Binary: Good or Bad?

Updated: Sep 20, 2020

"To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour

- William Blake”

Let me just dive right in: I’m sick of the divisiveness, particularly in this country. It’s likely most everybody else is sick of it too, though in the very process of pointing fingers at the other guys and blaming them, the divisiveness is perpetuated. It’s an endless cycle.

I’m not sure there’s an easy way to break out of it. There doesn’t appear to be any magic wand. But maybe there are ways to understand the mechanisms of division better, and by so doing, we might catch some things at their root causes, nip them in the bud as it were.

It’s pretty clear how we usually divide – along political, racial, cultural, or economic lines. It seems most divides largely fit into one or more of those categories. We are born into tribes, or we choose them: Republican or Democrat; Black or White; Yankee or Rebel; English or Spanish; Christian or Heathen; Masked or Unmasked.

Lately we’ve seen how large groups of people can take, for example, a medical issue and how to address it (Covid-19) and turn it into a political, or even a religious/spiritual issue. So on first pass (or many passes) I was annoyed again and again by how everything is politicized, or relious-ized. You can’t even provide facts without the sources coming into question. Even Snopes is now labeled as leftist. I’ve wrestled with this for a long time, but it’s been heightened in the time of Covid.

Musing over it all a bit though, I came to the conclusion that it is not exactly about politicization or religious polarization. It’s deeper than that, and those things are manifestations of something else.

Cutting to the chase, I think underneath it all lies something pretty insidious which I will now call “The Tyranny of the Binary”. Stay with me.

OK, so I think each of us would agree that all humans have flaws. That’s very individual and personal. And we could probably argue about what might constitute overarching human weaknesses. But just for shits and giggles, I’m going to just say that one of the things that has served us the best as a species, is also the thing which is doing us the most harm: that is our slavish reductionism to binary choices.

We are imprisoned by it. In fact, it is so endemic, that we don’t even notice it. We simply accept it for what is, for how things basically are. But I don’t agree. I think it’s a hard-wired interpretation that is merely a function of our mental processing, just as our senses are filters for vibrational energy – light and sound, for example.

It’s no secret that our lower (reptilian) brain stem triggers us with “fight or flight” responses all the time. We are just wired that way, very deeply – so deeply that it makes total sense to us, and we can (rightly) defend the value of that kind of mechanism in our brains. After all, at the most basic levels we needed that to survive as a species. You need to know when to hold ‘em, and know when to fold ‘em. You need to know when to zig and when to zag.

The immediacy of this information (as a function of how our brain and nervous system work) has served us well, and we would be in serious trouble without it. We can’t outgrow it, and it would be impossible to try to supplant it. But we better damn well figure out how to not depend on it too exclusively, and instead how to accept it for what it is, and deal with it. Or so I say.

I’d argue that out of our reptilian brain comes a much-too-comfortable default to the binary. It is evidenced everywhere, in all corners of our otherwise increasingly complex lives.

What are you – Democrat or Republican? The movie is a classic “Good vs. Evil” thriller. Black cowboy hats or white? Your baby is boy blue or girl pink, until you find out if they are gay or straight, that is. Pro Choice or Pro Life? Vaxxer or Antivaxxer? Christian, or, not? Hell, even our computers are binary – it’s all either zero’s or one’s, on or off, one or the other. It’s how the world is run, and it’s so damn pervasive that we don’t give it really much thought.

I think it all derives from the default processing mechanisms of our lower brain stems: A or B, left or right, up or down, friend or foe, fight or flight.

I’ve heard that scientists say that the first thing that gets imprinted on you in the very early development of your brain and emotions is gender, and what that implies: blue or pink. I’m pretty sure that happens, and that it comes early on.

But I think there is something that precedes it, and it comes even earlier. Now, it’s pretty necessary for survival of every sentient being, I’ll admit. But it also has the most profound consequences. And that is the imprint of “what is you vs. what is not you”. You exist initially as a helpless infant, and that is not an untrue characterization. But immediately we are imprinted with “small helpless fragile subject” (you) vs. “enormous infinite unknowable threatening object” (not you).

