Binaries Aren’t Intrinsically Bad

There are some people out there who want want to wage a battle against “the gender binary”; in their eyes, dividing people into two groups, men and women, is a mistake.   And from their perspective, transsexual people are part of the problem, because they aren’t embracing “the middle” (which is where they believe all gender-variant people belong), but are instead supporting the bad binary bifurcation.

I think there is a logical error here.  The existence of things in the middle between two categories doesn’t invalidate the usefulness of (or the existence of) those categories.

To understand why I think this is a flawed way of looking at things, let’s look at another binary categorization: bagels and donuts.  Ask people about them, and they’ll tell you various things: bagels are savory and donuts are sweet; bagels are boiled and donuts are fried; bagels are bread and donuts are cake.  Yet there are bagels that aren’t boiled, only baked, and donuts that aren’t fried but are baked; there are sweet bagels and savory donuts; and some donuts are made with yeast, which clearly qualifies them as a bread.  With so much variance and so much going on in the middle ground breaking the stereotypes of what a bagel or donut should be, shouldn’t we abandon these categories?

I would argue that we shouldn’t abandon categories—bagel and donut are still useful categories even if there is a grey area in between the two.  If I tell you I’m serving you a bagel, you’ll be primed with a certain set of expectations, and most of the time those expectations will be useful, even if the particular bagel you get doesn’t quite fit all the aspects of the classic bagel stereotype.  It doesn’t make sense to say that people should avoid categorizing toroidal wheat-dough-based foods into these binary categories of bagel and donut, or that if such a food isn’t explicitly labeled as a bagel or a donut, we should avoid prejudging its category, but instead refer to it using the neologism tordo to avoid accidentally calling a sweet bagel a donut. (And people’s heads will spin all the more if activists argue over which neologism to use, is it tordo (toroidal dough-based food), banut, dogel, or something else?)

I’m not opposed to variant bagels and donuts, nor to toroidal dough-based foods that aren’t really bagels or donuts at all, but are their own thing, but being okay with things that exist between and outside existing categories does not require you to support the elimination of those categories.

Activists who advocate for the elimination of binary categories often seem to portray those who use those categories as being too rigid, and themselves as the free thinkers, but to my mind, the real rigidity comes from their viewing categories rigidly.  Every bagel doesn’t have to match the stereotype, and we don’t need to say that a donut should embrace its true foodqueer nature as “other” just because it began its life as an unsweetened yeast dough.

8 comments so far

  1. lisalee18wheeler on

    You just made my day! 😀

  2. […] it. I recently read a blog post that stated it more clearly than I can giving an example of how binaries aren’t intrinsically bad. I fit very well in the binary, and it seems like most folks do too (“even” most trans […]

  3. Véronique on

    I love this!

  4. Z on

    Love this post..

  5. Jo. on

    Well – yes. The existence of biological diversity within a binary system doesn’t disprove the biological binary – it merely proves the existence of diversity and illustrates the way evolution is constantly mixing the biological ingredients of humanity.

    I must say I’m intrigued by an earlier post – you know! The one where you said you changed sex by changing your clothes. You buy those duds off the shelf somewhere – or did Harry Potter make them for you? 🙂

    • Nebulous Persona on

      I think the post you’re referring to is Life in No Man’s Land. And yes, that is pretty strange.

      For what it’s worth, what I was wearing in the grocery store was jeans and a white button down shirt/blouse. Amusingly enough, it was a Guess shirt. (I always found something amusing about looking androgynous and wearing a shirt that says in small type “Guess”.)

  6. Andrew on

    Congratulations. You officially have one (1) new reader. This post was *fascinating.*

  7. shaed on

    This seems to ignore some important points. Spectrums (and more accurate, more complex systems of categorization) aren’t binaries, so as soon as you account for a person like me existing, you have destroyed the binary. Men and women still exist without the binary, but so do other people.

    And foodstuffs are not oppressed by being classified as “bagels” or “donuts” against their will.

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