Describing, Rather than Defining

May 29, 2009

It is probably a fairly common stance, but I’m not a terribly big fan of  categorizing, when it comes to people.  Human beings are like fractals, and even the most descriptive label known to language is only a basic geometric shape in comparison.  When we look at the fractal but only see a simple shape, we miss all of the intricacies.  And when we try to force ourselves or someone else into a geometric mold, we wind up filing away the complexity that makes us unique.

As I wrote earlier, I would be surprised this is an unusual perspective, but, for some reason, categorizing people is still an extremely difficult habit to break. So I’m not writing this to persuade against classifying–I’m assuming it’s pretty clear why we shouldn’t be doing that–but instead to suggest a simple change in language that may help us break out of this habit a bit more.

I suppose this idea began to form out of my trying to avoid racial prejudice.  Terms like “white person” or “black person” or “Hispanic person” have never set well with me.  I know, though, that in the absence of any sort of prejudice, these terms can be used to physically describe a person; similar to if I were describing someone as having blond hair.  Along with trying to avoid being racially prejudicial, I also wanted to avoid irrationally limiting my behavior in fear of being racist.  Because of this, I set out trying to figure out what it was that bothered me about these phrases.

Now, without any sort of stereotypes, calling someone a “white person”  should only indicate that the individual has a skin pigment somewhere between pale and slightly tanned, along with, perhaps, some other physical traits.  Unfortunately, the stereotypes exist, and, whether we believe them or not, by learning the stereotypes, our brains become prone to associating them to the concept as well.

Our typical phrasing trends tend to enhance this stereotype-association process, too.  When we attach an adjective to a noun, it is answering the question “What sort of a noun is it?”.  The problem that arises when we apply this process to people, is that people do not come in sorts; they come hand-crafted, detailed, unique, and individually-wrapped.

After I realized this, I also realized that the concept applied to far more than just skin-color.  When we use a classifying adjective to describe a person, whether it be “conservative”,  “homosexual”, “hispanic”, or any other, that adjective is, in a way, defining that person.  It has a faint dehumanizing effect, too, where our words can reduce a human being into a “goth” or a “criminal” or an “environmentalist”, who is then forced to bear all of the associations surrounding the term, regardless of their accuracy.  These words may only last through the scope of the communication in which they are used, but their implications can be far more potent and much longer lasting.

In terms of human beings, what we ought to describe are the attributes of a person, rather than the person itself.  The phrase “white person” could be adequately substituted with “person with white skin”.  Where, in the first phrase the adjective, “white”, defines the noun, in the second phrase the prepositional phrase, “with white skin”, is simply an attribute of the noun.  In changing this phrase, the adjective shifts from describing the person as a whole to describing an attribute of the person: skin color.

Next time we feel the need to provide some description in regards to a person, let us invest some contemplation toward determining whether we are describing the attributes of the person, or the person overall.  Because, ultimately, we are human beings first, and our fractals are immensely more intricate than any geometric shape.  So instead of trying to define the fractals with the shapes, let’s use the shapes to describe the details of the fractals.


2 Responses to “Describing, Rather than Defining”

  1. Faye said

    This is good! I agree with your points and like your idea. The 5th paragraph is my favorite.

  2. Wonderful post, or should I say, that post was wonderfully written?

    From your friend with the bald head.

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