14 March 2017

Category-think vs. individuality

In this post a little over two years ago, I ended with what was actually my main point, though it may have looked like an afterthought at the time:

"But we mustn't confuse strategies and necessary defensive measures with the goal. It would be a terrible failure if, after the final overthrow of Christianity and conformist traditional values, we were left with a sort of Ottoman-style millet society which defined itself as a jigsaw puzzle of discrete communities (gay, black, Anglo, neo-pagan, etc.) with each individual categorized as merely a member of one or another such grouping. The only real success will be a society where individuals are free to be themselves, with whatever combination of traits, desires, and quirks make each person who he or she is, but not defined or categorized by them."

It's a point which I think needs more emphasis and elaboration.  Humans seem to have a habit of classifying and pigeonholing other humans, assigning them to categories and then defining them primarily as members of those categories rather than as individuals.  For people who are discriminated against or persecuted by mainstream society on the basis of some easily-definable trait, it's understandable that they even embrace group identity as a basis for solidarity, in order to fight back more effectively (this is part of the "strategies and necessary defensive measures" I referenced above).  This made obvious sense for groups such as blacks and Jews during their struggles for equality, and was adopted by gays on the basis of a somewhat strained analogy with groups like blacks and Jews, though the results achieved have more than justified the strategy.

With respect to sexual orientation and related traits, however, the pigeonholing process is now running on out of control, as a desire to acknowledge the natures of people who don't quite fit any of the existing categories leads to a proliferation of ever more categories, with the LGBTQ-etc. acronym taking on ever more letters in various formulations. The imagined final goal seems to be to arrive at some list of categories comprehensive enough that it can accommodate every individual (that is, that every individual can be fitted neatly into one of the categories), and then achieve equal social acceptance for each category, after which the "jigsaw puzzle of discrete communities" utopia will have been achieved.

It can't be done.  Sexuality is so varied and so individual that the only possible end result of the proliferation of pigeonholes is to have a separate category for each person, at which point (a) the system is no longer even superficially useful, and (b) we might as well admit that individuals and not categories are the important thing, and stop obsessing over exactly how to define and defend the latter.  Category-think can be a useful strategy for resistance in a culture where people are discriminated against based on being defined as members of the category.  It should not be part of the vision of an optimal future, any more than the bomb shelters and rationing adopted by a country at war should be embraced as a permanent feature of society to be maintained during post-war future of peace.

The same increasingly applies to our other pigeonholing systems such as religion (more on this in a future post) and race.  Doesn't a broad category like "Christian" (when referring to persons rather than beliefs) obliterate distinctions more significant than those it describes?  Isn't the difference between a Fred-Phelps-like hate-spewing fanatic and the typical American with an inherited belief in some vaguely benevolent concept of Jesus actually much greater than the difference between the Christian fanatic and some similarly bigoted mullah or jihadist?

As for race, we constantly see rhetoric which treats races as hard immutable categories, like distinct species, while even the recent history of our own country shows that this is untenable, in that the category "white" has constantly been redefined as perceptions change.  The same kind of racist rhetoric now used to whip up fear of Hispanic immigration was used a few generations ago against immigration of groups like Irish and Italians.  This is why it's silly to make claims like "whites will be a minority by 2050 due to growth in the Hispanic population".  By the time 2050 gets here, millions of people who would now considered "Hispanic" will probably be considered "white" and will see themselves as such, just as previously happened with people of Irish and Italian ancestry.

(There is of course a further question "defined by whom?" -- racists obsess over such definitions.  One of the amusing features of racist internet forums is the periodic furious arguments over exactly which groups qualify as "white", during which more bizarre genetic pseudoscience gets thrown around in a day than Hitler probably ever thought about in his whole life.)

The future as I hope to see it is one of free individuals, not rigid pigeonholes, where any one individual may consider it important to self-identify as gay or Catholic or "racially" Chinese or whatever, but no one will be defined by membership in such categories, nor will an individual's status or rights be linked to such categories.


Blogger Rational Nation USA said...

A very thoughtful post. Certainly idealistic. Which is why the situation you wish for in the future will likely never exist. It makes too much sense. Humans just aren't that sensible.

Individuality -vs- category-think? Absolutely individually should be the choice. I don't know if you consider the term groupthink almost synonymous with category-think or not. But I found the term entering my thought process As I read your post.

Achieving the goal of such a societal existence may be elusive given the tribalistic instincts of humans. But the pursuit of such is surely worth the effort.

Perhaps someday far removed from the present...

14 March, 2017 07:33  
Blogger Rational Nation USA said...

I forgot to say, great post Infidel.

14 March, 2017 07:35  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

RN: Thanks: I think what I'm talking about has always been the American ideal, or one interpretation of it at least, even if we've usually fallen short in practice (by demanding too much homogeneity as part of transcending category-think). All I can do is keep pushing for what I think is right.

14 March, 2017 19:02  
Blogger Ranch Chimp said...

Some really good points that you make here, it can get a little confusing, so I read it twice. But, it's a perfect example of how confusing we made our societies too. I never tried to figure out what group/ category I fit into, it's too much of a mess, I use what I can from all. Which also made me think of someone, back about 2 years ago, I was at a part time job ... but this young guy I worked with (he was in training, where I was training him), who was 19 years old. He was at lunch with me one day, and just all of the sudden, told me he was gay. It was so obvious though, I mean, he was on the transgender type border ... and really a nice person. But when he told me this ... he blinded me so much, I didnt know how to respond ... so I just said ... "thats cool", I mean, I didnt know what exactly to say to him, we werent on the subject or whatever, and it didnt matter to me ... I enjoyed talking with him, period. He was also Mexican/ American ... but never mentioned a thing about his nationality. Your posting just made me think about that.

15 March, 2017 08:51  
Anonymous nonnie9999 said...

I came over to thank you profusely for the link to the Raisin over at C&L, and I wound up reading your astute observations (maybe we should just refer to each other as human beings and call it a day) and then spending the last half hour watching and rewatching adorable Lab puppies swimming for the first time (I always say I am not going to click on every link you post...right before I click on every link you post).

I was also going to thank you for your comment over at the Raisin. After you commented, I reworked the poster (the one having to do with Mike Flynn and his lobbying for Turkey) and thanked you in the comments, but I wasn't sure if you saw my reply.

Now, I am going to dig into some of those other links you posted. You find the best stuff, Infidel!

15 March, 2017 22:00  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Ranch: Yes, you're the guy who would bust any neat category system wide open! I do wonder about people like the guy you described, who seem too eager to pigeonhole themselves. A misplaced need for a sense of belonging, maybe?

Nonnie: Thanks! And thanks for your unique posts, which always deserve more exposure. Yes, I did see your response on the poster -- I always check back later after leaving a comment.

The internet is an inexhaustible ocean of cool stuff. Each link round-up is maybe 40% of what I just happened to run across that week.

Glad you liked the puppies!

16 March, 2017 06:21  

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