April 19, 2020

Classify Plants, Not People

categorizing or labeling human beings is limiting, lazy, and reduces our humanity.

This essay is Day 9 of The 100 Day Project, where I’m creating #100daysofartandessays based on the Word of the Day.

Word of the Day (April 15, 2020)

taxonomy [ tak-sonuh-mee ] noun

a classification into ordered categories: a proposed taxonomy of educational objectives.

The noun táxos, “yew, yew tree,” has the connecting vowel –o-; taxonomy “properly” means “classification of yew trees.”

Humans have always been concerned with tribes. Are you part of the in-group or the out-group? At one point, our survival depended on knowing. Now? Not so much. But we still have that primitive urge to file people away into little boxes in our brain.

I hate this tendency. I’ve never fit neatly into any categories. I have an extremely wide range of interests, some unusual. I do whatever interests me. I’m comfortable with nuance, with hanging out in gray areas.

For many people nuance is an uncomfortable place, because it feels uncertain. Humans don’t like uncertainty. They don’t have a box marked “sort of female”. They want to drop you neatly into the file cabinet, because that means they understand who you are. You’re no longer a threat. You’re just a “hipster.”

But here’s the thing about labels. We bring our own interpretation, experience, and upbringing to them. We’re all seeing the world through a different lens. So when I say “millennial”, you have a certain set of experiences, people and opinions that flash through your mind. That wordless definition is a generalization, but it feels like truth, because it’s your lived experience. A single tiny slice of experience amongst all the other lived experiences in our world.

There’s no possible way a reductionist category can define the variability present in a single human being. You aren’t actively making that choice, but it still happens.

The only way to know someone is to ask questions, and truly listen to their answers. Even if you disagree, even if it makes you uncomfortable. Even if it doesn’t make sense.

Authentic humans are full of contradictions. It’s what makes us interesting.

Here’s a personal example. My husband and I attend a non-denominational Christian church, but I haven’t identified as a Christian in 10+ years. We semi-observe religious practices from Judaism, but we are not Jewish. We believe Jesus/Yeshua was the Jewish Messiah, a belief system unrecognized by most Jews.

I followed Jesus out of mainline Christianity, and now we live outside the lines. I’m fine with that, but it makes conversations challenging. There’s no easy explanation unless you’d like a religious history lesson with a side of paradigm shift.

Most of us never take the time to define the labels we use. Without a real discussion about what a “vegan” is (or an individual’s motivating factors to becoming one), the only guaranteed outcome is an assumption. It’s probably inaccurate, and you’re no closer to knowing who that person really is.

Please remember that behind every label is a collection of (unconscious) assumptions. Avoid the temptation to categorize people, and instead ask open ended questions with curiosity. Make sure you really listen to their answers. You’re likely to have an interesting conversation, and you’ll get to know who that person is, instead of who you think they are.

“We are sun and moon, dear friend; we are sea and land. It is not our purpose to become each other; it is to recognize each other, to learn to see the other and honor him for what he is: each the other’s opposite and complement.”

― Hermann Hesse (Narcissus and Goldmund)

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