Binary Opposition

Western civilization is largely predicated on the concept of binary opposition or “pairs of opposites.” A binary opposition is a pair or related concepts that are opposite in meaning. These dualities are fundamental structures through which we interpret our experience.

Here are a few that you might have encountered or experienced personally:

  • West/East
  • North/South
  • Male/Female
  • White/Black
  • White collar/Blue collar

Typically, one is judged to be dominant over the other by the culture in which it is set. Living in the South, I am occasionally reminded of the North/South dichotomy, which was exacerbated by the “War of Northern Aggression” as it is called in my neck of the woods. The West/East dichotomy has also gained a lot of press lately in the form of the so-called “China virus.” Western societies are constantly touting their superiority over their Eastern counterparts and this linguistic posturing is just one example among many.

These value-laden and ethnocentric categorizations are the basis all prejudice and the root of human misery and suffering.

When I consider these pairs of opposites and the dividing lines between them, I am mindful of the principal: “That which divides also connects.” Looking at dividing lines as points of connection can be a healthy exercise in any sphere of activity. Instead of focusing exclusively on what makes us different, let us take time to identify our points of agreement, first and foremost.

I am also conscious of the fact that the effort to stuff the world into tidy binary packages oversimplifies the matter significantly. There are undoubtedly polar opposites in these binary classifications, but there are also many shades in between.

Tolerance and respect are the ability to acknowledge and appreciate these graduations, free of prejudice and blind reproach. We are all part of one body, namely: the body of humanity. We exist together in the universe, which is likewise one thing despite its many differentiated parts.

Viewing the world through a binary lens creates certain expectations by emphasizing differences over commonalities. It matters little if you are on the giving or the receiving end of these expectations, because oppressors and the oppressed live in the same context of limitation, or put differently, in different rooms of the same prison.

Photo by Delia Giandeini on Unsplash

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