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By Sharmadean Reid
eros and Ones, Zeros and Ones. Humans like pattern and order, they like boxes and pigeon holes and things that make it easy for their brain to recognise what is in front of them. You can be a Mom but you can’t work. You can be a Madonna or Whore. You can be an Ambitious or an Introvert, but you can’t be both. But what about The Space Between? The journey as you move through the binaries is an underrated part of the lived experience.
The term nonbinary originally comes from systems and math.
Definition of non-binary
: not binary: such as
a) : not restricted to two things or parts non-binary voting
b) : of, relating to, or being a system of numbers that does not use 2 as its base non-binary math
c) : relating to or being a person who identifies with or expresses a gender identity that is neither entirely male nor entirely female
What is beautiful about language is that when terms become popularised they can often redefine the meaning of a word. The process of a word’s evolution also becomes part of it’s story.
So, while this essay is not specifically about nonbinary sex or gender, we owe a lot to the research on this for a general theory of Non Binary Thinking. Systems that say there is a left and right, a right and a wrong. But have you ever considered what it would mean to be on a thinking spectrum?
You Exist On A Spectrum
Let’s go back to sexuality to learn how we might apply this Non-binary Thinking method day-to-day. As a budding sociology student, I first learned about the Kinsey Scale as a teen
Drs. Alfred Kinsey, Wardell Pomeroy, and Clyde Martin developed the Heterosexual-Homosexual Rating Scale – more commonly known as “The Kinsey Scale.” First published in Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948), the scale accounted for research findings that showed people did not fit into exclusive heterosexual or homosexual categories. At the time, it was completely revolutionary, upending America’s widely held beliefs that you were either gay or straight.
The Kinsey Scale does not address all possible sexual identities. The Klein Sexual Orientation Grid and the Storms Scale have stepped in to further define sexual expression and how it can be subjective. But it was the first time I started to place myself on a spectrum and accept it was perfectly natural to be neither here nor there, but existing, existing on an ever-moving sliding scale.
Think about it: from birth, you’re being sorted: 95% quantile for birth weight and height, top set in maths, A* in English and endless, endless exams. But you’re an adult now, you don’t actually have to put yourself in a box anymore. You can afford to give yourself more flexibility and fluidity.
Non-Binary Thinking is about accepting that there is no either/or. Another term borrowed from mathematics is ‘mutually exclusive’, a statistical term describing two or more events that cannot happen simultaneously.
Again, where people will try and construct a narrative of you and for you, they have limited information and so focus on what you cannot do but elements of your existence don't need to be mutually exclusive. After all, others can’t possibly hold the multiple visions you have for yourself in their mind.
“We open our eyes and we think we're seeing the whole world out there. But what has become clear—and really just in the last few centuries—is that when you look at the electro-magnetic spectrum we are seeing less than 1/10 Billionth of the information that's riding on there. So we call that visible light. But everything else passing through our bodies is completely invisible to us.” ― David Eagleman
Life Is A Continuum, Not Static.
I try to approach the world with the attitude that everything is constantly in flux, in motion, on a spectrum like a light spectrum. When I practice Non-Binary Thinking, it means that whatever my beliefs are, I accept they are liable to change in the future and this is perfectly natural as my circumstances and knowledge changes, because I am a constant work in progress.
“The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects.” - Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948)
Binary Thinking Suits Advertisers And Politicians
Binary thinking creates a world of black and white. Things are good or bad. Something is wrong or right. Binary thinking is safe, but binary thinking is repressive.
So why do we do it? Has it been orchestrated that we are divisive? We are living in one of the most politically polarizing eras, but for advertisers, that's a good thing. Fake News for the far right gets more page views, which in turn gets more advertising revenue, so someone is winning here, but it sure ain’t society.
“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion...” ― Noam Chomsky, The Common Good
Now, more than ever, we need to be extra vigilant. The biggest companies in the world, all news channels, and media, are based around binary thinking. The world and its systems want to categorize you so you’re easier to predict. When you can be classified, you can be sold to.
There’s nothing more frustrating to an advertiser than a mystery, someone who’s next move is unpredictable. That's what binary is: predictable. Safe. If someone is left- or right-wing, geek or jock, hood or preppy, you know what they’re going to do. You know how they're going to shop and places they might frequent. For binary thinkers, all hell breaks loose when they can no longer predict how you will think and behave. They lose their control.
