We are bent on describing things in ones and zeros, yes or no.
Most of the time, this method of categorization can be useful. It’s certainly not bad to separate things into two distinct sides. However, a glaring problem arises when we overuse this system in order to describe things that don’t have any advantage to be binary. When this occurs, we are actively covering up the reality of the situation in order to better force a model that is all too inherent in our society. Instead of fitting a model to the phenomena, we are cramming the phenomena to an incompatible model.
Let’s take an extremely common example: gender. If asked what differentiates a woman from a man, the answer seems glaringly obvious. There are numerous physical differences that seem to mark a man from a woman with definite clarity. Reproductive organs, fat tissue, bone structure, and other markers will usually be cited.
This is usually enough to separate the two. However, what we tend to forget is that nature doesn’t work in binary. Nature is a brilliant array of spectrums, gradients in which there are two clear sides, yet these clear sides blur towards the middle to create a line that starts with something distinct at one end and transforms to the other at the opposite end. The problem with binary is that it erects a hard barrier in between these polar opposites, instead of acknowledging the gradient in between. It’s a problem with our terminology that can cause a lot of damage.
Returning to the example of gender, there is a particular situation in which the line between genders can become blurred, and it’s especially ironic given the binary nature of it: athletics. In these sports (which includes every jumping, running, and throwing discipline), the measurement of performance is in objective references: time and distance. However, the events are separated by gender, since men generally have better performances than women. This makes sense, or else women would be underrepresented in sport.
The conundrum comes when we think of what makes an elite female athlete. Depending on the discipline, she can be strong, lean, and powerful, traits which aren’t always expressed quite so much for women. This also occurs with male athletes, though perhaps to a lesser extent since males in general have a lot of testosterone in them. Elite female athletes (just like elite male athletes) are on the fringes of humanity, meaning they tend to fall directly in that blurry zone between being a man and a woman. This problem has actually caused multiple elite females to become ineligible for competing since they were deemed to have an internal biology that was too different than a “regular” woman. Recently, female sprinter Dutee Chand of India has actually won a case on the matter, allowing her to compete again in competitions. Not even considering the obviously embarrassing circumstances of being called a man, this situation highlights an important limitation to categorizing in binary. Binary works fine when the differences are distinct, but once the differences start to evaporate and blur together, the categories break down and aren’t as useful anymore. In fact, the IAFF still does not have a good working definition as to where the limit lies between a male and a female.
In order to address this, we need to change our model of categorization. We need to substitute a binary view for a spectrum. This model allows us to recognize the blur that occurs in the middle of the two, instead of trying to ignore the blur that only affects a small minority. By embracing the spectrum, we can account for a greater amount of situations, enabling us to accept all situations.
Where binaries divide, spectrums connect.