Letters from the dorm: when we categorise people by race, age, gender or class, it's ultimately a disservice to ourselves

Letters from the dorm: when we categorise people by race, age, gender or class, it's ultimately a disservice to ourselves

A lot of people have read the 2014 bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kond. The Japanese cleaning consultant is an enthusiast of a ‘category-by-category’ system that promises a methodically organised home that’s both simple to create and simple to maintain.

Readers of Tidying Up have taken a lot from the book, including an appreciation of categorisation – not just a method of tidying, but as a style of living. However, while categorisation helps people to declutter their homes efficiently, it has negative effects when applied to people, by people. This is simply because we are not objects or possessions.

Society loves placing people into categories, which is also known as social differentiation. According to Wikipedia, each person is fitted into a mixture of different groups “based upon their occupation and income, wealth and social status, or derived power”. This eases the process of dealing with social complexities such as human rights and politics, etc.

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Yet, although everything appears to be less cluttered, every assumption we make based on our ever-inadequate understanding of each social group is then automatically flawed. The cons outweigh the pros.

Hong Kong’s young people are constantly presented as rebelliously against the government. The city’s youth, just for the crime of being young, are believed to have a link to right-wing beliefs and the 2014 Umbrella Movement. This is a form of categorisation based upon age, in which the word “young” seems to imply a desire for political revolution and rebellion.

However, despite being young, my economic views are far more in line with left-wing politics. I constantly strive to prove my age does not define my political beliefs, but I often fail to be heard. This shows one of the negative effects of categorising people – some will feel diminished, belittled, and underappreciated. 

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Togetherness is good, but when a group conforms, we lose identity. When belonging to a category or a class or a group, we feel unity and harmony. It makes us feel good, but only up to a certain point. After that, we realise we’re all unique and we start to want to free ourselves from the implications and problems of being a group member who lacks control of their own life. I love freedom, which is why I do not want to be categorised into any group. 

Categorising people is not always wrong, though. In the words of inspirational speaker Iyanla Vanzant, “the military strips the individual to create the community”. In situations where discipline and self-restraint is placed above freedom then, yes, unity is imperative and most effectively created through categorisation. However, in most social contexts, we want freedom, and it takes courage to leave a group for the freedom. 

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, said that with freedom comes responsibility. When we strip people of our expectations, then they learn to become responsible – not just for themselves, but their voices. They will no longer be comfortable things like underrepresentation. I say that we, as a community, should stop categorising ourselves. We should be allowed to be as uncommon as we are, because that is our freest, truest, selves.

Edited by Ginny Wong

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
Stop categorising people


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