The Fallacy of Binaries

There has been an age-old fascination with binaries. Certain people can become prone to believe in simple heuristics and generalizations. Not just literary symbols, but ones which can alter the way you see people and the outside world. What do you think of when I say black v. white? The matter no longer follows symbolism, but how we portray people and how we perceive them.


Yang Liu, East Meets West.

This divider has been bothering me for quite some time–circular versus linear thinking. Educators and researchers alike seem content on focusing the theory that linear and circular thinking can, generally, encapsulate entire cultures. While I acknowledge these theories, I believe they look over certain aspects of our continually globalized universe. Why do we consistently enjoy putting up dividers onto lives that, in this contemporary time, begin to fuse together?

At a recent event, a speaker talked about teaching his or her students, a more “western” way of writing which allowed them to properly write essays. I questioned what exactly this person meant by his or her statement. In response, they wanted to acknowledge circular v. linear thought patterns. However, this did not end up answering my immediate question at all. I wanted to know how, as an English teacher, he/she expressed wanting a more Western-style of writing. Was it narratively more straightforward with less examples? In the expository piece, did he/she expect more explanation rather than detail? How, exactly, was it more Western and, implicitly, correct?

The answer, in my opinion, was a cop-out and ill-thought about. “Yes, linear thinking.” What is even meant by linear thinking? Yes, THE West, I get that bit. Did we, as English teachers, students and speakers, ever consider that a Western style of expository writing might just be one way to convey an argument? I remember an elementary school teacher telling me how to properly write an essay. “Build it like a hamburger. The introduction and conclusion are the buns, the meat are the reasons, and the details are like the lettuce, cheese, all that.” (This is quite a limited metaphor, first of all. Many meals in many cultures, American included, do not incorporate the ever-famous hamburger.) Cultures, neo-cultures, sub-cultures and non-mainstream alike, all have their own way of conveying narrative. It’s not fair to condemn a student who does not adhere to the general or traditional standards. Yet…we do so much in the literazzi. From IOWA tests to SATs and ACTs to the ever fabulous GRE, people continue to refurbish the idea that standardization amounts to something beyond access to test books and capable teachers. That all you are is a score. That a university can deny you on the basis of a few letters and numbers. What are we as educators accepting and we as students learning? Standardization has its place, but it cannot be the benchmark of status quos or hierarchies.

There are those of us on the fringes and borders. There are Chinese-Americans, South-African Ethiopians, Cambodian-Laoese, Siberian, Nigerian, and many others. Many of us are naturalized New Americans or non-native speakers of English. Perhaps I tell a story differently. In one of my most memorable panel interviews, I was told I have a “very non-linear, kinda spiral-y” speaking style. My advisor told me something I will never forget. I asked if I should change it. “Oh, no don’t do that. That’s your charm. That’s so you.” In the midst of teaching rules, regulations and boundaries, you know what we should be teaching? Voice. How to find your voice. How to grapple with it but let it ring free at the same time.

There is no such thing as the traditional linear narrative. It is as defunct as saying the world is flat. Perhaps, one might argue, it is even more ridiculous. A line covers the distance between two points. It doesn’t have to be straight. A circle offers limitless possibilities, but some might see it (punny as it seems) as “pointless.” However, there is more geometry to language and storytelling than this fallacious binary will allow. There are pentagons, tri-decahedrons, hexagons and some non-shapes as well. Spirals, anomalies and parabolas. The exciting thing is, as a person, you can learn to speak each shape, symbol, line, or dot. You are not limited by where you come from, what your skin color is, or who your parents were. You are not limited by what other people think of you (no matter their PhD or MBA or WHATEVER), you are not limited by the cruelties of childhood or the ghastly things they call standardized exams. You are not any of those, but you are going somewhere. You are. You are somebody, and you don’t have to be or be like anyone else. Oh, and before anyone goes and points out this is a somewhat “individualistic” argument, we are all capable of opening our minds up and encouraging others to do the same.

To be honest, I hesitated to write this because of wanting to respect the academic voices represented in this piece. It was also due to fear. However, that silly fear is not bigger than my fear of old ideas. Gone are the days of binaries. It’s time to realize the overwhelming possibility of telling more than one story.

Yours in spirals and curves and zig-zags,



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