Posts Tagged society

Defying categorization

“Categorizing people is not something we do here” was the slogan used during my college orientation to teach us impressionable freshmen not to discriminate, generalize, or judge based on a person’s skin color, religion, sexual orientation, etc.

Since embracing diversity is second nature for most New England liberal arts students, that slogan became the punchline of many fine jokes, but what’s really funny is how far some people are taking the act of categorization.

Reading Thought Catalog, one would think introverted people are an oppressed minority. The site recently ran a list article on things you should never say to an introvert, and a POV piece on how the deck of life is stacked against the less-talkative, because things like job interviews are dependent entirely on sociability and charisma.

I’m not going to argue that being outgoing doesn’t make certain parts of life easier, but the whole idea of categorizing people as either “introverted” or “extroverted’ is an oversimplification worthy of a “Physics for English Majors” class.

Obviously, when many individuals act a certain way, it’s easy to recognize patterns of behavior. But to extrapolate that and apply one’s observations to every introverted or extroverted person is crazy. We’re not robots, are we?

What’s the threshold for introversion anyway? Should the American Psychiatric Association add some diagnostic criteria to the DSM-V? What if someone doesn’t fit the template of “introvert” or “extrovert,” just as most people don’t fit classic social stereotypes like “jock” or “nerd?”

The answer to all of those questions is the same: human beings are individuals, and their behavior can’t be accounted for by gross generalizations. They are conscious of their actions and capable of changing. Labeling people just obfuscates that fact.

I’ve always thought my generation knew enough about the dangers of generalizations based on race, religion, or sexual orientation, but here we are creating new generalizations based on how much a person talks at parties. One of those Thought Catalog articles was followed by “The Current State of Public Discourse” on the site’s feed. A tad ironic, no?

Everyone wants to make sense of the chaos that is human interaction, but that chaos is the essential fact of it. Individuality makes our actions unpredictable, and it can’t be any other way.

Categorizing people may give the categorizer a sense of serenity, but it also dehumanizes the people being categorized by making it seem like they are not in control of their own actions. That’s why it is not something we do here.

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Fighting ironic battles

Pearl Harbor posterI never thought I’d see the day when World War II became a source of irony. It was the definition of “good fight,” a time when the nation harnessed all of its resources to defeat what one of my high school history teachers called “made to order bad guys.”

Yet here we are. Barbasol is running a commercial featuring the viewer’s “ great grandfather” on the ground in a French village, perhaps Ste.-Merie-Eglise or St.-Lo, laconically comparing his attempt to stop Hitler with the current young generation’s obsession with tweeting and Facebooking.

Like “first world problems,” this is another example of a perverted form of thought. Its as if people think that, by noting their shortcomings in an ironic way, they don’t have to actually do anything about them.

It’s also a silly comparison. I’m not saying that my generation is perfect, but it’s not really fair to compare us to the “Greatest Generation.” We’ll never know how the social media-savvy would deal with a Great Depression or a World War, because we lived through a Great Recession and a pseudo-War on Terror.

Twitter and Facebook can lead to some shallowness, but we’ll also never know what our grandparents’ generation would have done if they grew up with these luxuries. I recently ate lunch at a restaurant packed with senior citizens, and most of them had smartphones.

Maybe we should cut back on the irony before we lose track of what we’re making ironic jokes about. This reminds me of a New York Times blog post I read recently called “How to Live Without Irony.” The author argued that too many people are using irony to avoid honest (and sometimes painful) emotional commitments.

That seems like what’s going on here. People need to accept the fact that they’re better off than others, including their own grandparents and great grandparents. That’s what those World War II soldiers were fighting for, after all.

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First world problems

So I’ve encountered a new phrase called “first world problems.” I have a problem with this phrase.

It seems to mean something that really isn’t a big deal, like having to prepare a presentation or being peeved that the barista put cream in your Starbucks concoction instead of milk. You know, things that don’t have to do with subsistence.

I see what people are getting at here. We all get wrapped up in our lives, make mountains out of mole hills and forget how lucky we are to live the way we do. That’s fine.

Checking your whining with a phrase like “first world problems” is a little obnoxious, though. It sounds like the person is saying “I know I shouldn’t be complaining about this trivial thing, but I will,” or “See how conscious I am of other people’s suffering?”

Both are very “first world” things to do. I’m a huge fan of irony, but too much of a good thing is still a problem. Drawing an implied comparison between oneself and a starving African child or a smog-choked Chinese factory worker doesn’t make a person sound smart or sensitive, it just makes them sound like they are trying to license their whining.

The phrase “first world problems” is also etymologically dubious. Do you ever notice why people never talk about the second world? It’s because the terms first world and second world were coined during the Cold War to describe the United States and its NATO allies and the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies, respectively. Any countries not within either the U.S. or Soviet sphere were referred to as the third world.

So maybe we should stop using outdated political terms to label our trivial complaints. It’s perfectly fine to complain, even if you know that someone else would be happy to be in your position. It’s not a big deal, and certainly doesn’t merit a snarky term like “first world problems.”

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