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.
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.)
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