What is the opposite of up? What about love, male, day, dog, hot, and fast?
The ancient Greeks held the belief that everything necessarily had an opposite. Their influence is so widespread that even today we consider opposites to be necessary and obvious. For the most part when one is tasked with identifying an opposite, they have no trouble offering an answer which is consistent with that of the majority of the people in western society.
What is the opposite, of up, love, male, day, dog, hot, and fast? Most of us would reply “down, hate, female, night, cat, cold, and slow”. As it turns out, most of us would all be wrong. A common refrain about opposites is that without one the other would not be possible, e.g. we couldn’t have love without hate, or we couldn’t have good without evil. Of course, this is nonsense! Day is not dependent upon night, good is not dependent upon evil, this believe is just residue from a time when human discovery was still at its infancy.
Such is the power of language. When terms and ideas are so common that their use is practically universal, it becomes nearly impossible to course correct. Even in the face of evidence to the contrary.
This is not to say that dichotomies do not exist, they do, but there is a real problem when we treat contraries like ‘love’ and ‘hate’ as contradictories. If ‘love’ and ‘hate’ were truly opposites, i.e., if they were in fact contradictory terms, then experiencing both at the same time would itself be a contradiction. Cleary one can both love and hate someone or something in the same respect and at the same time ‘love’ and ‘hate’ are not opposites. They are just terms along some spectrum of emotions. They do not preclude or exclude one another in any way. The same can be said about nearly all perceived opposites.
Looking at temperature makes the point even easier to understand. There is no absolute that demarcates something being ‘hot’. The same can be said for ‘cold’. These are relative terms that fall somewhere along a spectrum of temperatures. When I was a little kid, I was so impressed with how “hot” my grandma would make the water while washing the dishes. I didn’t like when she would fill up the sink with dish water because it was too hot for me to even touch. I had baby hands. However, she would just dive right in like a polar bear in an ice bath. The water was hot to me, and not hot to her. The same idea unfolds when thinking about what is considered hot weather in a place such as Florida, and what is considered hot weather in place such as Ontario. There may be a fact about the temperature, but the notion of “hot” is relative. It’s somewhere on a spectrum, and it has no actual opposite. The same can be said about love, cold, male, dog, and almost every other “opposite” that we have been incorrectly ascribing since the ancient Greeks popularized this idea thousands of years ago.
Hot and cold, love and hate, these are pretty superfluous examples, but things start to get testy when one has the audacity to suggest that things like sex, nationality, race, and political affiliation are also non-binary/spectrum-based ideas.
How dare we suggest that dichotomies we’ve embraced since before Hannibal and his elephants crossed the Alps could possibly be wrong. Sex is binary, and it’s always been that way. There is a penis and a vagina, and that’s it! A person is either XX or XY and that is it! The sun is obviously going around the earth, and that is it!
Except it’s not!
The sun isn’t going around the earth, and while that may have been a hard pill for some to swallow it’s still a fact.
The geocentric model of the universe was based on limited data, ancient rituals, faulty beliefs, and outdated traditions. So too is the notion that a person is either female or male, XX or XY, and just like the geocentric model of the universe, this archaic notion of binary sexes has always been doomed to fail.
Prior to Copernicus, medieval thinkers had to do some innovative mental gymnastics in order to merge what they believed with what they perceived. But dammit if they were going to let a little thing like verifiable data get in the way of their ignorant and peaceful slumber. And so, they resisted, and they were wrong!
Just like geocentricism can’t be vindicated, and weather can’t be reduced to hot or cold, sex can’t be reduced to male or female. XX and XY are interesting data points, but they don’t paint the whole picture. Binary notions for sex don’t account for people missing a sex chromosome (XO), it doesn’t account for Klinefelter syndrome (XXY), it doesn’t account for XXX, or XYY chromosome combinations. Guevedoces are a people from an isolated village in the Dominican Republic who are born as girls, but when they hit puberty around the age of twelve, they get a surge of testosterone, and grow a penis. Guevedoces literally translates to ‘penis at twelve’, and that just doesn’t seem to fit into the overly simplistic dichotomy of male or female. Sometimes people are both, sometimes people are neither, and sometimes the complexities of sex force us to create new words and recalibrate the entire system.
Simple dichotomies aren’t always helpful, and false dichotomies can be downright hurtful. Expanding our conceptual framework from binaries to spectrums is long overdue. We don’t need all things to come in pairs, we don’t need to cling so tightly to tradition, we don’t need to be so dogmatic.
There can be liberation when we open the door to a different way of thinking. The world isn’t black and white, there are shades of grey everywhere. One person can be both liberal and conservative, one person can be both a believer and a doubter, and one person can be both accepting and skeptical.
Rejecting opposites/binaries/dichotomies (where needed) takes work, we’ve been trained to think this way since before we could walk, but there are advantages to looking at the world through a colorful lens.
I often doubt whether I am a “real” climber or not, I often doubt whether I am a “real” writer or not, but like most things, climbing and writing aren’t as simple as an on/off switch. I climb, and that puts me somewhere on the climber spectrum. I write, and that puts me somewhere on the writer spectrum.
In the end the great philosophical school of Skittles may have been right all along! Embrace the rainbow!!! Or don’t?