Monday, July 06, 2015

Who Am I? Who Are You?

The term motorist has been used over and over again to describe Rodney King. 
"Rodney King, the black motorist . . ."

"charged with using excessive force in arresting black motorist Rodney King  . . ."
 I don't think I've ever actually said the word 'motorist' in a sentence, but somehow King will be forever known as 'motorist Rodney King.'

I mention this because we are all victims of labels - labels others use about us and labels we use about others.  I suspect that categorizing things we see is part of our DNA.  It is an important survival tool to quickly determine whether something approaching us is dangerous or not.  But once we've labeled another person, we no longer have to figure them out.   The label(s) we connect them to allows us to stop thinking about who they are.  She's a doctor.  He's homeless.  A convict.  Each of those labels carries a huge amount of extraneous baggage that may or may not fit any particular individual we've so labeled.  Our understanding of other people is trapped in the labels we use as much as those others are trapped by others' labels of them. 

When I started this blog, I didn't want readers to look at my profile and get a convenient label that would allow them to judge what I wrote based on who they thought I was, derived from a few labels in the profile.   Instead I wanted people to evaluate what I had to say based on what I wrote.  And I figured if someone read enough posts, they'd start 'knowing' me in a far more meaningful way.

I know.  It's really frustrating.  You want to know if I'm young or old or in-between.  What work I do.  You want labels to capture who I am, to help you figure out what my writing means.   My name (Steve) reveals my sex.  And I do disclose where I live.  Since I started blogging, other bloggers and websites have identified my full name and profession.  And my posts, on occasion, reveal other tidbits about who I am.  I do acknowledge that the labels can be helpful.  And that my leaving them out makes you work harder to understand who I am, and more importantly, what I'm writing.  But I don't think hard work is a bad thing and that it gives us more authentic knowledge of people and ideas.   

Think about the labels you use to tell others who you are.  They give people a short cut to knowing who you are.  But does 'nurse' or 'pilot' or 'fast food cook' really convey who you are?  Do you ever hide labels or choose a more favorable version?  I suspect mostly labels tell us where in the societal pecking order you are.  They tell me how much deference I should or shouldn't give you.  They don't really tell me who you are.

I'm particularly fond of, and influenced by, anthropologist Clifford Geertz' concept of 'thick description.'  Here's a take on it from historian Dr. Christopher Knowles' blog How It Really Was*:

‘Thick Description’ is a term used by the distinguished anthropologist Clifford Geertz. In an essay on: ‘Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture’, he explained that his understanding of the culture of a people was not their "total way of life" or "a storehouse of learning", let alone their art, music or literature, but ‘webs of significance’, writing that:
"Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun. I take culture to be those webs and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning."
Geertz described how he had taken the term ‘Thick Description’ from the philosopher Gilbert Ryle, who distinguished between a ‘thin description’ of, for example, a physical action, and a ‘thick description’ which includes the context: when and where the action took place, who performed it and their intentions in doing so. For example, the same physical act of someone "rapidly raising and lowering their right eyelid" could be a nervous twitch, a deliberate wink to attract attention or communicate with someone, or an imitation or mockery of someone else with a nervous twitch or winking. It all depends on the context, the aims of person the performing the action, and how these were understood by others.
 I want you to dig a little deeper than simple labels.  Look at the webs I weave.  Who I am is really not all that important.  This, some might say, perverse, exercise I'm asking of you is also related to the underlying theme of this blog:  how do you know what you know?  I'm asking you to resist the easy path to a conclusion, to reexamine how you know things, know people, know yourself.  To turn over your assumptions and see what's lurking underneath.   

*Dr. Knowles, in his blog profile, also offers some advice that would contradict what I'm writing here:
"Before you study the history study the historian' as E H Carr said in his classic work 'What is History.' (Macmillan 1961). 'When we take up a work of history, our first concern should be not with the facts which it contains, but with the historian who wrote it.'"
And this advice is good too.  But I'm asking you  to find the blogger, if you must, by studying the blog.  

[This post is part of an attempt on my part, as this blog approaches its ninth anniversary, to update some of my descriptions of what this blog is about and who the blogger is.]

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