Categorical Emotion

Am currently reading Brave New World. I arrived at Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel first by thinking about the promotional spins we get so often from Web promoters. That led to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four Newspeak. When you think about Orwell you tend to think about Huxley. I’m only a few chapters in, but the novel addresses a question I have had for a long time concerning our emotional response to categorizing.

Why do some people hate categories? After all, we categorize all the time. We filter every sight we see through categories. Walk down a street and you categorizeobjects as houses, trees, people. It’s an unconscious act that allows us to navigate our daily lives. This is a road; I can walk on it.  This is a door; it is a subcategory of houseand I can open it. Almost every minute of our day is spent with categories, whether conscious or not. We even dream in categories. Yet the terms class, category and hierarchy are often expressed as pejoratives. Why is such a natural act as classifying so often vilified? I believe it is because these terms also express power relationships that control human beings.

Life in Huxley’s new world features the extreme categorization of humans. All babies are essentially cloned. At their mechanical conception, each group of clones is designated as a class, Alphas on top and Epsilon-Minus Semi Morons on the bottom. Embryos of lower classes receive less oxygen. How are you feeling about the word class right now? We don’t like to classify human beings.

Other classifications simply organize concepts. Animal taxonomy expresses one way of arranging biological characteristics into precise definitions. Canines have no power over dogs. Dogs are simply a type of canine, along with wolves and coyotes. One canine is no more important than the other. They share certain biological characteristics so we place them near each other in a class. We name their class canine and call the whole thing a hierarchy.

In an org chart, a CEO does have power over a manager and we use the same word to express that power. Hierarchy has two meanings, one for placement based on characteristics and one for power. Like Huxley’s new world, we first experience a power hierarchy in infancy. Consider the org chart of a family. Hierarchy can be benign or ominous, but ominous always lurks in the background, even though when we open a door we are glad to know it is part of the hierarchy of a house. It tells us where we are going.

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Jun 2008