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how the narrow/broad binary works on us
hello hello! This month’s email is about the structure and specific impacts of a particular binary that I think is present under the surface for many of us — in our ways of thinking about/approaching ourselves, our relationships and communities, and people more broadly. Because this isn’t unique to any particular binary — most binaries work this way — it’s my hope that as we dig into this particular construction, we can learn to notice the many levels at which binaries are working on us.
This particular binary touches on some tender places for me, as I think back on communities and in particular, some organizing I was part of from 2016-2020. My goal, as always, is not to make anyone wrong or bad in this consideration and description, but to bring as much curiosity and specificity as possible. No single person or community is responsible for binary approaches — binaries are something we’ve been living with and under for centuries, and sometimes they encourage us towards some pretty punitive behavior.
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If any of this resonates with you, and/or if you find things I’ve inevitably missed, I’d love to hear them!
Sending you much care,
A couple of emails ago, I talked about one assumption of binary structure, which is that each side is a negation of the other. Every binary can be written as this / not this.
(If you haven’t seen that email (or want a refresher), you can find that description and a larger overview of binaries here.)
Today I want to talk about a specific iteration of the this/not this binary. Binary construction makes it look like both sides are equal — that “this” and “not this” take up the same amount of space. Two halves of a whole.
But in most cases, this seemingly equal two-option binary is actually made up of one very narrow category on one side, and everything that doesn’t fit into that specific category on the other.
If we illustrate this process using the this/not this binary, where the “this” side is highly specific and the “not this” category is extremely broad — containing everything else besides the one specific thing on the other side, it can look something like the photo below:
This construction creates a particular kind of binary bind, one where if something doesn’t fit precisely into an exact, highly specific and narrow category, then it’s automatically on the other side of the binary. And because the one side of the binary is so specific, the “not this” side grows to encompass almost everything else.
This binary has its roots in a lot of places, but a really strong one is in christianity — the idea that the way to salvation is extremely narrow, while the way to destruction is broad and wide.1
three levels of binary logic
We’re going to come back to narrow/broad and how it shows up, but/and this might be a good place to pause and look at the levels at which binaries work on us. Because binaries underpin so many systems of domination and harm like capitalism, ableism, colonialism, white supremacy, they work on all of us, and on each of us, in particular ways. So while we aren’t all having the same experience (because the point of these systems is to create an extensively structured hierarchical culture/society), many of us are having experiences that feel individual but are actually patterned by binary thinking or approaches.
This certainly isn’t the only way to organize or describe how binary systems function (if you have one that you like or that works better for your brain I would love to hear it). And, like most categories, they aren’t clear, or neat — often they bleed into one another and there are probably plenty of experiences that don’t fit into any of these in particular. Given all these caveats, here’s how I’d describe these levels:
individual: how we how we relate to ourselves: the thoughts, feelings, narratives and stories we have about ourselves and our internal experience of the world.
relational: how we relate to other people - how we think and feel about our friends, our partners, our families, our coworkers; the narratives we have and the assumptions we make about other people.
cultural: how society relates to or categorizes or treats people - how people, at a large scale, are encouraged to think, feel, assume, create stories about particular groups of people, or to even group people in particular ways in the first place.
Here are some random notes I have on this way of thinking about binaries and how they work on us:
It can sometimes be helpful to think of binaries and systems as fractals — the same narratives and ways of relating to ourselves, each other, and at the larger scale of society/culture appear at all three levels. Things like the good/bad binary, reward/punishment, discarding someone or putting them on a pedestal — we talk about them a little differently at each level, but at their core they’re the same approaches. The structure is the same no matter the scale. This is why looking at any level of binary thinking can be so useful - because the patterns show up over and over.
When we talk about systems, we’re talking about millions of people making decisions, assumptions, and moving in particular ways every day. And because the term “systems” describes patterns of behavior or decision-making at a large scale, there are always some important caveats. As James Olivia Chu-Hillman so helpfully pointed out for me once, because systems are made up of people, who are both predictable and unpredictable, in some ways it’s impossible to completely predict or describe how massive and deeply entrenched systems like capitalism or ableism will work. We can both acknowledge the patterns of experience these systems create, and also remember that no system is totally in control of everything. There’s no god or creator or singular person in charge of the system; just people at every level of power making choices and decisions and reactions.
