I have a confession. And I'm not proud of it, but here it is:
I take every single one of those damn Buzzfeed/PlayBuzz/Etc quizzes. Nearly every time. No matter how stupid they are. And especially when I can't sleep.
...Why? Why have they gotten so wildly popular, especially when they first came out? Do I really need to find out which Disney princess I would be (Belle) or how long I would survive a zombie apocalypse (roughly 17 minutes)? Of course not. And I do it anyway.
But I suspect I’m not alone on this one. Think about the ways we define ourselves: we typically do so by selecting a category. So, me? I'm a female. Straight. White. INFJ. Millennial. Philadelphian. Type B (mostly). Liberal-ish. Pisces, if you're into that. A Hufflepuff, if you're into that. I'm sweet over salty, dogs over cats, beach over woods, city over country. And most of those decisions involve me rejecting or not relating to the alternative options.
These silly little things--magazine quizzes, Xanga/MySpace surveys of yore, OKCupid questionnaires--dig at a more instinctive part of being human. It's because, for one reason or another, it's human nature to put ourselves in boxes. And when we're presented with a neat block of 6-12 boxes to choose from with each question, and then we get a clean, neat, ultimate result--who can resist that? Sometimes I don't even mind answering questions on routine forms (although that could just be because I'm neurotic about my handwriting.)
I started thinking about it more when I first heard an Invisibilia podcast titled "The Power of Categories." I highly recommend it. In the episode, the hosts visit a coffee shop where tips dramatically increased when dueling tip jars were labeled with familiar "opposites" such as cats and dogs--people were more inclined to part with their change if they could place themselves in one camp over another. In later segments, they speak with a transgender individual who identifies as either male or female several times a day. One of the most dramatic conclusions of the episode is that older people tend to be more racist and discriminatory against outsiders not because of when they were raised, but because fearing death or other great forces makes us instinctively stick to our kind.
I think it’s fair to say that categories are important, but that’s about as far as I can get when wrestling with whether this concept is good or bad. The Supreme Court’s decision a couple weeks ago means we no longer have the categories of “marriage” and “gay marriage”—we just have marriage, now. And that’s a great thing. That’s an incredible victory. But sometimes, progress looks just the opposite: We need to add categories. Because what happens when we have a binary that many people can’t fit into—say, a transgender person standing before two sets of bathroom doors—one for men and one for women? Maybe we need a third door, then.
Just a few weeks ago, the Punk Out team was talking internally about how we define ourselves in terms of orientation, and I heard people choose categories that I’d never heard of. I have felt so firmly planted on one end of the scale that I didn’t realize there were stops between the center and the opposite end. In fact, in a short time we were asking about what things like “homoflexible” and “heteroflexible” meant. And after having those conversations, several people learned something about themselves and redefined their category.
Division creates disparity, potential prejudice. But it also creates a pocket of community meant to make us feel safe. It’s a way for us to understand the world; imagine what chaos life would be if you couldn’t group information into sensible categories. Maybe choosing a category for ourselves is something like a diagnosis—once we have a name for something, we can better understand ourselves, our lives, and our position in the world. If we are aware of other categories, we can in some cases be more tolerant and understanding of others. Or, conversely, maybe some of us just gain a clearer division between us and “other.”
Either way, learn to look past your boxes. Consider what’s in all of them before you choose. Recognize that sometimes, the best option may still be missing, or maybe the box feels too small. And remember that while our experiences can be divided in these ways somewhat easily, we can’t simply dice up a person so fast.
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