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GOING BEYOND SOCIAL CATEGORIES

by Gerry McCarthy

A few months ago, I was surprised to hear myself described as an "old white male activist." Although it wasn’t spoken in a nasty way, the remark disturbed me. Even though I’ll turn 42 this year, I don’t consider myself "old." But since we’ve abolished middle age in our culture, I suppose I fit the bill.

     Since being cast as an "old white male activist," I’ve taken to examining how our culture responds to aging. The results of my informal study are depressing. Although racism, sexism, and classicism continue to plague Western culture, another negative "ism" has flowered. It’s called ageism.

     Serious problems exist with ageism. First, it flows from the corporate desire for a cut-and-dried world. In short, we have precious little tolerance for ambiguity these days. That has consequences too. Especially when we categorize people as "old" and "young" As author Tom Beaudoin indicated to me recently: "None of us, for all different sorts of reasons, are absolutely firmly within any social category. Whether that is generational, sexual, or racial. There are always ways in which we find ourselves more in league with the characteristics of what we supposedly don’t belong to."

     Thrusting people into social categories creates other problems. For starters, stereotypes are formed. These stereotypes place us on a slippery slope, where hate isn’t too far away.

     I think we should be speaking more about the perils of social categorizing. Especially ageism. Because when we’re enslaved to categorizing people, our capacity to grow, hope, create and learn is seriously diminished.

     Sociologists use social categories to quantify results from their research. That’s understandable. But the kind of social categorizing I’m talking about is deeply embedded in our culture. It’s there in the everyday put-downs, the cruel asides, the sexist jokes, the gossipy remarks, the wrongheaded assumptions, and the flashes of banal anger. Racism, sexism, classicism, and aegism don’t have to be blunt. They can be sneakily subtle. But whatever form they take, they impede us from recognizing the divine and reaching out to the poor and dispossessed.

     In a recent book entitled Conversations with Elie Wiesel, Richard Heffner asks Wiesel what is so seductive about hatred, about inhumanity? Wiesel replies, explaining that: "To be able to hate somebody gives the hater a very strong feeling that he is superior. He knows the truth and I don’t. He looks at me and he hates me because I’m a Jew, or because I’m an intellectual, or because I’m white, or black, or because I am not this or that, and he passes judgement. He knows that I’m wrong; he knows what I shouldn’t do. He knows the answers, I only know the questions. He needs to humiliate me in order to feel sure of himself. He needs to imprison me and only then does he feel free. It gives the hater tremendous power in his own eyes."

     To push people into social categories is seductive. Resisting the temptation takes feeling, compassion, and prayer. Especially in a culture bent on manic competition, envy, jealousy, and fear of the other. Christ’s love is about the freedom to unshackle ourselves from these social categories. It’s about being, as St. Paul said, free to love.

     Elie Wiesel says he sees all human beings as "princes." A beautiful thought. But how does he apply this to the issues of our day? Wiesel says: "When I see a refugee coming to the border, to me that person is a king in exile. If I see a black person being persecuted, I feel it is a king being oppressed. And that only makes my outrage deeper," he says

     Asked what the response would be to this voice, Wiesel explains that: "They would say, `Well he is dreaming.’ So why not? Physicians will tell you that without dreams, the body couldn’t survive. Not only the mind but the body needs dreams. And if this is true of the body, how much more so of the spirit, or the soul?’

     We need to dream more. We need to see all human beings as princes. In the face of intolerance, prejudice, and hate that may seem terribly naive. Even a bit crazy. But I believe in miracles.

Gerry McCarthy is Editor of The Social Edge.

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