Why Compartmentalization and Generalization is Necessary
While taking a history course titled War, Hunger, & Surveillance: The Global Cold War taught by Monica Kim at New York University several years ago, I was introduced to historian Michael H. Hunt’s observation of the functionality of ideologies and -isims:
“To move in a world of infinite complexity, individuals and societies need to reduce that world to finite terms. Only then can they pretend an understanding of their environment and have the confidence to talk about it and the courage to act on it.” (Ideology: Hunt)
In his book Ideology, Hunt further lays out his own definition of ideology as an “interrelated set of convictions and assumptions that reduces the complexities of a thing to easily comprehensible terms and suggests ways to dealing with the reality around the thing.” The key concept I want to focus on based on Hunt’s observation is not the sociological construction of ideology, rather the utility of creating and defining categories through compartmentalization and generalization.
As noted previously in Hunts’ quotes, the human psyche- both individually and collectively, is unable to process, store, and action on the endless stream of stimuli that fills human existence. In fact it could be argued that for the sake of operational proficiency the human brain was not designed to hold an infinite amount of information, especially when it comes to quantitative data. The most basic example of this is the phenomena we call memory. Though the brain’s ability to recall obscure and even old memories from our past is quite fascinating, it is not always a reliable source of truth. When recalling something it is not uncommon that a person will supplement it with additional emotions, tones of voice, details, exaggerations, generalizations, and so on. This occurrence changes the content of the subject being recalled for both the hearer and the speaker.
The limited capacity of the human brain to process, store, and utilize information was largely expanded through the invention of writing. Writing and cataloguing written records allowed humans to compartmentalize and express memory and solidify it in a specific contextual state. In addition to the brain’s limited capacity in terms of quantitative volume and its unreliable nature in regards to qualitative accuracy of content, it is also not designed to think in a linear thought pattern. The mind most often operates through a form of thought known as free association. The untrained mind like our nervous system can make connections between any and all of our stored data points within our personal hard drives. The thought of an event, person, experience, thing, etc. can spark the ideation of another thing and the interactions between such data points thereof. In order to establish meaning (and useful) connections between all of these metrics and experiences, the mind must utilize tools that assist in organizing such data- tools such as compartmentalization and generalization.
Historian Yuval Noah Harari expands on the utility of compartmentalization through the observation of bureaucracies and socio-political structures: “In a bureaucracy, things must be kept apart (categorized)… otherwise, how can you find anything?” In the modern world there are too many data points and stimuli to not have a bureaucratic structure of data processing and storage. Thus, as bureaucracies and biological hierarchies contain systems of categorization which are based on compartmentalization/generalization, each person requires the use of these very tools. Though these tools aren’t deployed with the neither the most efficiency nor the great sense of mortality, they can provide a starting point from which to establish improvements.
This ever-shifting process of categorization, reorganization, and re-definition in regards to new information we process in our daily lives is best characterized in how we perceive and make sense of the world around us. Examples of such data points include, but are not limited to: race, religion, physical appearance, socio-economic class, the five senses, and a slew of everything in between. Often we are faced with data points that don’t neatly fit under specific labels, categories, or files which leads us to force fit a square peg into a round hole- an infantile attempt to make sense of it all. Alternatively, we can also “invent a new category altogether.” Truly each person, each society is “forever adding, deleting, rearranging, [and redefining the proverbial mental] drawers” (Sapiens: Harari).
So for the sake of efficiency and improved quality and quantity of data we must compartmentalize and label different pieces of information that inform us about our surroundings and those that surround us. We must do so even to the point of generalization even if they aren’t perfect definitions. If one says this is a mechanical, narrow-minded way of thinking, I would agree. However unnatural and un-human such brain processes may seem, such new processing techniques are how we have adapted to the plethora, and even, overwhelming amount of data points we face daily throughout our lifetime. Without labels we cannot orient and focus our thoughts on an object enough to comprehend and action on said objects at hand.
Things like stereotyping, though it gets a bad rep in today’s cultural climate, falls under the umbrella of this utilitarian tool kit. Hence, there is the age old saying, “There is some truth in every stereotype.” I have written this piece not to champion the enforcement of generalizations as a mode of being which often leads to biased thought, which in turn leads to biased action, rather, I write this to bring to mind that such mental tools are just that- tools. Tools in it of themselves are neither good nor bad, it’s the wielder who must be trained in the wielding of them.