Nature Abhors a Binary
To overcome reductive binaries, we need to slow down our thinking. But the world’s urgent problems require quick collective action. Can we learn to embrace nuance without falling into moral paralysis?
In 1968 a Canadian anatomy professor named Keith Moore had a beef with that year’s Olympic Committee. The committee was excluding female athletes who failed a single test used to determine biological sex. In an editorial, Moore listed nine things he might measure in creating a picture of a person’s sex: genetic sex, nuclear sex, chromosomal sex, the external appearance of the genitals, the internal reproductive organs, endocrinologic sex, the structure of the gonads, psychological sex, and social sex. In other words, the neat male/female binary is a social idea rather than a biological fact.
Binary thinking persists not because it is accurate, but because it is fast. There’s a clear advantage to thinking and acting quickly: the world is complex, and we are often called upon to make decisions under pressure.
Yet a thorough understanding of our environment and ourselves is a slow business. In recent decades, theorists from all corners of the critical humanities have deconstructed the idea of binary opposition and called for non-hierarchical ways of thinking that more honestly reflect real-world nuance and diversity.
Culturally, we are in a moment that celebrates slowness — slow food, slow cities, slow activities like birdwatching or knitting. It would be easy to say that binary thinking is bad and non-binary thinking is good, in the same way that it might be easy to say that fast is bad and slow is good. Adopting slowness as a cultural strategy could help to adapt our thinking; lingering on one idea at a time allows hidden complexities to reveal themselves. I learned much more, for instance, by sitting down and reading Robyn Maynard’s Policing Black Lives than I had been able to glean from the polarized arguments on Twitter about the slogan “Abolish the police.”
But the time crunch on certain collective actions is real. “The main word to use in relation to methane escaping from the Arctic is: ‘Help!’” Peter Wadhams, head of the Polar Ocean Physics Group at Cambridge University, told the Guardian recently. He was referring to the contentious debates that often arise around any initiative defined as geoengineering, a hot button issue that many argue requires far more study. But as forests burn and floods rise around us, it’s clear that time is a luxury we can no longer afford.
Paradoxically, the vogue for slow has emerged at a time when many of us also feel an increased sense of momentum.
And it goes beyond climate action; social issues like housing and racial justice have broken into the mainstream and fuelled a heightened sense of urgency. I often feel like a laggard; there’s so much I should already know in order to act decisively — and correctly — now.
Moral and ethical clarity of action is a process that by definition requires careful, slow thinking. How do we reconcile the urgency of the moment with the slower goal of achieving a nuanced, inclusive understanding?
The binary brain
Some argue that humans think in binaries because we extrapolate from our own physiological characteristics: as a rule, we have two arms, two legs, and two halves to our brains. The philosopher Maxine Sheets-Johnstone holds that all human thought derives its basic underpinnings from the kinetic and tactile experiences of our early ancestors, and that walking upright is what gave our bodies their “locomotor binary periodicities” — alternating footsteps, alternating swinging arms. In cultural terms, our bipedalism has long been identified as a major point of separation between humans and not-humans (a foundational binary in the Eurocentric tradition, but not in many Indigenous traditions).
In his book Black-and-White Thinking, published in 2021, the Oxford psychologist Kevin Dutton argues for what he calls “the binary brain.” He identifies three eras of our evolutionary history with three of our major binary oppositions. The first, fight/flight, is the most ancient — every rustle in the bushes was read as a threat with two possible responses. The second, us/them, Dutton dates to a period when the ancestors of modern humans began living in small groups about six million years ago. The third, right/wrong, he believes evolved as an instrument for social control as groups began to get larger, around 100,000 years ago.
The crudity of quick judgments means that they come loaded with potential for error. The polarized politics of the day — and our inability to work together to address urgent problems — seem to stem from ingrained binaries and also to reproduce binary thinking.
The us/them binary rules discourse at both ends of the political spectrum. This is not to say that conservatives and progressives have equal power, or that the policies they desire are equally valid. The point is, rather, that the clear narratives our brains thrive on can be dangerous containers.
In the mid-20th century, French theorist Claude Lévi-Strauss proposed that binary opposition is central to all storytelling — conflict is inherent to narrative. The pace of modern communication reinforces our dependence on simplified stories; the amount of information we’re expected to assimilate propels us to seek quick answers and easy explanations.
“Is that . . . good?” I found myself jotting on a nearby piece of paper as I scrolled through a story about nuclear power. I will be honest: without a concerted effort, the chances that I will grasp even the basics of how nuclear power works are very low. I understand that some people are for it and some people are against it, and my instinct is to reach first for categories like good/bad — “Is there an obvious reason why this won’t work?” — and then for us/them — “Are the kinds of people who approve of this course of action people I generally agree with?”
