The Consequences of Categorization

The horrific case of eight-year-old Asifa Bano recently rocked India and the wider world. Belonging to a nomadic Muslim tribe of cattle-herders, Asifa was held captive by eight Hindu men for a week, drugged and repeatedly raped before being murdered. Her killers included a retired government official and two serving police officers, all members of a Hindu fundamentalist group whose objective was to terrorise the Muslim nomads and drive them from Rasana, a largely Hindu village in the Jammu and Kashmir province of Northern India.

As evil and inhuman as this case undoubtedly is, the behaviour of these men was ultimately the product of the human brain we all share, and rooted in the natural, valuable yet potentially dangerous cognitive process of categorization. Categorization is the left mind’s energy-efficient tool for simplifying the vast richness of the real outer world experienced by the right mind, in which abstract categories such as ‘dogs’ or ‘cars’ don’t exist, only each individual canine or vehicle we encounter. It is not in our interests to devote valuable energy to processing the myriad of differences which distinguish one dog or car from another, so our left mind serves us well by decontextualizing each entity and by allocating it to categories it calls ‘dogs’ and ‘cars’. Categorization allows us to make simplified but useful generalizations about all category members, without having to recall the detail of each individual entity’s uniqueness. Dogs can then be generically associated with a category called ‘sticks’, rather than having to associate specific dogs with specific sticks, which would involve far too much energy-depleting effort.  This is an essential skill which we couldn’t function without.

However, categorization can become extremely dangerous when groups of human-beings are involved. When we categorize we also automatically homogenize group members, making individuals seem more alike than they truly are by ironing out their distinctive nuances. Thus individuals within categories such as ‘Muslims’ or ‘immigrants’ or ‘the unemployed’ are all considered to be the same, despite their many personal differences, We also automatically polarize, making each group seem more different than they truly are from other groups (which have also been similarly homogenized) by exaggerating their differences and ignoring any similarities they may share. Finally, we create positive or negative stereotypes for all groups and almost always show a strong preference for groups we are members of, as well as bias against those groups of which we are not members. Thus division, suspicion and demonization of ‘the other’ can easily manifest in sectarian hatred and violence, even against innocent souls such as Asifa.

Clearly, other cognitive failings contributed to the appalling behaviour of the perpetrators of this crime, such as the lack of empathy for another human-being (particularly a child) we might expect from fully-functioning adults, or the self-control required to override any negative emotional impulses experienced as a consequence of Asifa’s ‘categorization’. Nevertheless, the net effects are the same cognitive outputs which enabled ordinary German citizens to become passionate advocates of Nazi ideology, which enabled previously moderate Hutus to slaughter their Tutsi neighbours in Rwanda and which are currently permeating the ‘hard-Brexit’ wing of the UK’s governing Conservative Party, resulting in their stated desire to create a ‘hostile environment’ for immigrants. The homogenization of all immigrants caused the ‘Windrush’ generation – those immigrants from the Commonwealth who were legally admitted to help rebuild the UK post World War II – and their descendants, to be caught up in the controversial clampdown on more recent migrants from the EU.

Categorization is an essential function of the mind but must always be moderated by other, counterbalancing cognitive impulses if its more pernicious consequences are to be nullified. Failure to do so can easily lead to the persecution, or far worse, of all those who fall within the demonized category. The horrific fate of an innocent child like Asifa should serve as a warning to all, that the unintended consequences of the categorizing functioning of the human brain can cause great suffering and ultimately lead to genocide.