I am not what I appear to be

Here’s how New Scientist’s article on the COP26 summit opens:

The man charged with leading a successful climate change summit in five weeks’ time insists he is no environmentalist – but is now convinced of the urgency of tackling global warming.

“I’m a normal person, right, I’m not someone who’s some great climate warrior coming into this,” says Alok Sharma, the president of the COP26 meeting, who took up the job in February 2020. “But it has given me a real appreciation and understanding of why it is so vital that we get this right.”

And here’s how the same article quotes Boris Johnson, trying to give his views on the climate crisis a friendlier spin:

“I am not one of those environmentalists who takes a moral pleasure in excoriating humanity for its excess”

I’m sure both of them are telling the truth, that neither considers themselves to be an environmentalist, despite agreeing that climate collapse is a serious, existential crisis that demands action at the highest levels. And making that clear in their public statements is a way of appealing to those who are still skeptical, or too politically partisan to accept that message from people who are sufficiently unlike them to easily write off their views.

But like the people who run for office while insisting they aren’t politicians, there’s something obviously incongruent in someone advocating for the seriousness of climate change while loudly denying that they are an environmentalist. In the same breath, they’re agreeing with the environmental movement’s assessment of reality, while holding onto the idea that the people who arrived at that assessment are kooks, extremists, abnormal people who are best kept at a distance. “They may be right,” this line of thinking goes, “but they’re still nags, scolds, interested only in propping up their own egos by making you feel bad.”

There’s a lot of judgment in those statements, especially in Johnson’s imagined moral sadist, getting off on their sense of superiority. An armchair analysis would lead me to guess previous environmental criticism made him feel guilty, and his response was to assume the intent was to hurt him, personally–because we have a human tendency to assume things are personal, and to assume the worst of those who hurt us. Even if that’s off the mark, the statement itself still shows an imagined category of person, the environmentalist who has chosen the cause because they enjoy making other people feel bad, and Johnson’s need to refute that self-created label.

Ultimately that’s what I think those statements and all the ones like it are about: a need to escape the labels we put on others. In order to understand the world, we need to categorize it, and our understanding of other people is no exception. It is impossible for us to understand the full complexity of even a single other individual, let alone the hundreds or thousands of people we interact with on a regular basis. If we needed to face the entirety of another person every time we dealt with them, we would simply freeze, so instead we create categories: environmentalists are like this, politicians are like that, feminists are like this, and so on. There may be part of us that recognizes these types are constructions and that no one in each group will exactly fit our stereotype, but we still assume it’s true in aggregate: no environmentalist is exactly like x, but collectively they probably come pretty close.

To whatever extent we need to generalize with others, though, we absolutely abhor being the subject of generalizations. So when we find that we’re saying something or taking some action that would peg us as a member of a particular group, we’ll take pains to explain we aren’t actually one of them, despite the superficial similarities. That Platonic ideal we hold of all the categories we create is too simple and too other to capture the complexity that is our own self, and so we instinctively bristle at the thought of being labelled. We are too vast and complex and contradictory to fall under any label, especially ones we’ve already used to write off the views of others, since those labels tend to be the most overly simplistic anyway.

The impulse to refuse the categories we’ve created should act as a reminder that those categories are inherently incomplete. Not false, necessarily, but simplified and abstracted for the purpose of helping us navigate the world. We can’t actually hold the complexity of others in our own heads, but we can recognize that labels sit just as uncomfortably on them as they do on us. If you’re running for office but refuse to call yourself a politician because the term doesn’t reflect your own view of your motivations and experience, recognize that your opponent likely feels the same. If you are trying to agree with a group while pushing against being identified as one of them, try to understand why it’s so important for you to avoid the label, and what assumptions that implies.

If you’re too special to be confined to a category, so is everyone you’ve categorized.