Stillness in action
I am as guilty of binary thinking as the next person, and possibly guiltier: for one thing, I love structure, and for another, I am very afraid of being a bad person. The only thing that keeps me from a life of constant bandwagoning is that I am also what the philosopher Richard Rorty terms an ironist:
The ironist spends her time worrying about the possibility that she has been initiated into the wrong tribe, taught to play the wrong language game. She worries that the process of socialization which turned her into a human being by giving her a language may have given her the wrong language, and so turned her into the wrong kind of human being.
A fear of being wrong creates a certain caution or restraint, which is useful in avoiding extremes. But it can also result in a rather tepid response to life’s challenges. Binaries are about action; at some point, it’s either stop or go, left or right, zero or one. Avoiding binaries can seem like a route to moral paralysis. The long equivocation on climate policies, in which politicians have tried to keep things running as usual while acknowledging the need for change, feels like a failure to recognize how stark the choices really are.
But worrying about being wrong can also be viewed in a more sympathetic light, one that opens up the worrier to an experience of slow thinking. In Daniel Kahneman’s celebrated 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, one of the main distinctions he draws between our slow brain and our fast brain is in the role of attention. Thinking slowly — employing our critical faculties in puzzling something out — requires sustained attention.
I visited my mother recently, and she was on the last stage of a puzzle, a deceptively simple landscape: a table and chairs on a balcony overhung with bougainvillea. My patience is nowhere near what my mother can muster, but losing myself in the intricacies of the design required me to form hypotheses — do the edges of this splash of pink match up with the edges of this one? — and discard them, over and over, as my ideas failed to fit the facts. Each piece gained an identity so sharp it seemed ridiculous that I hadn’t noticed it before: my mother scoffed when I tried to fit a shape somewhere it clearly couldn’t go. For most purposes, all these pieces of scattered pink are the same, and my fast brain is right to see them that way. But to complete the slow task of fitting them together, I had to brake my mind almost to a standstill. Then, I could carry the memory of a specific series of grooves and curves with me as I looked for a piece with complementary shapes.
A contemporary of Lévi-Strauss’, the French moral philosopher Simone Weil, identified attention as the one thing needed above all else to improve society. “Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in the world but people capable of giving them their attention. The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle.”
Paying attention to someone else’s suffering may move us to external action, but opening ourselves to another person’s experience requires a willed stillness and silence that can hardly be called inaction.
It is a commonplace that social media has shortened our attention span and eroded our sense of moral responsibility toward others. Why pause on an experience of suffering when you can continue to scroll? At the same time, Twitter seems to demonstrate an environment in which fast and slow, right and wrong, us and them all engage in endless struggle without a clear winner emerging. Is it possible that all that fighting actually undermines binary thinking? In practice, Twitter feels more like the natural world: overwhelming, patchy, and full of clashing opinions and fierce creatures that want to kill each other.
The opposite of alienation
Our desire to think fast is a desire to spare ourselves pain — we don’t want to be eaten by another animal, whether the literal, sharp-toothed beast waiting in the bushes or the person in need, whose suffering threatens to consume us.
The German sociologist Hartmut Rosa identifies acceleration as a defining problem of our time — but insists that the solution is not necessarily deceleration. Instead, he proposes that we turn our attention, as individuals and as societies, to what he calls “resonance.” Resonance, as Rosa defines it, is a transformative exchange. Whether with a work of art, a natural phenomenon, or another person, an experience of resonance is the opposite of alienation — it binds us more tightly to the world. This kind of experience could happen in a flash, or it could take a long time to make itself felt.
A greater sense of connection could mean we are more prepared when the time arrives to act quickly. It could even be a spur to action, a long-burning fuel rather than a simple spark of outrage.
I have a kite named Normandine. In times of stress, I bring her to the beach. Sometimes, if she’s found a reliable layer of intrigue, I lie down on the sand and watch her carve the sky, her swoops and dives revealing the turbulent shapes sweeping through what looks, from the ground, like static space. An envoi from the pre-social media age by English professor Peter Elbow addresses the benefits of allowing binaries to remain unresolved: “When we encounter something that is difficult or complicated or something that tangles people into endless debate, we are often in the presence of an opposition that needs to be made more explicit — and left unreconciled.” Flying Normandine is both a fast and a slow activity, and my mind is close to the ground — I’m aware of the small pebbles dotting the sand—and in the air. The two states aren’t synthesized or resolved, but rather retain their distinctness, connected by a string that is stronger than it looks.
Linda Besner’s most recent book is Feel Happier in Nine Seconds. Her journalism and poetry have appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, the Globe and Mail, and the New York Times Magazine, among others. She lives in Toronto.