The human mind and its tools of language and conceptualization basically functions by generalizing about whatever is being perceived. Consciousness (via the conceptualizing mind) experiences some phenomenon and then takes the infinity of information it’s being greeted by and tries to turn that infinitude into something concrete, something finite, something seemingly describable and hence manageable. Whatever the experience might be, we essentially take this infinitude of data and turn it into a generalized impression. But as one my favorite teachers Peter Brown loves to say, the world is not actually made of generalities which are abstractions; the world is made of specifics! And yet we tend to miss this key point for only by overlooking the specific details can the categories we create seemingly hold together as real.
Despite whatever functional utility our perceptual habit of categorizing things and experiences and people may have, we can see its significant downside in the phenomena we know as bias and stereotyping. “Men are this way; women are that way; republicans think this way, liberals think that way; Blacks are like this; Whites are like that; Christians believe this; Jews believe that.” And on and on it goes… But whether they be more positive or negative in tone, the only way our stereotyped groupings of people can be sustained is by overlooking the utterly unique and diverse nature of EACH member of that supposed group. The truth is that groups of people, places or things cannot fairly be characterized as being any one (stereotypical) way without in a sense doing violence to the profound individual differences that make up those abstract groups.
For example, within the categories of men or women, the people that make up those categories may share certain tendencies or characteristics. Fair enough. But actually, within each of those groupings, what we actually find is unending diversity. No two men are alike just as no two women are. We may group people together as men or women, liberals or conservatives, or whatever according to some set of characteristics we argue the parts that make up those groups seem to share in common. But the truth is that the individuals that comprise any apparent grouping don’t actually think or behave or look the same way. They don’t hold the same attitudes or points of view, they haven’t had the same life experiences let alone the same genes. Similar, possibly. But not exactly the same…
Take yourself. It’s fair to say that there is not one single man or woman on the face of the earth who thinks or feels or acts or experiences reality like you do. Sure, you may be able to find some areas of seeming similarity with your male brothers or female sisters. But again, what appears at first glance to be a similarity of belief or behavior, upon closer examination is seen to be utterly unique, even if in subtle, barely noticeable ways. You see, if we look carefully enough, the generalizations quickly fall apart. Men or women are not a certain way for those categories are comprised of individuals, each of whom is utterly unique. Same with any other category we’ve created, such as race. Neither Blacks nor Whites nor Asians, nor Latinos are a certain, generalized way for again those broad descriptive categories are comprised of INDIVIDUALS who we can only claim look or think or feel or behave similarly to others in that group because we are overlooking the truth of specificity, the truth of uniqueness.
Don’t get me wrong. Categories have their place, to be sure. As I said, it’s a way we organize the world. But the existence of any category rests upon overlooking differences and distinctions. In other words, we can only group things together by pretending as if they somehow share the same set of characteristics (or attitudes or beliefs) when in fact, they don’t! Maybe we should amend the old saying that the “devil’s in the details” to the “truth is in the details,” the subtleties, the nuances, the parts of each of us that cannot be fairly construed as belonging to any particular group or class or category for the simple reason that there is no one quite like us.
We typically speak of the importance of diversity but ironically (and I would argue tragically) we can only group people together, placing them in the myriad categories that we do, by overlooking the truth of the diversity that we each are, this unique manifestation of reality that like every flower, every snowflake, every tree, every cloud and every atom, is like no other. See that person over there? Go ahead, place them in whatever racial, sexual, political, religious, attitudinal category you like. But the truth is, you’ve never met anyone quite like that person before. They’re not like any black, white, red, male, female, liberal, conservative, religious, non-religious person you’ve ever encountered. So, meet them as if they are some new species, some new category of existence, some new form of life you’ve never encountered before because that is the truth. You never have! You can’t put them in ANY category other than the category of utter uniqueness that they actually are.