When Categorization Goes Bad

So, I’m a librarian. I love categorizing things. It’s literally part of my job to say “this book is this type of book, on this subject, so it goes in this location”. We have extensive and incredibly granular ways of categorizing books so they’re easy to search for, and easy to find.

Categorization is a basic part of how humans interact with the world around us, how we recognize objects as distinct from other objects.1 The problem becomes when we try to apply these strict categories to living things, which are messy and often defy categorization in any distinct way. 2 And the messiest and most uncategorizable living things of all are humans. Even our definition of who counts as human is only perhaps a 100 years old, and even now we are prone to viewing different groups as sub-human in various ways, which just goes to show how faulty our categorization skills have been throughout history.

I’m a huge fan of the Michael Hobbes cinematic pod-verse, so I’ve been listening to his new one, If Books Could Kill with Peter Shamshiri (whose voice I am also enjoying greatly). The latest episode is about “The Clash of Civilizations” by Samuel Huntington which I’ve heard of but never read. The general thesis is that people can be categorized in many ways, but the highest order is by their “civilization” a nebulous sort of thing which seems to be largely geographical in nature. The episode is great and you should totally listen to their complete critique, but it got me thinking about how these kinds of categorizations inevitably lead to prejudice and bigotry. If you’re viewing another person as a one-dimensional category of human, identified however you want, then you’re not seeing them as the messy, complicated, contradictory person that they (and all of us) are.

I am white, queer, nonbinary, AFAB 3, English-speaking, Floridian, American, Western, leftist, socialist, and a whole host of other categories besides. But none of these categorizations get at who I really am. None of them tell you about my struggles with mental health and how those interact with my queerness and gender, or how my disability experience has been informed by my assigned gender at birth. None of them tell you about my personality, or completely capture my motivations for doing things and not doing others. Categories can’t tell you how my experience of being a white expatriot in a white foreign country informed my thinking about immigration and immigration policies. That list above doesn’t explain my close relationships with my mother’s family and nearly non-existent relationship with my father’s side. All are integral to my identity and inform how I move through the world, but I do not fit neatly into boxes in any way. And nobody else does either. People contain multitudes, even the most conventional, binary-seeming people in the world. That’s why my racist great-grandfather loved my black cousins, or why right-wing conservative women have abortions, or why it’s possible to be both queer and homophobic.

All of this to say that while it’s fine to categorize books and other objects, categorizing people is a very bad way to relate to the people around you. If all you’re looking at is one or two dimensions of a person, maybe the most obvious things about them like their race or ethnicity, their weight, or their assumed gender, then you’re missing out on seeing them as a whole person, with many sometimes conflicting identities and a complex inner life. This isn’t to say that you’ll like everyone around you more if you stop trying to place them in mental boxes. Some people are truly awful, and getting away from them in whatever manner you need to is a totally valid response. However, even the most awful, harmful, predatory person is still a human being, and treating them like a faceless monster will only exacerbate the problem and spread it to others who share similar characteristics. It’s ok to not seek to understand every awful person you come across, but beware of extrapolating from one person what other people you deem in the same “category” are like. That way lies bigotry, and bigotry should always be fought against. Yes, even bigotry against culturally privileged people is bad. Even bigotry against bigoted people is bad. More bigotry doesn’t fix bigotry, and more granular categorization won’t help you navigate the world safely and happily.

  1. More on the science of this in this Open Access ebook: Chris Fields. (1201). How Humans Recognize Objects: Segmentation, Categorization and Individual Identification. Frontiers Media SA. https://www.frontiersin.org/research-topics/1641/how-humans-recognize-objects-segmentation-categorization-and-individual-identification#overview
  2. There’s No Such Thing as a Fish.
  3. Assigned Female At Birth

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