Jacob Rosenberg | The danger of the categorization crutch 

Searching for Sanity | How our divisions are inflamed by the way we describe the world to ourselves

Photo credit: AP Photo / Jacquelyn Martin

By Jacob Rosenberg

The world is a complicated place. 

This is, of course, not a novel observation; it is a fundamental truth we are reminded of daily. Whether we are grappling with difficult midterms, nuanced social interactions, or touchy political arguments, we are charting our path through the complexity of life as it manifests in every domain. As college students, we are constantly confronted with this unavoidable reality, and we know that others are too. So why don’t we act like it?

Sure, we may pretend to notice the shades of gray, but we incessantly yearn for black and white. And when we don’t find it, we create it. Enter the category: an omnipresent force of ignorance and division.

I first started thinking about the impact of “categories” in my anthropology class last semester, ANTH 2060—“Cultures of Science and Technology.” As class discussions rapidly descended into the abstract realms of epistemology and ontology, I found myself seeking refuge in the New York Times Connections. Hide as I might from the class’s esotericism, I couldn’t escape one idea that lurked in every corner of the course: categories are powerful. 

As I came to understand, categories are an example of a “discursive process,” which refers to the ways that language shapes our understanding of reality, knowledge, and power dynamics within society. As a hard and fast numbers guy myself, I was skeptical. But I did start to notice categories everywhere…

Here is the basic idea: Let’s say you observe something that confuses you. You don’t know exactly how you feel about it. It’s one of those pesky shades of gray. Suddenly it hits you: I can see how this phenomenon sorta fits into X category… and I know exactly how I feel about that category. Things in that category suck. Ha! That means this thing must suck too!

Did you catch that? Nothing actually changed about the original observation. It should still exist in a shade of gray in your head. Instead, you abandoned the complexity in a desperate bid for the security of certainty. I know how I feel about this thing that confuses me, because I can identify it as one of those nasty Xs. You’ve used the categorization crutch. 

Let’s consider a real world example to make this more concrete. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict certainly should suffice. You read some articles and watch some videos about the war in Gaza. It saddens and frustrates, even angers you, but crucially it confuses you. You don’t know how to square it all up in your mind. You see chaos, hate, and death.

In comes the easy crutch of the categorization. Israel is fighting a “just” war. In “just” wars, civilian casualties are “inevitable.” Well now I know how I feel about the actions of the Israeli government – I support them categorically! Did you catch that? Again, all that changed from your perspective was an innocent little label. But its implications are massive. 

The same can be said of those critical of Israel in this context. Israel is a “settler colony.” This is a “genocide.” What specific conditions constitute settler colonialism or genocide? What historical and religious context brought us here, and what factors are influencing Israel’s decision-making? Instead of actually considering these extraordinarily complex questions, labels have cheated us out of the real intellectual depth of the issue at hand. 

The weight of this example highlights the gravity of the problem I aim to address: our polarized and tense community routinely falls into the alluring trap of oversimplification—and we see its effects in our campus’s inability to process how we feel about the current conflict between Israel and Hamas. 

The malignancy of categories is not surprising. By their very nature, categories oversimplify, dehumanizing people and draining the complexity-ridden real world of nuance. Commitment to categories abstracts us away from the specific to a level of generality from which it is extremely difficult to make informed normative judgments. 

Categories are sometimes dangerously amorphous—dig under the surface of any system of classification or hierarchy and you find fuzzy edges everywhere. Other times, the boundary lines around categories are too well-defined, creating false binaries. If everyone is either an “oppressor” or is “oppressed,” the intricacies of individual identity and experience are lost, and it becomes much easier to justify any action perceived to be corrective—no matter how violent or even barbaric it may be.

Such labels even have causal effects on our behavior, as we subconsciously contour our actions to fit more neatly within the confines of categories. Whenever you refrain from befriending someone because they are “a jerk,” skip over a movie on Netflix because it doesn’t have “good” reviews, or choose to stay in for the night because you’re an “introvert,” you are fundamentally changing your decisions based on an instantaneous reorganization of the world into categories.

Perhaps the boomers are right, and this is a symptom of our infographic-devouring, TikTok-obsessed, short attention spans. That reality doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon… so what’s the solution? 

The first step is always admitting you have a problem. Try to catch yourself before falling into the category trap—resist the temptation to use labels as a crutch for things you don’t quite understand. If you are about to change your opinion of a person or topic based not on any intrinsic qualities, but rather on your knee-jerk categorization into a bucket you think you understand better, stop yourself. Replace categories and certainty with empathy and context. Resist the urge to find black and white where it doesn’t exist and relish in the gray. 

Jacob Rosenberg is a junior in Wharton studying Finance and Legal Studies from Long Island, NY. His email is jrosey@wharton.upenn.edu

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