One-sided dichotomies

“One-sided dichotomy” is a term I would like to coin to describe a common situation in public discourse.

My first example is the distinction between second-wave feminism and third-wave feminism. Ostensibly, second-wave feminism describes a movement circa the 1970s, and third-wave feminism describes a movement circa the 2010s. But it should be obvious that feminists in the 1970s did not at the time make any such distinction. This is a dichotomy between two groups, but the dichotomy is only made by one of the two groups. Thus, a one-sided dichotomy.

One-sided dichotomies have a tendency to be unfair, because it is only one side controlling the narrative. The narrative goes that second-wave feminists were primarily focused on equality for wealthy white women, while third-wave feminism is intersectional. But closer examination should show that at least some feminisms of the 70s were intersectional, and some feminisms of the present day fail to be so. Does that mean the dichotomy is unfair, or am I nitpicking?  You decide.

I must emphasize that one-sided dichotomies are not necessarily unfair. A model example is the gay/straight dichotomy, which certainly started out one-sided. Straight people would have rejected the label (“I’m not straight, I’m just normal”) or simply wouldn’t have given it any thought. Now the dichotomy is broadly accepted. Another dichotomy currently following the same trajectory, is the cis/trans dichotomy.

A major question is: how do you tell whether a dichotomy is fair or unfair? Well, if a dichotomy is one-sided, that’s typically precisely because one side believes it is fair, and the other side believes it is unfair. Perhaps it is too ambitious to settle this dispute across such a broad range of topics, in just a single blog post. I’m just trying to establish the concept!

Lest all my examples be gender/sexuality-related, consider atheism vs agnosticism. In my experience, it is self-identified agnostics who care the most about the atheist/agnostic distinction. Self-identified atheists, on the other hand, say things like

Agnosticism is not a “third way” between atheism and theism because it is not mutually exclusive from atheism and theism. Agnosticism is about knowledge which is a separate issue [from] belief.

Many self-identified atheists also consider themselves agnostic, but believe that atheism is far more important.  So they primarily identify as atheist, and occasionally argue that agnostics ought to identify as atheist too.  To be clear, these views are not universally held, but it’s a pattern I’ve observed over the last 12 years.

Our next example is sex-positive vs sex-negative. “Sex-positive” originates from the feminist sex wars of the 1980s, although these days it’s frequently watered down to refer to vaguely positive attitudes about sex. As far as I know, the other side of the sex wars did not call themselves sex-negative, and were more likely to describe themselves as anti-porn feminists.

“Sex-negative” today is commonly applied to conservative Christians (who bear little relation to anti-porn feminism), but Christians themselves do not accept the label. As coyote put it,

Among most modern-day Christians, there’s this tendency to bend over backward to insist that they don’t hate sex, they don’t see sex as a bad thing, sex is great, actually!

One may point out that Christians only favor certain kinds of sex, and thus are still fairly described as sex-negative. Regardless, it’s good to maintain a mental model of how Christians see themselves, so that we can more effectively counteract them.

To further complicate things, “sex-negative feminism” has been reclaimed to refer to

A feminism which articulates a radical critique of sex and which dares to consider the proposal that sex may not, inherently, be nice.

That’s from a famous 2012 essay by Lisa Millbank.  Although I note that I am still citing the same essay after seven years, so by my reckoning the reclamation was a failure. Nonetheless, reclamations of “sex-negative” persist in some corners. This complicates any explanation of sex-positive and sex-negative politics, because the labels sometimes say more about one’s stance towards labels than one’s stance towards sex.

My final example is the one that inspired this essay, namely the liberationism vs assimilationism distinction that I wrote about recently. Liberationism originates from the gay liberation movement of the 1960s, and “assimilationist” is a way of describing their political opponents among gay people. “Assimilationist” is not, generally, how so-called assimilationists describe themselves. Regardless of where one stands on the issues, I feel it is misleading to present it as a neutral dichotomy.

I’m sure the reader can think of other examples.

My larger point, is that when it comes to dichotomies, it is not enough to understand what the words mean.  You also have to understand how the words are used in practice, and by whom.


  1. says

    Elimination/eradication vs. harm reduction is another.

    I honestly don’t know of anyone who operates on a harm reduction model in a particular area (my area of emphasis before going into law was anti-domestic violence) who doesn’t also want the problem they address to be eliminated. However, it is frequently the case that self-identified eliminationists think that there are many situations in which reducing the harm done will inevitably perpetuate the problem. This is more true in relation to efforts to end/reduce drug ab/use, but it is true to some extent in the anti-DV community as well.

    As a result, I think in many areas, harm reduction advocates would see it as unfair to describe them as “in opposition” to the eliminationist crowd, They would be more likely to see themselves as supplementing efforts towards elimination with efforts that ease the pain on the people affected by a problem during the elimination period.

    Anyway, that’s one more.

  2. says

    Do dichotomies even make any sense, at anything but a very low level? (“Yes or No: Did you view any pornography in the last week/month/year?”) Isn’t most everything interesting not only a spectrum, but multi-dimensional?

    In my dotage, I am becoming cynical. No one wants actual justice; they’re only in it for a good fight. Everyone is just rooting for the shirts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *