Life, the universe, and why people abuse each other over how to classify it

One of the ways humans understand the world is by classifying it – finding categories into which everything slots. This style of thinking has always been around, but it became something of an art form during the Age of Reason, and is still with us today.

Pluto in true colour, as seen by New Horizons. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

As I pointed out in an earlier post, the problem emerges when classification – reducing reality into an arbitrary human-defined box – is seen as more important than the reality itself. That’s true of a lot of what we define as reality – all of which is classified into boxes, from medical conditions to styles of thinking, and we seem to spend an awful lot of time arguing not over the nature of that reality, but of which box it fits into. Look at the argument over whether Pluto is a dwarf planet or not. Does it make the slightest difference to the physical reality of Pluto? Of course not. The debate is an arbitrary human construct. And it’s typical of humans that the focus of our argument isn’t over the reality – but over how we see it.

Arguments of this style have spurred some of the more appalling examples of all that is wrong with the human condition. But let me illustrate by a relatively innocuous example. Let’s consider HMS Hood, a British warship completed in 1920 which was a household name across the former British Empire, and which remains important today in the military-historical community – emotionally ‘owned’ by many enthusiasts.

The thing here is classification, which was always something more political than practical – ships were classified as whatever their navies or governments said they were, sometimes to obscure their real nature. Initially, Hood was ordered as a battlecruiser – a class of warship that had the guns of a battleship but traded armour for speed. The word didn’t exist when the first were built, but the type gained the moniker in 1911 by arbitrary Admiralty decision, although the word still had a little way to evolve (the etymology was ‘armoured cruiser’, ‘battleship-cruiser’, ‘battle-cruiser’ and finally ‘battlecruiser’).

Hood was then re-designed to have better armour than contemporary battleships, while retaining most of her original design speed. US observers of the day regarded her as a ‘fast battleship’ rather than a battlecruiser for that reason. But the British still classified her as a battlecruiser, and any suggestion otherwise was squashed on 2 September 1916 when the Controller of the Navy and Third Sea Lord, Rear-Admiral Sir Frederick Charles Tudor Tudor, declared that she was ‘fully capable of working with battle cruisers’, and he couldn’t consider Hood a battleship because, as far as he was concerned battleships should have yet more armour, and more heavy guns.

As he was the official in charge of classifying the Royal Navy’s warships, that was that. Hood was a battlecruiser. (Oh, in case you wonder, yes, he had the same second middle and last names, the latter by deed poll. His original surname was Jones.)

HMS Hood in New Zealand, 1924. Kinnear, James Hutchings, 1877-1946 :Negatives of Auckland shipping, boating and scenery. Ref: 1/2-015263-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23240158

You’d think the documented action of the official responsible for such decisions leaves no room for historical question. But nooooo! You see, it turns out that elements of the online enthusiast community, despite being lightning fast to crucify anybody who cites numeric data differing from whatever reference book they happen to own, also think our friend Rear-Admiral Tudor Tudor was wrong. To these enthusiasts Hood was really a ‘fast battleship’, and the documents of the day are in error.

This style of thinking isn’t remotely close to proper historical analysis. What’s more, it appears that the people who argue this also hang their self-worth on that act of faith, underscored by the way that online arguments over ‘HMS Hood as fast battleship vs battlecruiser’ always descend in two milliseconds into TOTAL APE PSYCHO-HATE DEATH ABUSE FRENZY. I mean, really hate-filled. I suspect if they were all in the same room, they’d be viciously tearing at each other with fists, teeth, knives, bottles and so on in a genuine effort to brutally slaughter each other.

All this reveals how powerful the concept of ‘classification’ is. The history – as relentlessly shown in the documentation – was that the British Admiralty’s concern was not the paper classification, but its actual military performance. This existed independently of how the ship was labelled. This practical historical issue underscores how the enthusiast debate over classification is clearly emotional, and more related to a belief system and world view that overrides even the hard documentation.

Of course, this isn’t the only field where conformity to classification overrides empirical facts and produces argument of the most vicious kind. The underlying drivers, I suspect, are insidious in western thought and, generally, among humanity – where the association between self-worth and belief systems, historically, has been cause of a vast degree of suffering and pain. I suspect that the debate over warship classification is perhaps one of the more innocuous examples.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2018



7 thoughts on “Life, the universe, and why people abuse each other over how to classify it

  1. You would not believe the amount of carnage this Brexit stuff has brought about here. Vapid nationalism alongside a more global appeal – “Remoaners” versus “Brexshitters”.

    And whilst both sides argue, we have a massive poverty crisis that all but the left ignores. And it doesn’t mean anything. Any of it. Why isn’t there a push to ensure everyone just, you knoww, has a decent life?

    For sure, I’ve had a rather existential sense of depression this year more than any other. But there’s always culture and what it offers. Can’t argue with Jurrassic World: Fallen Kingdom, eh!? Actually, it’s a bit bad.

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    1. Not so much a categorisation issue as a political matter. What I find intriguing is that it’s not all that long, as history goes, since Britain was bending over backwards to JOIN the EU. The idea that humanity should work towards a decent life for all seems to have been rather lost, in general, of late – worldwide. The way people fight over categorisation is very much an aspect of this wider behaviour, in terms of an expression of human nature.

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      1. You’re quite right, although I am slammed out with man flu right now. If only more major political decisions were made when everyone had the common cold. Well… I guess that’s an anarchistic outlook Chomsky would be proud of.

        But for England there’s just endless indecision. I can’t comment on other countries, but we’re devided on so many factors here. Brexit just brough it to the fore. Get your popcorn ready for March. The outcome… urgh. Let’s wait and see.

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          1. I shall keep that in mind, actually, as I’m trying for Canada at the moment. My mother recently did a reveal saying she tried to get to NZ in the 1970s. Not sure why it fell through.

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  2. The essence of Taoism is in the start of this piece I think. Whatever baggage is in the name that we give to anything, the thing itself is not bothered and just continues to be whatever it is. I enjoyed your post and yes, know the sort of arguers of the toss that you mean from my days in the photo industry.

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    1. Thanks – yes, this kind of thinking is surprisingly common. And you’re right, Taoism is the answer. The object of our attention is unconcerned. The way of resolving the issue also has a Buddhist side: as a species, humanity need to learn how to let it go. Let it be (as Mr Lennon once suggested). The method, I suspect, is to find some means of defining self-worth that avoids ‘owning’ the categories in question. It is unfortunate that those conditioned by western society, in particular – where the idea of categorisation was embedded – have such a hard time doing that.

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