Friday, July 15, 2011

What Sort of Hat?

I’ve always resisted labeling myself, and I hate it when other people label me. Who wants to be put into a box? And it’s more than just personal revulsion — the whole business of labeling feels like shirking responsibility. Life demands that we make our own sense of a world where the terms are constantly shifting. Labels let us look at life through little windows — they limit what we see. I’d rather take it all in, even if the view makes me nauseous.

The first day I met my friend Jane, she labeled me. “You’re such a Ravenclaw!” she gushed. For anyone unfamiliar with Harry Potter, Ravenclaw is one of the four Hogwarts houses each student gets placed in by the Sorting Hat on the first day of school. Ravenclaw is for intellectual/creative types; Sytherin is for the smart, crafty, and driven; Gryffindor is righteous and brave; and Hufflepuff is the fun-loving stoner. I thought it looked like just another way of reducing people. But Jane is obsessed with the Sorting Hat, and through her I’ve started to see something strange and interesting, something changes the way I think about labels.

Most sorting mechanisms — Myers Briggs, IQ Tests, whatever — are a matter of input/output: As long as you answer the questions the same way, you’ll get the same result every time. (Who answers these crazy questions the same way every time? Not me.) But imagine a personality test that, like you, could change. That could be influenced by its mood, or your argument. (If you bomb the IQ test but manage to convince the tester to give you a high score, you probably deserve it. This is how I like to tell people the UC Berkeley Rhetoric Department was run.)

Just like a personality test, the Sorting Hat’s whole purpose is to classify. But in the world of Harry Potter, this act of classifying is a character — as alive as anyone else. The Sorting Hat fumbles and deliberates and influences and is influenced. It almost sends Harry Potter to Slytherin, seeing that he’d do well there, but Harry protests and the hat sends him to Gryffindor.

When Jane declared me a Ravenclaw, it wasn’t just an act of definition, it was the beginning of a new life — both for me and for the category of Ravenclaw. Ravenclaw had to shift a little to make room for me, and I thought of myself a little differently now that I belonged to a society of bookish magicians. The way I interact with the label of Ravenclaw is sort of like the way I interact with another person — we both move and are moved by each other; we both read and are read by the other: text on text.

The Sorting Hat takes the act of labeling from limiting and definitive to infinite and complex. It makes labeling seem a lot more exciting, and a little dizzying — which is exactly what I thought labeling was supposed to shield you from.

I suppose that Jane would say this is all very Ravenclaw of me.