Friday, 15 July 2011

The eighth deadly sin

Many years ago, a philosopher friend once remarked that the eighth deadly sin is classifying people. He was exaggerating to make a point I suppose, but the comment remained with me for decades.

For example, I could easily write a piece claiming the politics of climate change is merely the latest left-wing attack on the bourgeoisie. It would be an easy post to write largely because it uses familiar memes and common ways of classifying people – left wing attackers and bourgeoisie victims. It would almost write itself and in fact, now I’ve dropped the hint, I suspect there isn’t even a need to write it. The seed is sown and a  point made which has been made thousands of times anyway.

But what point? I just made it up, or rather borrowed the relevant material from familiar sources. In fact, the politics of climate change may do most damage to developing countries, to the poorest people on earth rather than the bourgeoisie of developed countries. So the idea may be easy enough to pursue, but may not actually be worth pursuing. It may be biased and misleading and to knowingly mislead is surely a sin.

There is lots of it about, these casually uninformative, yet appealing ways to classify anyone but ourselves. Thirty-something, baby-boomers, senior citizens, chattering classes, elites, nerds, immigrants, emigrants, northerners, southerners, suits, ladies who lunch and so on and so on. You can even make them up if you’ve a mind to. Are they useful ways to classify people, or easy ways to make conversation, write blogs and newspaper articles, sell books and TV programmes? Do they add or subtract from the sum of human wisdom, or do they merely oil the wheels of over-casual discourse?

I suppose it depends on how we do it, but I think classifying people is usually the wrong thing to do, even though I do it myself all the time. I find myself virtually forced to do it because it is such a fatally familiar way of communicating.

Yet it niggles away at the back of my mind because classifying people frequently introduces bias. We know it does, the problem is positively notorious and it isn’t just racism and all the other isms. So - a habit worth tackling perhaps? Or is it too much fun to give up on it? Is it worth the bias?


David Duff said...

Given, as I am, to somewhat sweeping generalities, a useful means of avoiding the slog of thoughtful analysis, I am uneasily aware of the problem you raise. But what's a body to do? If you become too pedantic a three paragraph blog post begins to resemble War and Peace in size! The fact is that generalised classifications, or 'short hand' writing, if you like, must be written, and read, in such a way that the generalised nature of it is clear. Thus, if I suggest that it might be foolish to trust Nigerian businessmen, it does not have the strength of saying that all Nigerian businessmen are definitely crooks.

A K Haart said...

DD - I agree. I wrote the post because, as we all know, a vast number of viewpoints stand or fall on its validity. Often they fall.

Mark Wadsworth said...

AKH, you are quite right, but as DD says: " If you become too pedantic a three paragraph blog post begins to resemble War and Peace in size!"

That's why I personally capitalise things which we have to take as a given and which of themselves require further justification or explanation elsewhere (or are personal value judgments), such as owner-occupation being A Good Thing or VAT being The Worst Tax or Poor Widows In Mansions.

Demetrius said...

I often ask myself "what is my market segment"? Man is what he buys these days.

James Higham said...

I suppose it depends on how we do it, but I think classifying people is usually the wrong thing to do

If the cap fits, AKH ...

A K Haart said...

MW - agreed, brevity has its advantages and blogging couldn't work without it.

D - yes, we are to some extent economic beings.

JH - indeed. The cap fits us all, as it must.