In old-fashioned logic classes, one of the first things that students used to learn was the difference between contradictory and contrary propositions. The contradictory of 'The cat is on the mat' is 'The cat is not on the mat'. This introduces the idea of negation and immediately plunges the student into deep water: how can we talk meaningfully and truthfully about what is not? Contraries are a bit more subtle: they do not refer directly to negation but they still introduce a form of exclusion. If I say that my jacket is blue, this commits me to asserting that my jacket is not green or grey or any other colour.
My aim in this article is to question the role of binary thinking in contemporary culture – to problematise it, in fashionable academic terms. My contention is that it is too easy to lapse into binary thinking, and often unnecessary and damaging. For this purpose, colour predicates are a good place to start. They are clearly non-binary: there are many different ways of being not-blue, maybe even an infinite number of ways. The human eye can distinguish many shades of blue and can rank them in order. This is the source of David Hume's famous argument about the missing shade of blue: if someone has actually seen and arranged in order a series of shades of blue, can they not fill a gap in the series by imagining a new shade they have not actually seen? If conceded, this possibility creates a problem for empiricists like Hume who claim that all human knowledge is derived from sense experience.
Even worse, as everyone knows from choosing paint from a colour chart, colours vary in more than one dimension. Discussions of the physics of colour usually invoke three different dimensions – hue, luminosity and saturation. This is one reason why walkers in Scotland often struggle when they try to interpret the Gaelic names of landscape features. Gaelic colour predicates do not correspond one to one with English, partly because Gaelic lays more emphasis than English on luminosity and saturation. The Gaelic terms 'ban', 'fionn' and 'geal', for example, all represent different forms of whiteness.
As the divergent logics of English and Gaelic show, languages and cultures differ in complex ways. Even within a single language, different groups and individuals use language in different ways – sometimes systematically different but sometimes in ways that are fluid, contested or idiosyncratic. Linguists try to impose order on this flux by distinguishing between languages, dialects (used by groups, usually defined by region), registers (contextually linked to class and status) and idiolects (used by individuals). All this highlights the difficulty of talking about 'the language we use'. How safe is it to assume the existence of a stable and predictable 'we'? Contemporary discourse often refers to the other, others and othering. If I/we reference is unstable, the other must be equally elusive.
There are long-running scholarly disputes about the relationships among language, culture and individual behaviour. Does language determine culture? Does culture channel or control behaviour? In any case, there are grounds for saying that European or Western culture, with its deep roots in Christianity, has a marked – perhaps damaging – fondness for binaries. Historically, its world picture was structured around oppositions between God and man, heaven and hell. Mankind itself is to be divided into sheep and goats, the elect and the reprobate. Cross-cultural comparisons are difficult: there is no external point from which cultures can be assessed neutrally. But there is some evidence from anthropology that other cultures may be less wedded than ours to binary thinking, more holistic in their worldview. Compared with the monotheist Abrahamic religions, both pantheism and polytheism offer alternative ways of transcending the binary.
One prime candidate for less binary and more continuous thinking is the supposed divide between nature and culture. There are hard sciences (physics, chemistry), softer sciences (biology, ecology), social sciences employing a range of methodologies, and a variety of humanistic disciplines that explore meanings and truths of many kinds. It is certainly possible to draw a hard line between nature and culture. But to what purpose?
Starting towards the hard, natural sciences, end of the spectrum, there is one case where binary thinking seems obviously appropriate. The markers of biological sex have a strongly bipolar distribution: while intergrades and anomalies certainly occur, there are two distinct peaks corresponding to the male and female sexes. It is harder to understand why this binary divide should carry over into the areas of gender and sexual preference, which are more fluid, weakly determined by genetics and heavily influenced by cultural mores, ethical values and personal choice.
It is an empirical issue, verifiable or falsifiable by scientific methods, how biological sex markers are distributed. Still, at the hard end of the spectrum, there are other equally empirical properties (e.g. height) that tend to display a normal distribution (the so-called bell curve). Distributions like these can reasonably be called facts of nature. But as we move into the social sciences, looking for example at issues of intelligence and IQ, the normal distribution curves that appear may be less facts of nature than artefacts of the definitions and measurements adopted by scientists. And moving still further towards the cultural end of the spectrum, we find ourselves increasingly in a world of human beliefs and choices, free will and responsibility. There are many binaries to be found here, and also many examples of people clustering in the middle ground.
Much of the time we like to picture ourselves and our neighbours as middling good folk, neither saints nor monsters of depravity. We live in the world of l'homme moyen sensuel (50 shades of grey, as someone once said). But nowadays we're less confident about locating the mean in a diverse world where competing cultural norms are amplified through the blare of the media.
If we want to go in search of a golden mean, we need to recognise our own limitations, and this means challenging another hoary old binary, the divide between free will and determinism. In reality, individually and collectively, we have some ability to make effective choices and influence our own future (to take back control) but this ability is limited. We always operate within a network of constraints – physical, cultural and ethical – including the need to respect the autonomy of others. We are bound by cultural and linguistic norms but not tied hand and foot. We can, to some extent, change our actions, our norms and the meanings of our words.
These complexities, and these limits, are well illustrated by the thorny issues of race and racism. Language needs to be used sensitively, often in exchanges between groups who talk in diverging or incommensurable idioms. This is an area fraught with paradox. Racism undoubtedly exists but there are respectable arguments for saying that races do not: race is a social construct, not a genetic fact. As the geneticist Adam Rutherford says in his book, How to Argue With a Racist
: 'race is not a biologically useful way of categorising people'. Genome analysis reveals 'broad geographical clustering of people and populations on the basis of sampled genetic markers, but the borders are fuzzy and continuous'. And – most importantly – these fuzzy borders fit very poorly with existing social stereotypes. Statistical analysis of the human genome can generate as many (or as few) races as the analyst chooses. If you opt for a cluster of six or more races, one turns out to be a tribe of 4,000 living in the Hindu Kush mountains.
All liberal-minded people will agree with the sentiments behind Black Lives Matter but the actual slogan can be read in dangerously binary or exclusionary ways. In particular, it can be taken to imply a single line of division between black and white. Even in the narrow context of US politics this blurs the position of Latinos, native Americans and others. And on a global scale, it skims over huge complexities of race, ethnicity, class, culture and religion.
The black academic and activist Angela Davis wrote that 'in a racist society it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist'. It is difficult to disagree, but again it is hard to work through all the implications. Many of the arguments currently phrased in the language of race and racism are also – or perhaps really – arguments about culture, religion and international power politics, and many of them have deep roots in history. Even if racial science eventually follows phrenology into the dustbin of discredited pseudo-sciences, some cultural entanglements will remain. In an open society there will never be complete agreement – say – on what statues (ought to) mean. The best we can hope for is a workable consensus.
In summary, complexity, messiness and muddle are inescapable parts of human life. This brings us to another binary that could do with a bit of deconstruction. In our theoretical reasoning we aim for clarity, which encourages sharp distinctions and rigorous logic. But in our practical reasoning, where we have to negotiate relationships with family, friends and strangers, there is much to be said for tolerant scepticism. Theory and practice must be reconciled somehow. This conclusion would have appealed to Hume, who recommended a game of backgammon and a convivial evening with friends as an antidote to the ardours of arid speculation.