Categorizing people

Earlier this year I talked about Wittgenstein’s family resemblances, which Rosch interpreted as radial categories. I’ve also talked about how categorization is used in arguments, with a layer of “category fight” superimposed on an underlying conflict, and often obscuring that underlying conflict.

I’ve used this in class with my students when we’re studying semantics. I think an understanding of polysemy and an ability to see beyond category fights is a hugely important skill, one that I don’t think they’re likely to get elsewhere. I use real examples, and I can find several new ones every week. But I try to stick to fights over non-human entities, because whenever people try to categorize humans it causes problems.

I don’t know for sure why fights over categorizing humans are so much more fraught than categorizing, say, food, but I have a couple of guesses. First of all, humans are just a lot more complex than almost anything else we categorize. We’re hard to pin down, and thus more likely to belong to radial or complex categories. Second, we’re humans, so the stakes are higher. The human you categorize may well turn out to be yourself.

One of the most contentious categorization project is the bitter wars that have been fought over various categories of people with transgender feelings, thoughts and actions, which I discuss extensively in another blog (but even I only scratch the surface). It has become a commonplace of political correctness to refer to categories of people with adjectives rather than nouns, because the nouns tend to have more negative connotations (for example, “Jewish person” vs. “Jew”). I recently had a discussion on this blog and on Twitter with some editors about the categories of “prescriptivist” and “descriptivist,” and I grew more and more convinced that the root of the problem was that we were trying to categorize people.

A few months ago I was thinking about all the problems that come from categorizing people, and I wondered, “what if we just stopped, and didn’t categorize any more people? Why do we categorize people, anyway?” In thinking about it some more, I realized that we have a deep and ancient need to categorize people. When we see someone we ask ourselves a number of questions in rapid-fire succession:

  • Is this a stranger or a friend?
  • Is this person dangerous?
  • Is this a potential mate?
  • Is this someone who might want to buy what I’m selling?
  • Is this someone who might have something valuable to offer?

We use categories to help us answer these questions: Is the person one of us? One of the bad people? Man or woman? Old or young? Rich or poor? But it’s important to note that these categorizations don’t actually answer the question. They’re only good for an immediate first pass. They’re kludges.

Even in these contact situations, when we have the time and energy we should probably look beyond our initial categorization to see what our kludges might have missed. But whenever there isn’t that immediate face-to-face sizing-up, such as when we’re setting up rules to allocate resources, we should definitely look beyond categorizing people.

In the transgender case I came to the conclusion that it’s better to think of transgender feelings, beliefs and actions than to try to categorize people. Today I decided that that’s true of prescriptivism, too. It’s probably true of Judaism and team captainship as well.

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