Friday, April 26, 2019

"Non-Binary" means "Non-Binary"...Mostly...Right?

A "gender non-binary female?"

Seeing the interview of Asia Kate Dillon on Late Night with Seth Meyers, I was struck by one statement -- one that suggests an insidious problem of binary thinking that pervades many of the current ills in our society. Dillon (who prefers the pronoun "they") reported gaining insight into their gender identity from the character description for their role in Billions as "a gender non-binary female," saying: “I just didn’t understand how those words could exist next to each other.”

What struck me was the questioning of how these words could be sensibly put together. Why would anyone ask that question? As I though more, I saw this as a perfect example of the much broader problem.

The curse of binary thinking

The question I ask is at a semantic level: how could that not be obvious? (regardless of one's views on gender identity). Doesn't the issue arise only if one interprets "female" in a binary way? I would have thought that one who identifies as "non-binary" would see beyond this conceptual trap of simplistic duality. Wouldn't a non-binary person be more non-binary in their thinking? Wouldn't it be obvious to a non-binary thinker that this is a matter of being non-binary and female, not of being non-binary or female?

It seems that binary thinking is so ingrained in our culture that we default to black and white readings when it is clear that most of life (outside of pure mathematics) is painted in shades of gray. It is common to think of some "females" as masculine, and some "males" as effeminate. Some view such terms as pejorative, but what is the reality? Why wouldn't a person presumed at birth to be female (for the usual blend of biological reasons) be able to be non-binary in a multitude of ways. Even biologically "female" has a multitude of aspects, which usually generally align, but sometimes diverge. Clearly, as to behavior in general and as to sexual orientation, there seems to be a spectrum, with many degrees in each of many dimensions (some barely noticed, some hard to miss).

So I write about this as an object lesson of how deeply the binary, black or white thinking or our culture distorts our view of the more deeply nuanced reality. Even one who sees themself as non-binary has a hard time escaping binary thinking. Why can the word "female" not be appropriate for a non-binary person (as we all are to some degree) -- one who has birth attributes that were ostensibly female. Isn't it just a fallacy of binary thinking to think it is not OK for a non-binary person to also be female? That a female cannot be non-binary?

I write about this because I have long taken issue with binary thinking. This is not to meant to criticize this actor in any way, but to sympathize broadly with the prevalence of this kind of blindness and absolutism in our culture. It is to empathize with those who suffer from being thought of in binary ways that fail to recognize the non-binary richness of life -- and those who suffer from thinking of themselves in a binary way. That is a harm that occurs to most of us at one time or another. As Whitman said:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
The bigger picture

Gender is just one of the host of current crises of binary thinking that lead to extreme polarization of all kinds. Political divides. The more irreconcilable divide over whether leadership must serve all of their constituency, or just those who support the leader, right or wrong. Fake news. Free speech and truth on campus vs. censorship for some zone of safety for binary thinkers. Trickle-down versus progressive economics. Capitalism versus socialism. Immigrant versus native. One race or religion versus another. Isn't the recent focus of some on "intersectionality" just an extension of binary thinking to multiple binary dimensions? Thinking in terms of binary categories (rather that category spectrums) distances and demonizes the other, blinded from seeing how much common ground there is.

The Tao symbol (which appears elsewhere in this blog) is a perfect illustration of my point, and an age-old symbol of the non-dualistic thinking central to some Asian traditions (I just noticed the irony of the actor's first name as I wrote this sentence!). We have black and white intertwined, and the dot of contrast indicates that each contains it opposite. That suggests that all females have some male in them (however large or small, and in whatever aspect) and all males have some female in them (much as some males would think that a blood libel).

Things are not black or white, but black and white. And even if nearly black or white in a single dimension, single dimensions rarely matter to the larger picture of any issue. I think we should all make a real effort to remind ourselves that that is the case for almost every issue of importance.


(I do not profess to be "woke," but do very much try to be "awakened" and accepting of the wondrous richness of our world. My focus here is on binary and non-binary thinking, itself. I use gender identity as the example only because of this statement that struck me. If I misunderstand or express my ideas inartfully in this fraught domain, that is not my intent. I hope it is taken in the spirit of finding greater understanding that is intended.)

(In that vein, I accept that there may be complex issues specific to gender and identity that go counter to my semantic argument in some respects. But my non-binary view is that that broader truth of non-duality still over-arches. And in an awakened non-binary world, the current last word can never be known to be the future last word.)

(See also the short post just below on the theme of this blog.)

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