My landlady has sold the house where my roommates and I live (we've known this was coming for a few months), so I'm moving to Colorado Springs on Saturday. Thankfully, I was wise enough to save almost all of my boxes from when I moved here six months ago. Now they're all over my basement in various stages of being packed and/or sealed. #movingprobs
On Saturday, I rediscovered the labels I'd written on the boxes from my last move: "Books," "DVD player," "Pictures and blankets," and so on. For convenience, I started trying to pack items in boxes with matching labels.
Sometimes we writers do something similar in our work, particularly when we're writing persuasive nonfiction. We try to put facts, concepts, people, movements, and so on into intellectual boxes: Democrats or Republicans, religious or not religious, native-born or immigrants, etc.
In some ways, this categorizing is an understandable technique. As I read somewhere recently, our brains naturally do this to simplify things and avoid information overload. And especially in our ever-more-polarized society, it's popular to classify things and people by one characteristic and accordingly label them as good or bad.
The problem is that life isn't anywhere near that simple.
When we're dealing with entities as complex as individual people or entire movements, they don't fit neatly into boxes. A person might not like mushrooms, for example, but that's not the defining feature of that person's life any more than their favorite color, their favorite band, or even their political beliefs are. Some characteristics might form a bigger part of a person's identity than others, but no one characteristic is the whole person.
If we define something/someone by one and only one characteristic—particularly a characteristic we don't like—we overgeneralize and stereotype that person or thing. Furthermore, we risk overlooking important nuances that could help us better connect with and persuade our audiences. In fact, we might end up alienating readers who feel that we're unfairly judging or mischaracterizing them.
For instance, early in my career, I had a coworker named "S" who was a vegetarian. I'm sure we've all encountered real or fictional vegetarians who have an astoundingly holier-than-thou attitude toward anyone who eats meat. It's such a common trope in popular culture that we tend to expect that behavior from anyone who mentions being a vegetarian.
However, "S" didn't fit the stereotype at all. She was a kind, good-natured person who rarely talked about her dietary choices and never criticized anyone for theirs. Eventually I learned that she'd become a vegetarian because eating meat made her physically sick. It had nothing to do with being self-righteous.
Before I met "S," I'd put all vegetarians in the same mental box: stuck-up pseudo-nutritionists who thought they knew better than everyone else. Of course, some vegetarians are like that. But if I'd simply tossed "S" in that box and assumed she'd be the same way, I would've missed out on a great friendship.
Avoiding this practice of thinking in boxes isn't easy to do, especially when it's the popular way to handle complex situations. As writers, though, when did we ever sign up for easy? One of our most important jobs is to shine light on the parts of society and human nature that don't match what we claim to value—and then to suggest ways to fix those contradictions.
We can do it. I believe in us.
P.S. Do you write fiction, nonfiction, or both? Let me know in the comments so I can make sure I'm making these posts relevant to you.
(Thanks to chuttersnap for sharing their work on Unsplash.)