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Life Isn’t Binary and Neither Is the Coronavirus Pandemic

Non-binary thinking offers new routes for adapting to life with COVID-19.

Life Isn't Binary: On Being Both, Beyond, and In-Between
Meg-John Barker and Alex Iantaffi
Jessica Kingsley
May 2019

The coronavirus pandemic has up-ended contemporary life in ways we still haven’t entirely grasped, and may not fully reveal themselves for months or years to come. As our world struggles to deal with its unprecedented challenges, important insights can come from unexpected sources. Every field and genre has contributions to make, but a recent book about non-binary life – something normally thought of in association with gender or sexual identity – presents a number of ideas that offer important insights into our society’s response to the pandemic.

Much of our response to the pandemic reveals a lingering addiction to binary thinking. The alternative to this type of thinking is the sort of approach examined by Meg-John Barker and Alex Iantaffi in their thoughtful work Life Isn’t Binary: On Being Both, Beyond, and In-Between. ‘Non-binary’ has most popularly been used as a label to describe gender or sexual identity, by those who choose not to ascribe to either of the male-female, gay-straight, binaries. But as a concept it has potential that reaches far beyond gender or sexuality. The authors use gender and sexuality as their point of departure, but then branch off to consider how thinking and living outside the binary can manifest in other areas of life.

Non-binary thinking is rooted in the understanding that things change; nothing is set and immutable. Non-binary thinking takes as its point of analysis ‘both/and’ as descriptive and explanatory frames of reference, rather than the ‘either/or’ of traditional Cartesian dualism. Infinite diversity and fluidity of experience, rather than rigid binary classifications, are the order of the day.

Water drop by qimono (Pixabay License / Pixabay

COVID-19 appeared months after Life Isn’t Binary was published, but the measure of an intelligent book is its applicability to new situations. Consider the COVID-19 pandemic. Our society’s thinking about the pandemic from the very start is grounded in binary paradigms. At first it was a disease ‘over there’ (China), not something that seriously threatened us in North America (until it did). Research has revealed the ‘here’ versus ‘there’ split is not as clear-cut as North Americans thought it to be even during the pandemic’s early months; the virus spread globally far sooner and faster than had been imagined. The binary concept of an imaginary ‘us’ versus ‘them’ distinction and the false sense of confidence it generated slowed down North America’s virus response and preparation time, costing tens of thousands of lives.

One of the basic debates that first permeated pandemic thinking is rooted in a binary – is COVID-19 worse, or less serious, than the common flu? Considerable resources are poured into this debate – models of infection, critical care needs and death counts are deployed to compare it to the flu. But what does it matter, fundamentally, whether it’s ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than the flu? And what does that even mean? More deadly? More contagious? No matter which is ‘worse’, COVID-19 is still deadly, and still ought to be taken seriously, no matter how it compares to other diseases.

What the evidence does reveal, more than anything, is that the virus is not ‘better’ or ‘worse’ but different from those we compare it to – and it’s the unknowns that have proven especially deadly, rather than its position in some arbitrary ranking. The degree to which we attend to those unknowns – the disease’s symptoms, trajectory, complications – renders it either more, or less, deadly than the flu at different times and in different places. Research has shown that its deadliness varies immensely from region to region, community to community, based on the variable quality of local health infrastructure and expertise, socio-economic status of the population, social attitudes, which either promote or discourage healthy behaviours, and much more. Assigning COVID-19 an absolute value in relation to the flu, based on some arbitrary formula, is both meaningless and distracting.

If anything, this kind of binary thinking is used to divert attention from other important truths. For instance, arguing about whether COVID-19 is more or less deadly than the flu serves to obscure serious conversations about the existing lack of adequate medical care devoted toward the flu. We ought to take the flu more seriously than we do – there ought to be widespread mandatory vaccinations, people ought to stay home when they’re sick, and they ought to have adequate sick leave provided by employers (or the state). Many of those who become critically ill and die from the flu are the poor and elderly; those on the margins of society.

Obscured in the ‘either/or’ debate about whether COVID-19 is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than the common flu is the underlying reality that our health systems are inadequate and we don’t adequately treat or prevent the flu – or other health ailments — as is. Yet this more serious debate is obfuscated by the ‘either/or’, ‘better/worse’ debate, which seeks to rank coronavirus in terms of threat level. Can’t we simply acknowledge that it’s also deadly – different and deadly in its own ways?

Because part of the rationale for this ‘better/worse’ debate is to determine how much of our society’s material resources (money, protective equipment, hospital beds, research funds, etc.) we ought to deploy in our response to COVID-19, the binary in this case is used to smother the broader debate around the overall underfunding of health care, which predates the pandemic.

