In many ways, metamodernism is all about binaries, conundrums, paradoxes, etc. However, the distinction that metamodernism makes about things like binary concepts is how two different ideas can often co-exist in the same space. Sometimes this coexistence is easier to define, and other times it is not.
However, I’m not sure if you can just throw any two random ideas or concepts together and just assume there is some way they will coexist, or even that there is a way to swing between the two in metaxy. For example, while modernism and post-modernism make interesting ideas to either fit together paradoxically or to swing back and forth between, not all ideas form a solid binary pairing to build a paradox out of – at least, within the current limitations of our understandings of logic.
In politics, it would seem that this problem can also be further extended when false binaries are introduced to the conversation in a way to equally erase both sides. You see this a lot in “both political sides are equally bad” arguments. For example, someone on one political side will say something that is historically or legally racist (“go back where you came from”), and people on that side will ignore historical and legal precedent to try and prove that this statement is not racist. People in the middle of both sides will pull out some kind of “both sides are equally bad” argument to just end the fighting rather than deal with the blatant racism. This will usually be supported by some problematic false binary meme:
The image above is a popular meme shared most often by moderates and independents. However, if you examine it for a minute, you begin to see that the two different sides on this graphic are not comparing two, well, “comparable” sides together, creating a false binary.
The first evidence of this is the fact that there are self-labeled White Supremacists and Nazis in our country, and they have generally attached themselves to the extreme conservative side of our current political spectrum. Also, there are those on the right that claim they are not racist, but they support the actions of the self-proclaimed White Nationalists and Nazis on their side. And while there are many on the Left that will hurl “Nazi!” and “Racist!” statements as insults (even occasionally at those that may not deserve that title), that does not change the fact that there are people that claim titles like “white nationalist” that are, in fact, racist.
However, the bigger problem comes with the insults being hurled at the Left in this diagram. had they chosen “Socialist!” or “Communist!” – that would have been a more accurate binary. There are those on the Left that are proudly Socialist or Communist. However, the insults depicted here are not equivalent to “Racist!” or “Nazi!” They are far worse.
“Libtard” is combination of “Liberal” and “Retard.” “Retard” is a hateful slur against people with disabilities. They are real people that should not be turned into insults in a partisan war. “Racist” or “Nazi” are labels that people can and do choose for themselves, but no one should be called a “Retard” or any form or mixture of the word, because disability is not an insult.
“Pussies” is using a part of the female anatomy as an insult, and there is also no place for this kind of sexist/misogynistic behavior. It comes from a view point that hates women and their bodies, and therefore sees them as a source for insulting terms. You should not use parts of the female anatomy as an insult, period.
There you have the false binary: taking words that can actually describe people (“Racist!” “Nazi!”) and comparing them with words that should never, ever be used to describe others (“Libtard!” “Pussy!”) in fake sense of both-sides-ism. Yes, I realize that all of those terms and others are thrown out in political arguments as insults. But to be clear: if someone is a racist or Nazi, that should be called out and confronted. However, there is never a reason to use disability or women’s anatomy as insults.
2 thoughts on “The Problem of False Binaries”
You know, I think there is some confusion where a lot of people misconstrue metamodernism as being about the co-existence of ANY binary pair of opposites. That’s really not at all what Vermeulen and van den Akker were doing. They were specifically talking about an aesthetic that oscillates between modernist and postmodern sensibilities. I totally agree with your critique of false binaries / equivalences, and of the “both sides are equally bad” refrain, but disagree that that really has anything to do with metamodernism.
That is kind of my point – a true binary can serve as a good topic for that aesthetic that oscillates between modernism/postmodernism sensibility. Obviously, you can do that with one side as well as you can two or more. As one summary puts it: “Van den Akker and Vermeulen define metamodernism as a continuous oscillation, a constant repositioning between positions and mindsets that are evocative of the modern and of the postmodern but are ultimately suggestive of another sensibility that is neither of them: one that negotiates between a yearning for universal truths on the one hand and an (a)political relativism on the other, between hope and doubt, sincerity and irony, knowingness and naivety, construction and deconstruction.” Binaries, paradoxes, and conundrums make excellent positional points to reposition between. False binaries and “both sides are equally bad” positions just tend to put things into the “universal truth” category and fight to keep them there.