Vadim Nikitin
Vadim Nikitin

Incensed by the census: Has classification gone too far?

So the census has come and gone. Now the government knows where I live, that I am a white foreigner and own a DVD player, but no DStv (thanks, freelance journalist salary!) Though I certainly felt guilty ticking the box for “2 bedroom flat” when the first option said “shack”, it felt strangely anticlimactic to see my life summed up in a few parameters, none of which determined anything of the least consequence.

It’s a bit like that line in The Little Prince about grown-ups: “When you tell them you made a new friend, they never ask you any questions about essential matters. They never say to you, ‘What does his voice sound like? What games does he love best? Does he collect butterflies?’ Instead, they demand: ‘How old is he? How many brothers has he got? How much does he weigh? How much money does his father make?’ Only from these figures do they think they have learned anything about him.”

Of course, perhaps it would be technically impossible to survey all of SA’s citizens without making generalisations and cramming them into oversimplified boxes, such as race. Besides, the census might even improve the lives of poor and vulnerable South Africans by helping the state better identify need and address it. It’s also true that despite some legitimate reservations about privacy, at least a few of the 16 000 who refused to answer the questions did so for racist reasons, not wanting to share their details with a black government they resent. Yet, once the census worker left and I got back to my computer, I began to wonder if such categorisation was as isolated and innocuous as this well-meaning but reductionist government questionnaire.

On my screen flashed a familiar Friend Request on Facebook, but this time, I had to instantly determine whether they were my “Close Friends”, “Family” or “Acquaintances”. It was a feature I hadn’t seen before; probably something Facebook stole from Google Plus. Then I went to open an article I had been writing about the Soviet Union, and couldn’t remember whether it was filed under My Documents, Article Drafts, Russia or the name of the magazine I’d pitched it to. Folders within subfolders. And there’s more: before pushing “Submit for Review”, I will need to tag this blog post either “News & Politics” or “Perspective” (“Russian Rant” is not currently an option). There seems to be no escaping categories.

It’s not surprising that classification should so thoroughly underpin our digital age. After all, naming things and grouping them into discrete categories helped create Western civilisation in the first place. The Enlightenment’s crusade to quantify, rationalise and order the world has brought untold material progress. From dividing animals into species, minerals into periodic table elements, matter into particles and crimes into varying degrees of badness, the resulting leaps in science, technology, agriculture, medicine and law have allowed us to live unimaginably longer, healthier and less violent lives than even our most recent ancestors.

At the same time, so many of the positive legacies of this rationalism, which we all use to achieve, empower, uplift and develop, have very dubious origins. Take standardised testing in schools — a technique that has done much to empower traditionally disadvantaged groups by reducing race, gender and class discrimination by biased teachers. But it was originally developed by American eugenics to scientifically establish the intellectual inferiority of black and working-class pupils.

Or the IBM computer I’m typing on: one of the company’s early clients were none other than the Nazis, who saw the tremendous possibilities of computers for classifying and recording the relocation and execution of Jewish concentration camp prisoners. In fact, according to philosopher Zygmunt Bauman, it was the very rationalising impulse at the heart of European modernity that made the Holocaust possible, by categorising Jews as sub-human and turning mass killing into an impersonal and bureaucratic, rather than moral, act.

It’s no coincidence that imperialists, eugenics and Nazis were such fans of categorisation: separating and classifying almost always implies wielding power and control. Few countries, peoples, animals or plants that were subjected to the rigours of Western analysis over the centuries have managed to escape exploitation and subjugation by the very powers that had studied them.

Perhaps it might be theoretically possible to categorise without constructing hierarchies, to be “separate but equal”, but South Africa’s own history suggests otherwise. As philosopher Neville Alexander has written opposing the inclusion of race descriptions in the census: categorisation is never a neutral act. It affects the outlooks, perceptions and outcomes of both classifier and classified.

In the age of the algorithm, the big worry is that Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter and smartphones will destroy privacy. But the real threat is the classification and rationalisation of even those areas of our lives that have been previously out of bounds, such as love and friendship. What effect this might have on our relationships is not clear. In the short run, it might even make us feel more liberated, empowered and connected. After all, haven’t those two most notorious categories of subjugation — “black” and “gay” — managed to become refashioned as liberating, positive and proud labels of self-identification?

Certainly, there is a world of difference between the ends to which race classification was used under apartheid and today. One was to keep the disadvantaged down, while the other is to help uplift them. Yet fundamentally, both entail the reduction of human beings to mere categories — benign, technocratic dehumanisation, but dehumanisation nonetheless.

It may be that the ends justify the means, and if such categorisation makes it easier to quickly identify and address persistent social iniquities, is that a problem? Perhaps not, but what if the means also condition the ends? What if, for example, the apartheid legacy of race categorisation continues to influence the moral character of the outcomes?

Trying to achieve progress using tools designed for oppression can be a dangerous game. Maybe rather than thinking outside the box, it’s time to imagine a world without boxes.

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