Over the last decade or so, I have been working with a concept I call ”categorism”. Started writing a book about it, but realized I didn’t have the right competence to follow my idea through. Not yet. So I started widening my academic studies.
The basic concept is very simple. We, as individuals and societies, always divide people into groups. Categories. This is unavoidable, and it is not a bad thing in itself. It is how we get an overview, so that we can comprehend the world. Categorism is when the categorization ceases to be a tool for true understanding, and instead becomes a cage or a weapon.
The concept came from two minor revelations I had. One when I studied sexology, the other when I studied gender studies.
We have words like racism, sexism, and homophobia. These are words for prejudice, bigotry, discrimination, conspiracy theories and so on – based on race, gender and homosexuality respectively.
While studying Sexology, I realized that these words don’t cover all categories needed: The same phenomenon as homophobia exist against other sexual minorities and gender identity minorities as well, not just homosexuals. A friend and I started using the word ”paraphobia” for this. (Para refers to ”paraphilia”.) It turned out that while rare, this word has been used in this way for many decades already.
While studying Gender Studies, I read Iris Madison Young’s essay ”The five faces of oppression”. In this essay, she argued that oppression isn’t about the oppressed, it’s about the oppressors and what they are doing to the victims. Good point!
Society keeps making up new words for prejudice, bigotry et cetera against certain groups. Transphobia when it’s against transgender people. Antisemitism when it’s against jews. Antimuslimism or Islamophobia when it is against Muslims. (Antimuslimism is the by far preferable word there, in my opinion. But that’s a long argument in itself.) And so on.
These words are useful, but they will never be able to cover all categories targeted. And they all make the mistake to make it about the victim. Antisemitism and antimuslimism is not about Jews or Muslims, it’s about people who use Jews or Muslims as their scapegoats and targets for hate.
Thus, categorism. The word can be used about any targeted category of people, without pointing fingers at those people. ”Racism is a form of categorism” means that racism is the same thing as for example sexism of homophobia. It also means that it is not about race: Instead it’s about categorizing people into races.
Make no mistake about it: Categorism can be deadly, even when the targeted group doesn’t even exist. Antisemitism and antimuslimism doesn’t happen only to Jews and Muslims, it can happen to anyone accused of being a jew or muslim. In Congo, categorism against witches is a deadly thing indeed. It is likely that no actual witches exist in Congo, but children accused of being witches still gets killed.
Categorism has three aspects: Forms, expressions, and the categorization problem.
First aspect: The forms are racism, sexism, homophobia, antisemitism, antimuslimism, all the other forms that we have words for, and finally all the other forms that we do not have words for.
Second aspect: The expressions are prejudice, bigotry, discrimination, conspiracy theories, and so on.
Third aspects: Who belong to a certain category anyway, and why? On what basis, on who’s terms? What does it mean to beling to that category? What give you the right to categorize people, when you use it to condemn them – or to speak for them against their will and interests?
One key concept in contemporary social science, at least in Sweden, is Intersectionality. Intersection means road crossing. Intersectionality means that every person has a race/ethnicity, a gender, a social class/status, a sexuality, and so on. Which means that a person can not be reduced to ONE of these factors, like social scientists and activists used to try to do.
Intersectionality has helped social science and activism understand the real problems better, and I hope that the concept of categorism will help us along this same path.
One concept that I invented to help understand the flawed analysises (that lacked intersectionality) is what I currently call zero category. ”Nollkategori” in Swedish. Might make a better word for it later, as I recently got some critique that it might be misinterpreted as being about the number zero. It’s actually referring to nothingness. The whole idea is that a category we see as the norm stops being seen as a category at all. Thus the illusion of a person belonging to only one category.
A few days ago I attended a very interesting meeting with some very nice and interesting people. Sadly, they have to keep a rather low profile at this time – because there is so much prejudice against them. Not yet a formal organization, just a social network and some web pages. They are mostly secular humanists. Their concepts of morality is based on caring about humans for the sake of humanity and for the dignity and rights of every human being. Many of them are atheists. Others simply join the group because they can think and debate freely there, without dogma. Since they don’t base their morality on religion, some people wrongly believe that they have no morality. Or even that they are not really human.
As we talked about the negative stereotypes against them, my mind spawned the opposite concept of zero category. I currently call this ”the abyss category”. It is the category that people hate and do not want to understand. The category that they demonize and define themselves against.
There is an internet phenomenon called Godwin’s Law. It says that any discussion on the Internet will eventually be about the Nazis. ”Or the pedophiles”, I might add: In my experience, the abyss categories of western civilization are Nazis and pedophiles. It wasn’t always so. Many decades ago, it was instead Jews and homosexuals.
These days, racist right-wing extremists in the west are trying very hard to save Nazism from this social position. They are trying to put the Muslims in that position instead. This would be awful not only for the Muslims, but for all of western civilization. There are many good ways to be a Muslim, but no good way to be a Nazi. If society should have something to define itself against, it should continue to be the Nazis.
In USA and Indonesia, communism is quite a bit of abyss category as well. Atheism gets a lot of stigmatization from that, because people who are not religious gets mistaken for being the ”godless communists”.
While I consider communism to be a failed theory with horrible results, I don’t think communists deserve the position of being the abyss category. Communism was intended to make life good for everyone. ”The road to hell is paved with good intentions”, and all that. Nazism, on the other hand, was intended to make life good for one small ethnic group, at everyone else’s expense: The intentions were awful to begin with.
Categorism is old for me, I have used it for a decade and refined it along the way. Zero and abyss are new, I’m still thinking them through. All three of them are likely to be core concepts in my upcoming master thesis ”Categorization and human dignity”.
When I was young, I fought against racism and homophobia. Organized anti-racist rallies, campaigned for civil unions for gay people. Those were good struggles. But ultimately, all valid struggles for minorities (or oppressed majorities, which also happens), is only one struggle. And it should be treated as such. It is the struggle for universal human rights. It is not about rights for gays or Jews or Muslims or whatever. It is about rights for all of mankind. It is not a struggle against categorism against certain groups. it is a struggle against categorism as such. Whatever target it may choose, and whatever form it might take.