There are deeply existential binaries wrapped up our pandemic paradigms. Consider the binary distinctions between ‘sick’ and ‘healthy’; between ‘infected’ and ‘uninfected’. During press briefings, reporters struggle to understand health officials’ definitions for these binary categories. What does it mean to say a COVID-19 test was ‘positive,’ or ‘negative’? What’s the difference between a ‘positive case’ and a ‘positively confirmed case’? What does it mean to say someone has ‘recovered’? The volume of discussions around these terms reveals our ongoing obsession with rigid categories.

Testing itself reveals a binary way of thinking. Many reporters, employers, and even government officials still seem to think that we can return to a close semblance of pre-pandemic life simply by testing everyone. Health officials have been at pains to explain to them why it doesn’t work that way. Testing reveals something about a person’s state of health at a particular moment in time. Someone who tests negative for COVID-19 one moment, could still be infected, or soon to be infected; could still carry and transmit the disease that same work day.

A processual, malleable understanding of identity – core to non-binary thinking – provides the flexibility to understand the fluidity and ever-changing nature of our states of being, including health. Binary thinking only sees two realities: infected or not. Diseased or not. Dangerous or safe. Non-binary thinking understands that we can be more than one thing at once, and that our states of being – like our identities – can change very rapidly.

The notion of creating ‘immunity passports’ for those who have had the disease and recovered continues to linger, despite the fact medical researchers say there is no firm evidence that recovery confers immunity, or how long that immunity might last if it does. Yet here too is evidence of our determination to create rigid categories and boxes in which to place people – in this case with serious potential consequences to human rights, labour rights, and the way we treat each other.

The obsession with rigid binary categories has led to some ridiculous public policy approaches. Around the world, jurisdictions have established arbitrary and often meaningless boundaries based on a rigidity of binary thinking. In Japan, some prefectures established rules that public employees who so much as step outside of their prefecture have to quarantine for 14 days upon return. But no such rules are applied to people transiting through prefectures (truck drivers, bus passengers, tourists) who stop en route, nor to public employees who travel from outside one prefecture (that may have had looser rules) to reside or work in another prefecture with more restrictive rules.

In Canada, some provinces closed their borders entirely to non-residents, while allowing their own residents the freedom to travel in and out, back and forth at will. Even now, countries are establishing confusing ‘bubbles’ with other countries, designating each other as either ‘safe’ for travel or not. There’s a certain reliance on statistical probability in these approaches. But the fundamental fact is that none of these measures will actually stop or prevent infection. One ‘super-spreader’ from a safe bubble partner could trigger an infection just as easily (or with even greater likelihood) as several infected visitors with light viral loads from an ‘unsafe’ country. The further sub-categorization of ‘super-spreaders’ is itself a reflection of binary thinking; instead of simply recognizing and acknowledging the variability in viral loads between people, it indicates an effort to draw an arbitrary line dividing the infected into one of two categories.

At press briefings, announcements that public health officials are shifting some aspect of their approach to the pandemic – going from not recommending use of masks to recommending them, for instance; or shifting their testing criteria – often provoke a bizarrely incredulous response from reporters. The ubiquitous question these journalists ask is: “Previously you said X, but now you say Y. What changed?” The question is posed almost accusingly, as though a change in policy reveals something nefarious. Politicians from US President Donald Trump on down have pointed to these inconsistencies as evidence of incompetence and untrustworthiness. But as any good scientist knows, your understanding of anything constantly changes as you learn more about it.

The pandemic is no different. Constantly changing health policies are an indication that medical science is making progress; static policies would be even more worrying. Yet a devotion to binary thinking conceives of change and mutability as problematic; as evidence of some kind of weakness or failing. Change is suspicious; things that change are not to be trusted. This is entirely wrong, but it’s deeply wrapped up in the dominant culture’s obsession with binary thinking.

As we collectively try to figure out what the future holds, governments have pitched a narrative about the very trajectory of the pandemic which is deeply rooted in a binary. This narrative understands the pandemic as having a “peak” – one side of the peak requires restrictive lockdown measures, the other side will see us reopening our economy and returning to normal. There is also that ubiquitous ‘surge’ – a short-lived rise in cases following which we can resume our regular lives. These concepts – peak, surge – are all about defining the pandemic experience in terms of rigid, discernible categories. We are constantly situated within one of these two binaries: pre-peak or post-peak; surging or post-surge.

These narratives preclude an understanding of the more accurate reality, which is that infections will rise and fall, wax and wane, move around geographically and even within cities and neighbourhoods. By rooting their responses in binary modes of thinking, public officials in fact expose people to greater risks, because it’s such an ineffectual way of looking at things (let alone using as the basis for public health policy). A more processual, fluid understanding, which focuses on flexible ongoing public health responses capable of easily adapting to differing local needs and circumstances at varying points in time, would be far more effective both in preventing and responding to outbreaks.

