Did you ever see those American cop shows? The ones that follow police cars that are in pursuit of a stolen car or a criminal fleeing a crime scene? If you did, you’ll be familiar with the box manoeuvre. It looks something like this:
The first car gets in front of the driver, forcing him to maintain a consistent speed. Then two other cars pull alongside, preventing the driver from swerving and accelerating around the lead. The surrounding cars then begin to decelerate, forcing the runaway car to slow down. or attempt to bash his way out. As they’re slowing down, a fourth car pulls directly behind the runaway car, preventing him from slamming the brakes and ducking out of the box. It’s a pretty elegant way to bring a pursuit to a stop and contain the suspect.
Do you remember the last time you took out some insurance or opened a bank account? What did you have to do? It’s likely you had to answer a load of questions: age, date of birth, occupation, income, all that. And why did you have to answer all those questions? It’s so the companies can build a profile of you and assess the risk involved in your being a customer. Essentially, like the cop cars in pursuit of a criminal, they’re trying to put you in a box.
Boxes are kind of necessary in the above scenarios. But the prevalence of boxes, and more importantly, of institutions and people trying to put us in them, extends throughout society and life.
In school, how do they know who goes in what class? First, you’re sorted by age. Then you’re sorted by ability as measured by results on standardised tests.
From birth, you’re put in a box. You’re male or female, a certain weight, with particular physical characteristics, and born in a specific country to parents of whatever heritage. All this is recorded minutes after you’ve popped out the womb.
The use of boxes isn’t bad. In some cases, it’s helpful. But there is one instance where it can be harmful.
When you’re introduced to a new person, what is the first thing you do? You try to acquire more information about them. Their name, who they know, what they do, where they’re from. You try to put them in a box.
People do the same to you. But a problem arises when the box you or others place yourself in doesn’t fit, or is one you no longer want to occupy.
If I introduce myself and say I’m a writer, that’s something you can understand. If I introduce myself and say I’m an accountant, you get it. But if I introduce myself and say I do some illustrating, help a few companies run marketing campaigns, kite surf and read Japanese manga in my spare time, you’re gonna say “huh?” It’s unlikely that you have a box labelled “Illustrator-who-does-marketing-and-kite-surfing-and-reads-Japanese-comics”. So you put me in a Procrustean box, choosing the most prominent aspect of my life and ignoring the rest.
Putting people and things in boxes is a tactic that allows us to quickly parse problems and the environment around us. But we must remember that nothing and no-one is a perfect fit, that the boxes we use aren’t reality. One person can be a single mum, a teacher, an amateur athlete, a university alumni, a daughter, and a raving fan.
Society needs boxes to function. But to thrive, as individuals, we nee to know when we’re being boxed in and push back. We have to remind people that we’re more than just an X, a Y or a Z. People are complex and do not fit in such singular categories. Lives and personality are multi-faceted, composed of many sides, many shapes, and many textures.
That’s one thing that’s become apparent as I’ve read history and biographies. The most interesting lives, and the most interesting people, are those which can’t be put in a box.