Are we, as a society or set of societies too quick to categorise?
I think we have built upon the Victorian-era’s predilection for classification for understanding. You’ll notice, no doubt, that I categorised the idea of classification as Victorian. Perhaps this is a helpful metaphorical conduit for expressing a large number of semantic nuances–a sort of communicative shorthand. When I mention ‘Victorian’, loads of images appear in my mind: women in petticoats and parasols, men with mustaches, steam engines, industrial buildings, red-brick, tea, lack of smiles… and a corresponding set of ideas begins to emerge rather like a tag-cloud which gets more intricate the longer you focus on a single tag.
But, what if this becomes a hindrance to meaning. I am not alone in experiencing the frustration involved when someone tries to categorise you. My wife, a veterinary surgeon, was recently introducing herself to a middle-aged woman who had asked us how long we’d lived in our town.
“Oh, I recently got a job in the vet’s practice,” says my wife (who’s blessed with ageless looks which often leave people stunned to learn her real age)
“Really! Do you need some sort of qualification to do that?”
Both my wife and I had to bite back any reproach involved in explaining that it does indeed take quite a bit of training and qualification before being allowed to take a job as a practicing veterinary surgeon, the last of which being five-years’ worth of 40+-hour weeks of a veterinary degree and harrowing RCVS examinations.
What the woman was trying to do, of course, was to find out whether Wendy works there as a nurse or sweeping floors and cleaning kennels. Her surprise proved this when Wendy laughingly explained that she’s a vet and therefore has several necessary qualifications.
What this illustrates is a time when the categories we use as a conceptual structure don’t fit. The woman’s whole perception of my wife came to a crashing, embarrassing end when she was forced to re-render her conceptual structure. Now, I believe that we, as humans, require certain conceptual and metaphorical constructs in order to turn our perceptions into understandings. They, in essence, allow us to contain a concept in order to analyse it and let our abstract processes work. They give non-physical concepts substance so we can get our physical brains around them. (For more, I highly recommend Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors we Live By).
What I am beginning to wonder is whether there is a glitch in the natural necessity for these constructs. What happens if a society becomes transfixed with its own metaphors? Or, maybe it’s just that the shorthand is used too freely? What does it mean to be ‘post-modern’, ‘ecological’, ‘ethical’, or any number of tags we use to convey huge propositions of meaning? I propose that conceptual tagging, and the short-hand language of metaphor is fast becoming the newest form of cliche. We are learning, culturally, to package more meaning than we understand ourselves into ever-smaller packages. Communication is beginning to break down at some levels due to ambiguity and a lack of understanding so that the entire semantic package is not necessarily being transmitted.
If I am having a conversation about industriousness, working hard, or innovation, I use the idea of ‘Victorian’ in a very different way from its use in a dialogue about expressive freedom, colonialism or interior design. So, to a certain extent, the context of the conversation is important. But what is actually happening when someone uses ‘toxins’, ‘carbs’, and ‘omega-3’ as tags for ‘unhealthy’, ‘bad for you’, and ‘beneficial’ respectively? I’d love to understand this phenomenon of communication more fully.
Please note: I am not attacking culture, education or the general state of the world, but trying to explore the concepts of understanding and communication. If you have ideas, please let me know them.