Last week I talked about our desire to pigeonhole other people and offered some thoughts as to why we do it, as well as a very brief way (in a footnote) how to avoid doing it. I ended mentioning the observation I’ve made that some people pigeonhole themselves. I want to offer some more thoughts on this.
I know a number of people who have a tendency to identify themselves by a single characteristic. They reject their own complexity in order to identify themselves by this single characteristic. I’m not sure why some people do this, but it tends to be clearest with regard to characteristics that are typically frowned upon. A clear example would be from Shirky two weeks ago about the anorexic girls who would band together in forums on the internet. These girls had come to see their most important, defining characteristic to be that they are anorexic. The fact that they are far more than simply anorexic seems to pale in their minds to this single characteristic. It becomes important to hold onto that characteristic at all costs. Anything that might be critical of that characteristic then becomes an attack on who they are, as that single characteristic defines them. Attacking anorexia is attacking them. The narrowness of the view of their selves also makes it possible for them to claim that anyone who is not anorexic cannot understand anything about them, for they are their anorexia. When they find acceptance in a group where this becomes the common bond, the other complexities don’t matter as much, for here they find acceptance for this defining characteristic.
While I think we all have a tendency to want to reduce ourselves and others, as the simpler something is, the easier it is to handle. I think it is the reduction of ourselves that we most clearly see the effects of Web 2.0. Never before have we been able to connect with so many people, centering ourselves around a single issue or characteristic. We can isolate ourselves from differing opinions and different people. We are no longer forced to stand before one another and face the complexities of ourselves or of the other people. In focusing on what we have in common, we lose the differences that make us unique, the differences that make us human.
Again, by no means is this problem solely the fault of Web 2.0. Web 2.0 doesn’t cause this pigeonholing, but rather, magnifies the problem and tendency to pigeonhole ourselves. When we’re given the opportunity, we avoid the hard questions and the difficult realities that come in living in genuine community with one another. We want to find people like us. We don’t want to wrestle with the possibility that the world is bigger than we see it. We don’t want to accept that we might not have all the world figured out, that we might not even have ourselves figured out.
While this problem is magnified by improper relationships, it is only in proper relationship that we can solve the problem. Having people in our lives with whom we can be honest, who ask us the hard questions, who choose to see us as more than a single characteristic (or even set of characteristics), who embrace our complexities, while encouraging us to embrace them ourselves. Instead of running from being known, we must be known, especially if we are to know ourselves. It is here we find the possibility of being truly human, in the glorious beauty of our messiness and complexities.