The Splitters Always Win: How Finer Distinctions Can Bring Us Together Rather Than Divide Us

Adam Washburn
Jan 18 · 8 min read
Source: Alex Block, Unsplash.com

Lyme Disease and Categories

The splitters always win.

The named symptoms and manifestations are somewhat wide and varied, but include fatigue, sleep impairment, joint pain, muscle aches, pain, depression, cognitive impairment, neuropathy, headaches, and even heart problems. The bundling of these health issues and labeling them as CLD helps distinguish them from the very acute symptoms that show up immediately after contracting Lyme disease.

There is much controversy around this topic which I will not delve into in here. However, one thing the interviewer said on the topic stuck with me. He talked about the controversy over whether CLD was one single disease or a set of diseases bundled into one category. His opinion was that further research would refine CLD into more definitive categories. He said that in the end, “The splitters always win.”

In essence, what he was saying was that when faced with the option of bundling everything together into one category, or subdividing into more distinct categories, the finer distinctions almost always prevail. He saw this as the case with CLD. Having a single broad category such as CLD was not as helpful as understanding the finer subcategory of an individual’s disease.

As a scientist in the pharmaceutical field, I’ve come to appreciate this truth as it pertains to disease. Occasionally, I’ll hear or read comments about “the cure for cancer.” My first thought is “which one?” Cancer occurs in different parts of the body, and we label cancers as lung cancer, brain cancer, breast cancer, etc.

But even within each organ there are a variety of subtypes of cancer manifestations: Hodgkins vs non-Hodgkins, squamous cell vs non-squamous cell, HER-2 positive vs negative. If you want further details on the variegated nature of cancer, just visit breastcancer.org and go to types of cancer. You’ll begin to see why a single homogeneous ‘cure’ is not likely.

As human beings, our brains crave order and organization in a complex and multi-faceted universe. We look for and build patterns in our minds. We create labels for objects, activities, and people. This labeling and classification is the basis for our use of language and our ability to communicate and operate in the world. Classification enables us to start to gather and organize facts and build bodies of knowledge and prediction in an otherwise unpredictable world.

However, many times, our classifications fail us. We strive to push everything into a particular category and then find that not everything neatly fits into the categories we’ve created. And then come the disagreements.

Pluto and Berries

The truth is, Pluto is Pluto. Its orbit, composition, shape, and size are unchanged whether it’s a Full Planet, Dwarf Planet, Ex-Planet, or A Big Ball of Frozen Stuff.

I had a discussion the other day with my children about Pluto and they shared some of the arguments about Pluto being a dwarf planet, most of them falling in line with the newer scientific arguments about Pluto.

At the end of the discussions I asked, “But has the nature of Pluto itself changed? Or will it change depending on what we earthlings call it?”

The truth is, Pluto is Pluto. Its orbit, composition, shape, and size are unchanged whether it’s a Full Planet, Dwarf Planet, Ex-Planet, or A Big Ball of Frozen Stuff.

But the pull of categorization is strong, and often emotional. Just try starting up a dinner conversation about whether a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable, or about how a watermelon is a berry, but a strawberry isn’t. Or talk to a biologist about the definition of a species.

In fact, it isn’t difficult to find in most professions some type of controversy or argument over how to classify or categorize something.

Our Compulsion to Classify

Why does classifying bring out such strong emotions?

Our classifications enable us to simplify the world and take a new thing and place it into an organized category with defined properties. It helps us make sense of things. Thus, when concepts begin to cross boundaries, our world stops making sense in certain ways, and we don’t like it!

A berry topping makes sense when a berry is a small round piece of fruit. Our conception falls apart if a watermelon gets added to the mix.

A solar system makes sense when it has the nine planets you learned about in elementary school. When someone challenges that list, your education feels challenged.

This wouldn’t be much more than an academic problem, however, if it didn’t extend into human relations. But unfortunately our propensity and passion for classification and categorization spill over into many human endeavors, often to negative consequences.

News from the summer of 2020 about the unjustified death of George Floyd sparked protests across the United States. Additional news about police killings further stoked the anger.

