¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 People like to categorize people. At its heart this is just one element of the human need to categorize everything in the world, to fit things into a neat narrative. The disagreement over how to categorize things can be intense enough for inanimate objects, as anyone who has had cause to interact with cataloguers or ontologists will know. The assumptions people make about people, about where they fit, and what they will think, and if they can be trusted to think the right way, can have much more serious consequences.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 When we categorize an object, we are telling ourself a story about it, about how we will interact with it, and how it will interact with us. But (at least to first order) those objects are not telling themselves stories about us. The stories we tell ourselves about other people don’t exist in a vacuum, they form the basis of our interactions. Those stories can reinforce or they can interfere, they can be built on affinity or on difference. But mostly they are built on difference.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Difference and its political consequences seem constantly with us at the moment. Issues of gender bias, racism, classism before even touching on the seemingly inexorable rise of religious intolerance are thrown at us seemingly daily. Someone of about my age, and political sensibilities, might seek to point to the greater acceptance of diverse sexual orientations or improved gender equality as a sign of progress. But while that progress might be comforting to a white middle-class english speaking (pretty much) straight cis gendered male living in the UK it doesn’t take account of the day to day discrimination and in many cases danger that many, really most people face beyond my sheltered view of the world.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 If “privilege”, the failure to see the issues that others face, arises out of a the inability to realize that there is another story that others have experience, then it is a close partner to “othering”, the active rejection of that story. And perhaps in between the two lies a natural, if often not productive, human reaction – to explain with our own story why the world is as it is. Or why our actions are what they are. Or simply to try and tease apart how we got to this point. “I am not a racist…but…” and “not all men…”, even “actually its about ethics in…” spring from a common motive to weave our own story with that of others, one that reinforces our own view about ourselves.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 In truth we are all racist, we are all sexist, we are discriminatory on a moment to moment basis. Captain Kirk perhaps says it best in the Star Trek episode “A taste of armageddon” – “We can admit that we’re killers, but we’re not going to kill today. That’s all it takes”1. Not just perhaps that we can admit but that we must admit our tendency to categorise. Not being an asshole is a constant choice we all have to make.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Our brains are categorizing machines that drop objects and people into convenient pigeon holes that help to create the short hand with which we process the world. Just as we learn to ride a bike or drive a car or catch a ball without being consciously aware of how we do it we interact with people by placing them into categories and making assumptions about their stories. Those assumption help us to manage those interactions, and we tend not to think too much about them. Indeed in both cases, if you think too hard about it those interactions can become unmanageable, just as you fall of a bike if you think too hard about what you’re doing to ride it.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 The philosopher Hubert Dreyfus in Alfred Bierkegaard and Katya Carlsen’s documentary “Collaboration: On the edge of a new paradigm?“2 talks about stepping beyond proficiency in a task to expertise, to mastery. That mastery lies in moving through the point where a task is automatic towards a point where that automatism can support continuous conscious reflection. In the end that may sound somewhat Jungian, master the subconscious to support conscious thoughtful interactions, but the message may be simpler. Reflection on the story we are telling ourselves about others is a good thing.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 That is a long way to come around to the point. Which is to say, I am not the person you think I am. Nor, by an argument of symmetry if nothing else, are you who I think you are. The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves tend to focus on our difference. The stories we tell ourselves about others tend to focus on the categories we can put people into. This plays out in an interesting way with many people who have a science background.
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 There is a ready caricature of a person who is a scientist (however that might be defined). We are focussed on numbers, evidence, data. We reduce things to their components rather than see the beauty of the whole. In Heidegger’s words (or at least those of his translater) we seek to “enframe” the world3to put it in its place as a stock of material in readiness for utilitarian service to progress. We wear white coats, have crazy hair, beards and glasses. We watch Star Trek. Some of these will seem ridiculous to some readers, but some element of these will colour your thinking as soon as someone as identified as “a scientist”. But then, I’ve never watched the Star Trek episode from which the quote above is drawn.
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 As scientists we tell ourselves a different story. A remarkable number of scientists have some sort of musical background. Many identify as writers or artists of different types. Yet even as we tell ourselves our own stories as individuals we continue to be surprised when we discover that other scientists don’t fit into the caricatured mould. I seriously considered a career in music before settling on science as the “practical” option. Even the stories I tell myself invoke that naive distinction between the pragmatic, practical and empirical sciences and the impractical arts.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 One of the themes that I see weaving through this collection is my growing awareness of different perspectives, different ways of thinking and different ways of knowing. At different times I sought to juxtapose these different worlds of my own experience to see how they might illuminate each other. The question once again, is of what story I tell myself about who I am, and how readily I can persuade others to share that. Once again it comes back around to the narrative, a thread we will pick up again towards the end of the collection.
- ¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0
- Coon, GL (Writer), Hammer, R (Writer) & Pevney, J (Director). (1967). A Taste of Armageddon (Television series episode). In G. Roddenberry (Producer), Star Trek. Los Angeles, United States: Desilu Productions ↩
- Bierkegaard, A, Carlsen K (2014), Collaboration: On the edge of a new paradigm (documentary), Denmark, available online at http://collaborativesociety.org ↩
- Heidegger, M (1977). The question of technology (W Lovitt, Trans), New York, Garland Publishing (Original Work Published 1954) ↩