A view of the world from my own unique perspective

Back in the 1990s, I remember watching an episode of Seinfeld in which Elaine is uncomfortable around her new boyfriend. He looks like he’s of mixed heritage, and she doesn’t know if he’s black or white. She insists that it doesn’t matter one way or the other, but she still needs to know. This, in my opinion, was one of the most insightful episodes in the series because it held a mirror up to our society and forced us to take a long, hard look at ourselves and the ways in which we perceive and categorize each other.

Since watching that Seinfeld episode, I’ve noticed this behaviour everywhere – a need to place people and things into discrete categories. I’ve also found myself affected by the same categorization frustration experienced by Elaine’s boyfriend.

My Toastmasters Icebreaker speech dealt with a similar theme. Some people have told me that it’s difficult to determine my ethnic background simply by looking at me – I don’t look like I’m from any particular country or even region. Apparently, this bothers quite a few people. A certain percentage of the people I meet just aren’t comfortable around me unless they know my ethnic makeup. After that, they’re fine. As far as I can tell, they’re not prejudiced – they don’t care where I’m from – but just like Elaine, they need to know, so that they can compartmentalize me.

In my opinion, this is what’s holding us back as a society – our desire to categorize and compartmentalize everything and everybody. This isn’t limited to physical characteristics; in addition to skin colour, race and ethnicity, we also categorize people according to political views, religion (or even one’s lack of it), and sexual orientation. I believe that the path to a benevolent, less prejudiced, and more peaceful and harmonious society lies in a subtle shift in the way that we perceive each other. Rather than slotting everyone into neat little boxes, we need to view our differences as a set of attributes. This is more than mere semantics; this perceptual shift can change the world.

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Attribute Examples

Eye Colour: We don’t categorize people by eye colour, because it’s simply an attribute. Eye colour has no bearing on one’s character. You (in all likelihood) don’t categorize your friends by their eye colour. Although it may describe them, it doesn’t define them. Imagine seeing a public water fountain with a sign “blue-eyed people only”. That would be ridiculous (and probably offensive to many people) because an attribute was promoted to a category.

Astrological ChartAstrological Sign: Despite an abundance of psychics in large cities, and of horoscopes in most major newspapers, nobody (other than members of 1970s soul group, The Floaters) defines themselves or others based on an astrological sign. Even men who wore polyester leisure suits while trolling the singles bars during the 1970s, and who chatted up unsuspecting women with the hackneyed opening line “Hey babe, what’s your sign?” don’t particularly care – and are unlikely to back away in horror if you give the wrong answer. Your astrological sign is an attribute.

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Left-Handedness

Left-HandedLeft-handedness is an interesting characteristic because it’s one that used to categorize (and even stigmatize) people, but has since been demoted to an attribute. Interestingly, the word sinister comes from the Latin word sinister/sinistra/sinistrum which means “left-handed” or “unlucky”. Conversely, the Latin word for right is “dexter” from which dexterity is derived. My father was born left-handed, but when he went to school his teachers forced him to write with his right hand. Today, only two generations later, the stigma is gone, and people are no longer categorized by their dominant hand. It’s shift from a category to an attribute is a sign that we as a society are on the right path.

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Sexual Orientation

Homosexuals are not as oppressed as they used to be only a generation ago (at least in North America), but we still categorize and even define people according to their sexual orientation. If we can change our perception of left-handedness, then surely we can do the same thing with sexual orientation. There are actually many similarities between these two characteristics:

  • About 10% of the world’s population is left-handed. It is thought that a similar percentage is homosexual, although accurate numbers are difficult to obtain, since results depend on self-reporting. Unlike left-handedness, this trait can’t be observed directly.
  • People are born left-handed or gay. Neither is a lifestyle choice.
  • Left-handedness and sexual orientation do not have any effect on one’s character.
  • Both groups were persecuted in the past, and even today there is still some discrimination toward homosexuals.
  • Left-handed people were forced to write with their right hand. There are still people who want to convert homosexuals, or pray the gay away.

In my opinion, the most obvious difference between these two groups is that societal attitudes toward sexual orientation are about 75 years behind.

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Political Opinions

Political opinions are another way that we separate people into distinct groups. However, I’ve noticed that the level to which we categorize people according to their political leanings differs along geographic lines, as illustrated in the following personal anecdote:

US Political PartiesLast year, my sister-in-law, who is American, joined us for a family dinner here in Canada. During the meal the conversation turned to politics, and afterwards, she remarked on the civility of our discussion. We spoke freely about all political parties (both American and Canadian) and no one seemed offended. She said that a similar discussion among her friends in the States would quickly become polarized and probably heated. I replied “Well then, let me tell you about the differences between Canadian and American politics!”. Disclaimer: the following explanation is based solely on my personal observations (and the political views within my circle of friends) and does not represent all Canadians.

