Sunday, January 3, 2016

The failure of categories

Marlo Thomas has said, “There are two kinds of people in the world, givers and takers. The takers may eat better, but the givers sleep better”. Indira Gandhi offers a different categorisation, “There are two kinds of people: those who do the work and those who take the credit”. C. S. Lewis has yet another idea, namely that the two kinds of people include “those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, ‘All right, then, have it your way’.” We could go on, of course, by noting that there are those who love to talk a lot and those who dislike people who love to talk a lot, or those who love to get up in the morning and those who think camels are one hump short; or those who think in binary and those who don’t know what binary is.

Perhaps there will be cases in which this obsession with endlessly splitting people up into dichotomies will be true. For the Heideggerian, there is the authentic self or the untruth of the crowd; for the Girardian, there are victims or victimisers (“Whoever can supply [the crowd] with illusions is easily their master. Whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim,” Gustav Le Bon has said); with regard to Ayn Rand, there are those who like her work and then those who are actually intelligent enough to see it for the stupid bunkum that it is. Still, we must feel on some level that there is also falsity here in this game of short division. I like Tom Robbins’s ironic quip in Still Life with Woodpecker that “[t]here are two kinds of people in this world: Those who believe there are two kinds of people in this world and those who are smart enough to know better”.

The father of public relations, Edward Bernays in his brilliant and somewhat unsettling book Crystallizing Public Opinion (1923) writes:

“Society is not divided into two groups, although it seems so to many. Some see modern society divided into capital and labor. The feminist sees the world divided into men and women. The hungry man sees the rich and the poor. The missionary sees the heathen and the faithful. If society were divided into two groups, and no more, then change would come about only through violent upheaval.”
It is a brilliant observation that I think highlights so perfectly the nature of ideology: it is that which tends to split up and divide things as a means for control. Ideologists conceive of the world through stark contrasts even when they must surely know that their perceptions are limited; can they not see that there are not just shades of grey but colours of all kinds that also need to be taken into account? Nevertheless, for reasons that I’m not entirely clear on, nuance is usually the first thing to go when ideas crystallize into articulations. “Tyranny,” Albert Maysles suggests, “is the deliberate removal of nuance”. Perhaps, though, any removal of nuance is tyrannical and not just the deliberate kind.
As soon as you divide people up into two groups, and set up clear distinctions that suggest that there really are only two kinds of people, you have (as Bernays has noted) violence, or at least the conditions for violence. And if you, like me, are not a fan of violence, then it may be worthwhile understanding how crowds come to view things in such sharp, contrasting terms. I’m not sure I can solve the riddle completely, but I have a simple suggestion: I think it has to do with the fact that calling attention to anything forces that thing to become a kind of absolute (or stereotype) in the minds of the people of any audience. There are a number of cognitive biases at work here: the ambiguity affect, the availability cascade, the contrast effect, the distinction bias, essentialism, the focusing effect, as well as a number of others. The main point is this: every emphasis is an overemphasis. Take the last sentence as a case in point.

I think it’s the job of sane and sensitive souls to utterly refuse any trend towards reductionism. This, mind you, is not an easy thing to do. Still, perhaps a good place to start is by assuming, right off the bat, that every label we’ve ever used to describe ourselves or someone else is automatically wrong because of what it emphasises and therefore overemphasises. We should be aware of what the French philosopher Alain Badiou calls the problem of “nominal occlusions”, which causes one term or name in a truth procedure to occlude and thereby possibly even obliterate another. When calling a person gay or straight, you define them by their sexuality only and thus fail to account for them as people. When you refer to them by their political allegiances, you neglect their personal affections and non-political agendas; when you delineate their being strictly along the lines of their faith or epistemological claims, you neglect all kinds of other things that are too subtle to even mention. When we dish labels out too confidently, we fall into the trap of thinking that our conscious articulations fully account for who we are. Because every assertion is a diversion.

This is why I find the promotion of a loss of identity in Christian theology fascinating, which most Christians I know don’t take seriously at all. It is only by losing your self, that is by losing your commitment to strict labels and rigid articulations, that you are free to be fully human. St. Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, sets up a fairly brilliant and subversive delineation that I find quite helpful: he says that those “in Christ”, that is, who participate in the way of self-abnegation and the acceptance of the pure Grace of Divine Presence (Pure Gift, Pure Surprise), are “neither Jew (religious insider), nor Gentile (religious outsider), nor slave nor free; nor is there male and female” (Galatians 3.28). It’s not that these categories cease to exist, but rather that they are not ultimately what defines people. In fact, people cannot be defined at all. We have, today, other labels that we may want to apply this: there is neither atheist nor theist, Christian nor Muslim, Protestant nor Catholic, Calvinist nor Methodist, gay nor straight, elite nor mob, capitalist nor communist, etc. These are not the terms that define anyone. They are the terms that really only fictionalise reality and turn it into something utterly palatable. But reality is not palatable or easily digested. It arrests and it undermines. It gets under our skin. It is our skin.

Surprisingly, this double-negation — neither this nor that — is not a negation of labels in the end, but in fact is a deeper affirmation of them as limited markers of what is real and true. There are indeed men but they are not just men, and there are women but their womanhood is not the sum total of who they are. There are feminists and chauvinists, but they are people first. The problem with affirming the label without also negating it too is that that loving embrace of inclusion itself so easily gets excluded. Violence, whether real or symbolic, becomes the norm in the process. Of course, I think we should recognise that categorisations are good as pathways but we should simultaneously see that they are absolutely rubbish as judgments. Categories as judgments are, in their own dualistic way, a kind of violence against ourselves and others when we take them more seriously than the complex and multifaceted realities that they are trying so hard to refer to.

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