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.
11 thoughts on “Categories – where do you belong?”
Excellent post Swarn!
May I reblog please?
I think that all humans break things down into a binary. There is comfort in a one and zero sort of relationship. Iphone vs Android, Coke vs Pepsi, Mac vs PC, etc, etc. I am truly understating this, because I want to eat my hamburger!! Regardless, I agree with the categorization as healthy, but I would like to see the exploration of binary relationships as a subconscious survival tactic.
I see what you’re saying, but I don’t know that binary is the best way to look at it for me. Binary is a language and so like with any language you can use it to describe a great many thing, but I know you were simply trying to point out something that just oscillates between a “one or the other” sort of format. However there is a better place where a 1 and a 0 occur and this is in the field of probabilities. Probabilities for an event always range between 0 (no chance of the event occurring) to 1 (the event always occurs). As you said in your other comment on another post, most things lie in between these two points, which is why I also suggest that probable and improbable are better to use than normal and abnormal. Of course it is quite simply easier to say something will always be the case or never be the case. This type of simplistic categorization even has an evolutionary advantage because being right doesn’t always keep you alive. In Africa where we evolved a rustle in the bushes was maybe only a predator 5% of the time, but of what advantage would it be to you to investigate or wait around? You stay alive 100% of the time by bolting and getting the hell out of there even if only a small percentage of the cases it was a lion. Most snakes and spiders aren’t poisonous, but when faced with an unknown snake or spider early man would have benefitted from getting the hell away from it rather than checking out to see what happens when they reach for it. Studies in fact have shown that even very young children have a natural fear of spiders and snakes in comparison to other animals. So in some ways evolution has conditioned us, especially when our existence might be at stake to have this all or nothing, or black or white mentality.
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Yes please! That’s a compliment in itself! I’m sorry I have this thing still set up on having to approve comments. I don’t really want it to seem very closed as I enjoy hearing from other people as long as they aren’t trolls or bullies. 🙂
Thank you Swarn!
Regarding approval, I think you should keep it that way or else you’ll get flooded with advertisements and like you say trolls and bullies need to be kept at bay. I just published a post and would like to reblog your post in a few days time, if that’s cool with you.
Thank you! And I see that really the setting says that once you’ve been approved once, you don’t have to be approved a second time…so you’re right it does seem like a good idea. I’m pretty new to this blogging thing! And reblog whenever you wish! I’m not trying to win any awards here, just want to throw some ideas out into the world and engage with other people so that I can see if there are other people who are crazy like me. 🙂
I like your kinda crazy 😀
Will do, thanks.
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