Each of these ways of functioning depends, in a large part, on us not questioning the ways we relate to ourselves and each other — the thoughts, feelings, assumptions, and stories we have about ourselves and the people around us, or the people we don’t even know but hear about through media, anecdotes, education, etc.
All of this means our experience of systems like capitalism is complex and confusing and seemingly chaotic, even as it’s also highly structured and predictable.
I’m not going to talk much about how the narrow/broad binary shows up at the larger level of culture/society today, but I’m happy to chat about it in the comments or if you want to reply to this email. (And I’ll probably write about it more in the future too.)
how this/not this works on our relationship to self
If we return to the this/not this binary and how it shows up in our relationship with ourselves, we might notice it most often around achieving something or changing how we do our lives: taking on a new project, tackling something for our health, learning a new skill, anything where we might feel pressure to achieve something in a specific way.
Here the binary can show up where we think/believe that unless something happens in the exact specific way we’ve been told it must happen, all attempts are failure or that we’re a failure. The “thing,” whatever it is, only counts if we achieve it in an extremely specific and narrowly defined way, or can only be achieved by very specific, narrow means.
This binary says, do the thing, or don’t do it. Do or do not, there is no try. Or written another way, trying and not succeeding immediately means you are a failure (and in some cases this situation might be worse than not even trying at all, according to the logic of this binary).
In this kind of construction, everything that is not the single right way of being or doing is on the other side of the binary: wrong or bad or inadequate or whatever word we were raised with. Which means that everything besides one specific way of being, of behaving, of living, or achieving, becomes a problem. And here’s where we get into neoliberalism, which is rooted in the right/wrong, good/bad binary: if you’re a problem, then you become punishable and disposable. So it keeps us in a kind of exhausting place where we always have to be striving to be better at, or achieving something, and there’s not really room for other ways of living or being.
how we work it on each other: one-on-one
This narrow/broad binary can also show up in relationships or communities, where if someone isn’t doing something in the exact way I or we want or need, it can really feel like they aren’t doing it at all.
I’m going to break this one down at the level of 1:1 relationships and then look at it at the level of community.
In 1:1 relationships, this binary often appears when we have a need that we want or expect someone to meet for us, especially a need rooted in past trauma and/or attachment, and/or when we’re reacting, as my therapist likes to remind me, out of our autonomic responses that put us in flight/fight/freeze.
This is not to say that these needs don’t need tending — it’s so normal and human to have needs. The binary kicks in when we start demanding (usually to find some sense of safety or okayness that will signal to our nervous system that we can calm down) that people respond to us, or support us, or behave around us in particular ways, or it doesn’t count at all, and when we start shaming or judging or blaming them when they don’t, won’t or can’t.
It can feel so tricky when we’re in deep friendship or romantic relationship, because of course all of our attachment stuff shows up in order to be tended or listened to. But I think we can forget sometimes that we and the people we love, especially if we love them wildly or deeply or profoundly, are both really connected to us in a way where the idea of separation may not always make sense, and a separate entity from us at the same time, like how at one level of physics everything is solid, and a table can’t be a person, and how at another quantum level there’s no way for a table and a person to be counted as separate entities with any kind of sense. Or how the more scientists study fungi, the less it’s possible to see plants and fungi as separate beings.
It might be helpful here to note/remember that the nonbinary approach of allowing two seemingly opposing things to be true at the same time is something that the universe, and life on this particular planet, seems to do as a matter of course all the time.
The thing the binary sets up here is a demand for a highly specific way of relating, and shame, criticism, blame, when someone doesn’t do that particular behavior. Underneath that is the idea that the person making the demand is righteous, good, or justified, and that the other person is trash, horrible, a bad person, or [insert whatever lable you yourself might have heard or said here].
how we work it on each other: in groups
This shows up really similarly in communities and group spaces, where anything that isn’t one specific way of relating can fall onto the “not this” side of the binary.
This can look like: using different language than the group has decided is acceptable or right or good or best, not fitting into spoken or unspoken social norms, having different politics or views on things than the rest of the group, different ways of expressing yourself, disagreeing with decisions, especially if you don’t do it in the way that the group has consciously or unconsciously decided is correct… I’m sure we could add to this list. And we can see it everywhere: from the ways many of us were taught as children how to be polite in our culture, to the total demonization of trans people in the current round of “conservatives need to panic about something,” to the ways that leftist and progressive organizing or movements ostracize people who don’t believe or approach things in the same way as the rest of the group. Anyone who doesn’t fit into the narrow definition of “right” or “good” or “correct” or “this is just how we do things,” can’t be in the group.
