I have been messing around with the concept of categorization lately, and have decided that it has dangerous consequences. So I’d like to investigate the topic a bit more and perhaps offer a solution as to a perhaps a better way of thinking about things.
First of all let’s look at why we categorize. It is clear that putting things into categories is an inherent quality of how we think. And there are a lot of good arguments for categorization. Let’s face it. The world is a noisy place. There are a lot of: people, other animals, plants, types of weather, places to see, dangers to be aware of, things to learn, beliefs, truths, languages, cultures…well you get the picture. The list goes on and on. What we can gather is that the world is a noisy, chaotic place. Quite honestly we never would have started to walk upright if we didn’t categorize, because the sheer volume of information alone would overwhelm us. I would argue that we probably had to rely on categorization more as our intelligence grew because we became aware of so many more things. But I maybe wrong about that and it is beside the point. Categorization makes sense, it is useful, and it is natural and evolutionary.
So that’s great. But now let’s look at how it can get us into trouble. In my previous blog entry (it feels good to say that now!) I talked about placing things into the category of normal, which by default causes us to put things that don’t fit into a category as abnormal. I argue how this might impacts our thinking and it certainly does. I think this type of simple categorization does harm in other areas of thought as well. In fact I am going to argue that the more simply we try to categorize the more difficult and harmful it is. We can think of many simple categorizations we do every day; bad and good, good and evil, tall and short, smart and dumb, etc. Any system of categorization has two inherent problems in that, firstly, it does not take into account all the points in between, and that secondly it requires us to have a good definition of the each category and an appropriate context.
Let’s take something simple like tall and short. This is a physical quality. Calling things short and tall can be difficult if we include let’s say all animals and then try to separate tall ones from short ones. How do you compare a giraffe to a koala bear to a microbe? There we will reduce the sample size to just humans, and to eliminate gender differences in height, human men. Now we all know well the definition of tall and short in a general sense, but for the purpose of our problem we need to come up with a boundary for the category. Now we hit our first real problem. This separation point is subjective. But let’s say we do some statistics and find that the average height of all men is 5’9”. This may not even be a good way of doing it, because it is more relevant to determine what tall and short mean amongst men of different cultures. It would not be a very good average height likely if we were only talking about Scandinavians or Chinese. But since we’ve decided to make “all men” the context here then let’s just roll with it. So now we can start going around to other men and telling them “Hey, you’re tall” or “Hey you’re short” because they fall below or above a certain criteria that we’ve decided is meaningful. Well of course the problem is that the range of heights amongst men starts at the shortest man to the tallest man, and about 3.5 billion points in between. So there is a guy, who if we measured very carefully is the barest fraction of an inch under, and one that is over, and likely one who is exactly 5’9”. What do we say of these men? Do we label one as tall and the other as short even though we can see no difference with our eyes? And what if a taller man hunches most of the time, and a shorter one has good posture, or bigger hair, thus changing our perspective. I am sure you can find many more other problems with the categorization, and this is only for a simple physical quality, and even this physical quality often has associations that can lead to stereotyping. “He’s short, he’ll never play basketball.” “Ooh he’s tall dark and handsome.”
The problem gets even worse when we start to look at things like good and evil. As an atheist even I have beliefs, so maybe I need to be careful of just saying believers and non-believers. If I lay out the criteria well, I might be able to get away with it. But even then I would be hard pressed to make every person fit into one category or the other.
Things get a little bit better when I try to go into more categories. As a professor I actually like having greater grading resolution. This means that I like to have the ability to be able to differentiate more acutely with one students’ work or grade in comparison with another. A better way might be to categorize heights might be to say, less than 5 ft, between 5 ft and 5’2”, between 5’2” and 5’4” and so on. Often by tying numbers to our categorization we don’t have positive or negative associations, but of course we usually end up associating meaning to those numbers. Nevertheless by increasing the number of categories we get closer to the truth which is that there is a whole spectrum of sizes that is nearly continuous from shortest to tallest. This type of categorization for height once again is relatively easy. How do we categorize something like good and evil? Are those even realistic categories? Is there an ultimate in good and evil? In the world there is definitely a shortest and tallest man, but good and evil is not so clear. Is there even an agreeable definition to those things, especially as it applies to humans? Many religions have this ultimate concept of good and evil by having a God and a Devil. Of course even the definition on the nature of those extremes of good and evil cannot be agreed upon. In the bible God does some terrible things, which according to the writer’s perspective are good because from the perspective of his culture it’s good. I am sure the other culture is not too fond of their God at all.
Categorization is extremely challenging and yet we still do it. I re-watched the movie Hotel Rwanda recently and I began thinking about these things even more strongly. Whether you’ve watched the movie or not doesn’t matter (although you should watch that movie), but it is about the civil war and attempt at genocide by the Hutus against the Tutsis in Rwanda. The difference in appearance between the two people are subtle if even there, yet one side was willing to eliminate the other. Of course we don’t need different colors of skin to hate or to have prejudice and so it made me think about the futility of categorization. Because even if you are a white supremacist and clear all those colored people away, over time you will still start categorizing people who are different even if those differences are slight. And I think this is especially true in a culture that is centered on intolerance. You will only breed more intolerance into your culture which will eventually cause you to even hate the same group of people who were your brothers in the fight for “white power” not too long ago. Even Christianity has fractured from its beginnings into many denominations, many of who have fought wars and still fight today in one way or another.
So I think the best plan of action is to remember first that categorization is a tool and not truth. While it might help you organize things in your mind, your division is likely subjective, arbitrary, and insufficient in understanding any truths about the world. I think it also important to let your categories be fuzzy or living. What I mean by this is recognize that there is likely no absolute and that things do not fit very neatly into any one category, and that as you grow and learn your categories may change definition or even lose their meaning altogether. In the end one must accept that the world is chaotic, that it is noisy. Beautiful harmonies do not occur when everybody is exactly the same. The best harmonies are woven together by a range of keys and octaves. That unifying voice of humanity can only be heard when we accept that there is no amount of force, fear or violence that can make everyone the same. We will only hear this song when we have tolerance for diversity and truly try to get to know one another to find out what things we truly all share.