How to Have a Conversation: Resistance (to categories)

As we discussed the content of our blog, we decided that having monthly "themes" would help bring focus to our project. Our first theme is, appropriately enough, "How to Have a Conversation." 

When I glance at my own census data, the answers seem pretty nondescript: Michael. Male. Caucasian. 25-34. Single. Virginia resident.

Clearly, I am an interesting, complex person with inherent value, right? Veteran census volunteers and statistical analysts understand that even gathering these 7 basic data points every ten years is a supreme logistical feat. Thus, the simple categories of name, gender, race, ethnicity, age, marital status, and address are privileged in their capacity to be collected, analyzed, and interpreted with accuracy and precision. Simple categories with limited answers make for easier data management and statistical control to draw broader conclusions. This is why quantitative methods is required for any research-based academic program; we simply must know how to appropriately collect and interpret information to communicate its broader nuance and complexity.

But those census categories are exactly this: simple and limited. So I’ll give a few additions: Christian. Mennonite. Advanced degree. Private university. Three sisters. Ten nieces and nephews. Designer. Car owner. Renter. Right-handed.

In just a few more words, there is a little bit more of me on the page. The glimpse is fuller, more rounded, a little bit nuanced. Perhaps enough for an online dating profile or a medical clearance form, and certainly enough for highly targeted advertising. But I’m still pretty anonymous; a hazy figure without a lot of context. Unknown, but generalizable.

I am fairly obsessed with categories. I mean, I secretly organize M&M’s into color piles before I eat them, and I love personality tests. Love love love them. But in this slight obsession (both personal and otherwise) with categories, I see broader implications for how myself and others use categorization in helpful and unhelpful ways. And hurtful and prejudicial ways. And how at its best, categorization is a tool that simplifies and organizes, but how those same capacities become prejudice, stereotypes, and othering mechanisms with the same information.

I say all of this in the spectre of the post-Trump election, a radically polarized political and social landscape where even talking about politics threatens relationships, let alone discussing more concrete policies or issues. How you vote and who you support has come to determine, with exceedingly broad strokes, if I should value you or not. If I know who you voted for, I have you figured out. I know what categories you belong in—my side or the other side. Which is ultimately the bad side. And consistent assaults on the press, widespread partisan fake news, and media isolation certainly aren’t smoothing out the means to have a conversation.

How can we allow each other to be more than one thing? How can I refuse to let a single category, such as who I vote for, define complicated belief and value systems, and yet still practice resistance in the face of prejudice, fear, and bigotry? How to we extend grace with those whom we disagree, find common ground, and still resist tacit support to ideas that do not align with our own beliefs? How can I view others prismatically, without reducing complex personhood to a few categories that I find objectionable?

I struggle with this. I struggle to reconcile my Christian faith with the 80% of evangelicals who voted for Mr. Trump. I struggle to operate with humility and honesty as a white male in conversations about race and gender. I struggle to balance staying curious without being naive, without resorting to a Christian politics that emphasizes unity to maintain a status quo instead of just resistance, while still believing there is hope in unity, in working out our faith and politics together, and living with the hard reality that opposition is sometimes best overcome through disarming and open-minded curiosity.

I wonder what that conversation looks like, and what living into those questions means for those struggling in the early days of a Trump presidency, and beyond.