23 November 2006

Fourteen Categories of People

There are a variety of reasons that my politics tend left. One is my sincere confusion about the absolutes that seem so absolutely clear to so many on the right.

For instance, the conservative may think that some are worthy of some kind of public assistance - perhaps orphans and widows - and others should fend for themselves. That is not so clear to me. It seems to me that there is, instead, a spectrum and the lines one draws, the categories that are useful, depends on the situation.

I don't consider myself needy but there was a stage in life when I greatly benefited from public assistance. My parents provided for me. I have no obvious physical handicaps (you have to watch me engage in sports before my lack of celerity, coordination, and skill become glaringly apparent). To a certain brand of conservative, I would likely be an example of someone who needed no public assistance. And yet I could have never afforded to pay for college myself - not private college that is. I was only able to get university degrees because my education was subsidized by the government. Could I have made a living without university degrees? Yes, but I doubt that I would have done as well.

To neatly categorize people as those who need help and those who do not is to set arbitrary categories that ignore the subtleties and grays of reality. As I listen to some conservatives offer their stark truths I think of the delightful (and fictional) Chinese encyclopedia, the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge that Jorge Luis Borges pretends to quote, as follows:

"For your consideration, friends, the fourteen kinds of animals: those that belong to the Emperor, embalmed ones, those that are trained, suckling pigs, mermaids, fabulous ones, stray dogs, those included in the present classification, those that tremble as if they were mad, innumerable ones, those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, others, those that have just broken a flower vase, those that from a long way off look like flies."

I realize that much of liberal policy can seem wishy-washy, to come in shades of gray rather than black and white. I suppose that if the world seemed to me more clearly black and white, I would more readily embrace a philosophical stance that was less nuanced, less full of caveats. But I do know that there are about as many categories of things as there are people to categorize them. Some people look embalmed, some are trained, some are pigs, and some tremble when they are mad. Along this spectrum of people one has to draw the line differently for different reasons.

If we are serious about freedom, we have to allow each individual this most personal of freedoms – the freedom to categorize the world as he or she sees fit. It is this element of freedom of religion that still so few understand. In such a world, to have one group stand up and pretend to talk for everyone is not just scary – it seems as though their description of reality is as odd as Borges’ fourteen categories of animals.

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