineate between things in a definitive and truly meaningful way. At the same time we don’t think we can avoid trying our best to outline differences because if a genuine difference does exist between a pair of items, it might not be effective for us to use or treat them in the same way.

I don’t deny the grander truth of life in which the world could wig out, invert, and bound across the universe like a goofy dog at any given moment, but there are some absolutes people need to make a day to day life for themselves. Absolutes are a vital part of human perception/experience – whether they really exist or not. Science has taught us that many things are not what they seem; our own brain contains fantastic filtering and interpreting devices to give us a world that looks like one clear, consistent, sensible picture. What we experience is “reality” well past photoshopped to become “my human reality”. We are now more aware of our limitations of perception than we have been before, yet while we have this knowledge it doesn’t really factor into our regular lives. For this, our daily existence, we use assumptions and shortcuts. You may not think that life has absolutes but it has been at least necessary to our brain to get us to generally trust and expect that “things are what they are”.


All this to say that life is not actually binary, nor perfectly described by categories and boxes; however breaking things down, trying to find definitions, commonalities, boundaries, even using the harmony of opposites – these are natural tools for us humans to wield in attempting to understand and manipulate this huge existence we’re in.

To be honest though… when it comes down to our personal social lives and stories, I think a great deal of people have a much better understanding of complexity than my “humans need boxes” argument above implies. I think binary absolutism is more of a societal message than it is reality that makes sense for most people.

It is easier to transmit as a mass or societal message because:

– it relies on quick thinking or non-thinking, which forms part of our everyday small-talk, idle chat,  basic social cement interactions;

– certainty and decisiveness are looked upon admirably as a mark of strength and competence;

– ease and simplicity is a huge motivator of behaviour, and what’s easy is easy to become habit.

It’s an observation I’ve sometimes found hard to reconcile in my own head, that in quick, shooting the breeze chats with people they can express such pat intolerant or righteous views, and yet if you caught them in a late night heart to heart you’d get to see how much deeper and broader, and sometimes even fine-flecked, their understanding of human experience is.

We’re not truly, wholly binary about everything. People have areas where they are more binary than others. And being binary with ourselves doesn’t mean we apply that to others, or that we would apply it to others in that particular situation.

Some people like to be punished or feel that they should be, or deserve it. Binary helps in the fulfillment of this. So…. I think the problem with binary is not just the inflexibility and lie of it, but that it is seized on by people who want or need to make themselves wrong, the bad guy.

Chicken or the egg eh? I also don’t think that it’s binary itself that makes people want to be punished. Binary is just an easy way to do it, to support being bad to yourself. Unhealthy perfectionism anyone?

What I see in your friend’s response is not just binary thinking – it’s that if she’s going to do anything at all it has to be “properly”. She was sensing or creating expectations about how she should be. I don’t just see this about binary but about her needing to obey these expectations – she really felt like she had to do it, she had to be on time to get some hidden person’s head nod, or else she needed to feel guilty and berate herself. The main point of interest here is that being on time is probably the standard she has told herself she should reach, meaning by not reaching it there is a penalty (have to miss out on the whole thing and be self-deprecating over it) while by reaching it there is no especial gain or reward. Now… that doesn’t really look like much of a dichotomy to me. That’s not even good/bad. More like survive another day/bad.

I do binary a lot. It’s not because I really believe in it or want to. It’s the quick go-to guy emotionally. Earlier I said that clear examples elicit clear reactions. Maybe sometimes it’s the other way around, when you’re experiencing an immediate clear reaction (/emotion) you want to justify it with a clear example, such as: “Hmm, I feel really guilty about that, ergo, I did something bad.” But perhaps the person is used to feeling guilty and feels responsible even if their action was necessary. Or “Hmm, I can’t be bothered doing this work, ergo, it is obviously pointless and beneath my attention.” Well perhaps the person is generally lazy.

And sometimes…. If there’s something you really need, or think you really really need… you become fixated on that, or the lack of that. You become so wrapped up in how you need something you don’t have, or how you have something you don’t want, that a dichotomy naturally appears – there are only two sides and you want the other one. There’s nothing like need, desperate need, to engender binary thinking. Whether it’s the need to have something or to be something.

So you know what? I think there’s only really one true binary. I think those other binaries you mentioned are there in our lives to some extent, but I think what underlies them all is the good/bad binary. And perhaps what is sometimes found clinging to the underside of good/bad is the little parasitic binary of hope/hopeless.

Because even talking about late or early, fat or thin…. To be described is not the problem. It’s the value judgement that is the problem. Binary is only a part of the problem; if the binary we use in our thinking were really like the 0 and 1 of a numeral system – two equally essential, contributing components – there would be no grief or guilt or neurosis.  Together they make beautiful and meaningful music. It’s only when 1 becomes everything that’s good and worthwhile and right, while 0 becomes the rank badness, wrongness and waste of time and space in the world that we have a problem.

So I do have an issue with binary in that it’s not really true, it’s not our reality for the most part.  However for the grief that binary causes…. Well that’s not just about binary. Binary is being used for the ends of something else.

[Or should I just cut the crap and admit that it’s the fault of Js like myself, corrupting the sparkly, spinny world of you Ps 😉 (Oh wait… is there binary in Myers Briggs??)]


2 thoughts on “Life may not be binary…

  1. “For this, our daily existence, we use assumptions and shortcuts. You may not think that life has absolutes but it has been at least necessary to our brain to get us to generally trust and expect that “things are what they are”.”
    I have always known that things are not “what they are” and the assumptions and shortcuts are not just a matter of expedience but a fundamental dishonesty used to maintain social systems that privilege those who control the discourse.

  2. Hmmm, with that I was thinking more about how we make our way through the physical world, rather than our social world. Perhaps the link I left out here is that … I think our brain uses a lot of assumptions and shortcuts to be more efficient in dealing with mundane, practical parts to life and with physical experience. Like for example people who have lesions or brain dysfunctions that prevents them from relying on previous stored knowledge which is what would usually allow them to assume certain things. If they can’t remember and assume that their town is the same way as it was the day before, it can take them a really long time to find their way to the supermarket or a workplace for example, they’re like newbie foreigners every day of their life.

    I have a general feeling that there are things we have used to deal with our physical environment that we also try to use in our social environment, but that maybe don’t work so well with the latter.

    I also don’t think that either you or I are immune from assumptions and shortcuts when it comes to thinking. I’m sure Mikey wouldn’t see us as paragons of open-mindedness.

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