Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Minow on Difference and Categories

From the start of Martha Minow's fantastic book, Making All The Difference: Inclusion, Exclusion, and American Law (Ithaca: Cornell UP 1991):
When we analyze, we simplify. We break complicated perceptions into discrete items or traits. We identify the items and call them chair, table, cat, and bed. We sort them into categories that already exist: furniture and animal. It sounds familiar. It also sounds harmless. I do not think it is.

I believe we make a mistake when we assume that the categories we use for analysis just exist and simply sort our experiences, perceptions, and problems through them. When we identify one thing as like others, we are not merely classifying the world; we are investing particular classifications with consequences and positioning ourselves in relation to those meanings. When we identify one thing as unlike the others, we are dividing the world; we use our language to exclude, to distinguish—to discriminate. This last word may be the one that most recognizably raises the issues about which I worry. Sometimes, classifications express and implement prejudice, racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism, intolerance for difference. Of course, there are ‘real differences’ in the world; each person differs in countless ways from each other person. But when we simplify and sort, we focus on some traits rather than others, and we assign consequences to the presence and absence of traits we make significant. We ask, ‘What’s the new baby?”—and we expect as an answer, boy or girl. That answer, for most of history, has spelled consequences for the roles and opportunities available to that individual. And when we respond to person’s traits rather than their conduct, we may treat a given trait as a justification for excluding someone we think is ‘different.’ We feel no need for further justification: we attribute the consequences to the [*4] differences we see. We neglect the other traits that may be shared. And we neglect how each of us, too, may be 'different.'(3-4).

This doesn't mean we can avoid categorizing things. As Angela Harris notes at the start of her own article, Race and Essentialism in Feminist Legal Theory [42 Stan. L. Rev. 581 (1990)], the world would collapse into incoherence if we did. It merely means that categorizing things is problematic. It has moral implications that we need to be aware of, and potentially pernicious effects that we need to be prepared to counteract. That can only happen if we're cognizant of the problem.

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