“The human mind was set up to categorize, generalize. It makes life so much simpler.”
― Laura Lippman
And humans opened their mind’s eye for the first time, and their power of observation went to work on all they beheld. We saw all that was within and all that was without and desired it all for ourselves, he went about gathering all he could and collecting it back in his home, but with only two hands and his home always on the move, we could not carry or control much. This was not enough, nothing is ever enough, and we went to work finding a new way to claim this world.
Humans perfected the power of categorization, and when our vision fell to any object or concept, whether in our world or in reality, humans gave it a name and with every name came a place, an identity, a meaning, and a purpose and each thing of every variety was collected and stored in “kinds”.
Blue is given a name and a place in relation to red. Cheetah is given a name, and its place near the lion is clear. The Theory of Relativity, the Andromeda Galaxy, π, coffee, Zeus, the Redwood Forest, and the Battle of the Bulge were all given names, placed in boxes according to their kind and laid out in clear and clever patterns. Each one on a web and each one part of a continuum that gave away its connection to all others on each side.
I too was given a name, a place, a purpose, and I learned the names of all the people I knew too. I marked their differences and all the ways they were the same and placed them in boxes of my own according to their kind. Then I gave myself my name, marked my own box, and underneath wrote it’s meaning. I placed myself and my box, smartly labeled, and put it precisely where I was told it should be. Now my name means me and I know what kind I am.
“We categorize as we do because we have the brains and bodies we have and because we interact in the world as we do.”
― George Lakoff, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought
If humans have any superpower, it is surely in categorization. We recognize things by what they are like, and what they are not like. We can recognize, label, and recall thousands, maybe millions, of things, far more I would wager than any other life form on this planet. We have to!
Being hunter-gatherer types who must be able to distinguish food from not food. We are also a particularly fragile species lacking much physical prowess compared to our predictors, so we have to be able to recognize what kind of danger we are facing and use our intelligence to outwit it. And of course, being a social species we have to be able to recognize our tribe from our enemies, our friends from foes, and kin from strangers.
Categorization is our power, and we are so good at it. We walk through the world, doing our everyday thing and living our little lives and all the while, as reliable as breathing, as regular as your heartbeat, your mind is bringing in little bits of information through each of your sense and passing it to the brain to be sorted and stored. All those different kinds of things are examined, their qualities compared and each put in their place across a smooth gradient on the cortex, like kinds with like kinds.
Categorization feels good. It’s our favorite thing to do, a shared hobby of all races, genders, class. We’ve been doing it since long before we looked like we do now, at least as far back as our shared ancestor with the rest of the apes. Were not the only one with the ability, but we are certainly the only ones with the talent and passion. In our world, everything has a name and place. Without categorization the ability to recognize what kind of thing we are seeing, feeling, imagining, describing, without comparison, sorting, storing, and recall by name, description, and past experience, we would never have come so far.
Our world is impossibly complex and often quite dangerous, it helps to have a system that can quickly process what kind of thing you are looking at and react appropriately. Categorization helps us make sense of a world where quick decisions have to be made, and a large amount of information has to be processed. It’s also a pretty reliable system for helping us get through situations that we may have not faced by providing a reference and a good guess. If you’ve seen a brown bear, you’ll have some idea of how to respond to a polar bear. If you’ve seen a mountain lion, you know that a tiger is dangerous.
“No doubt one of the reasons human cognition is so powerful is because we have language in our brains, which exponentially increases the ability to categorize information, to chunk. A whole culture, for instance, can be implied by a name.”
― Joseph E. LeDoux
The system even works whether you have seen a past kind of thing or not. It works because we have language—or maybe we have language because the system works? Categorization and words seem to go hand in hand, a locked loop of information processing each enhancing the other, and with the power of both we can tell stories, share information, give advice and warn against danger, but sometimes the system is overzealous. Sometimes it works too well and not as intended.
If someone you have categorized as the kind of person you can trust tells you that you cannot trust black people, or women, or democrats, your first instinct is to believe them. You categorize people and situations you haven’t experienced yet, and once people have been sorted and labeled it’s tough for us to reevaluate, reliable, and resort and while the entire system is highly subjective, like all human illusions, there are real-world consequences. Labeling people by kinds and reacting to them as such has been the cause of much suffering from the dawn of human societies.
We have labels for what a man is supposed to be, what a woman is supposed to look like, how black people behave, what jobs a 60-year-old is capable of learning, what opportunities a poor person deserves, whether or not Muslims can be Americans. Our labels and categories help us understand our world, but they also put limits on it too. We aren’t good at seeing the shades, the subtlety, or continuity. We aren’t good at seeing the variation between two individual examples of a thing. We are uncomfortable with what doesn’t fit, and if the difference cannot be forced into compliance it will be ignored, and if it cannot be ignored it will be banished, and if it cannot be banished, it must be eradicated. We will defend out categorization to the death and go to our own deaths trying to prove it.
There must be no challenge to the system. Everything must fit neatly into its box to be neatly understood because if even one thing lies outside of our understanding, anything can be anything and anything can be unknown and that we cannot abide.
There is no escaping categorization. Even to decide you have no labels, no name, no kind, even that is a label in and of itself. We can’t help it and to deny this reality is to deny our reality. Trying to delude yourself into believing you can stop seeing things as kinds, as their labels and associated connotations and expected characterization is to cover one illusion with another, even bigger falsehood.
What’s best for you is to be aware of what you are doing and to understand that everything you have named, sorted, and labeled could be wrong. What is best for you is to keep your system flexible and to not be too surprised when you come up against things, and people, and ideas, that don’t fit so nicely. It might make you a little uncomfortable or afraid, but you can still label away without shame. All you need to do is get more boxes and learn to let go of old labels. All you need to do is understand that there are far more kinds of things, people, and idea in the world then we can fathom.
We, as a people, we have a strong need to categorize everything. We put labels on everything and it’s a totally understandable need because we are animals and we need to understand order and where to fit in.
— Armin van Buuren
Thanks for reading! If you like this post check out my weekly-ish newsletter for inspiring reads + existential musings on life, love, and inevitable human suffering. Or help support what I do by sharing a cup of coffee.