Given the discussion surrounding the Zimmerman verdict, and the recent controversy over Colin McGinn’s resignation due to sexual harassment charges, I thought I would make a brief comment on the larger issue these cases exemplify. In both of these cases, there are arguments to be made on specific incidents and those who defend the men involved do not think they are being racist or sexist—they’re just concerned about details. The problem is that people generally tend to be less concerned about those details when the incidents affect white men, or male students.
If you’re not sure that’s true, watch this ABC experiment which shows a white male, a black male, and a white female all performing the same action of stealing a bike in broad daylight. The results are both not all that surprising and a very solid reminder that small prejudices add up and have enormous impact. The white man is more or less left alone to his business. Some people are curious about what he is doing, but no one really actively interferes. The black man is immediately questioned and people call authorities very quickly. The white woman is approached by men, and they go out of their way to help, even with full knowledge that she is trying to steal the bike.
Obviously it sounds worst for the black man, and it is easy to shrug off the reaction for the woman as really more of a benefit – even when trying to do something illegal, she can get help from strangers. But does she want help? And do these sudden assistants expect anything in return? Even if it is no more than a friendly smile and flirtatious banter, the key to these stories is always how single interactions can add up. If a black man deals with just slightly more suspicion, but deals with it constantly, his life is radically different from the white man’s. Likewise, if a woman faces prurient interest, even if it is meant in fun, and not intended to lead to a sexual relationship, if she faces it from every direction it changes the world she lives in.
These effects are due to a common way that human beings think. It is a claim often made by philosophers that people think in categories — in fact according to some philosophers it is what makes the human mind human. I would argue that things are more complex, and that our ability to conceptualize is a skill and a habit that we develop. It makes it easier for us to hold multiple thoughts together at one time, but at the cost of detail and fine distinction. However, that fine-tuned capacity is still available; it just has to be brought into focus.
But categorical thinking is not the only way that humans parse the world, nor is it unique to human beings. Animals understand categories, just to less complex degrees, when they respond to “fetch” and “trot” and “cracker.” Dogs learn tricks, horses understand a series of different movements, birds and chimps can even communicate with people to a limited extent using words that people invented. More importantly, concepts are not stagnant—they can be altered through imagination, and are not absolutes but, to be meta about it, simply another concept we have come up with to explain the way we organize our reactions and ideas.
And the human mind responds to the world in non-categorical ways as well. For example, when responding to music, people generally do not think in categories, and yet they can make extremely complicated patterns and connections. It is a form of thought probably more complex in humanity than in animals although not unique to our species. Many other examples could be suggested but I’ll save that for another time.
More key here is the idea of recognition of individuals. Though we may at times reduce people to a concept of themselves, we still recognize something unique by a personal name. Such referencing applies to buildings, places, monuments, dates, royal babies and countless other aspects of life as well. The claim of certain schools of thought, like the language philosophers associated with post-Hegelian, Sellarsian, or Wittgensteinian thinkers, is that it is impossible for a human being to think without thinking in concepts: any time a word is used, it refers to a group or type of thing, as well as the unique referent. This is what it means to make a concept, and from Plato through Kant has been touted as monumental in human achievement.
While it is an important aspect of how we organize and stack our thinking, it is central to remember the unique component as much as the categorical. If we think in terms of the individual, it becomes clear that the conceptual aspects are choices we make to significant degrees. Levinas speaks of the importance of the recognition of “the face of the other” in an ethical interaction, and I think it is possible to apply this to our broader interaction with the world. Everything experienced is unique. It may be comparable to other substances or moments, but it is only in laziness, and, after industrialization a strong habituation, that we equate distinct things. We still experience the individual.
Our conceptualizing tendencies overall should be recognized as tools that can both help and harm our understanding. This is undeniable when applied to human beings. The fact that we can make faster decisions by applying broad categories, but that it can result in gross misunderstandings is true of smaller parts of life as well. Being more patient, more nuanced and more observant of the individual case allows a kind of knowledge with fewer assumptions, even if it may allow for less immediate utility.
Some will push for the division between people and other cases (Sartre would argue a free consciousness changes everything, for instance) but even if we were to grant this the problem of thinking in categories remains. The very idea that individuals of any kind can be “exact expressions of one soul” paves the way for a certain habit of thinking. Because we use the same word, we assume the same essence, and come to understand an equivalence as soon as something has been identified. A black man in a hoodie, or a young blonde woman, can face certain presumptions just by belonging to a category, and in time these attitudes can affect the way they understand themselves and behave as well, encouraging the stereotypes.
But if we are able to understand categories as just tentative judgments that help us clarify the world, though sometimes at the cost of complexity, our thought can be more developed. A reflective interplay of incomplete categorization and non-categorical consideration can allow for creativity, originality, and a better chance at reaching something like truth. On the other hand, if we think categories simply reveal essential natures, and we understand races and genders as categories that define people, it becomes a social norm to call the cops on certain bike thieves, leave some alone, and try to flirt with others.