Are women dangerous? Is fire feminine?
The Dyirbal tribe in the north of Australia has a category of seemingly random things. This category is called balan in their language. It includes women, fire and dangerous things.
The tribe’s balan category also includes the platypus and echidna, which are more curious than dangerous. It includes the bandicoot, which is cute and far from dangerous.
Can you think of a characteristic that women and fire and echidnas have in common? I can’t. But I am not Dyirbal. To our ordered minds, their category seems a bit arbitrary. We want there to be a characteristic that everything on their list has in common. There doesn’t seem to be.
Why did the Dyirbal people feel the need to create their balan list? How do they use it? Again, I don’t know.
However, reading about their list started me thinking. Why do we make lists? 1001 places to visit before you die. Top 10 reasons to study an MBA.
Why do we categorise things? Young adult fiction. Easy listening music.
The linguist George Lakoff reminds us that most categories are troublesome. He cites the word mother as an example. In its simplest form, it denotes female parents. But then, where to put adoptive mothers, foster mothers, surrogate mothers and egg donors?
We create lists and categories for convenience. They’re supposed to make life easier. But do they?
Do you have a business card? A LinkedIn profile? What job title is on it? These make it easy for recruiters and potential clients or partners to categorise you. Depending on your job title, you get put into the list that contains all marketing directors or digital printers or lawyers. And that’s where you stay.
Imagine it’s 1485. You’re recruiting an artist to paint a mural of the last supper on a monastery wall. A man turns up hoping to get the job. He hands you his business card. It reads Leonardo da Vinci, inventor. You look up from the card to the bearded man in front of you.
“Mister da Vinci, you seem to have misunderstood. I want an artist. If I wanted an inventor I would have asked for one. Good day to you. Please close the door on your way out.”
If business cards existed in da Vinci’s time, what would be on his?
What would you think of someone whose LinkedIn profile listed all of these skills, or someone who answered your job ad? Hmm, he can’t be very good. He’s unfocused. A jack of all trades.
We live in a time that celebrates specialisation. We don’t just want a lawyer, we want one that specialises in intellectual property. We don’t want a GP, we want an endocrinologist.
In da Vinci’s time, it was okay to be what we now call a Renaissance man. (Urban Dictionary definition: a person who is “enlightened” in all subject matter including arts, math, athletics, philosophy, music, history, and any other cultural aspect of society.)
In 2018, a Renaissance man or women doesn’t fit categories. He or she won’t get considered for the job. He or she is great on quiz shows and at dinner tables, but not suitable for that leadership role.
A Renaissance man would no doubt be put into the Dyirbal tribe’s list of women, fire and dangerous things. A Renaissance woman is already included by reason of her sex.
Photo by Janko Ferlič via Unsplash