Knowledge Center

When it comes to the real world, two is too few

It feels good to be sure about things. To be sure about whether bread causes cancer. Or about how many drinks you should take in a day. Or if you should still be buying a pink frock for your niece after your daughter told you that it is an old fashioned idea.

It feels uncomfortable when fundamental beliefs are shaken. After all, you’ve been getting on just fine with your bread and jam breakfast staple. Your grandfather lived to the ripe age of 90 despite knocking back more than a few. And frankly, you haven’t seen childhoods stunted because of a simple pink frock.

The understanding of what is right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable is changing, and it only seems fair that you feel unsettled by it. No longer can ideas be neatly labelled as ‘this or that’, which constantly makes you question your opinions. And in a way, we are what we believe. So where does that leave you?

Binaries have proven undeniably helpful in navigating the world. Thanks to them, you don’t end up walking into the wrong bathroom stall. Or going against your religious beliefs because the non-vegetarian snacks weren’t labelled as so. But beyond the rudimentary level, life has perhaps always existed within the space between binaries.

Take the case of Indian sportswoman Dutee Chand; the current national record holder in women’s 100m sprint. Her career had recently come to a halt on being questioned over her naturally occurring high testosterone levels. The discovery had been prompted by observations about her ‘masculine’ musculature and unusually powerful strides.

Deviation from what is considered the ‘natural’ feminine form landed Dutee with an invasive medical exam and then legal disqualification. While she subsequently won back her right to compete, she was nonetheless subjected to intense public scrutiny and discrimination over her gender identity.

Now, it is not as if this is the first time sports history has come across a woman athlete blessed with greater athletic prowess than her competitors (South African middle-distance runner Caster Semenya has also undergone similar treatment but has been unable to overturn her disqualification).

But that didn’t stop authorities and the public at large from holding the gender binary, a concept, more important than a living, breathing individual.

While this is just one example, binaries often try to force fit the fluidity of human reality into rigid social categories; two becomes the best we can do to accommodate variations. But as highlighted previously, we can’t do away with them either.

How then can we reckon with binaries without dismissing the possibilities that lie outside?

For starters, perhaps we could consider the famous semiotician, Charles Peirce’s understanding of the same: that a binary is the minimalist form of plurality.

Put another way: yes; first, we must begin by classifying our athletes as either men or women. But we should also reconsider when setting restrictive standards about what makes them so.

If we close off the process of identification and categorisation after completing only the first step, cultural diversity will stand the risk of being snuffed out.

Further reading

“The Humiliating Practice of Sex-Testing Female Athletes”

“Hybridity and Heterogeneity: The Balance of Interpretation”