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Binary nature of language considered harmful January 10, 2014

Posted by ethlite in Uncategorized.

It recently occurred to me that words are inherently binary, in that it divides the world into two – into what is and what isn’t that word. For example, the word “red” divides the world of colors into “red” and “not red”, but there’s a lot more to purple and brown simply “not red”. Pretty banal observation, but then I started thinking about further implications…

For example, conservative/liberal are actually two words for one way of looking at political views, but it is just one out of potentially infinite number, and therein lies the problem. Which is that it obscures all other ways of thinking about politics. Imagine a painter that only knows “red” and “not red”, that’s how our political views are being shaped right now.

It’s perhaps no accident that the mainstream media is perpetually preoccupied with presenting everything in terms of liberal/conservative divide, because it prevents anything else other than the two party system from getting traction. For example, mixed proportional representation does not fit into the liberal/conservative narrative, and as such it actually poses an existential threat to the status quo and will never be taken seriously until we recognize what’s going on. I think of myself as leaning liberal, but there are times I disagree with the Democrats. That doesn’t mean I am confused or wrong, it just means the language we use is too limited and needs to be expanded.

Posing a yes/no question is a great way to lock one into a false dichotomy, because it prevents one from thinking about anything else. That’s why No Smoking signs actually work against smoking cessation, because it keeps smokers thinking about smoking. Once a smoker starts thinking about (not) smoking, it’s only a matter of time before they give in, because willpower is finite after all.

Another example is masculine/feminine divide. We grab a bunch of random personality traits and forcibly assign them to one gender or the other. Why is being nurturing considered feminine and being aggressive masculine? What do those traits have to do with reproductive organs? It staggers me to think how much damage this way of thinking has done to our society on a massive scale. How many men are forced to hide their “feminine side” or made to feel ashamed of being caring and considerate? How many women are afraid to be assertive because they would be socially ostracized for being unfeminine?

It seems to me that the vast majority of personality traits have little or nothing to do with sex organs. As a result of trying to explain personality traits in terms of gender, we are forced to come up with all sort of ridiculous theories about why men are this way and women are that way, when the problem all along was the unnecessary division of personality traits into the gender binary. Even expanding the binary into a spectrum doesn’t help. Defining personality traits along a spectrum along male/female line is no more useful than defining colors in terms of tonal value (aka grayscale). Defining colors this way is useful only to the colorblind (no disrespect to the colorblind intended)

Contrary to the title, the binary nature of language is not in itself harmful, and in any case cannot be avoided. We simply need to recognize this inherent limit of language and not get locked into false dichotomies. Remember that words are merely a way to model reality, not reality itself, and that “yes and no” can often be the most accurate answer to a “yes or no” question. Whenever asked “a simple yes or no question”, resist the framing and look sideways to see what the question is obscuring.



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