Categories – where do you belong?

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.

What is normal and natural?

The following is a complete rewrite of something I posted on Facebook before about natural and normal.  I wanted to be a bit more comprehensive in my arguments.  Which also means its much longer.


I remember when I engaged the gay basher that came to our campus last academic year, one of his many arguments included the idea that “being gay was not normal, that it was not natural”.  I am the type of person who thinks a lot about even what I know to be incorrect.  This is because I accept that what I know might actually be wrong and so I want to be always asking questions.  At one point in the argument he even claimed victory because he had got me to admit that it’s not normal.  It took me some time to understand exactly why he hadn’t won his argument and that I had not proved his point.  It comes down to the way in which I see normal, and the way he sees normal.

The word “normal” is one that I’ve come to see as a rather dangerous word and I think that I even need to be more careful about how I use the word.   The first part of the dictionary definition describes it as conforming to the standard or common type.  However it also defines normal as being “not abnormal” and “natural”.  This is where the problem lies.  Allow me to try to make the argument for what “normal” shouldn’t be, before making the argument for what it should be.

The word abnormal has a negative connotation to it, and anything that we define as normal implies those things that do not meet the defined criteria for normal, by definition are abnormal.  And since normal and natural are often used synonymously that thing becomes also unnatural.  Once we’ve reached this place in our mind we have created two categories.  In one is the category of things that belong in our world, and in the other category are things that don’t belong.   And once we decide what things don’t belong in our world, it becomes a very dangerous notion.

Now as a quick vocabulary aside, by definition I believe normal has a broader definition than natural.  Natural does only pertain to things that happen, well, in nature.  So normal can apply to nature, but it can also apply to a lot of other things.  For instance one can say “It is normal for Jim to be late to a party”.  Unless we were sort of being sarcastic or funny “It’s unlikely we’d say “It is natural for Jim to be late to a party”.  So all things natural could also be said to be normal, but the reverse is not true.  And the dictionary definition supports this line of thinking.

I argue that this categorization into normal and abnormal is not only dangerous, but also faulty.  Many of the things that people consider abnormal and normal are actually better served by using the word probable and improbable.  For instance,  only about 10% of the world is left-handed.  Now 10% is still a decent percentage in my opinion, and for a long time in our history even though 1 out of every 10 people were naturally left-handed those people were often oppressed and demonized as being unnatural.  People who are left-handed still are often inconvenienced today, and it wasn’t that long ago before parents actually let their kids be left handed (and I am sure there still kids being forced somewhere in the world to use their right hand).  I was actually a natural lefty, and my dad, not knowing any better forced me to use my right hand (I could have been an artist, or at least a much better writer!).  Language and culture favor right-handedness so much that it’s not surprising that left-handedness was looked down on for so long.  Therefore if we didn’t have this concept in our mind of what was normal and abnormal perhaps we could have avoided this type of discrimination.  Of course the truth is that being left-handed is just as normal or natural as being right-handed.  It is simply the fact that one is more probable than the other.  If we are going to use the term natural we might be better served saying that, “it is natural for humans to have a preference to use one hand more than another.”  Of course then we still might be lumping ambidextrous people into the unnatural category unfairly.  Because about 1 in 100 people are ambidextrous, this too is also natural.  Thus I would argue in situations like these that probable and improbable are the preferred words to use.  Something that is improbable is hardly something that we would consider sinful, bad, evil, or even something that didn’t belong.  It may be that we don’t want an improbable event to occur, but by looking at it as an improbable event means that we don’t have any inherent “wrongness” of the event, but we can study it and its effects and then make a decision about what if anything we need to do about it.  Some events are very improbable, but they happen, and that makes even the improbable events both normal and natural.

