There are things we face in life that can be hard to reconcile. It would be easier to divide things in black and white, to ignore information that doesn’t line up with our understanding of the world. This week I’m talking about the importance of investing time and thought into our beliefs about the world around us and being intentional about trying to understand people and ideas that are different from us.
I first learned about the concept of binary opposition in a communication and conflict management class I took last fall. Communication scholar John Hartley describes this theory as a way which meaning is generated by defining thing as direct opposites. These binaries function to create order or meaning. Essentially, it is “the system by which, in language and thought, two theoretical opposites are strictly defined and set off against one another”.
Binary opposition is a “comfortable” way of organizing ideas and seeing the world, but it can often lead to simplistic understandings, such as:
“That person is good, that person is bad”
“That neighbourhood is sketchy, that neighbourhood is safe”
“That university is innovative, that one is fun”
“I’m right, you’re wrong”
Binaries inform our ideologies of how we understand spaces, people, and ideas. They are problematic because create exclusive positive and negative categories with which to understand our world and miss a lot of important exceptions. What this does is that is that it frames our world in a way that we see people or ideas as good or bad and there is no in-between.
The problem with that type of thinking, and the reason it creates so much conflict, is that its rare to find a perfectly good person or a truly bad one. And so, despite the fact that sometimes it’s easier to divide people into those categories – and often I believe we don’t even see that we are doing it – but it does both us and them an injustice of ignorance.
In the middle of these binaries is an area my professor referred to as the “space of ambiguity” where there are outliers that don’t fit into binaries – so what do we do with the space in the middle and how does it effect how we see the world? Not reconciling these differences, and allowing ourselves to see the world in the form of binaries, leads to polarization.
The Uncomfortable Task of Sitting with Difficult Things
We need to do the difficult work of sitting in the middle and understand that there is often no binary of right and wrong. I think it’s important to use the terms “work” when talking about feelings and ideas because emotional and intellectual labour is important and, emotional labour especially, is undervalued.
It can be hard to lean into challenging ideas or deep questions that feel impossible to resolve. Conflict within yourself, of reconciling difficult ideas and feeling all the confusing feels, or addressing conflict with others is an opportunity to think deeply. Wrestleing with these things looks different for everyone, it might be questioning how your religion and politics add up, it might be understanding how someone you trusted could have let you down, it might be coming to a place where you can respect neighbour or coworker who make different choices than you.
Wether or not you’re facing grey area within yourself, with people in your life, or on a larger scale – I know setting out this time isn’t easy. It can be so challenging to sit down and process these things. It may even down right painful to accept that sometimes there are truths that don’t line up and that aren’t easily categorized. But when you push yourself to think this way you’ll discover new pathways to peace within yourself and with people you’re in relationships with.
Wading into the Murky Grey
Wading into the grey area of your life to recognize that people are people. Just because you disagree with someone does not mean their opinion is invalid; just because people have the capacity to make mistakes or break trust doesn’t mean they can’t still be good.
And then we have to do the difficult and sometimes uncomfortable job of sitting with these things and understanding the world more deeply. Trying to make the best of your situation, embracing discomfort and being willing to sit with these ideas and wrestle against labels or binaries will help you grow.
I think that people are sometimes afraid of what they don’t understand, but maybe instead of dismissing the things we don’t understand, the interests, passions or values people have, we could try to understand where they are coming from. And imagine if they did the same, and instead of arguing or not talking about issues we could create space in the grey area to develop meaningful understandings of one another.
The thing today is this, the world isn’t black and white, and as tempting as it is to see the world that way – its lazy. There is a Rupi Kaur poem I love that says
is an easy lazy thing
but to love
but not all are
willing to practice
I’m not sure what grey area you have in your life, but this week I hope you consider taking up the job of sitting with difficult questions, feelings, or even conversations. Accepting that the world isn’t black and white does make it harder to categorize and sort it – but working through the grey area will help you make meaning of the world in a more purposeful and loving way.