The news again – categorizing

Netsilk Eskimos

Every society, indeed nearly every person, sees the world differently.  I don’t mean the difference in philosophy or point of view, but sight,see in the literal sense.   There used to be a commonly told tale about Alaskan languages – lumped as they were into one category; according to the tale, there are 9 different words for snow.  More modern linguists and anthropologist don’t agree with that completely, but they certainly do agree that Alaskan tribes see, describe and understand snow in many more variations than the average English, Arabic or Swahili speaker.  The reason is simple, we, and other like us, have no reason to make fine distinctions in the varying conditions of snow – nothing, not our ability to travel, find food or survive depends on it.  In fact, most of world can ignore snow, except for the occasional disruptive snow storm; our world is not filled or dominated by snow the way it is for tribes living in the extreme north.  People living in a snowy world not only have more words for snow, their eyes see more detail and variety in it and their lives depend on that ability.

Snow is not alone in its impact on the vocabulary and perception of people.  The environment is much more complex that we are able to perceive.  How many different words do you know for fossils?  When you look at a fossil, can you see the details that tells you its age, the way it was formed, the rock that houses it, the species it belongs to, the other and related species part of its over all family?  I cannot, I know almost nothing about geology or fossils – which means I so not see the subtitle differences or distinguishing characteristics.  For the the same thing is true with flowers, insects, animals, trees, rocks – you name it, I have no names for them and mostly cannot see them.   Giving something a name, gives us the power to see it, separate it from its environment, count, categorize, understand and sometimes even control it.

I started to think about this listening to a film reviewer on NPR; she was discussing film awards and in particular “best director” possibilities.  She separated directors by gender and counted the number of women who might be awarded the “prize” statue and recognition.  It seemed artificial to me and very much out of date; something out of the 1970s, Gloria Steinem, Ms. Magazine and flaming brassieres.  There is a time when separating people into distinct categories has an advantage; 30 years ago there were few if any women directing movies and none of them would be named the best director of the year.  That was true in every industry – women could not expect to rise to the top of their field; it was called the glass ceiling.  However, today in many industries, including film that ceiling has been broken.

At one point in the history of sport is was very important to separate players and coaches by race, it forced everyone to realize the existence and extent of segregation in sports.  The process of identifying the segregation began the process of integration.   As sports have become fully integrated it is no longer necessary, nor a common practice,  to mention the race of a prominate sports figure.  So for example, it used to be a common part of sports reporting to say, “he is only the third, black manager in baseball” or “he is one of two active black quarterbacks in the NFL.”

That era has passed.  Today, if a reporter is discussing baseball he does not mention the race of managers Joe Torres or Dusty Baker.  The reporter just talks about the record of the teams the men manage.  Equally, in football no reporter is going to mention race when discussing the relative talents of Cam Newton and Tim Tebow; the only thing football fans care about is their play – games won, pass completion percentage, total yards of offense. Isn’t that as it should be?  When we no longer mention race, then we will begin to stop seeing it and finally start to treat people equally.

Should we not be focusing on the accomplishments of people and not on their gender or race?  In film, as with race in sports, we no longer need to separate people into gender categories – race on the other hand might still be relevant in film.  The film reviewer was one of the 1970-1980s feminist and she was intentionally spinning her story to prejudice her listeners, against the establishment; she was by implication suggesting making selections by gender – pick more women – vote by gender and not by accomplishments.  It is a very old technique – in this case she did prejudice me – not for her cause, but against her.  The technique is dangerous; by separating us into different camps, besides possibly helping to improve conditions, we also create the conditions, the possibilities for warfare – the us-es and the them-s.



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January 2012
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