during my first semester at Swarthmore college. In a lesson that was to be repeated throughout my undergraduate education, the professor opened the class by admonishing us to reject binary thinking. As the class was staring at her dumbfounded, she divided the chalkboard in two with a thick vertical line and asked us to name the dualisms that structure our world. After she provided a few examples to get us started – male/female, white/black – we jumped into the game, calling out binaries one after another: rich/poor, smart/stupid, human/animal, cool/lame, skinny/fat … The game went on until the board was full and the air saturated with chalkdust. Pausing a moment, our comparative literature professor asked us if we noticed anything odd about the list we had constructed.
Looking at the chalkboard, we saw an easy answer: on the left of the line were “good” terms – cool,skinny, rich, smart, white – and on the right were their counterparts, the derided terms. In an instant, our class grasped an essential precept of postmodern philosophy: Western thought has hitherto divided the world into a series of binary oppositions that privilege one side over the other. The political implications of the lesson were clear: Oppression can be traced back to the way we think, and hope of liberation rests on escaping this binary thinking.
The postmodern project of overcoming binary thought, however, is more difficult than it may appear. First of all, one cannot simply flip the terms and privilege what was once diminished – that would merely replicate the binary in reverse.
The issue is not which term is privileged but the false belief that existence can be divided into two distinct, competing parts. Thus the task of the postmodern activist became the blurring and problematizing of distinctions in order to destroy dualist thinking. It was all done in the name of political liberation. At least that was the intended goal.