I struggle with lists. Two of my best friends love lists. They try to get me to make my ranked lists and compare them to their ranked lists. Top five movies of all time. Top ten novels. Three best fruits.
Lists are hard for me because I take them too seriously. The most recent challenge was contributing my list of 10 to the top 893 songs of the aughts. (Our indie music station is at 89.3 on the dial.) Specifically, the Essential songs. Meaningless. Is it the songs that most move me? The “objectively” best songs? The songs that are most musically representative of the era? Most lyrically aughtian? Should I cover the broadest range of music? Of performer types? It was too much. I think I wound up with a tidbit of each of those descriptions, and after several hours of analysis typed it up quickly and sent it in. Regretting all the breathtaking great songs I left out.
Some of you addicts are drooling to hear my list now. I get it. I would be, too. I truly don’t remember what was on it, but I know I included Amanda Palmer, Missy Elliot, TuNeYaRds, Elliott Smith, Lizzo, Rufus Wainwright, Kanye, and Sufjan Stevens. Sorry to disappoint.
But it’s not just making lists that’s hard; it’s the addictive yet disturbing assessment of the lists of others. I judge others according to how their lists compare to mine, judge myself by how my list compares to theirs, and judge their lists on a scale of my esteem for their creator. A song can theoretically drop a few clicks in my worst of list if someone I artistically respect makes a good argument for it, but I’m more likely to think less of a person for liking something I loathe.
Lists! The easiest clickbait on the internet. Top 10 most gruesome ways to die this year! Top 10 ugliest child stars! Why do we love them so much? It’s not just the thrill of having strong opinions about something insignificant. It seems to fall into that realm of human specialty: categorization. It’s one of our greatest strengths as a species. Evolution has blessed us with exceptional categorization skills. Safe and dangerous, while often ill-defined, are clearly important to survival. I’m sure if I weren’t rushing to finish this I could come up with a handful of others, and most of the unnecessary ones are at least innocuous. The ones that concern me are when we create a list based on a narrow set of characteristics, then label the list with a much broader title, then believe that title and apply those characteristics to the items we’ve decided to put in that list.
What am I talking about? I think my generalizations are no longer serving me.
You smile and say hello every morning. You tell me I have a wonderful dog. My dog likes you. I put you in the “nice” category. You mow my lawn after I break my leg and I upgrade you to “good.” Now that you’re in the good category, everything you do is colored by that label. The longer you stay in the good category, the harder it is to get booted from it. You say something that might be sexist and I attribute it to your age. You say something that might be racist and I attribute it to your homogenous surroundings. You say you’re a Republican and I have to wrestle with cognitive dissonance. Because Republican = Bad.
This has been brewing in my brain for a long time, and I’m not going to tackle it all here, but when we categorize people – good or bad; Democrat or Republican – we do it to make things easier on ourselves. And it somewhat necessary. For fuck’s sake, we can’t be expected to make a decision on the righteousness of every policy. We choose a side and trust that they’re making the right decision. We categorize people as good or bad so we don’t have to reassess them every time we meet. But “good guys” have gotten away with literal and figurative murder because we let the category define the individual, instead of taking the person’s actions on their own merit or lack thereof. Democrats have done horrible things. Republicans are sometimes right. We are so wedded to our lists that pulling a well-established someone or something out of one is worse than pulling teeth. It makes us question our ideology, our judgment, our perceptions. It’s horrifying. And liberating. And probably necessary.
I think one of the reasons I’m so reluctant to make lists is because I know how committed I am to them. What if I’m wrong? What if Jason Isbell is more worthy than Rufus Wainwright? I have to be willing to make that switch if I’m proven wrong. Rufus will forgive me. Or, more likely, he will flamboyantly not care.