French philosopher Jacques Derrida was concerned with binary thinking. He noticed this tendency as a fundamental aspect of the Western worldview. Often, our understanding is based on the pairing of two opposing concepts. We know what “light” is because we have the concept of “dark” to compare it to. The list of these types of binaries is endless: man/woman, short/tall, good/evil, etc., etc.
According to Derrida, this way of seeing the world becomes problematic in three ways. First, solid meaning never truly arrives as it remains dependant on the existence of the opposite term in the binary. Can we ever know what light is without comparing it to dark? The second problem is the damage done to that which lies in between the binary. After we have understood light and dark, what becomes of dusk or shadow as neither fit neatly into the polarities of definition? And finally, inevitably, a hierarchy develops between the two terms of the binary. Culturally, one is considered superior to the other. We collectively revere light and vilify the dark. And in that vilification comes a desire for subjugation.
America entered an era of hyper binary thought about a decade ago in the run up to the Iraq War. This era was not, though, some culmination of a disciplined strive for metaphysical understanding. We did not arrive at this way of thinking through the triumph of our long-standing stalwart institutions of government, education, science, and industry. This hyper-binary worldview was installed by Bush-era propaganda campaigns. Their stranglehold on our cultural narrative reached its peak as the terror of “with us/against us” was peddled through the media. The Democrat and Republican polarization began to proliferate toward epic proportions.
But, a decade later, we rest upon the edge of a new era. The aforementioned intuitions have been systematically and thoroughly gutted as corruption and self-interest have spread through each like wildfire. Their burnt out husks litter our cultural landscape and we can no longer depend on them for guidance. Rather than their existence offering us shoulders to stand on and a clear view above our current situation, our vision is now blocked and obfuscated by their stubborn remains. Granted, this process of their demise was underway long before the Bush administration, but clearly we have reached a critical stage in our cultural history and we are collectively starting to feel the hindrance of that which remains. In this landscape of uncertainty and myopia, the spaces between the binaries have never been more important.
When debates enter the public sphere, they play out in two ways: either the space in between is totally lost or the space in between is so unfamiliar that we have next to no faculties for navigation. In the first case, debates like gun control and gay marriage perforate along standard tired lines. Two clear-cut camps consume airtime as the stalemate of yes/no is volleyed back and forth and no progress is never truly made. The general goal of each camp is one of utter dominance. And as we continue to scream for either “ALL GUNS” or “ZERO GUNS,” we miss the opportunity to speak of “some guns in some cases.” Even in the case of gay marriage where progress is gained, the rhetoric has accomplished political action without closing any gaps in cultural understanding and relation and respect.
The second case, when the space between becomes a labyrinth, is exemplified by the Obamacare debate and really Obama’s presidency in general alongside the rise of the radical Right in the form of the Tea Party and Libertarianism. Obamacare is fundamentally flawed and deeply inadequate, but not for the reasons being peddled. It’s not that Obamacare is too socialist. It’s that it’s not socialist enough to address the needs of our suffering poor. Obama’s presidency is not a scourge because he is a radical Leftist (he’s not). It’s a detriment because it’s no different than George W. Bush’s. In certain circles, a healthy distrust in the mainstream media has developed but only to see Fox News as the alternative. Atheists have banded together to oppose the intolerance peddled by mainstream monotheistic dogma only to become as intolerant and dogmatic as what they are fighting. The space between has taken the form of cognitive dissonance, but as we shed our old skin, can we expect any less?
The sentiment of civil unrest that is stirring and crackling beneath the surface of public opinion is absolutely warranted and deeply welcomed. The sentiment behind this unrest must be refined, for we are all too rudderless.
Like some newborn fawn, we are learning to stand on our own two feet beyond the crutches of binary thought. We are groping and plodding out into the new darkness of this undefined space. The spaces between and beyond what we have been coddled into knowing, what we have been led to believe, are infinite and boundless. In them, we can find our way and our voice. And in them, we must find each other.