Reading news headlines shows how categorization and labeling come out in full force.

Black. White. Police. Citizen. Republican. Democrat. Protester. Rioter. Criminal.

This is one issue of our day, but on another news cycle we can find different sets of labels.

Hispanic. Immigrant. Citizen. Native. Illegal. Law and Order. Bleeding Heart. Gay. Straight. Business. Artist. Rural. Urban. Suburban. Corporate. Private. Public. Government.

Us vs Them

Intelligence is the ability to make finer distinctions.

— Robert Kiyosaki

Us is the familiar, the regular, the normal. Them is the unusual, the different, the odd. Us is the good guys. Them is the bad guys, or at least the ‘other’ guys. We feel comfortable if we can put people in categories, define behaviors, and get a sense of who’s on our team and who’s on the other team.

However, as intelligent beings, we can make better choices and come to a better understanding when we allow ourselves to more distinctly discern differences. As author Robert Kiyosaki puts it, “Intelligence is the ability to make finer distinctions.” Once we recognize that we increase our intelligence when we make finer distinctions, we find a key to understanding the universe, understanding others, and understanding ourselves.

Treat people as they are.

— Brigham Young

“Make sure the path for your own feet to walk to eternal life, and take as many with you as you can. Take them as they are, understand them as they are, and deal with them as they are; look at them as God looks at them.”

What Would Jesus Categorize?

It is enlightening to look at how Jesus of the New Testament understood and interacted with people. He certainly recognized and utilized the labels and concepts of his day. Jew. Gentile. Roman. Israelite. Samaritan. Soldier. Pharisee. Scribe. Sadducee. Publican. All these categories had meaning and utility to him. But he also had the ability to make finer distinctions when he interacted with individuals.

When Jesus interacted with the Roman centurion, he knew exactly what kind of man he was and where his faith was. He knew he had faith to have his faithful servant healed.

When Jesus found the woman taken in adultery, he knew she was a ‘sinner’ but also knew she had potential to change and knew she had been used and abused as a pawn of those trying to entrap Jesus. He treated her accordingly.

One woman who begged a miracle for her daughter was a ‘Gentile’ and a ‘woman of Canaan.’ Jesus recognized these categories and told of his specific mission to the house of Israel. But he also recognized a special need and a special faith and provided a special miracle.

The woman at the well had several labels. She was a ‘Samaritan’ to Jesus’ disciples. She was ‘the woman who’s had five husbands’ to those in her town. She was all those things to Jesus, but she was also someone who would listen to him and open the door to teaching and ministering in her town.

The woman with an issue of blood was a ‘person in the crowd’ grabbing at Jesus — part of the living throng. But Jesus recognized her individual needs and individual faith and blessed her with an individual blessing.

Zacchaeus was a ‘publican’ and a ‘sinner’, but Jesus found time to visit him in his home and minister to him.

Refine, Refine, Refine

How often do we stop at the category level when learning about a person?

How often do we delve in to find out more deeply and specifically about an individual?

How often do we allow our conceptions about categories to change?

Don’t get me wrong — we need categories. Our mind can’t operate without them. We can’t even speak without creating categories. Our scientific knowledge is based on being able to categorize and apply principles to categories.

However, our intellectual, emotional, social, and spiritual growth stops when we stop allowing our categories to be refined. So don’t let the categories become static. Let them be dynamic and change. Let them get detailed and refined.

When it comes to people, it might seem that the more categories we make and the more we refine our definitions, the more divided we’ll be.

However, I think it’s the opposite. It’s the broad category of Us and Them that is the most divisive.

When we keep digging down until we reach the Me and You (and You and You and You), we actually find out we have more in common with people than we have different.

As we keep making finer distinctions, we get past the common and easy labels and recognize all people as individuals with unique stories, experiences, and a rich offering to the world. At this point, another person stops being an outsider, because it turns out we’re all outsiders. Or rather, we find out that we’re all insiders in God’s family as unique individuals with limitless potential.

So make finer and finer distinctions. Because in the end, “The splitters always win.”

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