The world is complex and our minds are limited, so we create categories to help us make sense of things. We divide, say, the social world into types – hipsters, evangelicals, nerds, whites or blacks – and associate traits or characteristics with each of them.
These judgments include simplifications and generalizations. But we couldn’t make sense of the flow of sensory data every day if we couldn’t put things, situations, and people into some kind of conceptual box. As our old friend Immanuel Kant argued, perceptions without concepts are blind.
This becomes a major problem when people begin to believe that these mental constructs reflect underlying reality. This is called essentialism. It is the belief that each of the groups we identify with our labels actually has an “essential” and unchanging nature rooted in biology or the nature of reality. At worst, it is the belief that Hutus are significantly different from Tutsis, that Christian Germans are inherently superior to Jews.
Essentialism can generate certain general habits of the mind. Essentialists may imagine that people in one group are more alike than they really are, and more different from people in other groups than they really are. Essentialists may believe that the boundaries between groups are clear and rigid, and that anyone who accepts the culture of another group is guilty of appropriation. Essentialists may view a world divided into Manichean dichotomies, and history as a clash of group power struggles – clashes that require absolute group solidarity and give meaning to life.
America is awash with essentialism. As New York University professor of philosophy Kwame Anthony Appiah, an ethicist for the New York Times Magazine, noted, before World War II, few thought about identity the way we do today. But now it seems that modern politics is almost all about identity – about which type of personality will dominate.
At some level, this is necessary. The great project of the past 70 years or so has been to correct the injustices that the historical essentialists have imposed on the groups they have hung on and oppressed.
The problem arises when people copy the mindset they are fighting against.
Johns Hopkins political scientist Yasha Maunk noted that there are at least two major social movements in American life, located at different points on the essentialist spectrum.
On the right is the “ethno-nationalist, white nationalist position, according to which race is real and will always exist, and societies will prosper as long as the supposed upper group manages to stay in power.”
On the left, there is a tendency according to which “this race is so important and so deeply rooted that it will always define communities and societies, and not have a liberal democracy, in which we are primarily seen as individual citizens with the same rights and responsibilities, us first the queue should be seen as members of our racial or perhaps religious communities. “
When essentialist groups attack each other, broad generalizations tend to fill the air. You run workshops on topics such as “What happened to white women?” as if all white women in the world were somehow one category. You get a Trump-approved Arizona governor candidate who promises to sledgehammer a category of people called “corrupt media” and accuses the “corporate media establishment” of using methods “straight from communist instructions.”
Politics is no longer about controversy; it’s just a bunch of scary categories about people supposedly rotten to the bone.
Worse, you find yourself in a society of rampant dehumanization, where people are gripped by crude stereotypes that increasingly move away from the complexities of reality and make them feel invisible as individuals.
Some people say that you need to completely abandon groupthink. Judge people only as individuals. It seems to me unrealistic and even undesirable as a desirable ideal. I would not want to live in a world without group consciousness, a world without Irish people singing about Irish history, without black writers exploring different versions of black experiences.
But we can have groups without essentialism, we can become more intolerant of the essentialist mindset. It starts with admitting, as Appia pointed out, that all our stereotypes are to some degree wrong. I would add that they are always offensive to some extent. We should be more suspicious of our categories, much quicker to admit that they are sometimes useful, but are always simplistic inventions.
This would mean constantly switching between the vision of the group and the vision of the people. People drop stereotypes surprisingly quickly when they meet a real person. You may not trust lawyers, but Mary the lawyer seems pretty sweet. In general, I would say that people are much more detailed, sophisticated and complex in terms of seeing people than when they see groups, and the more personal views people take, the wiser and kinder they will be.
It also takes social courage, crossing group lines to talk. When we talk to people from other groups, we take the static world of essentialism and turn it into a stream. In conversation, people are not objects, but continuing storytellers of their lives who move between their multiple identities, overcome confidence and doubt, and refine their categories through contact with others.
We are a large and diverse country; whether we see this diversity through the fixed mindset or the growth mindset is critical.