Binaries signal difference; they exist to illustrate contrast. This is why juxtaposition works so well to sell diamonds (you can more clearly see the facets when placed on black velvet) and reveal characters in literature (we can more easily understand what someone is like when placed in contrast to someone they are not like). It's about identifying, and bringing into greater focus, the edges of something.
And, when we overpopulate our thinking with [religious, ideological, philosophical, racial, moral, gender, etc ad nauseam] binaries, we create boundaries, or edges, of separation between people and ideas that often aren’t reflective of thoughtful reflection, but of lazy thinking.
I've certainly been guilty of this.
I've also thought a lot about it, though, and have come to the point I've recognized some of the destructive power of binaries. This certainly isn't an exhaustive list, or maybe an overly rigorous one, but it's mine, and it's helping me navigate a world that clearly isn't just one thing or the other.
- As a husband, I’ve come to realize that: The binary of right and wrong is the enemy of relational reconciliation.
- As a father, I’ve come to realize that: The binary of nice and not nice is the enemy of true kindness.
- As an educator, I’ve come to realize that: The binary of smart and stupid is the enemy of impassioned learning.
- As a spiritually-awake seeker, I’ve come to realize that: The binary of good and evil is the enemy of meaningful faith.
- As a person who loves cross-cultural exchange of all kinds, I’ve come to realize that: The binaries we assign to the human experience are the enemy of authentic relationship.
Again, this may not be a ground-breaking list, and it may even be a little overly simplistic, but it's far more nuanced and complex than my unchecked brain sometimes wants things to be.
Physiologically, brains store and retrieve information through a binary system of electronic impulses: they are either on or off. This construction is often mirrored in our thought processes as well.
We seek to make sense of our world, and all of its complexities, by categorizing what we see and experience. There’s clearly evolutionary history at work here; knowing whether a sound of dangerous or not is important, as is knowing which berries are good and which are bad, etc.
This is where bias comes into the equation. Not only are we constantly categorizing and ranking foods, sounds, experiences, and so on, we are also seeking, often unconsciously, to do the same with people.
Perhaps a story would be helpful here:
My wife, who’s done more personal growth and healing work in this area than anyone else I know, had a recent conversation with our children about a binary that has been at the center of America attention almost since the inception of the republic: black and white. My two older children, 4- and 5-years old, were studying composers, and Scott Joplin came up. The book called him one of America’s greatest black composers, and my daughter stopped my wife: “Why do they call him black? He’s not black. And I’m not white. I’m peach, and he’s brown.”
My wife responded by explaining that black and white are so opposite each other that one feels like it has nothing to do with the other - that maybe these terms are what we use when we want to feel different from someone else. Peach and brown are sort of shades of the same color, but sometimes people don't want to feel like they are the same as something or someone else. She explained that the terms black and white are not really about skin color, but about a way to organize people.
Sure, there is lots more nuance and complexity we could entertain, but for a conversation about binaries and their danger, had with a kindergartner and preschooler, I thought it was great.
Here's the danger: when we ask people to accept the fact that they have bias, and that their brains seek binary explanations for the world, the response is often defensive. But the fact is, having a bias doesn’t make you evil, bigoted, or any of the “-ists” we often refer to in labelling ideologies. We all have biases that our brains create, which clearly “thinks” it’s doing us favor.
It's the intentional effort that we exert over our brains to fight immediate and reactive bias that inclusive work is all about.
Here are some simple ideas:
Slow your thinking down
- Take the time to own your bias. Understand that it's a part of how your brain is seeking to make sense of its myriad perceptions.
- Seek to understand any specific roots of its existence. If your brain is creating categories, what categories does it have at its disposal? Why? How can you blur some of those boundaries?
- Don’t let an immediate bias turn into a decision or belief. The fact that your brain does something quickly doesn't necessarily mean it's coming to an ethical or particularly thoughtful conclusion. Push back against your first reaction.
Ask earnest questions
- Seek as much information as you can, rather than filling in gaps with “assumed information.” Very few people can't tell the difference between false curiosity and an authentic desire to learn and connect. Don't be afraid of asking questions.
- Good questions are intent-edited. Ask yourself, before you ask the question, why you want to know. Are you looking to inform your thinking, or reinforce already-held binaries?
- Sometimes, it's helpful to ask if you can ask. I'm a curious person by nature, and sometimes I can go a little overboard. I often disclose to a conversation partner that I'm a candid person, and often ask questions from that perspective, but let them know that they can simply "pass" a questions when necessary.
Listen with a courageous heart
- Take the time to hear someone’s story. Don’t automatically connect the individual in front of you to a group identity. That's how stereotypes create redundancy in our brains. We assume things about a person before we learn things about him or her.
- It can be hard to hear, based on someone's response to a question you've asked, or something you've said, that you are operating out of ignorance, or are misinformed about something. No one likes to be wrong. Choosing to hold onto to that wrong perception, though, moves you from accidental ignorance to willful prejudice. Don't do that.
- Be a vulnerable listener. Listen with the intent to massage some of your thinking into greater accuracy and insight.
Reflect with intentionality and generosity
- Seek the connective tissue between your story and someone else’s story. As a human, you have far more in common than not. Tie that tissue together.
- Find commonality with others along the spectrum of human experience, celebrating what’s similar, and seeking to hear and understand what’s not.
- Practice deconstructing binaries by reflecting on people you've met that aren't so easily categorized. Consistent effort at erasing some of those boundaries can make it easier to "hear the story" of the next person you meet.
No one is ever going to perfectly and eternally erase all of the binaries of the brain. At least, I assume not. It seems to be hard-wired into us.
We can all, though, get better at battling the binaries of our brains, and the biases that come with them.
This battling is the work of inclusion, at least on the personal level, and is the work of us all.
These are my just thoughts, and reflect the singularity of my experience. As always, I welcome constructive criticisms, challenges and conversations.