op-ed

The Problem With Categories

“Hey, are you a journalist?”

This was a fair question, given that I was out in public with a notebook during California’s COVID-19 lock down, but the truth is that I’m just an idiot who carries around a notebook. That didn’t seem like a terribly satisfactory answer, though, so I went with, “No, just a writer.”

“Are you really? Hey, I’ve got a question for you,” he said. “I’m a songwriter, and I’ve always wanted to know the difference between lyrics and poetry. I mean, I’m not a singer–I’m 70 years-old–but….” and at this point the old dude in the leather jacket started speaking in tongues. I wondered whether he was having a stroke, but then I realized that he was talking in rhyming couplets about how music is life and takes away strife; it’s the one that brings out the sun; duh da da da, duh da da DAH. “Now that’s my song, but how come it’s not poetry? Is it because it rhymes or has too many words or what?”

“Sounds like poetry to me,” I said. “Dylan won a Nobel for literature, after all.” This satisfied my outgoing new friend, so he returned to the old friend whom he was ignoring. But I wasn’t satisfied.

Sure, there’s a textbook answer to the lyrics vs. poetry question, but that wasn’t what was bothering me. What nagged at me was this: Why are humans so hellbent on categorizing everything? Some categories are essential to our survival: edible plants vs. toxic plants, harmless snakes vs. venomous snakes, tacos vs. Taco Bell. Others not so much, but we treat almost all of them like life and death.

Buy enough records and you’ll stumble across the categories problem. All collections begin with a single album, which is easy enough to file. (If you can’t categorize one album, your problems are beyond my scope.) Add a few more and maybe you’ll arrange them by date of purchase, release date, or maybe a personal ranking of best to worst.

How long that’s sustainable is really up to the collector, but for the sake of conversation let’s say that whatever filing system you choose is good for about 50 records. In this hypothetical collection, any more than that and the system breaks down. You can’t remember whether your Bob Marley Legend was purchased before your brief journey into power pop, or whether your favorite Avett Brothers album ranked higher than your least favorite Led Zeppelin album.

At this point you probably reorganize alphabetically, which is really the most effective way to find a particular record once they really start piling up. That tactic still has shortcomings, though: Bob Marley led you to buy Jimmy Cliff, Peter Tosh, Bunny Wailer, Yellowman, and…what was that group’s name? Your collection stands around 200 albums now, so starting at ABBA you thumb through them one by one, looking for that reggae band whose name you can’t remember, finally landing on Toots and the Maytals. Victory!

In order to prevent this from happening again, you gather all of the previous artists except ABBA and create a reggae section that dangles off of the end of your collection like a tiny Caribbean island. That looks so cool that you create more categories: jazz, country, blues, R&B, rock.

Things move along fairly well with your new filing system until you get to Ray Charles. He’s R&B, right? Fair enough, but what about his country albums? What about his jazz albums? Come to think of it, what about ABBA? Can you really file them under “rock”? So you create more categories trying to solve the problem that you created, but each new category just further complicates the problem. Do the Beastie Boys belong in rock, rap, or punk? Is Justin Timberlake R&B, and if not why is Beyonce over there? Does Stevie Ray belong in blues or rock?

Inevitably organizing a record collection hinges on nothing more than the discretion of the organizer and impacts no one but the collector. As long as I can find Klaus Schulze (“Electronic”) or Buck Owens (“Country”) or Les Baxter (“Lounge”) nothing else about my filing system really matters. However, this human obsession with categories can result in some pretty nasty stuff. My new buddy was probably looking for confirmation that he’s the poet that his insides tell him that he is–seventy years-old and he’s been told so many times that he isn’t a real writer that he turns to total strangers for validation. At least he never quit writing: The same can’t be said for millions of kids each year who are either implicitly or explicitly told that the things that they make don’t count for one nonsensical reason or another.

In the grand scheme of things I guess one can argue that a few dissuaded artists don’t matter much, but the same can’t be said for some well-intentioned categories that nonetheless are brandished like weapons: white/black, red/blue, straight/gay, religious/atheist, us/them. What makes these distinctions so insidious is that our animal nature inevitably shapes our connotations. If you’re red then the blues are as dangerous as rattlesnakes; if you’re a blue then the reds are more poisonous than castor beans. Parsing the category “faithful” into ever narrower categories of “my kind of faithful” has kept the world in an endless state of war for thousands of years. Heck, even if you create a single category like “Christians” eventually that group sorts themselves into sub-categories and fights among themselves.

Saddest of all: Categorizing Taco Bell as “Mexican food” has prevented many of you from ever enjoying a real taco.

We’re genetically programmed to categorize “good for me” and “not good for me,” but we aren’t always self aware enough to use that instinct effectively in a modern world where choices aren’t always so boolean, so true or false. Just because you categorize keto as good for you doesn’t mean that vegetarian isn’t good for me, or vice versa. We’re not dogs: Our pack of “us” doesn’t mean that pack of “them” standing over there is a threat to us. If you want to get all blue about it, all humanity belongs in the “us” category anyway.

So if my new old friend stumbles across this, listen: It doesn’t matter what kind of writer you are. Whether you are a lyricist or a poet is totally your call, buddy. The important thing here is that you belong in the categories “friendly,” “outgoing,” “curious,” and “human.” We should all be so lucky.

Categories: op-ed

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