Friday, 19 February 2016

The problem with binary terminology

Dr Donna Yates has called attention on her blog (Anonymous Swiss Collector, 18 February 2016) to an event to be held on 1 March in New York: "Rethinking Antiquities: Restitution and Collecting in the Time of ISIS". She comments: "This should be an interesting event, clearly promoting an alternate view to the one that you’d usually see on this list: some pro-collecting, anti-regulation, anti-repatriation ideas."

I'm sure Dr Yates used those three terms (collecting, regulation, repatriation) merely as shorthand and is well aware of their shortcomings but, for the sake of argument and with apologies to Dr Yates, I'll examine them at face value.

Personally, I am not unreservedly pro-collecting, anti-regulation and anti-repatriation. On the other hand, neither am I unreservedly anti-collecting, pro-regulation and pro-repatriation.

Confused? The problem lies in a temptation to dumb-down a complex issue into a series of only two diametrically opposed attitudes, an attempt to reduce reality into binary thought. The process is akin to saying something is either 'hot' or 'cold' while ignoring the countless gradations of 'warm', 'cool', 'tepid' and so on in between.

Applying binary thought may work nicely at football matches or other fantasy conflicts. I hope Dr Yates would readily agree that it doesn't always work quite so well when applied to real life; it typically forces a false dichotomy. Simply put: in reality all three terms (collecting, regulation, repatriation) are far too broad to either support or oppose unconditionally.

My own reaction to those terms all depends on factors and parameters such as how those terms are defined, how they are qualified, how they are implemented and, very often, the circumstances of different cases and situations. Much of the danger in debates between those fighting for heritage conservation and those fighting to preserve a trade in artefacts lies in polarisation, a tendency to misunderstand, stereotype and sometimes demonise those holding a divergent viewpoint. At its most extreme, a debate can become a myopic impasse of binary thought - with no allowance for nuances and moderation.

I thoroughly agree with Dr Yates that this event should prove to be interesting. And I see it as an opportunity to openly consider and accommodate views from various perspectives - without any baggage of preconceptions and stereotyping. I wish I could attend.

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Assemblage 23: Binary


The world isn't rendered in black and white
Other shades lie between
Don't view the world with binary eyes
We are human, not machine



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