Labeling (and binaries)

A unique aspect of human beings is our ability to use abstract and complex language. We can use language not only to communicate ideas but also to think and make sense of the world. For some of us, the latter exists as an internal monologue. Through language, we can name and label tangible objects, intangible experiences, and even abstract concepts that exist primarily in the mind. Labels are very useful as they are efficient pointers to meaning. I can easily communicate to someone on the opposite side of the planet that, “the sky here is blue, with a few fluffy white clouds.” Without much effort, they will almost immediately have a rough mental image of what I am saying. At the same time, what they imagine in their minds will almost certainly not be identical to what I am seeing. Therefore, while the labels “blue” and “fluffy white clouds” are sufficient in evoking a general idea, they fail to capture the specificity and nuances of my experience of the scene. The appropriateness of the labels that I use also differs by context. While the sentence is sufficiently descriptive for a friend asking about the weather, it is likely inadequate for a meteorological report.

Labels, therefore, are simplifications of usually more complex experiences. Additionally, they are ideal versions of whatever they are meant to point to. For instance, most people would say that they know what the word “black” means and will be able to identify black things in their environment. Let us say that we get someone (you can try this too) to look for one black object. Once they have found this object, they are asked to look for another black object, preferably one that is darker than the first. Now, we have two objects in front of us that are black. One of them will likely be darker than the other. By definition, the lighter black is not black, but a grey. Suppose this person repeats this process — they will likely be able to find an even darker black, rendering all previous examples grey. As of now, at least on our planet, this process will lead to the blackest material ever created, which is developed by researchers at MIT. The title was previously held by Vantablack, which caused some controversy when the British artist Anish Kapoor managed to acquire exclusive rights to it. Black is defined as “the very darkest color owing to the absence of or complete absorption of light; the opposite of white.” The only thing that is truly black in our universe, is a black hole. However, it is unlikely that anyone will ever perceive one up close unless they are interested in a one-way ticket into the darkness. However, the fact that we don’t need to perceive this true black, means that an ideal version of black already exists in our minds. Therefore, while we do experience imperfect instances of black through perception, the concept of pure black is one that is understood by the mind.

This perspective seems to echo Plato’s theory of forms, which posits that true reality exists separate from the physical reality in which we reside. In this higher reality are the ideal and perfect essences of all things, which people can access only through our thought and reason. While I do not think that such a realm exists, I do believe that in human language, the use of oppositional labels ultimately leads to the imaginary extrapolation of extremes. To put it another way, whenever we use opposite terms, they become such exaggerations of themselves that they can no longer exist in the real world. To illustrate this, we shall refer to the second half of the definition of black, which mentions “black” as the opposite of “white”. The eye perceives white when the three types of cone cells in our retina are equally stimulated by strong light. Similar to black, we will always be able to find an even brighter white, rendering every other white we have perceived up to that point as a grey. Unlike our search for the purest black, however, our quest for the brightest white will be cut short by permanent eye damage. The film director Ridley Scott once asked, “Life isn’t black and white. It’s a million gray areas, don’t you find?” To which, I would agree. Hence, strictly speaking, black and white mostly exist as ideal absolutes in our minds, while versions that we perceive in everyday life are shades of grey. 

This act of labeling applies not only to color but to every other aspect of our lives. Are people (innately) good or evil? Should societies organize themselves around capitalist or socialist economies? Should we prioritize individual freedom or the common good? Should governments be conservative or progressive? While such questions often expect one choice or the other, the actual answer is often a combination of both choices or lie somewhere in between them. We should be cautious whenever any pair of labels are presented to us as binary opposites. Oftentimes, these pairings are arbitrary and not mutually exclusive, creating false dichotomies. Moreover, I think that it is quite unrealistic to assume that the complex richness of our world can be reduced to one simplistic idea. By identifying the gradient that exists between supposed opposites and focusing our attention on appreciating subtlety rather than polarity, we can have much more productive discussions that will expand our knowledge and push us forward.

Additionally, we often look for opposites when they do not exist. Sometimes thinking in a purely binary way yields little use. Instead, we can think about how labels relate to one another and what type of space exists between or among them. Labels can be thought of as points in an indeterminate thought space (similar to the one described by Peter Gärdenfors). By connecting two of these points, we get a one-dimensional line. Sometimes, we can connect three or more of such points, creating two-dimensional planes (funny example by xkcd) or three-dimensional spaces.

To further complicate the matter, some labels that we use are social constructs. This means that the labels themselves are not fixed but are continually renegotiated within our society. One of the efforts of feminism, for instance, is to question the conventional roles of men and women. This process changes our understanding of these labels and their relation to our identity.

I shall conclude by stressing that just because our labels are simplified abstractions does not mean that they are unimportant or meaningless. Labels are useful as they help us navigate the world and distinguish different experiences and phenomena. Labels may even have a direct effect on our perception. Researchers have found that the language we speak affects the colors that we can perceive. We should just be aware that the world is a lot more complex and dynamic than the labels that we use to represent it. Contrary to my previous statements about black and white, I do not think that we should start calling things dark and light grey. We should not be paralyzed by the ideal quality of labels such that we become afraid to use them. For instance, I believe that gender is non-binary but, to echo a recent opinion piece by Nick Cohen, if I look like a man and act like a man, then maybe I should identify as a man. One of my favorite slang words, which seems to be used with increasing frequency, is “ish”. “Ish” reinjects complexity and approximation back into otherwise oversimplified categorical labels and frees us into using ideal terms in more flexible ways. Hence, I am a man(ish).