On the Boxing of Life

It seems to me that in this society, we’re very good at boxing. And no, I’m not talking about the Elisha Obed/Boston Blackie/Ray Minus kind of boxing here; I’m talking about the kind of boxing that creates neat little categories to fit things into and then proceeds to sort the messiness of life into those categories. We’ve got boxes for political affiliation, boxes for religious belief, boxes for skin colour, boxes for hair texture, boxes for work, boxes for home, boxes for school.

We’re very good at separating stuff. We’re not so good at putting stuff together.

Now it’s not unusual that human beings categorize things. As human beings, we like to put things and people into groups. How we define our groups is what makes cultures different; what we consider to be fixed, immutable groups in The Bahamas, for instance, may be very different from what people in China or Zimbabwe or Jamaica consider to be fixed, immutable groups. Researchers have written very interesting papers on this habit, in fact; ask me about the bear and the barber sometime.

It’s a basic human need to organize the world into bits and pieces. It’s so basic a need that people become very nervous about things that don’t fit into the categories that we choose. Let’s take the dietary prohibitions of Leviticus, for instance. The way in which the Hebrews were taught to distinguish those things that were good for them to eat from those that were bad was according to the acceptable categories of animals: things that have scales, things that creep, things that have hooves, things that chew the cud. Those creatures that don’t fall into the acceptable categories are those that are unclean.

The general rule of thumb about categorizing, boxing, is this: something that falls between the cracks, something that doesn’t fit into boxes, is suspect. Some people argue that it’s dangerous; and it is. It’s dangerous to our organization of life, because it challenges our way of seeing the world.

This in part explains why certain animals are fairly universally feared or reviled. Frogs, for instance, are worrisome in many societies, snakes even more so. Frogs live in the water and on the land, which makes them peculiar. Snakes are even more difficult to categorize, and therefore snakes the world over have peculiar power, for good and for bad.

This goes for people as well, of course, and now we’re getting closer to what I mean when I talk about boxing.

Every society, in every age, has its own boxes for people. We box each other according to size, according to weight, skin colour, ethnic origin, political affiliation, religious belief, social class, even team affiliation or theoretical orientation.

What we have to be careful about, however, is boxing ourselves.

There’s a danger, you see, with boxing. It’s necessary, but it’s also addictive. And, with all addictions, there comes a time when boxing things, people, beliefs and thoughts does more harm to us than good.

That time comes when we begin to believe that the boxes are more important than the things we put in them. When we begin to believe that the categories we’ve created and the criteria we use to sort things into those categories are real, we become slaves to those categories. Rather than understanding them as tools to help us make sense of our world, we regard them as set rules by which to judge the world, and by which to judge ourselves.

Let me give you an idea what I’m talking about.

The first box I want to talk about is the box that says human beings must confirm to certain norms and behaviours. The assumption that all humans who live in similar groups make is that the way in which We do it is the only way possible, or right. Often We believe that that assumption is divinely sanctioned, and any deviation from it is not only mistaken, but evil. Anthropologists call this ethnocentrism, and every culture does it; the thing is, because we all engage in our own sort of boxing, every culture judges others’ boxes as evil and wrong.

Take, for example, our morality box. We seem to be fixed these days on the innate evil, the inherent immorality, of same-sex relationships. A couple of years ago we were worried about homosexual men; today we’re discussing “lesbian gangs”. The thing is, when we analyze our ideas on these subjects, we discover that they’re not consistent. They’re not consistent with one another, and they’re not consistent with what we profess to believe. The Bible, to which we refer with pride and inaccuracy, makes far less fuss about homosexuality than it does about lying (bearing false witness), idolatry (having false gods), covetousness (wanting what others have and we don’t) and adultery. Each of these is explicitly prohibited in the Ten Commandments, but homosexuality is not, despite its denigration elsewhere. Presumably if it were as important to the Hebrews as it is to us, Yahweh might have included it on the tablets of stone. It is included in a list of improprieties in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, but so are a number of other sexual sins that we don’t even mention: incest, rape, fornication, adultery.

My point? It’s important to us not because it’s important to God, but because we’ve created a box for our sexuality and everything that falls outside that box is taboo. We don’t make nearly as much fuss about grown men sleeping with their daughters and sons, their nephews and nieces, or about men of the cloth or the court or the podium soliciting junior high school children to give them disease-free sex. And we certainly don’t discuss the very clear sin of adultery, one of the Thou Shalt Nots clearly etched in Moses’ stones. After all, if we did, we’d have to build a very big box.

So we have to be careful of the boxing we do. We have to remember that the boxing of life is a tool, not a decree. We have the ability to break out of boxes that don’t fit us, and we have the ability to remake the boxes that no longer make sense. We have to be careful. Because some boxes smother and kill.