Our Misconception of Dichotomies

I was struck recently by how useless dichotomies can be. We use them every day across many different subjects: love and hate, strong and weak, liberal and conservative. I’d thought for some time that such divisions were often useless, but their uselessness only became significant once I realized why they at first seem useful.

To take any quality, then its exact opposite, should seem to be able to describe some significant meaning of an object. After all, if an object has some quality, it surely cannot also have the exact opposite. So, for example, when we describe a pillow as soft, it is impossible that it also be hard, and in knowing this, we have gained some knowledge. It is akin to a basic law in logic, the law of the excluded middle, which states that a proposition must either be true or false. A proposition is not literally half-true or -false. Upon knowing a proposition is true, it is known it is not false, and vice versa. This is the seeming usefulness of the dichotomous model. It makes sense—so much that even after my thinking many dichotomies are useless, I am still tempted to think they are simultaneously useful. This topic holds the mysticism of any which contains both a common human belief, and a convincing argument of why such a belief is wrong.

Before explaining why I think dichotomies are often useless, there is worth in a further exploration of why dichotomies are regularly used. Dichotomies are not only seemingly useful for their law of excluded middle. Many models, made with the intention of such an effect or not, contain binaries. The groupings of masculine and feminine, creative and practical, and quantitative and qualitative may be some examples of binaries without intended dichotomous effects. Yet, when we use binary models, we feel that things must be one way and not the other, and in turn create some dichotomous effect. At least in my mind, it is not hard to imagine a person who is both masculine and feminine, or creative and practical, or thinks in both quantitative and qualitative terms, although I would be disingenuous to say there is not at all some seeming effect of opposition. I think there is a simple answer to why we use binary models: They’re easy to remember. It’s not as easy to bring to mind a triadic model (love, neutrality, and hate) or a pentadic model (love, like, neutrality, dislike, and hate) when making a quick action or thought. On the topic of love and hate, the binary model is often exemplified by the phrase, “you’re either with me (love) or against me (hate),” and not the phrase, “you’re either completely with me, or kind of with me, or indifferent towards me, …”

So why are dichotomies often useless? At least two obvious reasons first come to mind. For one, some things which we want to understand as dichotomous are not that at all. When such a model is not truly dichotomous, there is no further truth gained by knowing the value of one of its objects; i.e., by knowing a person is liberal, we cannot conclude he is not also conservative. A good example is the divide between male and female. It is easy enough to break down at the social level: A person may at some times identify as male and others as female, or even simultaneously identify as both. However, even at the biological level, ‘male’ and ‘female’ are not opposed. While uncommon, there exist intersexed individuals, born with both female and male genitalia. It is then seen that at the biological and social levels, masculinity is not opposed to femininity, and an application of it as such is confused. A second reason dichotomies fail concerns more legitimate divisions, say, that of lightness, and its absence, darkness. When we apply dichotomies, we often try to apply them to things much too complex, somewhat like trying to apply the division of light and dark to a zebra. Is it light, or is it dark? Surely, it is not only one or the other, although the terms are dichotomous. Is a government orderly or chaotic? Is attending college good or bad? Perhaps a government may be described as orderly in some ways and chaotic in others, and surely attending college has pros and cons.

There are interesting cases of what we call oppositional. Similar to the model I think is legitimately dichotomous, that of light and dark, I consider black and white. Unlike light and dark, black and white are not opposites. The opposite of light is not-light, and we may call that dark. But the opposite of white is not-white, and that may well be red or blue. If one wants to say white is opposed to black, fine, but then she’d better as well say it is just as opposed to any other color. I imagine there are more fun areas into which we overreach to find opposites.

Sometimes, we misunderstand supposedly dichotomous models so deeply that we fail to realize they may be describing not two objects, but one. This seems paradoxical. The point of a dichotomy is to take two complete opposites; if we are so sure that we’ve found opposites, how can they be the exact same thing? Yet, in the field of developmental psychology, an example is found with the divide between nature and nurture. My professor suggested this example: Take a mother nursing her child. Perhaps we can say that from the mother’s life experience and knowledge of how to care for her child, she decides to nurse it. But it is also the mother’s instinct to nurse the child. So was her nursing prompted by nature or nurture? The two are indistinguishable in describing this action, and it seems to me foolish to say it was solely either nature or nurture, or that it was one more than the other. Take another example: When a child grows from two- to three-feet tall, would we say this was due to his human genetics, or the food, shelter, and water given to him? It is a confused question, and shows the limits of dichotomous models.

Perhaps a fun exercise may come of this. We can check for our own misconstrued conceptions of dichotomies. I think this is also a good exercise in eliminating biases. Can someone who is close-minded also be open-minded? Can a mean person too be nice?