Monday, October 31, 2011

Gotta Love Those Pigeonholes

We sure love pigeonholes, don’t we? I mean, as a species. We like to generate tidy labels and categories for everything from amoebas to divine beings and then force whatever we’re thinking about into those categories. We’re so great, we’ve figured all this stuff out and can demonstrate our control by labeling it all.

I’m pretty sure life isn’t really that simple.

I can see where it comes from, though. On a basic level, being able to tell self from other, one-of-us from not-one-of-us is helpful and might even be life saving. I’ve read some anthropology journal articles that address this issue in pre-modern human societies. It’s an uncomfortable subject, but the fact is, most (possibly all) groups of humans at one time or another in the past were cannibals. Here’s the thing, though - they didn’t prey on members of their own group.  Only people outside the family, tribe or clan were fair game.

I’ve noticed that many cultural groups have names for themselves that mean, simply, The People. In other words, “We’re people and all those other folks aren’t.” If they’re not people, then they’re fair game. Us Versus Them on a very pragmatic level, with each group’s survival depending on it.

But our survival no longer hinges on dividing the world into our own group (predators) and prey. Life is far more nuanced than that, but I’m not sure our brains - or our cultures - are keeping up with those nuances well enough. And it’s not just Us Versus Them.

Back to those pigeonholes. They have served us well in the realm of the sciences. We now have vast organized collections of nomenclature for living things - Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus Species. We label and categorize chemical elements, atomic particles, stars, planets.

We use those labels to feel comfortable with the information, to separate out small bits that we can get a handle on. That primitive part of the human brain still tells us, “Label everything so you don’t get eaten.”

But what about the things that don’t fit so well into the pigeonholes? As hard as we try to force them into tidy categories, spiritual beliefs don’t really fit that well under discrete labels. Political ideologies don’t sift out that well, either. And human sexuality - I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard my friends say there isn’t a label that fits them exactly. I’ve talked with a few scientists whose experience tells them the distinct groupings we sort bits of the world into aren’t as clear-cut as we’d like to think. And it’s pretty obvious by now that Us Versus Them doesn’t serve anyone any more.

Maybe it’s time to move on from the pigeonholes. Sure, you put your sweater and your lunchbox in a cubbyhole when you were in kindergarten, but you’re not in kindergarten any more. So what to use instead, to get a handle on the world?

How about a rainbow?

No, I’m not about to go all goodness-and-light on you. I think the rainbow is an effective symbol for the nuanced, one-thing-merging-into-another property that real life demonstrates. Bear with me here.

You might have memorized the colors of the rainbow as a child - ROYGBIV - red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. I’ll bet you drew rainbows with your crayons, each color a tidy, distinct stripe, separate from the next.

But those colors aren’t tidy and distinct; it’s only our labels that make them seem so. Look closely at a rainbow and you’ll see each color merging into the next with no specific demarcation where one ends and the next begins. That’s the way the spectrum of visible light is. Sure, we can generate fancy scientific labels that say one color stops and another starts at a particular frequency, but the fact is, it’s a continuum.

If you look carefully, you’ll see that most of life is a continuum in one way or another. The lines on the map exist only on the map, not in the big world. Ask an astronaut.

Continuums are scary. It’s hard to tell where one thing ends and the next one begins. It’s hard to tell who you’re supposed to like or dislike, how you’re supposed to think, what you’re supposed to do. How on earth can you get a handle on a continuum?

But that’s what happens when you graduate from kindergarten - you have to deal with the world without those cubbyholes. Maybe it’s time for the human race to move on to first grade.