Binary oppositions

By Joanna Chojnicka

Over the last few months, I have been thinking a lot about… binary thinking. Seeing and understanding the world in black-and-white. How the whole intricacy and complicatedness of a problem gets reduced to two apparently contradictory options that may have actually little to do with the original issue. We saw it with Brexit, where the social, cultural, and environmental change, the influence of neoliberal capitalism and globalisation, emancipatory movements, various shades and aspects of migration, racism, and lots of other issues suddenly became the simple choice between Leave or Exit.

Binary thinking is not new, of course. The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss claimed that some basic binary pairs, such as ‘life’ vs. ‘death’, ‘maternal’ vs. ‘paternal’, ‘good’ vs. ‘evil’, or ‘raw’ vs. ‘cooked’, constituted the building blocks of myths, out of which we, humans, developed the ability to think conceptually.

One of the founders of modern linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure, has said that “in language there are only differences”. Concepts do not have meanings on their own, but only in relation to one another. As explained by Arthur A. Berger, a communication and media scholar (emphases mine): “Concepts are purely differential and defined not by their positive content but negatively by their relations with the other terms of the system” (p. 117). It is not “content” that determines meaning, but “relations” in some kind of a system. The “most precise characteristic” of these concepts “is in being what the others are not” (p. 117). “Signs function, then, not through their intrinsic value but through their relative position” (p. 118).

We often rely on binary oppositions when thinking about groups of people. We think about our own group – on whichever basis it is defined in the given moment – and its fellow representatives in positive terms, and we attach positive connotations and symbolic meanings to them, their characteristics and attributes. Whichever group of people we consider as our “Other”, we tend to conceptualize it in negative terms, and attach negative connotations and symbols to it.

An unsavoury example is thinking about human beings in terms of race, and the binary juxtaposition of ‘white’ vs. ‘black’. ‘White’ has prevailingly positive connotations and symbolises the good, pure, innocent, right. ‘Black’ has mostly negative connotations and symbolises the bad, spoilt, guilty, wrong. The words white and black are colour labels, carrying these particular connotative/symbolic meanings. With regard to people, they cannot be (although they usually are) considered literal skin colour descriptions. They are used symbolically and evaluatively instead.

Note also that in this case, ‘white’ is not merely “better” than ‘black’ but also functions as a default, standard, unmarked option. Barrack Obama is “the first black president of the USA” – calling Bill Clinton or George W. Bush “white presidents” sound strange (and rarely happens). That’s because their whiteness is the default and thus does not need to be mentioned.

Applying binary logic to race commits uncountable fallacies. It is impossible to define and clearly distinguish whiteness and blackness. There is no single characteristic associated with whiteness and blackness that applies to absolutely all ‘white’ and ‘black’ people.

Similarly challenging – and politically risky – is the analysis of the pair ‘man’ and ‘woman’. Let us start by assuming the privilege of men over women in patriarchal societies as a fact. This privilege is a social system, supported by many men and women and opposed by many men and women. It does not mean that every man discriminates against women (or that in a non-patriarchal society no man discriminates against women). Rather, it means that “cultural ideologies” favour men, that “social institutions” reflect these ideologies, and that “men as a group” benefit “from the subordination of women as a group”, without denying the “great disparities” that exist in the advantages available “to individual men or subgroups of men in relation to other men and to women”[1].

Privileging of the concepts ‘man’ and ‘male’, as well as their connotations, over ‘woman’ and ‘female’ and their connotations, forms a part of an ideological basis of such a patriarchal culture. Masculinity defines “essential humanity” (note the use of the word man to refer to any human being[2]), becomes “invisible” and “normative”[3]. The fact that the male perspective masks itself as “universal” and sets the “objective” standards, measures and norms for human behaviour serves a gate-keeping function. Women are first prevented from learning these (apparently universal) standards as they are socialized differently than men, and next are denied access to specific domains (earlier citizenship, then higher education, high positions in politics/business, etc.) on the account of not meeting these very standards (see the previous post on women and language).

