Categories Worth Questioning, Part I

Categories are arguments. The process of putting “things” (objects, people, ideas, places) into categories involves several claims: first, that the things in category x are meaningfully similar to each other; second, that the things in category x are more like each other than they are like the things in category y or z or simply non-x; third, that the similarities that define the things in category x as members of that category are more important than the differences between them. Good categories appear pre-given to us — who can argue that a ripe Rome Beauty apple or a traditional fire engine doesn’t belong in the category of “red things”? And most of them work, most of the time — enough so that the few hard-to-categorize exceptions don’t generally cause us to lose faith in the categories altogether. More likely, when presented with such exceptions, we are likely to blame the exception for not fitting — it’s a deviant, a freak, un-natural — rather than re-think our categories.

Categorization is important — the ability to generalize from past experience in order to make decisions about the present or future, for instance, is central to all learning, planning, and acting in the world. From our first conscious experiences, we are learning to categorize the world — self and other, kin and non-kin, safe and unsafe. Some categories arise out of our individual experience, others are imposed on us by our language, our social structures, our cultural beliefs — verb and noun, bedroom and living room, soup spoon and teaspoon, sin and mitzvah. Because categories are so important, and because culture works to make its operation transparent, its easy to forget that categories are something the human mind imposes on the world, and that often the categories that seem most natural, most “real”, are not natural at all, and may even work against us.

If we are concerned with changing the way people interact with the world and with each other — or even if we are only interested in understanding people’s actions — it is worthwhile to challenge the categories that seem most central to our sense of our selves, the ones that seem most obvious. These are the categories that we use as “shorthand” for who we are, the ones that we habitually and non-reflexively assign ourselves to repeatedly in the course of our day-to-day lives.

  • male/female: Anne Fausto Sterling’s research has shown that as many as one of every hundred people are born in an intersexed condition of some sort, either ambiguously sexed or bearing external genitalia that do not match internal organs or chromosonal sex. In addition, a large number of both men and women choose to medically or cosmetically assume appearances at odds with their chromosonal sex. Categorizing people as either “male” or “female” is more and more difficult, relying as it does on the culturally-informed interpretation of a set of markers — ranging from the use of make-up to the possession of a penis — that differ from culture to culture and from person to person. Since few of us have access to the kind of equipment to determine chromosonal sex — and since chromosonal sex is such a poor indicator of behavior, social role, appearance, and so on — we are forced to “work backwards” from appearance, role, behavior, etc. in a manner that is fraught with power and danger, only to be forever uncertain of our conclusions.
  • gay/straight: I live in a society (the United States) that has long been obsessed with maintaining “proper” sexual orientations, an obsession matched in intensity by the uncertainty about what, exactly, those orientations entail. Many, many men routinely have sexual relations with other men while denying that they are gay or even bisexual. Behavior does not correlate with internal mental states or with identity. Consider the Catholic Church’s recent denial of ordination to gay men — even if they are celibate and have been for up to 3 years. Given the non-determinativeness of sexual behavior (despite the fact that it’s what “orientation” is supposed to predict) especially among the willingly celibate, the Church looks to “participation in gay culture” — which, of course, you don’t have to be gay to do. Many non-gay people participate in sexual behaviors associated with homosexuality, whether its anal sex, mutual masturbation, oral sex, even intercourse with a member of the same sex. Bisexuals and transgendered people give even out gays and lesbians category crises — can a woman who has slept only with men be bisexual? If a gay man has sex with a women, is he bisexual?

    In lieu of behavior, categorization as gay or straight relies on self-identification — but of course, we are not always the best suited to identify ourselves, either. Those of the category “asshole” rarely recognize themselves as such. Gay men and women may, for a variety of reasons, avoid identifying themselves — even to themselves. Or they may decide to “give up” their homosexual behaviors, again for a variety of reasons — does this make them straight? Likewise, straight people, especially men (in our society), seem pressured to continually re-affirm their straightness — but, of course, this too is no indicator of whether or not a man is “truly” straight. Judith Butler was onto something when she described gender and sexual orientation as performative, but even that is giving too much credit to the categories — sexual orientation is a matter of desire in the moment, a state of mind that may or may not be transitory. Identities may be built on these states of mind — or they may not be.

  • child/adult: Adulthood is defined by access to a set of specific rights and the taking on of a set of specific obligations — rights and obligations which change from culture to culture. The withholding of these rights and obligations from children is justified by an appeal to the incomplete mental, emotional, and (in some societies, such as ours) sexual development of the young. As with gender and sexual orientation, however, childhood describes a mental state that can only be guessed at by the rest of society. Just as it is possible to be a strong, aggressive woman or an asexual gay man, it is possible for some children to be more self-aware and better able to make crucial decisions than many adults — except that they are barred from doing so. While a gay woman may exhibit the outward behavior of a straight woman (or of a straight man, for that matter), an unusually mature child may not demonstrate the behaviors of an adult — not legally.

    In our society, many of the limitations imposed around the categories of child and adult are sexual: a child lacks the ability to meaningfully consent to sexual relations. This is based on an increasingly tenuous belief that minors do not have sex, and therefore cannot fully grasp the implications of their actions. And yet the arbitrariness of the border between the ability to consent and the inability to consent is apparent in the flexibility with which the age of consent is established — a 14 year old might well be gifted with the ability to meaningfully consent while find him- or herself lacking that ability in another. Further, a 17 year old may find her- or himself able to meaningfully consent to relations with a person their own age but not someone a year older. The meaninglessness of these distinctions is apparent — but the breach of these categories is considered far more threatening than the breach of gender or orientation.

  • black/white: Technically, all racial distinctions need questioning, but in the US blackness has been the crucial marker of “race”, and racial distinctions have generally fallen into a continuum from white to black. Race is an unusually strong category, given the almost complete lack of scientific data in support of racial distinctions — people simply cannot get their heads around the idea that such clearly visible differences could make so correlate with so little substantive difference. Unlike the categories mentioned above, race is not merely a matter of subjective experience of self — it is as much ascribed by society as it is experienced as identity. Although them, too, race is understood to be additive — one can be both black and white — even as the need for categorization forces such “additives” back into one or the other.

    Actually, just one — “black and white” in the US still largely equals “black”. Bob Marley, Frederick Douglass, and Ralph Ellison all had white parents — and are all considered, without a moment’s hesitation, “black”. Walter Mosley, another child of white and black parents, told the Las Vegas Mercury last year, “I’m a black man in America. There’s no question about that, and I don’t have any choice about it.” Perhaps the permeability of the white-black border — like that between child and adult — offers a clue to why it continues to be guarded so closely, even to the point of demanding a one-or-the-other answer to the question of “white or black” even as we recognize the possibility of the “white and black”.

The categories above all rest on an assumption of biological imperative; they are, in a word, “natural”. My second post (hopefully tomorrow, but who knows?) will address a couple of other categories worth questioning that aren’t embedded in biology — including the category of “natural” itself — and close with some further thoughts on categorization. Till then…

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