Why labels and categories aren’t always wrong

From Real Live Preacher:

“What need has God for categories? Why sort and catalog a collection when you know and can describe every individual item? What meaning do your base labels have for a higher mind? You have created categories for your own use, fallen in love with sorting them, and made a god of the whole affair. This is an idolatry of the highest order. It is a blasphemy so bold as to cause angels to tremble. ‘The mind of The Almighty,’ you say, ‘is like unto my own mind.’”
“God is on intimate terms with the simple matter of earth, yet you dare label people instead of trying to know them. Your precious divisions of nationality, of Christian and non-Christian, saved and damned, good and evil, slave and free. These convenient memory aids might have served you well when you were biting spiritual ankles and wrestling with your primers. Will you not set them aside even now?”

Real Live Preacher is an amazing writer. I wish I had the talent that he does. And I know what he’s driving at here. Labels can be abused.

Still, I think there’s a certain fallacy here:

  1. Categories and labels are wrong and make us judgmental.
  2. There are two categories of people: those who categorize others and those who don’t.
  3. Therefore, we should join the category of people who don’t categorize, and judge those who do.

Huh? No matter how hard you try, it’s impossible to not label or categorize. As I quoted Tim Keller the other day: “We can’t avoid drawing boundaries. Everyone does it, and if they say you’re not doing it, then you’re drawing a boundary by saying you’re not doing it.”

I think labels and categories are here to stay, and that’s not all bad. Categories exist. They are not right or wrong. They just are.

By the way, I don’t think people really mind categories. For instance, few really mind being categorized by gender. It’s practical and helpful. What’s wrong is the abuse of any category, such as gender. It’s not the category that’s wrong, but the misuse of categories – things like stereotypes, caricatures, and a refusal to see differences within categories.

Categories aren’t perfect. Categories work as long as we recognize that there are differences within each category. The differences do not negate the category, though. Within biology, for instance, there is something called a species problem. As long as we realize that at some point categories break down, categories are useful and even necessary.

I have another couple of posts brewing on this, which will come pretty soon. But for now, I disagree with RLP: categories are here to stay. The real trick is how to avoid misusing categories.

Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash

I'm a grateful husband, father, oupa, and pastor of Grace Fellowship Church Don Mills. I love learning, writing, and encouraging. I'm on a lifelong quest to become a humble, gracious old man.
Toronto, Canada