What’s the Danger in Categorizing People?

Donald Miller

More often than I prefer, I find myself in a conversation with somebody who thinks they know me. Most recently, it was with a stranger who’d read a couple of my books. Passively, they began talking about the dangers of post-modernity and the emerging church. It was all I could do not to roll my eyes. While I listened and partly enjoyed the conversation, there was personal tension. The tension was that I was having a conversation with a person who, having never met me had already summed me up. Little did they know I’ve never read a book about postmodernity, do not identify with the emergent church and honestly have no idea what they believe.

To be fair, I don’t identify as a conservative or a Calvinist or anything else. I’ve never read a single book trying to figure out what category I fit into. And to interact with somebody who tries to put people into categories in order to understand them is, well, tiring.

*Photo by Brendon Burton, Creative Commons

It’s not only theological categories, it’s social categories of rich or poor (I make a good living but choose to live very simply and will likely spend a good chunk of this year traveling around the country in a van!) and political categories of liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican (right now, I’ve voted for an equal number of Republican and Democratic presidents and I won’t be fenced in or loyal to a party) and even categories like dog person or cat person (I happen to own a dog but I like cat videos on YouTube).

In the desire to be understood and relate to people, we can actually make the mistake of identifying with these categories. I assure you, the possibility of you authentically lining up with a certain political party or even a theological doctrine are slim to none. But the temptation is overwhelming. If we identify ourselves as belonging to a category, we can enter into quick, empty exchanges in which we weed people in or out and are in turn weeded in or out. It’s kind of sad, if you think about it.

What you lose when you let people categorize you is threefold:

    1. You lose your understanding of yourself. You become somebody you may not truly be in order to be understood. You overlook aspects of a “category” that don’t fit you because, well, you’d rather be understood.

    2. In exchange for being understood, you are in fact misunderstood. If you identify as a Democrat (which is ridiculous because parties evolve in order to become more populist, just like an insecure kid in Jr. High) then you’ll spend hours trying to justify aspect of the party stand that you don’t even understand. And the reality is, people will think you believe things you really don’t.

    3. You lose your true search for self. Accepting a category is introspectively lazy. People are, by nature, walking talking paradoxes. And so are you. Accepting a category means no longer looking for real answers and an identity that is true to who we are.


The point is, you really can’t categorize anybody, and any attempt to categorize another person is socially lazy. Categorizing people, in the worst instances, devalues them, and in the best instances is creates a false understanding.

If we really want to know who somebody is, we will simply have to get to know them. And in doing so we will find out that people are, in fact, complicated. Not only are people complicated, but they change, they evolve based on circumstances and experiences.

One of the amazing things about Jesus, to me, was he categorized nobody. Everybody He met was an individual. The masses saw a tax collector, but Jesus saw a man in a tree just trying to get a good look. The Jews saw a swath of people who were beneath Him, but Jesus saw them as Gentiles, and the true future of Israel (that’s you, a non-Jew who is a member of the nation of the real nation of Israel, not to be confused with the country). Jesus was able to wine and dine with people as they really were, themselves, and He was able to get to know them free from the entrapment of social categories. We are all lucky to have Him as a friend.

The truth is, you are not a category, you are a human being. Don’t let anybody fence you in.

Donald Miller

Donald Miller

Donald Miller

Donald Miller is all about story. He's helped thousands overcome a sense of meaninglessness by helping them create their Storyline life plan. If you're struggling with a sense of meaningless, pick up Storyline today. After studying story for years and successfully using the elements of story to engage customers, Don created StoryBrand, a process any business owner or marketing team can go through to create a communication script that will increase sales. Don is also the creator of the Storyline Productivity Schedule, a free daily schedule using modern psychology to increase a person's productivity. Don believes getting your story straight changes everything. Follow Don on Twitter (@donaldmiller). To read more of his posts on the Storyline Blog, click here.