On putting people into boxes

Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.

President George W. Bush

There is much talk nowadays about polarisation, in politics and in society more generally. This is often blamed on social media, and the algorithms that tend to show you more of the same rather than anything likely to challenge your preconceptions, and there is undoubtedly some truth in this. If you never have to engage with someone who disagrees with you, or even has a different perspective on the world than you do, then you are unlikely to change your mind about anything.

I suspect, however, that it goes deeper than this. Industrial culture is built upon the Abrahamic religions, and they tend to be so saturated in notions of good versus evil that it is almost invisible to us. It isn’t at all necessary to see the world in this way; classical civilisation didn’t, for instance. Aristotle saw virtues as character traits rather than abstract things in themselves, and he defined each virtue as the mean between two vices. Courage, for example, he takes to be not the opposite of cowardice but the mid-point between cowardice and recklessness.

We don’t think like this. Instead, we think of virtues and vices (if we think of them at all) as pairs of opposites. When we define a thing, we often do so in terms of what it isn’t. We like nice clean edges around things. For example, we like to define languages by compiling grammars and dictionaries, even though in practice languages are always changing and always more complicated than any fixed definition. We all use words that don’t yet appear in any dictionary, and actually language continues to function perfectly well. We can still understand what Yoda says even though his word-order is quite different from regular English (a language in which word order is generally pretty significant, compared to Latin, say). Nevertheless, we all pretend that language is a fixed thing, and we have solemn debates every year when some new word appears in a dictionary as to whether it should do so or not.

In the quotation at the head of this post, Bush was invoking the familiar trope of good versus evil, us versus them. Of course, as social primates we naturally tend to divide into the in-group and the out-group, but that doesn’t necessarily have an ethical implication. The ancient Greeks, for example, designated all non-Greek speakers as barbarians, but that didn’t stop them from treating them as human beings and (at least in the case of Egyptians) admiring them. The good-and-evil thing is an extra layer on top of basic primate behaviour.

Bush also initially described his “war on terror” as a crusade (I suspect someone quickly took him to one side and explained how that would go down in the Middle East). The original crusades were very much framed as a campaign of the good Christians against the evil Saracens, explicitly carrying out the will of God. This kind of thinking is by no means confined to the medieval world; God was claimed to be with both sides in the First World War, for example.

In his remarkable and fascinating book The Master and His Emissary (Yale University Press, 2009), Iain McGilchrist explores the right and left hemispheres of the brain and how they collaborate to give us our picture of the world around us. Many of us have a vague notion of how this works, but McGilchrist presents a more nuanced view grounded in both current neuroscience and philosophy. I won’t attempt to summarise it here – I’d urge you to read the entire book – but I’d like to quote a few choice passages from his conclusion:

Let us try to imagine what the world would look like if the left hemisphere became so far dominant that, at the phenomenological level, it managed more or less to suppress the right hemisphere’s world altogether. What would that be like?

We could expect, for a start, that there would be a loss of the broader picture, and a substitution of a more narrowly focussed, restricted, but detailed view of the world, making it perhaps difficult to maintain a coherent overview. The broader picture would in any case be disregarded, because it would lack the appearance of clarity and certainty which the left hemisphere craves….

Expertise, which is what actually makes an expert (Latin expertus, ‘one who is experienced’), would be replaced by ‘expert’ knowledge that would in fact have to be based on theory….

… The world as a whole would become more virtualised, and our experience of it would be increasingly through meta-representations of one kind or another….

Numbers, which the left hemisphere is familiar with and excellent at manipulating (though… it is less good at understanding what they mean), would come to replace the response to individuals, whether people, places, things or circumstances, which the right hemisphere would have distinguished. ‘Either/or’ would tend to be substituted for matters of degree, and a certain inflexibility would result.

… There would be a preoccupation, which might even reach to an obsession, with certainty and security….

Reasonableness would be replaced by rationality, and perhaps the very concept of reasonableness might become unintelligible. … Anger and aggressive behaviour would become more evident in our social interactions…. There would be a rise in intolerance and inflexibility, an unwillingness to change track or change one’s mind.

McGilchrist, op. cit., pp. 428ff.

As you might guess, his view is that this is where we are collectively headed, if we haven’t arrived there already, and it’s hard to argue with this. Certainly a world in which it is considered sensible to declare war on an abstract noun, as Bush famously did, is well along that path.

Industrial society is a highly technical and specialised society, and it relies on highly technical and specialised people. The left-hemisphere mindset, in which one focuses on a small tightly-defined area of knowledge, is rewarded. Of course life being what is one has to deal with lots of stuff outside this area of knowledge, and the smaller and more tightly-defined (and abstract) one’s area of knowledge the more such stuff there is left over.

We therefore depend more and more on experts in those other domains, assuming that such people exist, have the knowledge that we need, and can be trusted to give it to us. We also like this information to be provided in the form of a sweeping generalisation, because that encompasses the maximum amount of stuff with the minimum of mental effort on our part. If we believe, for example, that all Jewish people are evil, we are absolved from any need to deal with the particularities of any individual Jewish person we may happen to encounter. This is quite the time-saver, although the downsides are obviously severe.

Politically, this leads to the much-lamented situation in which people of differing views – and in this vein of thinking, these will be taken as opposing and mutually exclusive views – no longer speak to one another. After all, there is the One True View – Deus lo vult! – and all the others are stupid and/or evil, and even to converse with the heretics is to become contaminated. We know where this kind of thing can take us, because Maoist China has already shown us.

As far as I know, there has never been a time or place in which people have categorised one another so elaborately. Of course, there have been things like the caste system in India and elsewhere, and the concept of the three estates in medieval Europe, but nowadays we have an entire scheme based on generations whereby everyone born between two dates is Generation Foo and therefore can apparently be treated as a unit, along the lines of the Chinese zodiac. There are vast enterprises based on the analysis of online data to tell them who we are. Your personality can be classified on various axes – here is an online test that will place you on the Myers-Briggs index, to take an example almost at random. Pollsters state, with greater confidence than accuracy, how people will vote. The failure of Hilary Clinton’s presidential election campaign in 2016 was a particularly farcical example of blind faith in statistics, although the Vietnam War offers another precedent.

Reality is never tidy, though, and the more you know about any particular person, place, thing or circumstance the less it will seem to fit neatly into any preconceived scheme. Consider left-handedness. There are plenty of sweeping generalisations about it, but I have idea to what extent any of them apply to me because I am left-handed at some things (writing, eating with a spoon) but right-handed at others (playing the guitar, eating with a knife and fork). I’m sure you can multiply examples from your own experience.

A person is more than a collection of facts. Indeed, it’s hard to think of anything worth knowing about that is just a collection of facts. We get irritated with computer databases precisely because they are collections of (supposed) facts, and just those facts and no others. All bureaucracies necessarily partake of this species of idiocy. If we can free ourselves from this tendency to put other people into boxes, it will be the first step to having meaningful conversations with them. and who knows where that might take us?

Comments are welcome, but I pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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