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  • Writer's pictureStar Williams

Heal Binaries, Heal Hate

An abstract image of a cross section of a redwood tree trunk, with splits in the wood.
Red wood, courtesy of the free image library.

It's hard to think of one hateful thing that doesn't depend on a binary (which, for those who are new to the word, is an either/or).

"You shouldn't be here, you should be there."

"You shouldn't act that way, you should act this way."

"You shouldn't be you, you should be like me."

"You should get less, I should get more."

"You're illegal, I'm legal."

Binaries provide ways of telling ourselves that we're members of an exclusionary group—a group that can spit others out, like old, rotten teeth. They also cement our foolish notions that the world is controllable, which seems more important to many than the knowledge that life is filled with rich variety.

As a society, we need to stop using words that make people invisible.

Since I started learning about the gender binary—how gender and the body are much richer without artificial splits—I've felt accosted by binaries in general, especially since I came out as non-binary and pansexual. Binaries are everywhere. Common ones include rich/poor, white/of color, disabled/non-disabled, straight/queer, cisgender/transgender, immigrant/citizen, religious/non-religious, mentally ill/mentally healthy, and so forth.

They're often used to draw attention to—and channel—hatred.

"Personally," says Kate Bernstein, author of (among other greats) the amazing Hello Cruel World, "I think no question containing 'either/or' deserves a serious answer...."

Beautifully said.

I was raised in Christian Science, a religion that basically taught me as a child to suffer through everything, deny my own pain, deny my own sickness or need for a doctor, and basically leave my own body rather than looking at what was going wrong in my life.

As a child who was being sexually abused at home, that was pretty huge.

I remember, in church on Wednesday nights at Testimony Meeting, where the congregation always sat in eyes-down silence, waiting for someone to rise and give a testimony of healing (I burned myself, and with God's help, recovered in two days!), how I'd feel my body slowly slip away. I'd lift from the deadness of the room by leaving my physical self. The ceiling was very, very high, and I'd imagine I was hanging from a thread, dangling from that ceiling, terrified that the string would break and I'd tumble to my death. Playing with that binary of dead/alive, I found a kind of relief. Sadly, terror of death is sometimes a way of finding life.

Christian Science, as I was taught it, denies certain binaries. It says that love exists while hatred doesn't, and that to see hatred, to experience it, is to be godless—a sinner. And yet, my experience of this cult was constant binaries. I was never so aware of pain than when I had to deny it. I was never so aware of rejection as I was when I was told I couldn't receive compassion because my suffering wasn't real. I rarely heard the word "sin" in Christian Science, yet I knew, from the moment I could think it, that I was a sinner.

In my experience, if you just say "Binaries don't exist," you bury them. Then they can become more pernicious than ever.

At my father's funeral, my uncle, a Christian Scientist—a dear man, actually, but consumed by his denial—asked me, with a big grin on his face, "Why are you crying? Your father's looking down from heaven and laughing at you, because you're being so silly."

In denying pain and grief, he thought he was creating love. But this much I know: the only way to create true love is through compassion.

Those of us who are LGBTQ+, of color, mentally ill, disabled, chronically ill, and/or non-normative in other ways, are constantly assailed by binaries. People of color are attacked for who they are, in every way imaginable. Immigrants, especially those of color, are assailed by exclusion. And that's just to name a couple of groups who suffer this kind of aggression. Even being a cisgender woman is usually far harder than being a cisgender man. All this, because of pernicious use of either/or's. The biggest way I can see of making a lasting change is by starting to recognize and heal the binaries that destroy us. Not all binaries destroy us. (Should I wear jeans or shorts is a perfectly reasonable question, for example, as is whether I should holiday at home or go abroad.) But for the harmful binaries, I say to myself, "Acknowledge the person, not the binary."

What do you say? How do you deal?

All the same, there's so much work to do. For my own part, when I am hated because of who I am and what I represent, I try not to deny my rage and fear, otherwise I oppress myself and create a binary of denial/acceptance. And seeing as my communities are often safe for me, while others aren't, it's tempting to think my community is the only place of safety and love. Actually, that isn't true, but other communities can seem riskier at times. And there's another binary.

We are flawed creatures. But like so many of us, I do what I can.

Sometimes, we are responsible for our seeing. If you look at people and see either/or, you can try to start seeing in a different way. And we need, perhaps even first of all, to look at the binaries we use to judge ourselves. Saying "I'm not ____ enough," because you're employing some messed up judgement, or "I'm fortunate while others are suffering, so my own pain is invalid," is as much an attack as if you'd said it to someone else.

How can you heal anything by calling yourself invalid?

Perhaps one way to start healing the harmful splits is by living out the notion that honest pain is never invalid. If you feel it, it is real. And if it is real, there's no need to compare it—if you do, you create another binary and a distance between yourself and others.

If you're privileged enough to fit into all the binaries that society has erected, please, oh please, from the bottom of our hearts, stop cementing binaries that make people invisible. Instead of generalizing by saying, "men and women" or "white and of color" or "disabled and non-disabled" or "sick and healthy," try to find less divisive terms. As phrases, "People regardless of gender" or "Humans regardless of race" are inclusive and healing. I'm generalizing, of course, but we find our way with every context, if we want to.

Because there's a way to ditch the binaries. I don't doubt it.

Love is not a dream.


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