Binary Oppositions and the Hard Hard Problem of Solidarity

It seems that these days everyone is saying that the world is undergoing a radical change, and rightly so. It may be that the reasons for saying so and the motivations behind it span the whole of social, political, moral, economic and technological spectrum. It is also widely recognised that this change has been underway for at least two decades now. During much of this period, one has been following discussions on various kinds of forums such as mailing lists, group discussions and open digital publication venues, including blogs.

More recently, one has been following (and to some extent participating in) this particular forum*. Going through discussions like those on this forum on the one hand, and some other usual kinds of forums on the other, one can’t help observing that:

* Don’t form an opinion about the forum based on a couple of posts as there are wide variety of people on it.

1. If the people in a forum are only after totally selfish gains, solidarity consolidates extremely rapidly to the lowest point possible, as if enabled by gravity. It is like collective free fall that does not even harm the people involved in it, as they get a kind of immunity and can say or do things with impunity. It is like leaping down a cliff collectively. Of course, there will be a crash at some point, but things can move from one crash to another as if nothing happened, as long as life itself doesn’t become totally impossible for everyone on the planet.

2. If, on the other hand, the people in a forum are motivated by completely or mostly unselfish concerns, it is extremely hard to achieve even the minimum level of solidarity, climbing against all odds, as if against gravity, a bit like a group of people trying to fly together. Even if a good degree of solidarity is established, it comes at a great cost. And it can fall apart quite easily.

This has become more true in the last two or three decades, as we enter the hyper-digital age. One can think of it as binarisation of politics and of all the social and political (and other) issues of life on the planet. Some examples are given below.

The world, it seems, is divided into binary classes and all you have to do (in fact the only thing you are allowed to do in terms of political decision making) is to perform instant binary classification on all the individuals and groups in the world. Some example binary classes are:

– Those who are against J. K. Rowling and those who are not

– Those who are in favour of ‘fighting the virus’ and those who are not

– Those who are against Putin and those who are not

– Those who are strictly in favour of masks and those who are not

– Those who are against the new Michael Moore film and those who are not

– Those who are against Israel and those who are not

– Those who support Israel and those who don’t

– Those who are in favour of the ‘cancel culture’ and those who are not

– Most importantly, for the last four years, those who are against the Reality TV POTUS and those who are not

These are like binary constraints and after a point it becomes impossible to satisfy all the constraints in any way at all. Everyone is forced into innumerable binary classes, because if you are not in one class (that is, declare yourself into one class), then you are, by definition, in the other class. As a result, the good kind of solidarity becomes impossible. It may still be achieved, but only by collectively ignoring the existence of some or many such constraints and collectively pretending they don’t exist. This naturally implies implicit sacrifice from a large number of people who are affected by these ignored constraints, who are usually already the people most at disadvantag as far as life on the planet is concerned. It should be pointed out that most of the ignored constraints, in reality, are not binary.

There is a name for this phenomenon and it is well known: polarisation. It was always there, but the difference is that, in the hyper-digital age, binaries are not about complicated matters like the interactions between global social welfare, human rights and justice and truth and sustainable growth. They are like being against J. K. Rowling or not and so on.

How do we deal with this hard hard problem of solidarity for unselfish purposes without sacrificing a (large?) number of people? This is perhaps the biggest challenge facing us, if we stick to truth and justice both (not one or the other).

The irony is that this is happening at a time when a consensus is emerging (rightly) all over the globe against a specific kind of binarisation which had existed for ages: Gender binaries.

***

Why do binaries exist? Why do they proliferate? Why do they dominate?

One can try to answer in common sense terms, using informal logic and common sense psychology.

One reason is a deterministic view of the world, but that alone does not explain it, as even that view allows for non-binaries.

Another reason that seems obvious is along the same lines as why did religions, full of superstition, originate?

In a world that they could not understand and were afraid of, human being tried to make sense of it. As a secular view of the reality became more and more popular and established, this need did seem to decrease with scientific and technological developments. However, these developments, along with social, political and economic developments (or regressions) brought about radical changes in societies.

