We have a tendency to divide the world around us into categories. In fact, we have to, otherwise we couldn't make sense of it. When we refer to a wide variety of objects as "chairs", we're singling out a commonality of function which is much more important than their differences in detail. If we couldn't classify things that way as a kind of shorthand to mentally organize the world, we couldn't talk or think usefully.
It's when we apply this kind of categorization to people that we often create more confusion than we remove.
The problem is that we all too often fall prey to what I call "the singleness of identity" -- treating categories as exclusive. If you are an A, then you cannot be a B as well. Moreover, you are an A through and through, defined by your A-ness, fundamentally like all other As and distinct from all Bs. An A with a tinge of B is a concept foreign to this way of thinking.
The most obvious example of this is, of course, race. For a long time we thought of humanity as being divided into discrete, fairly-homogenous blocs: white, black, Asian, and so on. The US census still invites people to classify themselves that way (the addition of a "mixed-race" option, while a positive step, is really just adding another supposed hard-edged category), and all kinds of official statistics give rates of unemployment or literacy or whatever for these categories as if they were separate and immutable species. Everyone knows that most of those Americans we call "black" have a considerable amount of European ancestry, and most likely many of the Americans we call "white" also have some "black" ancestry. Yet except in cases of known and recent intermarriage, we generally don't think of anyone as being "mixed". For varying reasons, certain groups of people on both the left and right feel more comfortable thinking in terms of discrete racial and ethnic blocs, and are resistant to acknowledging the increased blurring of those categories which is the reality of the present and future.
(I frankly think that the weird racially-tinged hostility to President Obama in some quarters is actually more intense because of his known racially-mixed origin than it would be if he were straight-forwardly "black". Racists get far more agitated and upset about "miscegenation" than they do about the mere fact that people of different races exist.)
The more important flaw in such racial category-think, however, is the fact that, unlike such categories as "chair", it doesn't actually provide any useful information most of the time. Even in the case of a person whose ancestry comes entirely from just one "racial" category, it doesn't tell you anything important about him (except in the sense that it tells you how he is likely to be treated in a racist environment). There are no beliefs, behavior patterns, mental traits, or even major physical differences that correlate reliably with race. It's true that, for historical reasons, there are some cultural traits more often found among black, white, Asian, or Hispanic Americans than among Americans of other ancestries; yet assimilation, education, and the tendency of people to imitate behavior they observe in others, have dramatically blurred even these distinctions, even when no intermarriage is involved. A newly-arrived Chinese immigrant will certainly think, speak, and behave differently from the American-born people around him; but his American-born grandchildren will probably think, speak, and behave pretty much like other Americans in their social environment, regardless of whether they have any non-Asian grandparents. The traits involved are cultural, not racial.
What about culture, then? If terms like "black", "white", or "Asian" convey no important information about a person (only about others' likely prejudices toward him), the same cannot be said of "French", "Japanese", "Arab", "Latin American", and suchlike. Cultures are vast clusters of attitudes, values, and behavior patterns; cultural labels do convey important information about the groups of people they refer to.
But even there, there is no singleness of identity. A man born and raised in Paris and a farmer in Normandy may both be French in culture and ethnicity, but will probably differ in attitudes and values in important ways. A Chinese person from Hong Kong is far more likely to have absorbed some British ways of thinking and behaving than a Chinese person from the deep interior of the country. Ethnic Germans in Transylvania whose ancestors left Germany centuries ago are culturally different from people who live in Hamburg. No ethnic or cultural group is homogenous or free of outside influnces on its character. Moreover, identities overlap. A Breton or an Alsatian may feel every inch a patriotic Frenchman even though he grew up speaking Breton or a form of German. Many people in England are conflicted about whether they feel primarily English or primarily British. And what about people of, say, Irish ancestry who were born and live in England? Are they English or British or Irish or some pastiche of those identities?
With religion and ideology we are on firmer ground. Knowing that someone is a Marxist, or a Muslim, or a libertarian, or a Christian, etc., really does give you a lot of important information about his attitudes and values, especially if he is a fervent believer. It's much more meaningful to speak of a real and distinct Christian-fundamentalist subculture in the US than of a black or Hispanic subculture. Muslim societies of whatever ethnicity or ancestry share important features that differentiate them from non-Muslim societies. Yet even there, individuals differ in degree of fervor and in the other factors that affect their identity. Islam in India is not just like Islam in Saudi Arabia. Two Muslims living in the same apartment building in Paris may have completely different views about their religion and about how much they identify with the surrounding non-Muslim society.
Sexual orientation similarly refuses to fit into the singleness of identity. Homosexuality must have existed for millions of years, but the concept of "a homosexual" seems to be fairly new and not a very accurate way of describing reality. Most people are sexually attracted pretty much exclusively to the opposite gender. Some are attracted pretty much exclusively to their own gender; some (probably more) are attracted to both, in varying degrees. Some people change in orientation over time (it's fairly common for people who later feel exclusively heterosexual to "experiment" with homosexuality in late adolescence, for example). Nobody really knows the reasons for these variations. To say that a person with one preference "is" one thing, while somebody with another preference "is" a different thing, is worse than useless. To speak of "gays" is meaningful only in the sense that speaking of "blacks" is meaningful -- it describes the fact that the larger society walls off certain people into those categories and treats them differently. It doesn't accurately describe the underlying reality.
The fact is that every one of the seven billion humans on Earth is an individual, each one with a slightly different combination of some of the thousands of identity-categories we've devised to classify ourselves. No person is purely one thing. There is no singleness of identity.
Cross-posted from INFIDEL753 (5:50 AM, 26 November 2009).