We start with this imperative: the distinction between subject and object, and the preservation of the subject. But what is the overarching consequence of this divide?

I would say it’s the sense of separation, of inherent separateness, of primal aloneness.

And what is the consequence of that sense of separateness? I would say it is fear – or “Fear”, with a capital “F”. You have been imprinted with your separateness and its implied vulnerability, and thus now also imprinted with the associated fear.

So now what is in turn the consequence of that fear? The need for protection – strength in numbers, and the pluses and minuses that come with a necessary tribal structure. I am alone against impossible odds; I am afraid; I need more protection than I can generate for myself; who will help me if I also help them? And help protect me against what – and whom…

This becomes an extension of “me vs. not-me”; now it’s “us vs. not-us”. Regardless of how we come together, once we do that, it’s us vs. them: political parties, races, haves and have nots. It’s all binary; and it’s all about protecting me from the not-me, which is by definition dangerous to me. Surrounded by this constant danger, we stay in a constant state of agitation, which fuels the flames of our fears.

And in our modern world, all of this in turn becomes underlying nagging stresses (at best), creating inflammation and other byproducts, ultimately taking its toll on our health – emotional as well as physical. – short term and long term.

So, what to do? Well, for starters, the Tibetan Buddhists have an expression: “Recognition is Liberation!” That is, once you name something and see it for what it is, you’ve won a large part of the battle towards fixing it. I suggest starting then by recognizing that dividing into binary choices is simply too coarse of a division for us to understand things well. Coarse division leads to a coarse awareness leads to a coarse set of responses. Too coarse. Burlap underwear.

And from this point of recognition, then where? Maybe out of the gate we can come to understand that there are many ways to divide things up, and that we might not end up on the same side of the fence each time we shift the dividing conditions. I think these two videos of commercials from Denmark show this so clearly. You start with a bunch of people who don’t seem comfortable with each other (me vs. not-me) at the outset. But once they see how they are related to the others, along various dimensions, the walls start to come down.

I would maybe label this as something like “shifting the binary”; it’s certainly shifting perspective. In each category outlined in the first video, people were either in the group or not. That’s still a binary distinction. You’re either native born or an immigrant, a city dweller or a country person, etc. But at least it’s now a fluid binary distinction. You start to see that where you might not be in the same group with another person based on one category of separation, you might well be in another.

If you are fixed on certain distinctions which are hard to change, such as skin color for example, the divisions remain rigid. For the most part, you’re going to remain labeled black or brown or white. But what if you were a veteran and served in the military? Based on that distinction, no longer on skin color, you fit into a group which also is pretty highly charged – maybe enough so even to supersede another more basic division.

By shifting perspective, from skin color to a common community, you’re now in the same group – just as they showed in the Danish commercial. So I contend that a good first mechanism to fix “the tyranny of the binary”, is to divide more granularly into a larger number of groups, and then to be fluid, moving, and self-defining across them. If you can supplant one group with another, then the members of that group change. This fluidity is key; if you most strongly and exclusively identify with one particular group, say, race – then you’re stuck. But if you start to add in other groups that you also identify with, say, religion or gender or interest in bird watching, you and others move in and out of groups in a much more fluid dance.

It seems then that the first thing you have to do is to be fluid enough to self-define yourself as a member of many different groups. Establish that fluid self-image by expanding out of a small set of rigidly defined groups (or group). Fluidity is key. As a friend of mine regularly says, “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”

Then, once you have allowed yourself to be defined along more than one dimension, you’re positioned to see how many dimensions you can expand into. For me this is the next step, from fluidity into expansion.

