Trapped In A Box

The human mind seems to have a particular bent towards categorization. One does not have to read too far in early written records to see that categories (as well as open deception about them) were vital in people understanding themselves, others, and their world. One thinks of kings writing laws for their realms separating aristocrats from commoners, free from slave, male from female, citizen from resident alien from foreigner, friend from enemy, reliable ally from rebel. Despite the fact that many people today deliberately try to obliterate distinctions (this is not new either–it goes back to the most ancient Shamanistic faiths), we still have a seemingly inborn drive to categorize and label the world around us.

I have to admit that I am an inveterate categorizer myself. In that I say I am human. When we describe people, we use categories. To describe me, it would be easy to say something like: The blogger is a very thin man of average height, with balding blond hair, chameleon eyes, freckles, and glasses. All of these lead to categories–blonde as opposed to redhead (though I was born a redhead or brown-haired fellow, man as opposed to woman, thin as opposed to fat or athletic, glasses as opposed to contacts or naturally good eyes. And each of these categories has implications. Light hair and freckles give implications about ethnic identity, glasses give a (correct) implication of being bookish or intellectual. And all of these are categories in our mind by which we prejudge people for better or worse without knowing the real person inside.

Why do we take these lazy shortcuts to reasoning? Partly, it appears because the human mind is wired heuristically. This makes sense. If you have to act quickly on very limited information and lack the time and resources to deeply investigate someone or something or a situation, you need to be able to make reasonable workable assumptions and act accordingly. There is nothing wrong with this, except that we need to recognize that what we are making are assumptions, not facts (and certainly not reasonable conclusions) that need to be counteracted as time and leisure permit by the facts. We are all victims of prejudice, and we are all prejudiced against others in some fashion, simply because all of us have boxes that we put others in based on our own experiences, backgrounds, and biases.

Since we are all in this boat together, we ought to be more charitable to others and less hostile to fellow sinners. It would appear as if we would find much less hostility in this world if we could recognize that we have the same problems we so violently accuse others of. Feminists have far worse opinions of men than most of the men they criticize, and the same is true of racialist defenders of favoritism for marginalized subaltern groups. We have more credibility as speakers against hate if we are not hatemongerers ourselves, but few of us stop to think about that very often.

The real benefit of our mental heuristics, apart from the fact that it allows us to make better than coin-flip decisions about people and situations in a very limited time with very limited knowledge, is that it allows us to come to a reasonable understanding of the world around us without the need for massive studying. One of the reasons that kids are so insightful is that they judge it and call it as they see it, and if it is not perfect at least that is pretty good. It does not take much effort (only decent skills at observation and intuition) to come to a pretty good guess. It takes a huge amount of information and investigation to prove something beyond the shadow of a doubt. It is in that range, between pretty good gut instinct and beyond the shadow of a doubt that most of our problems lie.

Most of all, we need to recognize that our initial heuristics are flawed and biased, even when they end up correct. We could all use a lot more humility in our lives. Recognizing blind spots and weak areas is a good way to improve in the lull periods between crises. A searching and deeply critical analysis of ourselves can help us to recognize where we fall short and need to improve, and having encouragement and support from a good inner circle of loved ones can give us support and strategies for improvement.

However, when crises come we cannot afford to be hindered by self-doubt. We have to be resolute and even harsh in struggles. Once the battle is won we can break down what could have gone better and make it better for the next time, but while the battle is going on one has to fight resolutely and fiercely without being crippled by self-doubt and insecurity about one’s flaws. We must never forget that our enemies have at least as much reason to fear us as we have to fear them, and that they too have weaknesses we can and must exploit, so let us not be crippled about our own weaknesses.

We must recognize who we are before we can see the world as it is. And we must recognize who others are before we can have any kind of genuine relationship and respect for them. To do so requires that we take a look at our own blinders and mind the beams in our own eyes that we all have. There’s plenty of need for self-examination to go around. And then once we see properly, there’s plenty of corruption and evil to target and fight against in this world as well. But we must fight seeking to make no unnecessary enemies. There are enough necessary ones as it is.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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