The Danger of Binary Thinking

It was recently reported that Vice President Mike Pence will not have dinner alone with a woman who is not his wife.

Hard to believe, but it is possible to have a table for two that is neither candlelit nor romantic.

Before I add my voice to those who have already explained how this reinforces the image of women as opportunistic harlots, or how it fortifies patriarchal norms by literally not giving women a seat at the table, or how fascinating it is that people will go so far out of their way to avoid the appearance of impropriety, let’s take a different tact.

Let us view this through the lens of binary thinking.

Binary thinking can be defined as believing that there are only two possible choices in any given situation; something is either one thing or another. With such an approach, there is no room for nuance, there is no grey. You are either for or against, the winner or the loser, rich or poor.

You may be thinking: “Hey, sometimes we should have a clear idea of where things stand! It can be good to know if someone is married or not, if they are a Democrat or a Republican, if they are a man or a woman, right?”

Have you ever considered why this is important? Why do we demand that we stake our claim in the world as “this” or “that” AND demand that everyone else do the same?

I would argue that it is often to alleviate our own discomfort. We use binary distinctions as a shortcut to define ourselves: I know who I am by defining myself as similar to or different from you. You fit in this box, and I fit in mine. And we all must stay in these boxes, there is no place to be outside, next to, or in between.

The dreaded yellow exclamation point.

As with many things that we oversimplify to make them comprehensible or comfortable, these restrictive concepts can soon turn into a trap. Getting stuck in our own binary thinking is at the root of many of our struggles: Am I a success or a failure? Am I a good person or am I bad? If we can only be one or the other — particularly when we attach a value to something (i.e. success, being good), and especially in comparison to someone else — we often find ourselves lacking.

It is even more dangerous when we enforce these binaries on a larger scale.

As Dr. Meg-John Barker says, “Binary thinking is the cause of so much struggle…dividing people into us and them is the first step to being able to treat them in horrible ways, whomever they are.”

By “otherizing” someone, we create distance and separation, which in turn enables the creation of different and often punitive rules (bathroom restrictions, voting requirements, immigration laws) based on distinctions that we have decided are meaningful.

The distinction that Pence has decided is meaningful is that of “man or woman.” By drawing a clear line of who is the “other,” he has enabled HIMSELF to feel more comfortable. He avoids the appearance of impropriety, which is critical to his persona as a holy, upright citizen. Reducing all women to “woman - generic” (with the associated notions of “woman=threat” or “woman=danger”) keeps things simple and allows him to keep functioning in the way he always has without any risk of being drawn off his path/into trouble/out of power. If there is room for complexity, he may no longer know or have his place secured in the world. It is by design that he continues to buy into the binary that serves him and prevents others from moving forward.

Sadly, we all have a little bit of Pence in us. (Not literally, of course; he’s a holy, upright citizen and so far as we know, only his wife actually has a little bit of Pence in her, and perhaps only on birthdays and Christmas.)

We are all guilty of buying into binaries, especially ones that serve us and our perceived position or relative value in society, and we must consciously decide to move beyond them. As I wrote in a previous essay, we must continue to dismantle the assumed norms of “what is acceptable, who deserves our protection, what it means to be human.” People in powerful positions must push back every time there is an attempt to keep people in their boxes —imagine if all men decided that they couldn’t eat with Pence unless there WAS a woman present other than Mrs. Pence! — and we must consider why the boxes (literally and figuratively) exist in the first place. Why is there a marital status box on job applications? Why do I need to choose one of two genders when I sign up for a free ticket giveaway? Do they serve any real purpose beyond reinforcing strict notions of “things we feel we should know”?

It is possible to find our way in the world without reinforcing binaries. In fact, it is the only way forward that ensures everyone has a seat at the table.