At this point, in 21C, we have reached a situation where, due to things like Reality Shows and Social Media (among other things) it is more and more possible to manipulate the perception of what is the reality, thus making it difficult to make sense of the world again. One could say more even than during prehistoric days.

So once more we look for certainties where none exist, at least as far as known human knowledge is concerned. Perhaps none exist in reality.

Every belief in total certainty about any non-trivial matter usually gives rise to a new binary opposition, perhaps more than one. Sometimes binary oppositions are created through diktats. When faced with any complicated matter which leads to some kind of fear(s), a perhaps natural response of those in power (i.e., those with the blessings of the materialistic Holy Trinity, even if they claim divine blessings), particularly those with regressive minds, is to issue a diktat. A common kind of diktat is to ban something, to prohibit something, as if by that act alone the problems that give rise to the fear(s) will magically disappear.

Strict binary oppositions are very much like using diktats to ban things, even if the motives are driven by the urge to achieve truth and justice.

So again, in a world full of deadly uncertainties, we seek refuge in creating artificial certainties of our own.

If we are secular, we might even try to use science to justify these artificial certainties, working backwards with logic and evidence.

One way to deal with uncertainties is to abandon all principles and become totally cynical, as some ideologies and their followers do.

Another way is to ignore uncertainties and pretend they don’t exist, that everything has been worked out by groups of some seemingly superhuman people with some authoritative labels.

Still another way is to stick to the principles and at the same time face the uncertainties of life. This is much more difficult and it imposes a great deal more responsibility on us.

It is true that such responsibility is too much for us, but the question is should we still face it? Because that is the ‘path of truth’. So far so good, because if we only care for the truth, then it is still relatively easy to make good enough decisions and to act on them. But if we care equally for justice (recognising the fact about the uncertainties even there), then it is much more difficult to make decisions, to act upon them and to explain them and to justify them. This is often called, in the age of neoliberalism and neoconservatism, ‘policy paralysis’. This is supposed to characterise the total inability to act, as if by just taking some action rapidly, any action, even radical action, we would have solved the problem. This is the “do something, anything, *now*!” philosophy/ideology, which has an infamous historical record. It even has a name: Kissingerism, as described> so well by Greg Grandin in Kissinger’s Shadow.

One is not suggesting that all those creating these strict binaries are followers of Kissingerism. The truth is, whether we like it or not, this calamitous ideology has seeped into our global social, political and economic fabric, and is corroding that fabric quite fast. No political faction seems to be immune to this societal toxin. It has affected even arts and literature. One can argue it is not an ideology, but a meta-ideology. And a dangerously fallacious one.

Do something (specific) now is never the only option. There is always an obvious alternative: Do something else. Or do something later. Or both. Statistically speaking, it is common sense to say that if we have a strict binary opposition between doing something or not doing something, then, all things being equal (which is the case when we don’t know *exactly what* to do), doing something (specific) is likely to be more dangerous than doing something. It should be emphasised that not doing something (specific) is very different from doing nothing. You can always do something else. Or do something later. Even doing nothing at a certain moment or duration can actually be sometimes far better than doing anything at all right at that time or duration. It’s true of individuals, but it more true of collectives because collective action has much bigger consequences. This is, perhaps, a lesson for achieving sustainability, as even some regressive people understand. So do many progressive people, but less so now. This common sense should not be mistaken for ‘historical imperative’.

Coming back to well-intentioned people, perhaps naturally (?) we shy away from taking the last way, the most difficult way. And so we take refuge in either cynicality (as opposed to skepticism), or in artificial certainties (maybe for the Greater Good).

But science says there is no justice in nature, doesn’t it? I don’t agree with that. Why? That is for another day.

***

As I posted the above comment early morning today, a shout of “O Chhakke!” (“Hey *untranslatable*), loud and clear enough for me to hear inside my house today evening, full of contempt, reminded me that my statement about an emerging global consensus against gender binaries was perhaps an overstatement. Or not very accurate.

