Humanist Perspectives: issue 165: A Little List

A Little List
by Ian Johnston

Civilization is about lists, about the creation, preservation, editing, and transmission of lists. These catalogues define how a civilization sees itself and its neighbours, how it understands the world, and how it defines and organizes the various activities which citizens carry out in their daily lives. Lists give the civilization a coherent sense of the world and, at the same time, are the source of many of the conflicts, major and minor, which arise within and beyond its borders. It’s self-evident that without such lists (written or not) the civilization could not function, for it would have no sense of what defined it, how it should be structured, how it measured itself in relation to other civilizations, or how it should educate its future citizens.

At the simplest level, such lists often look neutral enough: a tally of citizens, of economic resources, of inhabited communities, of laws, of gods, of diseases, of words, of ancestors, of books, of jobs, and so on. But lists, even the apparently most objective and simple, can raise complex issues, because lists not only name and define, but also classify, that is, they establish relationships of value. For instance, the most obvious effect of any list is to deny significance to what is not included on it. Organizing any list on the basis of sub-groups immediately identifies the members of a sub-group as more similar to each other than to the members of any other sub-group and often enough, implicitly or explicitly, establishes a hierarchy of value and a culture of difference.

J’ai assez vécu pour voir
que différence engendre haine.

— Stendhal

Creating lists requires analytical criteria. The simpler these criteria are, the easier the list will be to produce and to understand, but the result will inevitably be more reductive (or in some cases far too general and all-inclusive to be useful). Employing a wider range of criteria increases considerably the difficulty of producing a manageable list and, equally important, of applying it to an understanding of experience. One is tempted to propose the principle that the more complex the criteria involved in establishing a list, the more sophisticated the intelligence required to understand and use it.

Since a civilization’s lists, in effect, organize its knowledge about itself and the world, they have a direct bearing on how any individual within it sees himself and others; his understanding of his own identity and the identity of others is decisively shaped by the categories to which he believes (or has been educated to believe) they belong. From this knowledge he comes to recognize those like him, his fellows, and those who are different, those who are not like him, and, most importantly, he often derives from such lists a sense of the appropriate relationships between fellows and strangers.

Herein lies the difficulty: such lists are essential and yet limiting. Without them we cannot organize our experience, knowledge, and memories, and yet with them we inevitably restrict our understanding in some important ways. The challenge is to use lists with an intelligent awareness of how they may be limiting our perceptions, how there is always something arbitrary in seeing the world in one way rather than in another, and how important revisions may well be in order. If much of the time we are prisoners of our categories, then we need at least to keep the door open so that we can wander off into new possibilities. Needless to say, this is a challenge many people are unwilling or unable to meet.

Obviously those who control lists exercise an enormous authority over how people perceive themselves and the world — an observation which applies both to “official” categories sanctioned by the state and all sorts of “local” lists backed up by long-established local traditions (which, in many cases, have much more immediate authority than such official designations — hence, for example, the survival of patterns of discrimination in states which officially ban such practices). It’s not surprising that important revolutionary moments in a civilization are often sparked by challenges to existing methods of classification (one way of looking at, say, Plato, Hobbes, or Marx is to see them as champions of a new basis for creating the lists essential to a functioning society).

Clearly, such challenges are more than intellectual exercises. While they may start that way, they can have vital moral, social, religious, and political implications well beyond the immediate area of enquiry. One of the best examples of that is the arguments over the classification of animal and plant species in the early 1800’s, when the important scientific disputes about how to organize lists of species had a direct bearing on evolution as a viable scientific theory and, beyond that, all sorts of immediate repercussions in thinking about religion, politics, personal identity, and (eventually) knowledge itself.

Since human beings act in accordance with their view of the nature of things and since their vision of the nature of things is decisively shaped by the lists they subscribe to, classification has a direct bearing on people’s conduct. Take, for example, the issue of winning political support for a particular party. One common and frequently successful way to obtain such support (recommended by a character in Eugene Burdick’s unjustly forgotten novel The Ninth Wave) is to offer the people a simple list based on the two categories “them” and “us.” By painting “them” as people to be hated and feared (e.g., immigrants, Iraquis, Iranians, blacks, Moslems, Russians) and “us” as people to be loved and defended (e.g., patriots, Christians, whites, true North Americans, Westerners) and “our leader” as the one who has a plan to achieve those ends, a party can quickly garner an enthusiastic following.

It’s evident enough that large numbers of people quickly buy into such simplified lists, which, in many cases, may well answer to their deepest unburied feelings. This point, valid at the best of times, is especially true during critical periods of uncertainty and stress. It’s as if the most effective cure for insecurity about one’s identity is an emphatic reassertion of it in the simplest and most divisive manner.

Amartya Sen’s Identity and Violence addresses itself directly to this issue of reductive polarization in attempts to understand modern international politics, to what he calls the “alleged dominant system of classification” which consistently hampers efforts to curtail violence, for, in his view, the “overarching power of a singular classification can make the world thoroughly inflammable.” Such a deleterious development is fostered above all by metaphors which interpret modern events simply as a “clash of civilizations.”

Amartya Sen is a well-known and highly distinguished international scholar, Nobel laureate (in Economics 1998), humanitarian, and citizen of the world, with a vast personal experience of those issues he is talking about. His discussion is consistently enriched by his graceful style and first-hand knowledge of people and places and by his wide-ranging interests in literature, religion, politics, and economics. Reading this book puts one in contact with an exceptionally gifted, talented, and humane intelligence.

Unfortunately, Sen’s argument is extremely thin and does little to illuminate any complexity. It is easy enough to agree with him that the reductive classification system he deplores is unhelpful (to say the least), but one has to wonder to what extent that target has here been set up as something of a straw man. After all, I doubt if very many of Sen’s readers are not already aware that what he is putting on the table as the “problem” is indeed an obvious way of misrepresenting the world.