And then of course there is the binary which envisages an inevitable return to pre-pandemic ‘normal’. Even the ‘new normal’ which has become vogue in public dialogue is nothing more than a referent rooted in pre-pandemic norms: the ‘new normal’ is whatever measures will allow us to most closely approximate the ‘old’, pre-pandemic ‘normal’. Media has especially bought into this narrative, which frames the public policy debate as one between two binary choices: do we ‘re-open’ our economy now, or later?

This binary framing precludes the more fluid, fertile possibility that we could restructure our economy and society in ways that move beyond the consumer-intensive, resource-extractive neoliberal capitalism that defined our pre-pandemic reality. Yet instead of considering this fertile palette of possibility, media and government reduce the debate to a simplistic binary: do we re-open now or later? Do we return to pre-pandemic norms now, or wait a little longer? In this framing, ‘re-opening’ – that is to say restoring pre-pandemic norms – is framed as simply a matter of ‘when’, not ‘if’.

Alternatives to Binary Thinking

Barker and Iantaffi’s book is presented as an introduction to non-binary thinking and identities, exploring how non-binary concepts intersect with six aspects of human experience: sexualities, genders, relationships, bodies, emotions and thinking. Presented in conversational language and at times assuming the form of a self-help workbook, it’s an engaging introduction for those seeking to understand what ‘non-binary’ identities are all about. But the most interesting part of the book lies in its final chapter, wherein the authors examine the pervasive effects of binary thinking, and suggest non-binary alternatives which offer new ways of moving forward on old problems.

What are these alternatives? There are surely many, but Barker and Iantaffi offer four: thinking in terms of ‘between’ and ‘both/and’, instead of ‘either/or’; considering what possibilities and consequences are both opened up, as well as closed down, by the framing of particular options or debates; considering multiversal perspectives; and embracing uncertainty. Let’s consider these options in the pandemic context.

As already discussed, an important aspect of non-binary thinking involves not seeing options in ‘either/or’ terms but rather accepting that multiple realities are possible. Considering as an example the economic impact of COVID-19, we see pitched political battles emerge between those who argue in favour of lockdowns (from the position that saving lives matters most) and those who argue for a quick ‘reopening’ (from the position that the economy is equally crucial, and that the ‘cure is worse than the disease’). But these need not be an ‘either/or’ choice, between saving lives or causing irrevocable economic harm.

The transformation of work patterns and allocation of goods and services caused by the pandemic could provide alternative opportunities for positive economic outcomes. Some jurisdictions around the world conduct hitherto unprecedented experiments with expanding social safety nets, toying with basic income schemes, freezing rents and other creative responses to the crisis. By provisioning the unemployed, creative workers and others; by funding workers with new opportunities to work from home; by building new demand for innovative technologies to facilitate remote work, the pandemic generated new forms of economic activity, and led some governments to (temporarily) freeze barriers toward creative and small business growth (rents, student loans, credit debt, etc).

Shifting the way that we work – so as to reduce the danger of viral spread and its attendant crises – could also be seen as a way of generating new economic opportunities. The closure of oil platforms (because of reduced demand, overproduction, and lowered prices) coupled with enhanced state-funded unemployment benefits, could be perceived not as a loss but as an opportunity for governments to begin the long-awaited transition of workers from dying resource industries (oil and gas) into other, more sustainable fields.

This is not to minimize the terrible misery caused by the pandemic on many levels. But it’s to observe that its impacts are complex, and that a failure to acknowledge the multiple realities generated by the crisis only hampers our ability to effectively respond to it. The measures we take in response to the pandemic are deeply disruptive to an economy centred on endless growth and consumption. Instead of trying to return to that model, what would happen if we explored a new economic model that might turn out to be more resilient in the face of pandemics (of which we are told we can expect more in future)?

Simply writing off life-saving public health measures as inherently destructive to economies, and framing a return to pre-pandemic economics as the sole possible route toward positive social and economic outcomes, reveals an incredibly narrow thinking rooted in binary options: either we prioritize lives or we prioritize economies. But that need not be the case: non-binary thinking reveals that we are not limited to simplistic either/or frameworks like this. The public health measures taken in an effort to save lives by preventing virus spread – shutting down workplaces and imposing strict safety guidelines for essential work — could be seen not merely as ‘harmful’ to the economy but rather as a way of extending the value we place on lives from the public health context to the economic context.

The pre-pandemic ‘normal’ governments seek to restore was in fact incredibly harmful to many people – to the poor, the precariously employed, the rapidly growing numbers of people who suffer from the very same economic practices which the pandemic forced a temporary end to (some of them, anyhow). What harmed the inequitably and obscenely wealthy business leaders in some jurisdictions may have improved the lives of some workers.

