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Bundle-Pack Beliefs and the Label Problem


Bundle-Pack Beliefs

A friend of mine, an absolutely lovely person who lives amongst morally ugly people in a morally ugly corner of a morally ugly country*, once coined the phrase “bundle-pack beliefs” to describe what they saw going on around them. (It’s entirely possible other people have also coined the same phrase. There are well over 7 billion people on this planet and they do sometimes independently string the same words together; don’t assume you know my friend just because you know someone who has also said that.) Which was this: My friend would express, or hear someone else express, an opinion on a particular topic. Certain other people in the vicinity would then immediately decry a whole host of other utterly unrelated opinions, and proclaim loudly that the original speaker must be a terrible person for also holding all of those opinions as well as the one they actually spoke about.

It was incredibly stupid, and yet for my friend it was a nearly everyday occurrence. How so? Because, as my friend put it, these people insist on believing that opinions can only come in those giant multi-buy special offers you sometimes get at sufficiently large shops. If you want to ‘buy’ A, you must also acquire two of B, two of C, five of D, and four of E. You may not hold other opinions and you must be equally dogmatic about each of this set. It seemed impossible for those people to even conceive that one might hold opinion A without necessarily holding all of B, C, D, and E, or that it might in fact be possible to hold opinion A and opinion Z at the same time (since they are opinions from different multipacks in which Z “belongs” with Y, X, W, V, and U).

Whether any of those various opinions are, in my own opinion, terrible or not is quite by the by. The point is that referring to any one of them is taken instantly to mean that the speaker must also hold all of the others and no further opinions. Thus, my friend might say A and immediately be berated for “thinking E”, when in fact no such thing occurred and my friend may very well utterly disagree with E. Is that right? Is that fair? Does that in any way even connect with reality at any point other than the initial expression of opinion A?

And yet, this tendency seems depressingly common. Whether it is growing depressingly common or it always was and I’m just noticing it more is impossible to say, since it’s not as if I’ve been recording data on it. Which ties into something further…

The Label Problem

Let’s talk about labels for a while. Labels as applied to people, that is. It is often quite convenient for people to meet a stranger and say to them “I am a blah”, or “my friend Sal is a blah”. This does have its uses – but relying on it exclusively also has many drawbacks. Instead of getting to know the person before them, the listener ignores further external input in favour of their database of “things that are true about blahs” and makes a cascade of assumptions according to the contents of that database. It encourages them to believe things such as “this person could never think X, because blahs don’t think X”. To proclaim loudly that they were “betrayed” when someone they put in the label-box does something not from that particular label-box.

It’s mildly reminiscent of the old “classification of temperaments and/or humours” nonsense. (I had to look this list up.) Let’s say you classify every person as possessing one of the four: sanguine; melancholic; choleric; phlegmatic. You’re trying to compress over a billion individuals into each of these four boxes. Does that work? Are well over a billion of the people on this planet similar enough to one another to all go in the same box of anything, other than perhaps “humans”? (Spoilers: no.)

Perhaps you might try to add another descriptor. If it has two options, you have eight possible combinations; if it has four, a whole sixteen. Which, compared to a billion, still hasn’t even the slightest hope of cutting it. (For the interested, if you use only two-state classifications, you need at least 33 classifications [log2(7,000,000,000) ≈ 33] before you even have the tiniest bit of hope of narrowing it down to one person. And that’s assuming you pick classifications that are all unrelated, uncorrelated, and completely distinct from one another. In real life that doesn’t happen – so you need even more.)

So essentially what then happens is that you crudely lop great slabs off your potential concept of someone’s personality to cut it down to the bit you can be bothered to try and perceive, stuff that bit in a neatly-labelled box with a load of perceived-identical other box-occupants they’ve probably never even met, and then have the temerity to be offended when the real person dares to suggest that they don’t fit in the box. In essence, it’s another aspect of the problem above, viewed from a different angle.

But people like to put things in boxes, and so it persists. Up to and including themselves. A near-infinite (or at least, exactly as wide as the person’s own capacity to comprehend) spread of ideas and thoughts and capacities and subtleties, crudely squashed down into “Hello, I am an X.” Which box, of course, one righteously expects everyone else to unpack in exactly the same way as oneself does, and heaven forbid they should interpret it any other way. No, no, we don’t do that here; no true Scotsman would be like that… – No, no, we didn't mean you, you see you’re not really a Scotsman because you’re not awful (with apologies in both cases to actual Scotsmen!)… and of course, when you get right down to it, there simply is no true Scotsman, because the only person conforming to that exact precise definition is the person who said it and nobody else can so much as know exactly what they mean.

If all we ever do is pin crude labels on ourselves and others, how can we ever really claim to honour their individuality – or even our own? Learning who a person is takes time and effort, yes, and you will always have to update that perception since even if you were once 100% correct about them the person will change with time, but it also respects who they are.

*My friend is decidedly ruder about this location, and its occupants, than I am being here. Let it suffice to say that its unwilling resident considers it awful, and based on what I know of it I tend to agree.