What I was getting at in my yesterday’s post is that by focusing on key characteristics in every object or person we encounter, our mind necessarily simplifies things. In a way, every category is a model of something we have experienced or heard about. And as every model, categories are imperfect. One of the reason boxes and labels are problematic is that key characteristics that we choose for people are subjective and specific to our personal understanding of the world. Which means that we could have chosen a different set of key characteristic and created a different model – about pretty much anything – but we did it the way we did because of a whole bunch of factors and circumstances. It is like with models in science. You can create a lot of models for the same thing, based on what you decide is important for you. Every model is correct, and every model omits something. If you want to know a phenomenon it its complexity, you need to be able to switch between models, and to admit that each of them is imperfect and shows you only one part of the phenomenon you are trying to understand.
All that said, it is important to realize that we cannot not use model or categories. We cannot not put people in boxes and cover them with labels. What we can do, however, is understand how this process works, and what limitations it has. We should understand its negative consequences, such as prejudice and prejudgment. We should be aware of the fact that we put everybody in boxes, and we should all the time take people out and look at them again, and move them into more and more sophisticated boxes with more and more sophisticated labels.
Ideally, we should be always able to re-evaluate what we know about somebody, we should be open to new information that can help us to re-evaluate, and in some cases we should actively seek for this information. It does not mean that we should not trust anybody and be in the state of perpetual confusion. We should be just open-minded, plain and simple.