“In Canada, we have a number of political parties, but the two major ones, the Liberals and the Conservatives, are roughly equivalent to your Democrats and Republicans, respectively. I’ve voted for both parties over the years, as have many of my friends, and right now I have no idea whom I’ll vote for in the next election. It depends which candidate presents the best platform.

In Canada, we’ll usually say ‘I voted for the Conservatives (or the Liberals, or the NDP)’. However, Americans declare ‘I AM a Republican’ or ‘I AM a Democrat’. You are heavily invested in your candidates or your political parties; your political opinions form a part of your personal identity. If someone criticizes Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, most Americans will take it personally – at least based on what I’ve seen in the media. Canadians generally won’t be offended, because voting for a politician is like choosing a cell phone provider – we’re stuck with them until the contract expires, and afterwards we’re free to make another choice”.

In the United States, you are defined (or you define yourself) by your political opinion; in Canada, your political opinion is only an attribute, and often a changeable one.

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The Ultimate Irony

Our egalitarian future is right in front of our eyes. In what is surely one of the greatest ironies of our time, this enlightened environment not only exists, but it’s something that we created. It exists as a component of object-oriented computer languages. We humans – without realizing what we’ve accomplished – have created something greater, more sophisticated, more mature and more enlightened than ourselves.

Object-Oriented Programming (OOP) languages use a concept known as a class, which is similar to a blueprint. A class is used to create an object. Imagine a contractor building a house from a blueprint. The blueprint is the class, and the house itself is the object. Many houses can be created from the same set of blueprints, and similarly, many objects can be created from a single class. You can also think of a class as a genotype and an object as a phenotype. A class will contain one or more attributes (known as properties) that define each object.

Let’s say that we wanted to create a bicycle using an object-oriented programming language. First we would create a class called “Bicycle” and determine what features we would like our bicycle to have:

class Bicycle {
   FrameColour
   HandlebarStyle
   WheelDiameter
   Speeds
}

Now that our definition is complete, let’s create two objects from this blueprint. These will represent two actual bicycles:

RacingBike {                   TouringBike {
   FrameColour = red              FrameColour = blue
   HandlebarStyle = racing        HandlebarStyle = touring
   WheelDiameter = 26             WheelDiameter = 24
   Speeds = 15                    Speeds = 5
}                              }

Now we have two bicycles. Although they were created from the same blueprint, they are a little different. One is a 15-speed bike with a red frame, 26-inch wheels and racing handlebars; the other is a 5-speed bike with a blue frame, 24-inch wheels and touring-style handlebars. The same blueprint can create a wide variety of different bicycles, simply by changing the values of the attributes.

This same OOP concept can apply to people as well. There are over seven billion people on this planet; each one of us is unique, but we are still all human, and created from the same blueprint. If we use these concepts from an object-oriented programming language, then we could redefine ourselves like this:

class Human {
   eye colour
   hair colour
   skin colour
   height
   weight
   ...
}

You can create a wide diversity of “human” objects from this template, and although each object will be different, they are all inherently equal. Each object has the same attributes (known as properties) and those attributes merely have different values.

Human AttributesThis simple programming language concept gives us a sneak preview of a Utopian society. In this world, we aren’t black or white, gay or straight, Republican or Democrat, religious or secular, or any other label that we can use to categorize each other. We are simply people with the same set of attributes, but with different values assigned to them. We’ve already started moving in this direction (perhaps without even realizing it) and I want us to continue. This is the way that I hope we will view and treat each other. If we can create a programming language that combines diversity and equality, and eschews categorization, then surely we can embrace this philosophy ourselves. A creation shouldn’t be more enlightened than its creator.

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Comments on: "From Categories To Attributes – Creating A World Without Prejudice" (4)

  1. “even today there is still some discrimination toward homosexuals.” You sound straight. Anyway, the way this is written comes off like you think there are only two sexual orientations. Is that honestly what you believe, or are you just forgetting that gay people aren’t the only sexual minority?

    • Bob Yewchuk said:

      You’re absolutely right Acetheist, people can also be bisexual or even asexual. It is not my intention to exclude anyone, but merely to illustrate a contrast by using only two categories: gay/straight, Republican/Democrat, black/white etc. There are many political parties and many different ethnic groups, but it wouldn’t be practical to list them all.

      This is the beauty of the attribute philosophy – no one is excluded because we are no longer creating categories for ourselves (or others).

      • And perhaps you meant to deconstruct those binaries, but integrating them into your premise as you did undermines that. Embrace the impracticality of it all. Let that be your argument.

        The use of categories need not be exclusive. You just have to remember not to exclude any categories.

  2. I believe the writer’s leading example of eye color as both attribute and category begins deconstructing the fallacy of taking a multiple variable attribute and categorizing it as a binary choice. He similarly uses sexual orientation. Sexual orientation is not just an attribute with heterosexual or homosexual values but he argues that society wrongly characterizes them as such. It seems even reading this can engender some sensitivity, Acetheist, especially when one’s attribute doesn’t fit a simple two value characterization by society as you demonstrate. You succinctly reinforce the writer’s point.

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