Shoe-sized Pigeon-Holes: Making sense of stereotypes.

Entropying in between Camera Obscura by Jef Safi  (CC BY NC ND 2.0)

Entropying in Between Camera Obscura by Jef Safi (CC BY NC ND 2.0)

We’re much more comfortable with digital over analogue.

That is, discrete over continuous. Black and white over tones of grey.

Continuous is big and scary. In its true sense it’s infinitesimal, and infinite is a scary concept to spend too long thinking about. People who do have a pattern of mental illness.

So, we opt for discrete over continuous. It’s easier this way, and, importantly, it is incredibly useful in allowing us to classify and group. Just imagine how hard it would be to find a book in a giant library if they weren’t classified in any way at all. Or how difficult it would be to find a pair of shoes that fit you if there were no such thing as fixed shoe sizes.

Subsequently, that’s what we do when it comes to people, companies and ideas.

Personality tests are lauded in the world of management books, and often in a rather exaggerated way. You get people walking around saying ‘I am a FYTW’* and believing that everyone can and should be sorted into ‘types’. A business version of the Harry Potter sorting hat, if you will. As a result I observe that some people become entirely closed off to these personality tests; “They’re mumbo-jumbo bullshit,” they say, “I don’t need them.” There are indeed people who don’t, people who are gifted with an intuitive sense of self-awareness. But actually quite a lot of us have had help in becoming more self-aware through being able to identify with these categories, and understanding the typical behaviour associated with a particular ‘type’. (*FYTW = made up category.)

The danger, however, is in using these artificial groupings too literally. In grouping people in this way, we risk reducing them to solely these definitions, and forget that the human soul is, in fact, far richer than any of the 16 personality types some book publisher decided it would be useful to pigeon-hole us into.

I feel that the same is true in so many other spheres, including race, intelligence, and even the human-constructed concept of gender. We fool ourselves into thinking that ‘male’ and ‘female’ are fixed concepts, because history and convenience tells us it is useful to group people in this way. After reading the book Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, which explores the story of ‘Cal’ who is intersex (or to use the improper term, a hermaphrodite), I no longer believe in these very rigid concepts of gender, or of sexuality.

I believe that we do need to use the ‘digital’ categories from time to time, but we must always keep in mind that actually, these are merely tools for classification, and in actual fact, everything is analogue.

Or in simple terms: take any label with a pinch of salt.

Update to blogpost:

Since I wrote this blogpost, I watched a TED talk, called ’50 Shades of Gay’ by iO Tillett Wright, that articulates this very same issue far more articulately and eloquently than I ever could. A must watch.


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