And I don’t know how this will land in your body — mine feels all kinds of squirmy writing this sentence, and not the fun kind — but differences in thought and language and behavior are actually just that — difference. We get to decide how we want to relate to them, given our values and past experiences and desires and fears and relative power and all the other things that make up the soup of our selves and communities in this particular time and place. One beautiful and terrifying part of nonbinary approaches is that there isn’t some person in the sky or holding a scoreboard keeping track of who’s right or wrong or best or worst. There’s just people trying to figure out how to live, and doing a whole lot of fuckshit as we go.
the binary within the narrow/broad binary
The construction of one narrow, specific category and a broader “not this” category itself isn’t necessarily the issue here — there are times when it’s super helpful to have clarity about what you need, and knowing “this isn’t it” is such a helpful tool in figuring out where we need more space, or have needs that aren’t currently getting met.
I think we can sense in our bodies that this kind of construction, while designed to make us, whether individually or as part of a community, feel secure and good, is pretty shaky (and intolerable if you’re on the not this side), and has foundations in punishment culture and in the good/bad right/wrong binary. Under this structure, we feel secure, or in control if we are on the narrow, specific, good/correct side of the binary, and we feel horrible and like there’s no way out of this bind if we’re on the other side of it, because anything we do that isn’t the highly specific behavior can be dismissed and labeled as any number of “problematic” or incorrect behaviors.
And this really gets at the heart of the binary here: the binary doesn’t stop at just categorizing or sorting. It communicates that everything that isn’t this one specific way of relating is not just different, but is bad, or wrong. And when someone or something can be labeled bad or wrong, we’ve been taught in our culture that that makes it justifiable to punish, discard, jail, criminalize, banish, or dispose of them. And that’s the actual issue at the root of this construction, and why it can be so painful to experience being on the “not this side,” and why being on the “this” side can feel so shaky, precarious, and rigid.
humans are more like a slime mold than a brick wall
(If you don’t know what slime molds are, I highly recommend this article that my dear friend Abe sent me).
The many iterations of the narrow/broad this/not this binary don’t allow for change, or growth or evolution, or emergence, or any of the more human ways of being we’re constantly experiencing and doing.
The binary doesn’t allow any space for learning, for being a human with different needs than other people (or the same needs that you can’t or won’t override). It doesn’t allow for changing your mind, or trying something and being mediocre or a beginner. It doesn’t allow for difference to be needed, or even for it to exist, or for there to be mistakes or changes in any direction.
It’s got a kind of rigidity, and rigidity always tells us that something is being protected.
I want to be very clear that I’m not here to shame anyone for where you recognize or see yourself (or vindicate you for where you see other people landing) in this binary. It’s so easy to flip the binary from “anyone who doesn’t do this highly specific behavior is bad” to “anyone who demands a specific way of relating or behavior is wrong or bad,” which has us right back in the same kind of logic of dismissing or disposing of people.
The reality is, all of us have been raised to some extent in binary approaches, and while it’s basically impossible to prove an absolute, I strongly suspect that each of us have been on both sides of this binary at various points in time. Which makes sense! This binary has roots in the desire to experience safety in a world that’s filled with a lot of violence and disconnection. I would be so happy to tell you all the ways I’m still leaning on this binary in my personal and collective life — just reply to this email! 😂
Given all that, I think it’s much more interesting to ask ourselves and each other, what do these experiences of trying to find safety in this way do to and for you? and what does the experience of not measuring up or experiencing punishment do to and for us?
And while it’s a totally human thing to notice what doesn’t work for us, how do we communicate or act on these needs or desires without picking up the tools of the good/bad binary?
If answering the questions above feels totally impossible, I invite you to use this more curious, side-ways set of questions, and see what you notice over this next month.
In what spaces/contexts do you feel like a failure, or like you don’t measure up?
What in you needs or is seeking protection, or a sense of safety?
What methods of protection are you using (on yourself, on the people in your life)?
What’s something that really irritates or angers you? What do you wish were different, in your relationships, your communities?
As you think about these things, what sensations do you notice in your body?
I’m sending much love to all the parts of us who are seeking safety, the parts who are tired of being ostracized, the parts who feel the grief of how a culture rooted in punishment and disposability make a world that is very hard to live in, and to the parts of all of us who continue to look for different ways to be.
from one slime mold to another,