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Column: Categories are useful — but only to a point
Shannon Casas high res
Shannon Casas

Several white buckets sit along gray bars on the toy shelf at my house. The toy cars go in one bucket. The wooden blocks go in another. The action figures in yet another. 

If there are a couple of action figures in the bucket where the wooden blocks go, it makes me uncomfortable.

In fact, I’d rather have toys scattered across the floor than put away in the wrong bucket.

As a child, I labeled my toy shelf. Directly on the wooden shelf my grandfather had built, I wrote in marker which toy went where. The Teddy Ruxpin went up top. I don’t remember where the stuffed pink-and-purple Popple went. There were no action figures. You can imagine my mother was not happy when she discovered the markings, but she told me later she could at least appreciate my penchant for organization, something I did not inherit from her. 

Categorizing is important for children to learn — being able to list wild animals vs. tame, or things that are red vs. things that are blue. It’s part of the development process.

But not everything fits neatly in a white bucket. 

And we use buckets for much more than toys. 

Shall I put you in the Democrat bucket or the Republican bucket? The Christian bucket or the unbelieving bucket? The bucket for those from the South or the bucket for those from somewhere else? 

You can throw me in at least a couple of those buckets, and you’d be right. I’m not arguing it’s all gray and ambiguous. 

The categories are how we make sense of the world. It makes life easier. No one wants to go to a grocery store where the corn flakes are on one aisle, the Lucky Charms another and the shredded wheat yet another. We want all the cereal on one aisle under that label, so we know we’re supposed to put it in a bowl and pour milk over it. 

But it’s not always so simple. Does the organic shredded wheat go right next to the regular shredded wheat? Or does it go in a separate organic cereal category at one end of the aisle?

Do all Democrats belong in the bucket with those Democrats — the kind who want free health care, open borders and to take away all the guns? Do all Republicans belong in the bucket with those Republicans — the kind who want to repeal the Affordable Care Act, build a wall to keep out the brown people and arm teachers?

If we don’t know which bucket to put someone in, do we know how to interact?

What if you accidentally started praising Trump’s border wall plan while talking with someone who has a Bernie Sanders bumper sticker on his car? What if you lauded a plan for universal health care while talking with someone who has a MAGA hat in her closet?

Perhaps our categorizing would be OK if we didn’t shove the bucket with that label into a corner, deeming its contents less than or even worthless. 

The conversations aren’t so hard online, when the person you put in a bucket seems one-dimensional. In person, the complexities of relationship are more apparent, and we don’t fit in categories quite so neatly. 

But in a year that feels it has more elections than Marvel movies, those R’s and D’s still seem crucial categories. 

Even the good guys and bad guys of Marvel aren’t as black and white as our politics in 2020. 

We can call Hulk angry without calling him a bad guy. We can appreciate that Magneto sometimes fights for a just cause but in the wrong way.

But when we label our buckets and sort out those we meet by just our own perceptions, we might just be putting them in the wrong bucket. Or perhaps they don’t fit in the bucket at all.

Maybe I need to put the Marvel action figures in one bucket and the DC ones in another. Or the bad guys in one bucket and the good guys in another. Or maybe they can all just be action figures — representative of the complex, diverse human minds that created them.

Shannon Casas is editor in chief of The Times and a foster parent. You can hear her most weeks on the Inside The Times podcast on iTunes or Google Play.

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