One could also make the broader argument that everything can be considered natural to a certain degree, even the things that are purely human products.  As a natural species on this planet, anything that we might do or construct could be said to be natural.  Since it all lays within a realm of probability of what we are capable of and what we can become.   One might be able to get away with saying, “It is unnatural for an object to not fall to the ground once it is no longer suspended in air”.  But using the word “highly improbable” would just be as acceptable and probably safer because hey you just never know. J

In Michael Shermer’s book The Believing Brain he makes the argument that we believe first and rationalize to support our beliefs rather than use rationalization to form beliefs.  Without an objective tool such as the scientific method we are left to trying to make sense out of the world as quickly as possible and then doing our best to preserve that world view through the process of rationalization.  Thus it could also be that things we learn to fear might lead us to rationalize those fears and label things normal or abnormal.  People who are religious and are belief driven tend to do this more often, but we are all capable of it from time to time.  It’s important to remember here that while I think letting belief dominate your life is dangerous, belief is also natural.  It is normal.  But so is science.  It is also normal.  While some scientific advances happen accidentally, most processes require refinement and attention.  If it was not for careful testing and experimentation one could not make the bow and arrow shoot farther and more accurately, let alone make a better iPhone.

So if fear can lead us to categorizing things as normal and abnormal, what do we fear?  I think that humans do naturally fear improbable events.  For most of our evolution, improbable events were probably a bad thing.  A natural disaster, the occasional lion who developed a taste for human flesh, an unknown disease or sickness.  Like all animals we want to feel safe.  Safety means survival.  Improbable events reduce that feeling of safety.   Even if an improbable event didn’t pose any real danger, such events are also harder to predict.   Humans through most of our evolution lived in small groups.  Events that had a 1/1000 chance of happening would not have happened very often, giving even early man very little chance to try to understand why it was happening and what to do about it.  It is only a luxury of large populations and sophisticated technology that we can study low probability events and still have a statistically significant number of cases to reach some good conclusions.  Therefore I also don’t deny that our tendency to categorize things as normal or abnormal is extension of what we fear especially when it comes to improbable events.  This too is something we naturally do.

Finally I think we also, regardless of the probability of an event, tend to regard negative things as unnatural.  Violent  behavior, sexual abuse, genocide just to name a few.  At an emotional level I have also heard many people refer to feelings, for example, like lust, anger, and apathy as unnatural.   Unfortunately science reveals that all these things are quite natural, not only to our species, but to other species as well.  Now, so what do we do if we say it is natural?  The naturalness of something, however, is not necessarily the basis of morality.  I think there is this feeling that once we accept something as being natural that we have to let it happen because there is nothing we can do about it.  We know from our studies of chimpanzees, our closest genetic relative, that they also practice genocide.  Does this mean we should just let genocide happen?  Of course not.  In chimpanzee societies the practice of genocide often is triggered by competition for territory and resources.  However, we have the advantage of coming up with other solutions to resolve differences, make resources and territory available to everyone without the need for killing.  Even primates realize that through cooperation they are better at surviving than without.  If they had the intellect to come up with other solutions, they would perhaps choose alternative solutions too, instead of ones that can end in their own deaths, and reduces the power of cooperative growth.  Therefore all these terrible things that we do should not be evaluated based on whether they are natural or not.  They should be based on what harm they actually cause.

To argue that homosexuality is not natural, or not normal is simply not a valid argument.  And if you are going to allow only natural things in the world, then you have to accept that things like abortion is normal (since even anthropological evidence even shows the abandoning and killing of one’s young when resources are limited).  For humans to kill each other is also normal.  The boon that is granted by the day we live in and the civilization we have built is to understand the reasons for behaviors that cause harm and find alternatives to that behavior when dealing with problems, or to learn how to change our behavior so that we can all live peaceably together.  I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what I’ve put into the category of natural and unnatural, or normal and abnormal, and it has certainly changed how I look at the world.  I am sure there are many other thoughts that I have that need revisiting that could use a glance through a different lens.  Do yourself a favor and spend some time thinking about how you use those words, how you think about those concepts and what things in this world you tie to them.  It’s worth the effort.