The phrase "binary thinking" is a curious one. Even just the sound of it is unpleasant, hardly inviting or comfortable – I mean, really, who is in favor of something called "binary"? Well, perhaps we should understand the term a bit. For all the ways that it fits our world and all of those examples of its usefulness, it harms our collective life.
Binary is a dictionary word. We don't need a special vocabulary or theoretical backdrop to understand it. The term "binary" designates a form of distinction, one that names two possibilities and maintains them as mutually exclusive. And such a mode of distinction doesn't come from nowhere, nor is it without a very real basis in our everyday experience. Our vocabulary is (rightly) full of binaries: here/there, inside/outside, I/other, and so on. The other, slightly loopier word for this is dualism: two possibilities. In the final essay of his writing life, entitled "Subject and Object," German philosopher Theodor Adorno wrote that the subject-object distinction is both the most obviously true and the most glaringly wrong distinction in philosophy's – not to mention culture's – history. He was right. But what did he mean? And why does it matter?
Two possibilities nearly always stand out in nature, composed as nature is of so many opposites. And in our perception of self and nature. I see you walk by, which means that I'm here and you're there. I'm a subject, you're an object (and I can imagine the reversal from your perspective). We don't occupy the same space. Nor could we. We'll always have a dual relation, split off from one another. Sure, I know the whole two-souls-become-one theory of love. Not true. You're still you. The other person is still other. I can still keep secrets from you, lie to you, or retreat within my own mind…all of which demonstrate my difference from you, taking advantage of the dualistic nature of myself to myself (mind to body) and of our relationship (inner-life to other person). It's not all bad, though. In fact, dualisms and binaries – the irreducible difference between things – is often the source of fascination, desire, admiration, astonishment, and so many other good things.
At the same time, binary thinking becomes, very quickly, a whole way of being. As a way of being, binary thinking sets a frame around all that we think and do. Though it comes naturally, binary thinking, like so much "natural" stuff, is actually bad for the world. We evaluate what we see, because perception is rarely (if ever) indifferent. Difference, binary and dualistic, become hierarchy. It's like we can't resist. And that hierarchical valuation is everywhere. One becomes good, the other evil. If ya ain't wit me, ya agin' me.
One thing that comes to mind from the recent news is Michael Jackson. Perhaps that seems like a strange example, but I'm actually serious. You see, among the many dualism in our habits of thought and valuation is this one: the normal and the freak. We have such a hard time thinking outside this dualism, really. It's all the rage in politics. Hate Sarah Palin? Well, you probably give her the characteristics of a freak, complete with personal appearance obsessions (too much make-up, slutty heels, hickish speech, etc.) and speculations about her inner-life (speaks in tongues, talks to Jesus, below average IQ, whatever else enhances her marginality). Hate Barack Obama? You know the drill…birthers, communism, and so on.
So, when Michael Jackson died, I was reminded of all the chatter about him over the years. People loved to describe and reprint all the freak material. The plastic surgery, friendship with a chimpanzee, secretive this and that. It was remarkable how much tabloid information folks had absorbed. Even with all the respect for the recently deceased, you heard it in chit-chat … what a freak. He was weird. How strange. Somehow, we forgot that he is a person, a genius even. And that, as a person, he has dramas and traumas that no one can fathom, all of which gather forces that form and distort personality, sensitivity, and sense of self. That's a complicated and complex moment, though, and it falls well outside a binary valuation. It would require a different kind of thinking, just as one would have to think very differently to consider the complexity of an ideological enemy. We just don't do that very easily. In fact, when it comes to politics, we often think someone is soft or under-critical when they don't "get" the enemy-as-freak discourse. Someone so very different and so very public (willingly or not) like Michael Jackson brings binary thinking and cruel, uncomplicated fascination out into the open. Why? And at what cost?
We can think of so many other binaries and how they lead to talk of freaks and weirdoes. Those are the people who either complicate the binary (intersexed people, transgender, mixed-race, etc.) or fall on the wrong side (fat people, marginal politics, etc.). The binary looks less like a natural way of dividing the world than a terrifying imposition.
The difficult alternative of course is to affirm the deep and often ineffable complexity of self and world. Not hard to find, this sort of complexity. Indeed, what is most intimate to all of us, our selves, is also the greatest mystery. The world is plenty mystery too, not to mention those other people out there, walking about, carrying with them both secrets and idiosyncratic characteristics we can barely catch sight of in friendship and love. That's not ambiguity. That's something altogether different. Remember how I cited Adorno and that claim that dualisms and binaries are most natural and obvious? Well, I want to arrive here at the contrary: dualisms and binaries are the most ill-fitted conceptions of the world one can imagine. Sure, we use the shorthand. We probably need it. But in using that shorthand, we produce systems of value that eclipse what is most beautiful about the world and the self: transcendence. All that stuff that exceeds the categories of thinking and judging. All that stuff that's neither normal nor freakish, but just, well, what the world is all about.
What would our world look like – not as a social reality, but just as a personal perception and way of moving about – if we were to think it and perceive it and value it in that mystery, transcendence, and beautifully uncategorizable? It would be a safer place for those outside binaries. We might consider, for example, that Michael Jackson was a complicated, singular person whose life drama and its beautiful and harmful effects deserves respect. It would also require changing some deeply rooted habits of language. And yet we resist, as a collective, whenever the binary is questions. Why? That, if you ask me, is the big question of our next politics: how to think outside the normal-freak, the friend-enemy, the acceptable-unacceptable. Not such an easy question to answer…