Decategorizing the Human Experience

Human beings possess a tendency to break everything into an “either or” scenario—a cat or dog lover, a science or English person. And the list goes on: coffee or tea, Republican or Democrat, deviant or standard. People identify with one or the other while holding the belief that their’s is somehow superior. There is great fault in this mentality. Applying labels to people and ideas often makes life easier to understand, and perhaps easier to create interpersonal connections; however, life contains many more dimensions than simple dichotomy allows. It is much more complex than “one or the other.”


Illustration by Charlotte Wall

This labeling simplifies life to two simple options when an entire spectrum often exists. Each option is the polar opposite of the other, without presenting the shades in between. Frequently, those categories are of our own creation. People attempt to alter the world in respect to black and white viewpoints due to how they perceive people and things.
Some of that desire to frame ideas as black and white stems from a want to feel superior to others. According to Ken Lahur, a highly acclaimed psychologist, “If someone has more, knows more, or can do more than I, the ego feels threatened because the feeling of ‘less’ diminishes its imagined sense of self relative to the other.” Categorization and labeling is a tool that allows humans to feel superior as it will always result in a simple answer. It can, though, give a person a false understanding of the world. What I mean is, while it may be simpler to label a topic like killing as entirely evil, it is not that simple. Of course, the act of killing another person is malicious in most cases, however, a spectrum of reasons for committing such an act exists. Murder for self defense or protection cannot always be labeled as wrong. While it would make life much simpler to believe one has a grasp on many ideas like taking a life, in reality, it is a much more complex subject that cannot be given one simple adjective to describe it. Black and white thinking is attractive because it simplifies concepts. People do not always need to comprehend when using the crutch of labeling or categorization.
Additionally, thinking in such a manner often causes disputes. In the current political climate, people are obsessed with labels like Republican and Democrat. While these two absolute categories exist, they exist on a spectrum. While you may be a Democrat, even if someone else identifies as a Democrat, they may have voted for a person you did not. Similarly, if someone is a Republican, perhaps they voted for the same person as you. This issue exists on a smaller political level, too. Despite the label of Republican, perhaps the person is pro-choice, and despite the label of Democrat, perhaps the person is pro-life. Yet, through applying labels like Democrat or Republican, we often associate many other beliefs with that person. This label application can lead to conflict, as we come to false conclusions about people.
It is difficult to propose a solution to this dilemma. The tendency to label and categorize is ingrained in humans’ minds. Even as preschool students, children are taught to have a favorite color, favorite animal, and favorite food. That is how society allows students to meet and connect with one another. It is indeed possible for one to have a favorite, to be the best, or to have the nicest things—but more often than not, a spectrum will exist. The idea of halting the practice of categorization may scare some people. Taking away a label may seem like one is taking away their understanding, yet, I would argue that if one needed to apply a label, they never held a deep understanding in the first place. Therefore, in order to actually understand the world as a multi-dimensional place, in order to hold more intelligent viewpoints, and in order to actually create a more inclusive society, we must shift away from black and white thinking.

Caroline Williams

Caroline Williams

Caroline Williams

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