Binary Thinking Harms The Individual
While it’s possible to see from a single day of watching the news on TV what binary thinking does for society, it can also be harmful for the individual. Binary, with its ones and zeroes, works well in machines, but humans aren't programmed that way. Our thinking changes. Our bodies change. Everything is flexible and malleable.
Have you ever met someone who has planned out their life from a young age? Determined to marry the dream partner, live in the dream house and have the “perfect” life? Charlotte York had a binary way of thinking. She was determined that her man was tall, dark and handsome and nothing else would do. She was stuck in a win/lose mindset and it was making her miserable.
It's more fortuitous to think “what's right for me right now?” rather than “what's right and what's wrong?” By ignoring the fact that everything evolves, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment. And risking all the weird and wonderful parts of life that exist in the messy grey areas.
Harry was the definition of messy, he was not the vision Charlotte had for herself. But they worked, and that's all that matters.
Society Wants Women To Be Binary - It’s Easier To Control
As women, we face an immense amount of binary thinking pressure. We’re expected to prioritize starting a family over a career once we reach a certain age. To men, we’re either agreeable and ladylike or bossy and ‘too much’.
Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar break this down stunningly in The Madwoman in the Attic. Their version replaces the binary 1 and 0 with an angel and a monster. A sense that women are categorized by men as being either angelic and agreeable or monstrous and unruly, and that all women find themselves struggling to find their happy, authentic medium between the two.
“...the pruning and preening, the mirror madness, and concern with odours and aging, with hair which is invariably too curly or too lank, with bodies too thin or too thick - all this testifies to the efforts women have expended not just trying to be angels but trying not to become female monsters."
What this passage demonstrates is the immense pressure of women to fit into those neat little boxes. We must be one or the other. A wholesome, agreeable angel or an unpredictable, feared monster.
We put ourselves out to be the version of ourselves others want us to be. Throughout history, there’s been a strong resistance, by both our male counterparts and consequently ourselves, to avoid exploring all the shades of grey in between.
The Space Between
I’ve recently been reading Glitch Feminism by Legacy Russell who is using the space between genders as a revolutionary act.
“Glitched bodies - those that do not align with the canon of white cisgender heteronormativity - pose a threat to social order. Range-full and vast, they cannot be programmed.” ― Legacy Russell, Glitch Feminism
I used to always be obsessed with 3 Circle Venn Diagrams, but now I’m thinking of pulling apart the boxes and finding pleasure in discovering what’s between the circles. The nebulous part that cojoins one binary to another but with nothing tangible holding it together. What will I learn in the space between?
Strong Opinions, Weakly Held
The New Method here is to practice non-binary thinking. That doesn’t mean to not have an opinion – absolutely have opinions and conviction in what you believe. A more flexible approach is to work with the ethos "strong opinions weakly held".
Technology forecaster and Stanford University professor Paul Saffo breaks this down in a simple way:
"Allow your intuition to guide you to a conclusion, no matter how imperfect — this is the 'strong opinion' part. Then – and this is the 'weakly held' part – prove yourself wrong. Engage in creative doubt. Look for information that doesn't fit or indicators that point in an entirely different direction. Eventually, your intuition will kick in, and a new hypothesis will emerge out of the rubble, ready to be ruthlessly torn apart once again. You will be surprised by how quickly the sequence of faulty forecasts will deliver you to a useful result."
By avoiding binary thinking, you control your own narrative. Whatever your life is, whether you're a housewife or a high-powered CEO, you call the shots and you live authentically in all the grey areas you please. Internally, you start to keep an open mind that welcomes new ideas. Imagine the opportunities you unlock when you open your mind and test your views and perspectives.
Once you start making the shift, encourage non-binary thinking across your daily life and conversations. The best people are those who are open to having their minds changed.
Hold your conviction strongly for what you believe in while being flexible on what you might feel next. Who knows, tomorrow you might feel completely different.
1.) Reflect on your binaries. What things are deal-breakers for you. Why? Who set this law in motion for your life?
2.) Practice the idea of “strong opinions weakly held” across all aspects of your life. Welcome opportunities to challenge yourself and your beliefs. Choose to step out of your comfort zone when given the chance.
3.) Be empowered by the idea that everything is on a spectrum and is constantly in flux. What you believe today could all change by tomorrow. Recognize that changing your mind – or other people changing theirs – isn’t a bad thing. It means you’re learning and are opening yourself up to all that’s around you.
4.) What’s in the space between for you? Rather than focus on the edges or the endings, what’s in the middle?
Systems often say there is a left and right, a right and a wrong, but have you considered what it would mean to be on a thinking spectrum?
By Sharmadean Reid
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