The *untranslatable* Hindi word (also used in many other South Asian languages) is the foulest word used by homophobic and transphobic people, and it is used very commonly. A bit like ‘faggot’, but more offensive. Some other English words or terms similar to this are ‘fudge packer’, ‘pouf’, ‘fairy’, but they all are unambiguously (less) offensive. The main offence is the knowledge of the impunity that it provides, and therefore the helpless humiliation it causes.

The word literally means a ‘sixer’, which is the cricketing term for when the batsman hits a ball out of the ground, earning six ‘runs’, the maximum you can earn in a single ball. It is a word that can be used in normal conversation, but also as an expletive. Like other common expletives, for example the four letter f* word in English, it has many meanings, and fluid meaning under different circumstance.

It may even be possible to write an academic paper in Linguistics or Sociolinguistics, like that famous paper on the word (?) ‘OK’. Perhaps the word originated in card games, or became common due to them. Or it may have a relation to, yes, the number theory. The logic seems to be this. There are ten basic numbers in the decimal system: 1 to 10. The number six, even though it may be called the first Perfect Number in number theory, it is seen as the middle number. It perhaps then got associated with the ‘middle sex’, or the third sex. That is why the closes translation of this word in English is ‘eunuch’, and its closest synonym in Hindi is also ‘hijra’ (made famous recently by Arundhati Roy in her novel Ministry of Utmost Happiness), which also translates directly to eunuch or hermaphrodite. However, since there were no terms in Indian languages in common usage (as far as I know) for other non-binary genders, these highly pejorative words are used for all people who identify as (which is rare) or are seen as belonging to to any non-binary gender. So, these words are used for homosexuals also and for effeminate men or impotent men.

Apart from the literary meaning, in which it is used rarely, it is more commonly used as a slur, to insult someone or even a whole community. Communities abuse each others with these terms. However, if the word ‘hijra’ is used, then it is clearly an insult, but the c* word can be used in the normal course of a conversation as a dog whistle. Certain kinds of dog whistles are more hurtful and dangerous and actual unambiguous expletives.

In the context of this article, the word can be seen as manifestation of the dangers of having strict binary oppositions. If you don’t belong to one of the two genders, then you are outside genders, or belong to the third gender (or sex). That makes you fair game for everyone. You didn’t join either of the allowed binary categories, so you are a danger to the society and will be treated like that, even more than the members of our opposing binary category (think of misogyny).

You, however, have the the to option to join one of the categories. Since the third (or fourth or fifth, or a scale-based) category is not allowed, you can save yourself from social condemnation and censure (abuse, even violence) by joining one of the categories (as per your ‘biological gender’) by going through the necessary ritual: getting married. Once married, you are, so to say, one of us. This is why the criticism against J. K. Rowling has a validity. But cancelling her is another matter.

How does it concern me personally? That is a long story that has to told some other time.

I understand personally how this word (or any other word like this) hurts. Should the word be banned? I think it is counterproductive. If you send ideas — dangerous idea — underground, they have a way of coming back at us in unexpected ways and then we may not have any defences against them. Just as words like the c* word reduce a human being to a single trait or tendency, a binary based on whether someone uses this word or not will also reduce people to a single trait or tendency, and is not a good idea. Something similar applies to J. K. Rowling, in spite of her latest defiant action of announcing her new novel as a kind of revenge (or justification?) for the criticism against her.

If we ban certain things, people are likely to find ways around them. It takes time for deep seated prejudice to *really* go away. The c* word has multiple senses and it is hard to ban it as India is a cricket crazy coutry and hitting a sixer is like the ultimate momentary action in a game, like getting someone ‘out’ on a ball. It invites the loudest cheers. This point is related to the idea that it is perhaps impossible to ban dog whistles, because they are born out of ambiguity of language and interpretation of linguistic expression. It is also about one way that impunity works.

Even though we can’t ban the above, it is still offensive and hurtful. People still need to realise this. Related to this is the point about how widespread homophobia and transphobia are in our region.

Even so, while the strict gender binary still continues in some places, those most vociferously fighting against this binary are also creating their own strict binary oppositions, believing in often non-existent certainties. When you do that, you force those people who don’t fit neatly in either of the binary categories into a catch all ‘illegitimate’ category, just like in the case of the c* word.