In philosophy, it has been pointed out how Western language, culture and myths rest on a series of binaries – black/white, male/female/, good/bad, soul/body, mind/matter etc. Jacques Derrida pointed out that what is insidious about these binaries is that one term is also negative or devalued. Feminists have pointed out how the devalued term is often associated with the feminine.
On the one hand, consciousness rests on a separation of the self from the other. To understand something one has to understand what it is not. Or so we are told. One of the philosophical questions I’ve been preoccupied with is whether there are cultures that do not think in binaries. While Eastern cultures, like Indian and Chinese philosophy are better in this regard, when you can to originary stories, you are back at binaries.
The other day I was reading one of those Mr Men books to Nene (my kids love these books although I sometimes have problems with their messages, this is again one of those instances when I cannot find it in me to censor my kids’ choices). The book was about a guy called Mr Dizzy, which is a polite way of calling him Mr Stupid, because his defining quality was that he answered basic questions wrong.
For example, “what is the opposite of black?” “Pink,” said Mr Dizzy, and everyone laughed.
“So what is the opposite of black” I asked Nene.
He paused. “I don’t know,” he said finally. “Nothing.”
I was about to say “white” and then stopped myself. I realised that my child had broken the binary. Or rather, that he did not think in binaries. That is was possible to not think in binaries. The opposite of black could be anything or nothing. It was not necessary for there to be an opposite at all.
I suddenly realised that thinking in binaries is not natural or instinctive. Or at least not universal. Like everything else, we learn it and we internalise it and then we say it was always there.