And Sen’s recommendations for dealing with the issues which arise from this “Clash of Civilizations” rhetoric are equally self-evident. We need, he urges, to recognize the existence of multiple identities (in ourselves and others), so that we do not see the “stranger” as, say, merely a Moslem, but in a more multifaceted way as, say, a Moslem, and an Iraqui nationalist, and a doctor, and a musician, and a lover of soccer, and a feminist, and a writer, and a mother (Sen’s sense of an individual’s identity is nothing if not all-inclusive) — in other words, as a complete person. It’s essential that we challenge the simplistic rubrics all around us with a more intelligent awareness of the complex multiplicity of the identity of others and of ourselves. And that we can achieve by the suitable use of our reason. Identity, Sen insists, is not a matter of destiny, but of intelligently informed choices.

Sen’s argument is useful in pointing out places where the classifications he is criticizing continue to operate, and his insistence on a need to counter these in one’s sense of oneself and others is admirable. But his book leaves one with a curiously empty feeling, as if all he has to offer is the advice that we should remember that we are all human beings who carry out many roles and, as such, should be nice to each other. What seems to be missing is a more urgent and incisive awareness of the complexities of some classifications of identity (many of which are not questions of free choice) and of more effective ways of challenging traditional simplistic categories.

Sen’s book (for this reader) raises the issue of the extent to which a straightforward appeal to Enlightenment rationalism is an effective tool against the violence spawned by popular classifications of identity. There are those who deny that such a lofty philosophical approach by itself can achieve very much. In dealing with this issue, for example, Richard Rorty has called for a philosophy that no longer seeks to “edify” and places his hopes for a more tolerant, liberal international world in the power of popular culture (comics, films, novels, athletics, music, computers, and so on) to extend our sympathies from the person next door, to the people in the next village, to the citizens in the next county, to those strangers overseas, that is, to let our daily conversations with people like ourselves increasingly include others hitherto excluded. The philosopher’s role is to assist this process in a “therapeutic” manner, rather than to hope that rational prescriptions from the mountain top will persuade people to change their ways.

Such a position is also fairly obvious to most of us (after all, it’s one of the main reasons we are eager to promote cultural exchanges of all sorts with individuals from far-way lands). It’s also a useful reminder that classification systems are frequently contested at the popular level (i.e., in their implementation), that, in fact, some of the most important changes are initiated by popular responses which engage people’s sympathies in a manner that then makes them receptive to more rational calls for changes to existing categories. While it’s hard to quantify the contributions of, say, Rosa Parks, or Jackie Robinson, or Little Richard, or Sidney Poitier (to name only a few) to the Civil Rights movement in the United States, it’s clear that without such contributions the enactment and application of appropriate legislation to reform existing classification systems would have had a far smaller chance of success (if any at all).

The way popular responses can affect the viability of systems of classification is one of the many topics explored in Geoffrey C. Bowker’s and Susan Leigh Star’s book Sorting Things Out, a thorough and often fascinatingly detailed study of how such systems are created, altered, interpreted, and implemented. This book offers an extremely interesting introduction to the complexity of classification as a part of information systems and alerts us to any number of problems associated with this essential but potentially dangerous human activity.

One important strength of this book is the way the authors have anchored their study on a very close look at specific classification systems: the International Classification of Diseases, the Nursing Interventions Classification, race classification under apartheid in South Africa, and the classification of viruses and of tuberculosis. Hence, their wider reflections are always linked to specific examples, and we quickly come to appreciate how something as apparently mundane as a list of diseases or of the various tasks a nurse carries out is loaded with difficulties of all sorts, including (something particularly important for the authors) questions about moral and political agendas at work.

The approach here is thoroughly practical: How are classification systems created? How are criteria determined? Who makes the key decisions? What sorts of arguments take place? What happens to such systems over time? What kind of reception do particular systems encounter from those who have to implement them? How do new systems affect traditional ways of behaving? Along the way, the authors provide all sorts of fascinating details, ranging from the original meaning of a clean bill of health to the fifteen recommended procedures nurses are supposed to use to cheer patients up with humour.

Particularly interesting, too, is the authors’ attention to the ways in which a classification system is affected by time and place — an important issue in an age which is seeking to standardize lists nationally and internationally in order to promote more efficient communication and standards of work and where our understanding of things is often transformed rapidly by some new discovery or some technological innovation.

One applauds also the emphasis placed on the moral dimensions of the enquiry. What’s at stake in these arguments about classification are people’s lives, everything from their ability to understand themselves to the quality of their workplace and of the treatment they receive from institutions organized on the basis of a particular set of categories (and that means any institution one cares to name). Given the moral urgency of these issues, the authors insist there is a need to pay much more attention to the complexities of our systems of classification and to work as hard as we can to make such systems “living” institutional arrangements rather than ossified tyrannies.

All in all, this is an impressive and important book, which belongs in every academic library. It is obviously essential for any student of information systems and classification, and parts of it will no doubt be required reading for others (epidemiologists will benefit enormously from reading the sections on the International Classification of Diseases and anyone involved in nursing will want to read what these authors have to say about the Nursing Interventions Classification).

A word of caution to the general reader, however. This is an academic book in both a good and a bad sense. While the authors pay scrupulous attention to acknowledging all sorts of sources (the text includes thirty pages of references), the constant attention to such sources slows down the argument, loads it (in places) with qualifications, and at times leaves one feeling that there are so many individual trees one is losing sight of the forest. In addition, the writing style, while not exactly turgid, is something of a hindrance — it certainly fails to match the potential excitement of much of the argument. And that’s a shame, because the material here is worthy of wide public circulation.

Ian Johnston is a writer and translator; his work can be seen on his website.