Balancing Binaries


Erik Wieboldt

There is a basic human instinct to separate oneself from others. You are yourself. Others are others. As you grow in a community with people with similar backgrounds, there is a tendency to “other” those people who are outside of your group. This “othering” is the basis for all forms of discrimination, where individuals come to represent entire communities and associations come to represent the whole. Where this falls apart is at the individual level. It’s hard to believe in baseless generalizations when you meet someone that can readily disprove them. For example, I admit that I used to have some internalized peladophobia, or fear of bald people. This probably stems from the fact that I can count the hairs on my fathers head. I used to fear them and fear becoming them until I met bald people and found out that there’s many reasons people go bald and that should be celebrated. My fear has now shifted to balding people. For me, the idea that you’re losing the battle and don’t want people to comment is really truly terrifying. Don’t worry, I’m working on it, and I’m sure not all balding people are scary. Or at least theoretically I do. 

Speaking of this separation from oneself and others, last year I came to the realization that I am non-binary. No, that does not mean I’m against computer coding. Although I am pretty bad with tech. What this means for me is that I do not associate myself with the characteristics assigned to maleness and femaleness. I prefer to use non-gendered pronouns and language and prefer to dress, act, and essentially perform my identity, through my gender as I see fit. 

Binaries are useful in reducing complexity and presenting a limited number of options. It’s either this or that, no nuance. While this may be helpful to those who are indecisive, as a whole the lack of variability with binaries leads to miscategorizations and exceptions to the rule.For example, if someone was to ask you whether you felt happy or sad at this moment, how would you respond? You might answer one way or another out of courtesy, but really this question implies a constant, rigid separation. To juxtapose these two is to assume that someone is always either happy or sad, that someone is always feeling energized or tired, healthy or sick, and further masculine or feminine.

Labels are sometimes helpful, in that they ascribe a set of characteristics with particular associations and help people group together individuals who share an identity. But the reality is that many of these labels are not so simple. Where are you from? Well you presumably live in San Diego, but you may be from out of state, or international, you may also have family that is not from here or have lived somewhere else in your life. But it’s easier to choose an answer in a certain context than to chart your family tree at the function. 

Labels tend to stick. When you try to change how you identify yourself, people may remember a version of you that no longer exists. You’re not a baby any more, not a kid, yet every time I visit my Irish family I’m a 5 year old all over again. Sometimes this isn’t so bad. It’s hard to keep up with people and it’s good to update them when you can, but it’s also true that people are resistant to change. Their memory of you can become their understanding of you and it can be hard to break that habit. There’s a disconnect from the self and the perceived self and in some ways this disconnect can “other” you from yourself. This is a universal experience. People change, but it’s easier to think that the world is static around you than to consider that everyone changes. The reality is, to put it bluntly, that to be static is to not be alive. 

The phrase “social construct” is often thrown around to describe everything from gender to capitalism. But these descriptions are poignant. Really, at the end of the day, many of the things we take for granted are fabricated, diluted, and given more importance than is really necessary. Going back to “othering” it’s easier to create boxes to put people into than it is to ask why make boxes at all?  Or why so few? Society constructs convenient narratives that often go unquestioned. But they’re not convenient for all. Have you ever been told that you’re something you know you’re not? When someone identifies you as something you’re not, you exist as an outlier to their understanding of the world. If someone incorrectly assumes something fundamental to your character it can often be a jarring experience. It plays with your self concept. But people can’t be expected to know you fully or get everything perfect all the time right? And while that might be true, it doesn’t mean it can’t affect you. 

So we’ve talked about labels, binaries, and constructions, but all of these are essentially the same issue. They all have to do with language and its limitations. The idea that you have to find a label that fits you for other people to identify you by, or identify with you, implies that there is a label to be found. And sometimes there is. I didn’t know that there was a community of bald-phobics until I found the word peladophobia. Other times language, or even just English, doesn’t seem fit to conceptualize an aspect of identity. Connotations come with labels, and so do binaries. You either have a given label or you do not. So again we’re stuck in social constructions mainly because convenience is the enemy of nuance. 

When it comes to identifications, it’s usually best to ask before you assume. Yes, it does make things complicated when you have to double-check, but at least you will know for sure. This matters especially for the people you are close to. For me, it’s the effort that counts. Effort shows that you care about someone’s identity and that can mean a lot. It’s the least you can do to help make the “other” familiar.  

Image courtesy of Unsplash