I also want to call it the “Calculus of Perspective”. That’s my fancy way of saying, keep on slicing things up! You must be flexible enough to understand you are a member of many different groups already. You have a race; you have a gender; you have a certain flavor of spiritual inclination (including none at all). Just keep going. What sports, hobbies, interests, or other activities do you like? Drop yourself in those buckets. Drop yourself in as many buckets as you care to think of – and then imagine people flowing into and out of the group you are in, as you yourself also flow in and out. It reminds me somehow of a kaleidoscope, constantly changing colors and patterns – all determined by a specific category. It’s a kaleidoscope which you are in charge of shifting. Just keep shifting…from one to another to another.

To quickly recap:

Our first step is refinement and increased granularity. We need to accept a larger number of groups and distinctions; we need to increase the number of dimensions. The more dimensions we have within which to measure ourselves, the more refined a self-perspective we have, as well as a broader sense of who all might share that common ground. More dimensions is better, or, as we used to say about life with my Tibetan teacher, “More is more!”. Yes it certainly was.

Our next step needs to be fluidity – the ability to self-define across those multiple dimensions. As a great guy who used to work for me years ago said about an expression they had when he was in the Air Force, “Flexibility is the Key to Air Supremacy.” Indeed.

But you might have noticed something, as have I. We’ve gone from one solitary binary distinction, “I am white” to others – or to multiples, “I am a white male heterosexual cisgender Democrat who prefers dogs to cats, likes Mexican food best, is left-handed, and can neither jump nor dance.” And that’s just the tip of the categorization iceberg.

But it’s all still just binary membership – in or out. We’re still stuck in the binary. Argh.

Or, maybe not. Step three. If it was a snake it would’ve bit us: The Spectrum!

I guess it’s true that some things are fundamentally binary in nature: dead or alive. But Escher showed us that one man’s up is another man’s down, and Paul Simon sang that one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor. They noted, as did Einstein, that it’s all relative.

It is all relative; and it is a matter of perspective; and as I said, it’s a function of granularity as well. Back to calculus – the thinner we slice something, the better or more accurately we might understand it.

We can say “a human” (it’s a start). But we can also say “a young male Asian”. Some people these days suggest that’s not even granular enough and might say, “a young gay male Asian who identifies as ‘she/her’”. We could go into quite some detail this way.

The more we refine, the less binary the description is, the more we see that most things are not so black and white (pun intended). In reality, most things already fall along a spectrum. In the 21st century we are trying to understand, support, and embrace kids on the autism spectrum, for example. So in our quest to avoid oversimplifying and eschew the binary, we should consider putting more qualifiers on a broader spectrum, whenever we can.

Actually, how our brain works already falls on spectrum, both in terms of intelligence and autism, as we know. But it’s becoming clear that this is also the case with gender, for example. I’m not sure how we’re going to handle pronouns over time, but in the meantime, we should easily handle letting people be who they feel they already are. That doesn’t just include same sex relationships, but also includes transgender and other alternatives to the binary. In fact, some of these people themselves define themselves as gender “non-binary”.

Maybe they’re on to something!

Maybe what they’re coming to understand about themselves and their relationship to gender, we can come to understand about ourselves and our relationship to *everything*:

“Ban Binary!” “Embrace Quantum!” “Divide to Conquer!” “Flexibility is the Key to Air Supremacy!”

“Make America Fluid Again!”

Everything exists along a spectrum, so, that might be a better way to understand it and measure it. Apples and apples.

One final thought, or half thought, as the case may be. I’ve often heard something along the lines of

“There are only two choices: Love or Fear.”

Initially, I thought that was an oversimplification. But over time I’ve come to believe it’s pretty fair, and largely accurate. What I continue to wrestle with though is how to recognize that reality in the various situations of my life, and how to address it.

But the more I think about it, the more I think the largest problem I have in accepting and incorporating this is that it’s simply too coarse. There’s too much distance between those extremes, even if there is some kind of basic truth at play here. It occurs to me that this is another binary choice – which means it needs refinement.

So instead of looking at every situation and trying to figure out if you’re being fearful, and if

so, how you make this ginormous leap to love, I think again we slice more thinly, or refine our definition.