The connotations associated with maleness and femaleness have been discussed thoroughly by feminist scholars. For example, ‘male’ may typically be associated with rationality, and ‘female’ with irrationality or emotionality. Employing these oppositions allows us to construct maleness in an evaluative way – for example, as giving us closer insights into truth and reality – with femaleness correspondingly characterised negatively by error and delusion[4].

An interesting insight from the research on proverbs and idioms comes from Norwegian: Mannevett ‘man’s sense’ means common sense, which is a good thing, whereas kvinnelist ‘female cunning’ is generally bad, and kvinnelogikk ‘woman’s logic’ is, of course, the opposite of “logic”[5].

Here, the connotations of ‘male’ include rationality, common sense, and logic; of ‘female’ – irrationality, emotionality, error, delusion, deception. Associating men with rational thinking, logic, the mind, science, culture, strength, etc. is not based on their “real” superiority over women in terms of reason[6], but serves to support a particular social status quo where men remain in control over domains of significance – and over women. The association of women with emotions, feelings, the heart, nature, weakness etc. functions to justify their exclusion from the public sphere and their isolation and seclusion in the private sphere of their homes. [This isolation, to draw a parallel to Marx’s class analysis, prevents women from developing a group consciousness and organizing resistance[7].]

Note also that all connotations of ‘male’ are positive and of ‘female’ – negative. Below are some more examples, and the list could definitely be continued.
‘male’:                ‘female’:
‘reason’               ‘feeling’
‘rationality’         ‘emotionality’
‘objectivity’         ‘subjectivity’
‘mind’                 ‘heart’
‘science’              ‘intuition’
‘public’                ‘private’
‘political’             ‘personal’

There are numerous problems with this list that reflect problematic issues in binary thinking in general. Among other things,

  • these concepts are sweeping generalizations (not all men are reasonable and not all women are emotional);
  • they are often perceived as inherent characteristics of men/women while they are actually products of socialization (e.g. boys are raised for leadership while girls are raised for supportive roles);
  • the fact that we perceive the concepts on the left as positive and on the right as negative may have more to do with societal power relations than with their “objective” value (e.g. prioritization of competition over cooperation);
  • pairs of concepts are presented as if they excluded each other (is it really impossible for a person to be both rational and emotional?) or as if they were the only possible options without anything in between or other alternatives[8];
  • some of these distinctions simply do not hold (anymore?): the role of intuition in science is appreciated[9], the boundaries between the public and the private sphere are becoming blurred[10], and “personal is political”[11].

But perhaps the most central and basic issue at work in both creating lists like the one above and deconstructing/criticising them is the fact that the distinction between the original pair of concepts, ‘man’ and ‘woman’, is taken for granted[12].

Binary thinking reproduces the “heterosexual matrix”[13] where masculine men desire women and feminine women desire men, diminishing the amazing diversity of human behaviours, identities and lifestyles. Additionally, it is ethnocentric in that it universalizes the “western” understanding of gender and gender roles and norms[14].


[1] Gardiner 2004: 36.
[2] This is actually a very good test for the thesis that ‘man’ is privileged over ‘woman’. Some of us still consider such formulations as “Every man dies, not every man really lives” as referring to both men and women, and do not see them as problematic. However, to claim that the sentence “Every woman dies, not every woman really lives” refers to both men and women would be considered ridiculous. In a society where women were truly equal to men, this would not seem appalling.
[3] Gardiner 2004: 36.
[4] Hepburn 2002: 265.
[5] Bull & Swan 2002: 239.
[6] Gardiner 2004: 36.
[8] The “fallacy of bifurcation”: “considering a distinction or classification exclusive and exhaustive when other alternatives exist. “You’re either for me or against me!”” (Engel 1986: 126).
[9] Severin & Tankard 2010.
[10] Coleman & Ross 2010: 22.
[11] Hanisch 1970.
[12] Derrida 1973, in Hepburn 2002.
[13] Butler 1990.
[14] E.g. McClintock, Mufti & Shohat (eds.) 1997, Murray & Roscoe (eds.) 1998.


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