9/16/2007

Venn Diagrams Suck.

"So why can't you vote in the primaries?" he asked, putting the political discussion on hold.

"Because I'm a registered independent," I replied. "I'm neither a Republican nor a Democrat."

He looked puzzled for a moment, "So why can't you vote in the independent primary?"

"No, independents don't have a primary. You have to be in a political party to have a primary."

"Aren't you in the independent party?"

At this point I threw up my hands.

This exchange is indicative of a certain mode of thinking that pervades our culture in all facets, not just politics. It was just a political discussion that brought this phenomenon to light. Maybe there's something in our brain chemistry that makes us want to categorize things; that would make sense. Language, the hallmark of human thinking, is based in part on the categorization of the world around us. Perhaps it's a failing of the educational system that so many people grow up being unable to handle the very concept of "not classified." It's possible that this is the result of our computerized age forcing us to divide our information into neat folders and that "other" has simply become one more category rather than a title for things that are without category.

I have one colleague that refuses to believe that fungi are not plants. He will not concede that there are any any forms of life other than animals and plants and since fungi are obviously not animals, they must be plants. Despite being shown otherwise, he will not accept that there are five kingdoms of living things, not two, that the system of classification for living things has changed since he first learned about it thirty years ago.

I brew my own mead, this connects, I promise. I have a close friend that, despite having brewed mead with me, cannot understand that mead is neither wine nor beer. I keep trying to tell her that mead is it's own thing, that it is a new category of beverage that she has previously not encountered but any such explanation only leads her to ask, "So it's more like wine (beer)?" No! It's mead.

We have this pervasive need to put ideas into mental bins, like we were sorting laundry or mail. I'll grant that, most of the time, this is helpful. It's helpful to zone property and to define polos from tees from dress shirts. It makes life much easier and the world much more manageable and rational inquiry much more efficient to divide wine from beer and animals from monerans. What it does not do is foster an expansion of personal experience. I think it is essential to apprehend that each of us will encounter, hopefully every day, something that is outside our understanding. What do we do then?

We need to leave that space, that possibility for something that our nomenclature cannot address, that thing that is beyond our system of classification. Perhaps, one day, new and different things will be incorporated into an existing family of items. Perhaps not. The possibility needs to remain open so that our systems of comprehension can expand.

This is the way we keep our brains from rotting.

3 comments:

Kristy said...

Venn is the proper spelling.... ;>

This reminds me of orwell's "Politics and the English Language"

Dwight's Writing Manifesto said...

Yeah. Pidgeon holes are for your pidgeons. Mine fly free and crap wherever they want.

Autumn Zephyr said...

Well, my conscience told me to do Democrat or Republican. Specifically so that I could vote in the primaries. I, like you, really relate to that "other" category. But, unfortunately, in this country, the "other" category is seldom recognized.

Secretly, I thought about declaring myself a Republican so that I could do my part to sabotage the primaries. In the end, I could not stomach having my name on the Republican census.