Being as Being : Part II
Human beings think in categories. This leads to a number of interesting misunderstandings. Let’s look at how to escape from of a few of them.
Part I: Habit
All humans are saddled with attentional limits. This is obvious.
What is less obvious, but which follows logically, is that a surprising amount of what each of us does every day must necessarily be done invisibly, out of habit.
Try this experiment: reach out for your cup of coffee, and note how effortless the action was. Next, try to tell me exactly which muscles you used, and exactly when and for how long you used each one of them, and exactly how the use of each muscle changed over time, and exactly how all of that relates to your intention to pick up the cup.
Do you begin to see what I mean?
Now turn your newfound lens in other directions. Learned habits of thought and action will appear everywhere you find human beings. Significantly, once noticed, these individual habits of thought and action become obvious, but not before then. This is the essence of habit.
[Our innate human talent for habit-building is fantastically successful at masking our own attentional limits. How successful? People everywhere routinely get themselves into trouble by underestimating just how limited their own attention really is, and what they safely can do with it. Habits and wisdom are not the same thing.]
But there is more to the story.
Part II: Mirage
Categories are the second great hardwired fix for humanity’s limited attention problem. Categorical thinking helps us to expand our cognitive range even further, essentially by allowing us to collect many separate events into stackable thematic bins, making our mental lives more manageable. “Reaching out” is a category, for example, and so is “cup,” and so is “coffee.” So, for that matter, is “Reaching out for a cup of coffee.”
And now, to the point:
So is “we.”
“We” is a category that groups together various sets of human beings. “We” has reality as a category, and as such it is immensely useful as an automatic cognitive shortcut. But categories are classifications, not entities with decision-making agency. Categories cannot make decisions or take actions. Only individuals can do those things.
In short, collective action (we can, they should, etc.) is a mirage:
An ally in a dysfunctional bureaucracy can open many doors, but a well-placed enemy even in a competent bureaucracy will destroy your life.
In sports, “greatness” isn’t an intrinsic quality of a dominant team, it’s an emergent consequence of each individual member buying into that team’s successful philosophy, and then working hard to execute their part in the scheme. Replacing a team player with an unqualified person off the street doesn’t automatically invest the new person with the team’s greatness. Instead, the opposite happens: it destroys the team’s dominance in competition.
Musicians prepare and give concerts, not collectives.
Collectivism is a useful mental shorthand. It arises naturally and inevitably from the fact that people are hardwired to think in categories. It is so deeply embedded in human intelligence (our intelligence blyat!) that its artifacts crop up regularly in our everyday language usage (again, our!), to such an extent that they are nearly impossible to uproot.
But when it is applied to human actions, it is wrong.
Part III: Reality
So what is really going on?
What we are really looking at, once we get past our hardwired penchant for collectivistic red herrings, is concerted action. In the real world, things only get done when individuals come together, share goals, lay plans, and invest their own effort in an attempt to achieve some desired end. Sometimes this means agreeing to follow a leader’s advice. But inevitably, invariably, the moment-to-moment decision of whether or not to follow that advice rests with each individual. Always.
Categories do not have decision-making agency. They never have, and they never will.
Here are three ways you can turn this fact to your rhetorical advantage:
1. Group power blocs are scary, but categories aren’t.
“The Right wants…” “The Left believes…” “New York is…” “White men aren’t…” Whenever a person posts shouty categorical things on Social Media, he or she is essentially telling you what frightens him or her. In order to strip that fear of its contagion, simply remind the poster (or at the least, remind yourself) that categories can’t do or want anything, other than be categories. This forces a reframing of the threat downwards, making it much more manageable. Categories are far less scary than vast, faceless, mindless armies.
2. Categories don’t think or act; individuals do.
The problem with racism isn’t its obsession with skin color, it is its reliance on collective thinking. Color be damned, individuals are what matter. Like every other individual human, you are far more interesting than just your skin color. You do your own thinking and acting, and that thinking and acting is uniquely yours, and you are responsible for all of it, good or bad. Anyone who tries to treat you as a faceless cog in a skin-color category, rather than as an individual person, is dehumanizing you, whether knowingly or unknowingly, and should be called on it.
That same rule applies equally across all categorical classifications of human beings, be they religious, political, or anything else. Never forget that you are dealing with individual humans, not with symbolic subsets of all-important categories. Don’t be shy about reminding others at need, either.
3. Identity Politics + Universality = Power.
Identity politics, as it is commonly played, is a destructive zero-sum game of division by category. Played that way, everyone loses. The so-called “winners” are just those who lose the least.
So far, no one has found a way to opt out of the game. But there is another way that it can be played, as brilliantly illustrated in Edward Markham’s short poem “Outwitted”:
‘He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic , rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him In !’
What if we (we!) were to look for ways in which all human beings are already alike, and then find a way to invest those universal similarities with dignity and meaning? What might we accomplish then?
It is trivially easy to find human differences. But that hasn’t been working, has it?
Given the ways in which human beings are all known to be already alike, how should we proceed? What is going to work? This is the important question.
It is also where the answers lie. Have fun looking.