All political and social processes are actually very easy to understand. Simply pick one factor. Decide that this one factor is the core of everything. Then limit your analysis to pointing out the connection. Finally, pretend to yourself and others that this is the whole picture.
This strategy will help you feel good about yourself. If will give you a (false, but still) sense of understanding everything. The strategy will also give you prestige if you convince others, or a sense of belonging if you speak among people who already think the same way. However, the strategy will not help you understand the complexities of the real world.
Theories, concepts and perspectives are tools for understanding the world. Useful tools, necessary tools. They are good as long as they remain tools. The problem is when you turn them into cages or weapons. When you decide that a theory or perspective is the one true theory or the one true perspective, then you have turned that tool into a cage. A cage for your own thinking. Do you really need to put your mind in a cage? Does your mind benefit from being narrowed?
Theories, concepts and perspectives are abstract. They are always oversimplifications, and none of them will ever cover all aspects of the complex reality we live in. This does not mean that all theories and perspectives are equally true: Some explain more than others, and some are more accurate than others – my only critique is that none of them alone will ever accurately explain everything.
The concept of categorism is all about pointing out the phenomenon of categorism: When categorization of people is not a tool for understanding, but instead a cage or a weapon. The concept of categorism may be a very good tool for understandning. This does not make the concept immune to being used as a cage or weapon.
Let us start with a simple question: Is the pehenomenon of categorism ever a good thing? But first, lets make it even simpler. Racism is the most famous form of categorism. Racism is categorism against a certain skin-color or ethnicity. So, lets narrow the question down a bit further. Is racism ever a good thing?
Well, sometimes a person has to put his mind in a cage. Sometimes he need to use irrational hatred as a weapon. Racism done by a dominant group against a subjucated group is always oppressive. However, racism done by a subjugated group against a dominant group can sometimes be a part of liberation. When small countries in Europe got invaded by Nazi Germany, many freedom fighters resorted to hating Germans. Not just hating the Nazi ideology, but hating all Germans.
This racism helped them to hate the German soldiers and to dehumanize them. If a German is not really a human being, then killing a German doesn’t make you a murderer. In reality, the German soldieres was just as human as the rest of them. Many of them were scared teenagers who didn’t even believe in the Nazi ideology. For a safe distance bystander it would be needlessly heartless to not recognize this truth. But for a freedomfighter fighting for his life, such a reality may be too painful to bear. It might be preferable to put your mind in a cage that lets you pretend that germans are not really human.
However, the same principle apply to other subjugated groups as well. Women fighting against patriarchy, third world populations fighting against colonialism, and so on. For this reason, some choose to define categorism done as these groups as not being categorism. They define racism as something that can only be done by whites against blacks – black racism against whites doesn’t count. They define sexism as something that can only be done by men against women – female sexism against men doesn’t count. This is an extremely bad solution. It accounts only for social structures, not for individual situations. To make it worse, it is based on two major mistakes regarding what social structure is.
The first mistake is the belief that there is only one social structure. A failure to consider intersectionality. In reality, every person belong to many groups. Most people belong to dominant groups as well as subjugated groups.
The second mistake is the belief that structures are monolithic and eternal. However: categories are social constructs – their meaning and content changes from time to time and from place to place. Believing that men always have the power and women are always subjugated, that is to give men way too much credit. Believing that whites are always the power ful ones, that is actually one of the worst kinds of racism against those who are not white. Adult women and non-whites are adults, and should be treated as such. Racism and sexism done by non-whites and women is still racism and sexism, and it is still bad. In the few special cases where it contribute to liberation, it can be seen as a necessary evil. But nothing more.
So. the phenomenons of racism and sexism are weapons and cages. Weapons that are nasty, but can sometimes be put to good use. Cages that limit our understanding and empathy, in ways that in some very special cases are needed to survive – at least emotionally.
So. What about the concepts of racism and sexism? Well, they are also weapons, obviously. Although much cleaner and nicer weapons. The concepts are weapons for labeling and stigmatizing the phenomenons that the concets represent. Calling it ”racism” when someone act or argue in a racist way stigmatizes the use of racist acts and ways of thinking. This is usually a good thing, although it can of course be misused.
Sometimes they can also be cages. A person may refuse to see a certain situation for what it is, simply because he believe that it would make him racist or sexist. This may make him vunerable to misuse of the weapon. For example, an indivdual non-white person may argue that his behavior may never be critisized no matter how he behaves, because that would always be racism. Of course, the real racists will insist that this is exactly what happens whenever someone doesn’t agree with their prejudices.
Back to the concept of categorism. This concept is not only a tool for understanding the various forms of (the phenomenon of) categorism. It is also a weapon against categorism. A weapon to unify the struggles against individual forms of categorism into one unified struggle for human rights. A weapon for labeling those forms of categorism that doesn’t have individual labels of their own. A nice and clean weapon, useful for good use in worthy struggles. The classic risks of misuse still exist, but are diminished by the fact that categorism isn’t about any one specific category.
There are also other risks. For example, putting too much emphasis on the categorization itself puts one at risk of losing track of the socio-economic context where the categorization is made. If a categorization is prejudiced or bigotted, and thus is categorism, then why was it made this way? What kind of purpose does it serve, and is there a good point somewhere behind the bad things? Another example, activists and lobbbyists may use the concept not only in good ways, but also twist it for various problematic purposes. Please notify me if you can think of such a twist. I’d like to include preemptive arguments in my thesis and/or book.