If you can’t quite say, “I am reacting out of fear”, maybe you can say, “I am angry with your response” or “I am losing my patience” or “This is all stressing me out”. Perhaps ultimately all of these emotions: anger, impatience, or stress reduce to fear – but they are more immediate, and more easily identified and embraced. So we can refine from ‘fear” to “stress”, for example.

Then in response, if we can’t leap to love and do that with sincerity, maybe we can at least shift towards calmness, patience, compassion, and acceptance. Maybe all of those ultimately reduce to love as well. But it’s easier to try to immediately be calm or patient than to be loving. We can do our reducing and refactoring in some other time and place, and not expect to have to do that right there on the spot. Sometime later we can bridge that largest gap, from fear to love.

Uber-final thought: Life itself is indeed a spectrum. That’s reality. It’s a spectrum of energies at different frequencies. The only difference between two colors, is frequency of vibration; the only difference between two musical notes is frequency of vibration. In fact, the only difference between the visual and the audial is….you guessed it…frequency of vibration.

If life exists along a spectrum, shouldn’t we address life along various spectrums? Wouldn’t that be a better fit, more accurate? We should measure ourselves, and engage with life, in the same way that it itself exists: with complexity, and refinement, and fluidity.

And the more we refine, the finer we divide and the farther we remove ourselves from simple binary distinctions, the more we come to see that we might be different along coarse divisions, but ultimately, we share more distinctions than we don’t.

In the calculus of existence, we approximate being the same. If infinite divisions were possible, and why wouldn’t they be, we would find that indeed we all are the same.

“Question: How are we supposed to treat others?

Answer: There are no others.”

"Of all the thoughts that rise in the mind, the thought 'I' is the first thought."

-- Shri Ramana Maharshi


We have brainstems that cause us to react to life with “fight or flight”. It’s very primal. And its primal nature causes us to extrapolate that and expand that approach to most (too many) decisions in our lives. We need to recognize that we overuse this binary approach. We can start by seeing if we can slice into finer categories, avoiding binary divisions. We can intentionally shift our perspective when faced with “the binary” and see if there’s another dimension we can factor along. We don’t want to always land on the binary, and we don’t want to be rigid in our breakdowns, but instead be fluid. We can also recognize that many things we might have considered binary, actually fall along a spectrum – such as gender.

So, we need to refine beyond binary – embrace the quantum; we need to be fluid in our categorization; we need to consider replacing binary distinctions with ones along a spectrum. All of this is a conscious refactoring of our perspectives: we can shift our perspectives by simply doing intentional refinement/reduction, by not allowing ourselves to get stuck in assessing along one dimension, and by whenever possible replacing a binary quantification with one along a spectrum.

Just for fun, or something… Taking binary to the extreme:

Emo Phillips –

Infinite Just Desserts

You start with Zero and head to One

You count that way and think you’re done

But is there something in between

Some insight there that we might glean

By now we’ve all been faced with fractions

Sharing pie requires actions

We cut in half and then again

How much to share determines when

We stop dividing up the treat

And contemplate how much to eat

We could continue down to crumbs

(Though little pie seems kinda dumb)

The point here though is not the tart

It’s where to end and where to start

And all the space between those two

Holding choices there for you

True, there is one and there is none

And off is off and on is on

But such coarse breakdowns, that or this

Restrict our view and options miss

Your lower brain says fight or flight

And while we know that’s not quite right

Since ganglia cause primal drives

Our knee jerk fears control our lives

Instead, adopt a quantum view

To see all life refreshed anew

Swap out the lower brainstem binary

With complex frontal cortex finery

From qualities that we possess

To choices made under duress

So many options in our head

That land us here within this spread

The calculus from null to one

Contains degrees from moon to sun

And also there ‘tween all or naught

Lies more refined and factored thought

We narrow into finest slice

Alchemical divine device

Foregoing simple black or white

Now thoughts approximate what’s right

Reduce, reduce, refine, refine

To polish clear our diamond mind

Dividing up into infinity

Reflected back, our own divinity

TL;DR: ;-)

Look close and see – it’s all a spectrum

Just pull your head out of your rectum

--by Walter

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