Tom Pittman's WebLog

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2007 April 3 -- Categories vs Diversity

I think God likes diversity. Otherwise why would He make everything so unique? Every snowflake, the design on every one of your fingers, every person is absolutely unique. Even the rocks and the trees are all different.

God also seems to allow for categories, groups of similar things which share some common attribute. We are all humans, different from the animals, even more different from plants and bacteria and non-living things. We have names for these categories and the names are meaningful.

People seem to like categories. Unlike God, our minds are finite, and grouping things into categories enables us to process information about large numbers of things that would be utterly impossible if we could only refer to things and people by their unique features.

Nevertheless, people want to be considered unique. Nothing insults somebody so much as being relegated to some generic category -- unless it is a category held in high esteem, of course, and sometimes not even then.

Many years ago I was at a dinner party that included among its guests a black musician. Thinking it a compliment, I offered the opinion that black people were better musicians than us white folks. Ah the sweet taste of toe jam! He was incensed. He did not want to be considered a part of some categories. He is a unique person, to be esteemed for his own virtues, and not relegated to categories. I have repeated this error several times in different contexts, different -- um -- categories of people.

The problem is not racial, it is not sexist, it is not a matter of education, it is human.

My friend Dennis was trying to make sense of our relationship by identifying categories in which he supposed us to be similar (that is, in the same category), and others where he supposed us to be different. I didn't think much of his characterization of me. I didn't even like his categories. It became somewhat of a problem.

The trouble is, I was doing exactly the same thing to him, and he rejected my attempts to categorize him.

I'm not sure what to do with this, but it seems to be a consistent property of human relationships, (ahem) a category.

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