Granted, the reverse is true as well – pressures on companies like Amazon induced by the pandemic put even greater numbers of workers in dangerous situations. But the point is that there is no ‘either/or’ outcome — positive or negative — intrinsic to the measures taken in response to the pandemic. The transformations forced on us by circumstance could open up new possibilities to transform society in beneficial ways, if we don’t allow our thinking to remain constrained in simplistic binaries and convinced that all of these changes are inherently negative.

This type of thinking also reflects the non-binary focus on multiversality: “the existence of multiple realities, stories and possibilities.” Much of our societal response to the pandemic is influenced by media’s tendency to frame choices in the form of confrontational debates. In dysfunctional jurisdictions like the United States, federal and state governments argue over public health measures and compete over resources like hospital beds, medical staff and personal protective equipment. Reporters challenge government officials over public health policy; journalists pit business leaders demanding ‘reopening’ against public health officers urging caution. In such a context, characterized by universalizing binary debates, it’s inevitable that anger, disagreement, and confrontation prove a barrier to reasoned, situation-based collective decision-making.

Rather than blanket assumptions that whatever brings us closer to our pre-pandemic lives is good (i.e., reopening shops and restaurants) and that sustained, cautious public health measures are necessarily bad (for the economy), officials could more productively consider each option and decision from the perspective of what opportunities they open up and what opportunities they close down. Rarely has it been acknowledged that our pre-pandemic lives were not ideal for everyone. Some pandemic measures – expansion of social security benefits, for instance, or freezing rents and debt payments – in fact opened up improved opportunities for some people. And measures like reopening businesses, which appear to open up opportunities for shop-owners and consumers, in fact closes down opportunities for low-waged and precarious workers to keep themselves and their families safe. Barker and Iantaffi’s call to consider what possibilities are opened and closed by choices we make offers an opportunity for decision-making that incorporates broader considerations.

And of course, ’embracing uncertainty’ is for many of us the only way to move forward through a pandemic that transforms every aspect of our lives. This doesn’t mean celebrating the disruption caused by the pandemic, but rather acknowledging and accepting that there are many things about the pandemic, and our response to it, that we simply don’t know. The obsessive compulsion many western journalists and policy-makers show over pandemic modelling, for instance, reveals a frenetic (and mostly futile) effort to establish a sense of certainty over the unknown.

Modelling is intended to tell us what would happen: how many deaths to expect, when the virus will peak, how long until it wanes and we could go back to our gyms and our dog-groomers once more. But even the best models are little more than incredibly elaborate guesswork. Indi Samarajiva argued in his astute commentary on the modelling predilections of western journalists and governments (see: “Every Covid-19 model is a waste of time”), that one of the reasons for the more successful pandemic responses of some Asian countries was that they don’t waste the same degree of time and resources in modelling.

In Western media, however, it’s all about projections and models, hypothetical deaths, and cases, trying to optimize disaster. These models are endlessly debated until reality catches up and obliterates them. Then they run the models again. It’s a complete waste of time,” he writes. “You don’t need to model a tsunami. You’re not going to surf the damn thing, just get out of the way.

The fact is, we don’t know what the future holds. We don’t know, with any certainty, what will be the outcome of both the ongoing virus spread as well as the political and economic decisions made in response to it. Yet a great deal of strife, anger, and dissension is presently wrapped up in our conflictual efforts to exert competing claims of certainty over an inherently unknowable future. We are in uncharted territory. Although pandemics are not new, in our global and technological world we are dealing with things we have not dealt with before, and we are taking actions that have never been tried before.

Acknowledging and accepting the uncertainty inherent in this could be a useful step toward working together collaboratively to respond in mutually beneficial ways to the uncertainties we encounter. At present, we are clinging so desperately to the things we know and want – a return to our pre-pandemic lifestyles – that we are in fact making it harder to obtain them. Premature and overly hasty reopening of the economy is causing spikes in virus transmission which will inevitably slow down or destroy the ‘normal’ we are trying to restore.

Barker and Iantaffi suggest that “rather than grasping tight or hurling away, we can hold onto things gently and embrace the uncertainty that comes with this. Rather than leaping to conclusions and actions, we can stay in the state of non-knowing for longer. This can be a painful place to be – because we struggle with uncertainty – and it can also be a relief from the intense struggle of all-or-nothing thinking, which can lead to more compassionate and wise decision-making.”

Life Isn’t Binary expresses important truths about gender, bodies, and identities. But it, like the growing body of non-binary thought of which it’s a part, also points toward broader possibilities for the way we think and act and the way we structure our society. The book is not about the pandemic, but its insights can be usefully applied to this and so many other contemporary concerns. The racism which is now generating unprecedented protests in the US and around the world is also rooted in brutalizing binary thinking that can be traced to our past, and which remains rooted in the political and social institutions that have built on those histories. Non-binary thinking offers important avenues for growth not just for us as individuals, but also for the societies of which we are inseparably a part.