Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Just the Facts? A Non-Binary Proposal

All my life I've been told humans are binary. Look, people say, there is man and woman, the most basic binary. However, as I've grown older, I've learned about hermaphrodites, who, though rare, deny the proposition of a binary nature.

How about straight or gay? Well, what about bisexuals?

And war and peace? How about truce states?

And finally computers: aren't they the ultimate binary?

Well, I've studied some computer history and here's what I've learned. Yes, the basis of a computer is small "switches" that are either on or off. However, a single switch is not a computer. It provides nothing but the limitations of binary. It is only when those on/off switches are combined into bigger groups, 8, 16, and 32, that they start to do something. They only find meaning when exceeding their binary nature by being grouped together. It's not if switch A is on or off but if switch A, C, D and F are off while the rest are on that makes a computer or program work.

Anyway, you might wonder where all this is going so let me explain. The concept of humans being binary by nature has supported the dualities of good/bad, right/wrong, and true/false in such a way that many, when presented with a fact they don't know, see only two possible options: it is true or it is a lie.

I, personally, think life is more complicated than that. One fact may be true within context while another, opposing, fact may also be true when its context is known.

That may sound obscure, but think about it in relation to some examples:

* A shirt is green. Seems simple, straightforward and factual. Either the person making the statement is right and you agree, or wrong and you disagree. However, take that same shirt to Afghanistan and the "correct" answer becomes the opposite one. Did the shirt change? No, but the context did. Afghans identify colors, most noticeably blues and greens, differently from the Western world.

* The situation that stimulated this thought also seemed simple on the surface. A person asked about submission manuscripts. One person provided an answer that contradicted the answer later provided by someone else who has credentials in the print industry. The "correct" answer prize was then given to the credentialed person while the other was slammed. But wait! The first answer is actually the standard for several online and academic publishers based on a guidelines search. So, does that make the first answer correct? No. Does it make the second answer incorrect? No. They are both correct within their contexts.

* Another binary is taking someone else's life. Americans, as a culture, accept murder is wrong. And yet, murder in a situation of self-defense is okay and even considered heroic. Similarly, a soldier sent to kill our enemies is not then sentenced to life or the chair, but is the person attacked any less dead?

A binary world is an easier one to live in. There isn't the need to ask questions or discover whether the fact, truth or evidence (whether your own or that provided by someone else) has a context within which it is true or false. In a binary world, one truth or fact can be legitimately battered over the heads of people who do not agree or who present a different perspective. In a binary world, such an act is approved of, encouraged and lauded.

I don't live in a binary world. When presented with information I don't know, even that which appears contradictory to what I know to be true, I try my best to avoid the "You're wrong" answer in favor of opening a dialogue. People are resources, not just because of their jobs or the fancy letters after their names, but also because they bring to the table unique experiences and have been exposed to concepts I might not have. Shutting down the discussion at the first sign that my own truths or facts might be called into question, slamming the evidence provided without taking the time to listen and explore, maybe even researching on my own, could take from me an opportunity I'm never likely to get again.

There's this golden tenet that crosses many religious and cultural boundaries. Do unto others as you wish them to do unto you. Take a moment to evaluate how you've reacted to someone else's opinion or knowledge and make sure you haven't slipped into a closed, binary world. "You're wrong" shuts down a dialogue forever and most likely on every topic rather than just the one you opposed.

When you run into something you cannot discuss, a simple "Let's agree to disagree" stops the conversation without severing the possibility of future exchanges. When you run into a fact you "know" is not true, keep the dialogue open, provide some information, but be just as willing to revise your understanding if the information the other person provides proves both facts true within context or even that your information is flawed. That's how people learn, grow and expand their knowledge.

A binary world is one computer switch clicking on and off in the darkness. Even Morse Code has long, short and pause because a true binary communicates nothing.


Anonymous said...

I've known for a number of years that life wasn't binary (I call it shades of gray versus black and white); however, I've never heard it so eloquently discussed before.


Margaret said...

Aww, shucks. Thanks Jean. I know what you mean. I've always thought in grays as well, but somehow the thoughts came together concretely explaining why and I wanted to share :).

Anonymous said...

And, perhaps strangely, life got easier for me once I realized life wasn't black and white. I became free to balance a core of right and wrong with reality. I get worried when I find people in senior leadership positions who do not appear to have made that leap. (I worked for a guy like that once, and it was kind of scary.)


Anonymous said...


Can you explain what you meant about the correct answer for the green shirt changing if one goes to Afghanistan?


Margaret said...

Hi Erin. Your timing is funny. My father just sent me a little note that I should explain Afghans code greens and blues differently from the Western world, especially those borderline blue-green colors, because not everyone knows this. I fixed it in the post. I guess my personal context is showing :).

Anonymous said...

Of course, the very question of binary vs. non-binary IS a binary. :p


Margaret said...

LOL. Only too true. Hmm, have to come up with a third option. I know...

Binary vs. Non-Binary vs. Sometimes Binary?

Okay, stretching it ;).