Categories

Yesterday a group of students at the institute I study at had a discussion about sexuality.  At some point, the topic of homosexuality came up.  It made me think about the issue of categorizing everyone: why is it necessary?  Why are we so dependent on categorizing and locking everyone up into boxes? In one of my classes the professor talked at length about this, and how it is a process that arose in Europe in the early 1900s – the need to label everyone and to make sure everyone feels like they have some sort of stable identity.  Therefore you are either Muslim or Christian; male or female; lesbian or “straight.”

But can our identities be that stable and fixed? What if I am a woman who enjoys having sex with other women but being in relationships with men? What if I’m a man who enjoys being in a relationship with other men, but also occasionally has sex with women?  What if I fall in love with both sexes? What if I’m a woman who believes in God and the Qur’an, but not in the hadith?  What if I’m a man who believes the hadith should define how I live my life? What if I’m Dutch-Egyptian-Zambian but feel like I’m a mix of all 3? What if I’m born in the US but don’t feel American?

Yet the way the world is structured today requires that we label ourselves and that we be labelled. We can’t be somewhere in between, because that isn’t safe for those in power. But personalities don’t work that way. Life isn’t black and white.

The most tenacious subjection of difference is undoubtedly that maintained by categories – Foucalt.

One result of categorization is that we feel guilty about doing things that don’t fit into those identities. If we see ourselves as heterosexual, we feel guilty about being attracted to someone in the opposite sex. If we label ourselves as Muslim, we feel guilty about disagreeing with certain things certain scholars say.

Yet the discourse of categorizing and labeling is so ingrained into us that it is almost impossible to get rid of. We are all so socialized that it is almost impossible to break free. I guess the only way out is to constantly question and constantly criticize.

What do you guys think? Do you ever feel affected by categories?

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4 thoughts on “Categories

  1. Of course, to an extent, it is necessary to paint with a broad brush. We simply need to compartmentalise to make some basic sense of the world. And even though people were overly fetishistic about categories in the 19th century, it does work. Categories do describe common properties. Gay has a meaning, straight has a meaning. And people who aren’t predominantly the one or the other, are bisexual. Nothing absolute, but helpful in describing certain features of people.

    Being a Muslim has more grey areas to it because it’s more complicated. But if you believe certain things about certain events in certain texts, and if you see the world in a certain way, and if you assume certain rules of conduct, and if you have certain cultural traits, and if you have a significant number of these things, at least to some extent, in common with a certain group people, what’s the problem with (loosely) defining it as a group? Of course there will always be Muslims that do drink alcohol, pray 7 times a day, think Joseph Smith was the last prophet, have a thing for bacon, etc. But that doesn’t mean “Muslim” is meaningless. It’s a very useful word.

    But I do agree we could do without some of the ontological angst around things that defy categorisation. But then again, it’s probably normal to be uneasy about things like that. In fact, in literary theory, this is exactly what it means to be a monster. To transgress certain boundaries between gender/species/life&death. Marilyn Manson has most of these characteristiscs: ambiguous gender, being as pale as a corpse, contact lenses that make his eyes look non-human, metal contraptions that appear to be part of his body. Etc.

  2. I was just thinking about this earlier today. Labels don’t always define me because I can be parts of so many! I don’t neatly fall into one label. Very nice post and timely for me! Thanks for sharing!

  3. “One result of categorization is that we feel guilty about doing things that don’t fit into those identities.”

    I like this. Never thought about this but I like it. Makes perfect sense.

  4. I really enjoyed this post, and it is definitely something I struggle with. I have never fitted into any strict labels or categories, but it definitely does cause anguish and feelings of guilt at times, especially if you try to make yourself fit into a category that cannot contain you.

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