Friday, January 22, 2010

Speaking about Groups

Among the worst instincts that can be observed in our society is the habit of speaking about people through artificially constructed group designations. In order to mask the intellectual laziness inherent in one's broad sweeping statements about society, arbitrary demographic categories or occupation groupings must be used in rhetoric. Seldom does this advance more understanding among people. Instead it has the unintended (and at times even intended) consequence of pitting people against people so that the ensuing discontent will serve to the speaker's benefit. It is a sinister practice of the pseudo-intellectual attempting to persuade the unreflective to their cause.

There are many ways this is seen in present society. Whenever I am conversing with someone and they say that "African-Americans feel that....," or that "Hispanic-Americans think this way....," or that "White-Americans assume that...." My instinct is to ask them, "really? You know someone who thinks/feels/assumes that, and they told this is so because of their group?" The assumption is that what can be said about the group will correspondingly be true about anyone who appears to fit into that group. Supposedly, this practice of speaking about groups can be used to better facilitate understanding among groups, combating ignorance and hate historic felt between groups. At this time it therefore seems honest for me to confess that...

I hate this practice of speaking about groups.

Some may think that this practice can be used to reverse the effects and legacy of racism. On the contrary though, by borrowing this rhetorical practice from classic racism it instead perpetuates the same only with different labels. Take, for example, the practice of speaking about people that would identify themselves in the African-American demographic on a census. It is a horrific reality that some in history have pre-judged such people in negative ways simply because of skin color. An entire set of uncomplimentary assumptions were entertained of people whose skin color, cultural history and expressive habits differed from the one talking about "those black people." This was an evil that was more abundant in America years ago than it is now, but still can be found if one looks hard enough.

But consider the other side of that same coin...

If someone tells me something complimentary about "African-Americans," or something informative meant to help facilitate my understanding so that I will appreciate "the African-American experience," though the intentions might be considered less sinister, they nonetheless perpetuate the myth of knowing anything about a person by means of the group I have decided they fit into. Suppose that I read a book that expounds the historical-cultural experience of African-Americans in 1960's Mississippi. Am I to also assume that the next person I speak to that shares that common pigment also shares in that experience? To what extent should I think I "know about" someone simply because I have read about their "group?" Is this not also a racist practice? Can it be labeled any less racist simply because my intentions seem less sinister that the Klan member who also claims to "know about black people?"

I once had a shocking experience at seminary. The "adviser to African-American students" told me in a conversation (after I objected to the notion of thinking we "know about" people without actually getting to know them), "...but I DO know you. I know all about you." When I countered, "How can you say that?" He asserted, "Because the race in power is always easier to know than the race out of power." I was shocked, and dismayed. That such racism can be entertained at a theological graduate school was disconcerting, to say the least. Is racism made any less destructive simply by shifting the categories? I say, "no." The practice of judging groups, and assuming that any given person fits in that "group" by mere virtue of skin color or accent, is a scourge of society and a symptom of universal depravity. I experienced it at seminary, just as others who look different from me have experienced it in history as well.

Yet this practice of judging by the group is not restricted merely to racism. "Class-ism" also is used as a political tool to pit Americans against one another as well. The groupings are not racial as much as they are vocational. Consumers are pitted against producers. Bank customers are pitted against bank executives. Health care patients pitted against health care providers. Workers against employers. The discontent created by pitting this group against that group is an old tactic that the swarthy politician can exploit for acquiring power. Historically, this method of "surfing the wave" of social angst has been skillfully executed by many a fearful despot. How alarming it is to witness our current President wield this weapon with the precision of a "statist" samurai. I sit with mouth agape at his recent speeches in which demonized "groups" are targeted as the enemy of other "groups" to which he seeks to appeal (bankers, insurance companies, etc.). Are these industries not populated by Americans as well? Are we to believe that all who work among these "groups" deserve the criticism spouted by the President?

"Statism" (a catch-all term coined by Mark Levin in his recent work Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto meant to include socialism, communism, fascism, etc.), has seen many figures throughout history rise to power by means of pitting one "group" of society against another, and offering themselves as the solution. "This group is to blame for your troubles" (so goes the speech), "and I will fight that group for you." The problems come when one actually knows someone within that group that does not fit the description. After all, it's much easier to judge by the group than to think of the individuals within said "group," or better still to know someone within that group through relationships and conversation. Nevertheless, capitalizing on such intellectual laziness is a powerful exercise, and very tempting to employ.

My hope is that such vacuous tripe spewed in our society will be eclipsed by more thoughtful voices that account for individuals, and speak less about groups. Neat categories of racial, vocational or religious groupings cannot begin to account for the immense diversity to be found at every turn. Skin color is absolutely the least I can know about a person. For that matter, other group labels are hardly more helpful. It's disappointing to witness our elected officials traffic in these labels so fluently, but at least I can teach my children correctly, and realize that each individual person is someone I should purpose to know nothing about until they reveal their character by word and deed.


Melissa said...

(Respectfully submitted...)

We identify ourselves in terms of groups every single day. You are not the only "father" or "priest" or "hockey fan" in the country, neither am I the only "mother" or "student" or "Jets fan" to be found. Group identification is not an evil to be avoided at all costs, despite it's misuse by those who would exploit it.

In a large way, group identification is the way individuals have their voices heard and their needs satisfied. (Mothers Against Drunk Driving is made up of mothers with a common interest, the Democratic Party comprises people with similar -though maybe not identical- political ideology...)

We cannot expect politicos to "know" every individual constituent, nor could they ever satisfy every individual's needs. With a nation of millions of people that is simply impossible.

I agree that misusing group identifiers to establish a false commonality and purposeful exploitation is completely wrong. I do not agree that it necessarily follows that anyone who claims an understanding of a group is doing so maliciously.

Groups are 'groups' because they DO share commonalities, despite being composed of individuals. Although generalities are best avoided wherever possible, it is not always possible. Occasionally, showing concern for those common aspects of a group that they would acknowledge themselves is the only way to attempt to serve that group.

No, not all bankers are evil, and not all blacks eat fried chicken. Stereotypes are unfair and demeaning. At the same time, acknowledging that the banking industry has failed or that African Americans have historically been challenged with discrimination allows us a basis from which we can work toward positive changes or social adjustments that address problems and deficiencies associated with those issues-- even if not every individual in those groups is specifically worthy of blame for the problem.

Bottom line, IMHO, is simply this: treat individuals as individuals; accept that individuals make up groups; understand that serving groups well is a facet of attempting to serve many individuals.

Monk321 said...


This is well said, and indeed possibly even tempers my position to admit a scale of "helpfulness" for various labels (a scale or a continuum).

I still maintain that some labels are so easily misused as to have become functionally unhelpful in present society. They simply do not tell me anything about the makeup of the person. However, I concede that other labels might be somewhat helpful in speaking about groups. For the label to be helpful though, would require that it be voluntarily adopted by a person. Only then could it tell me something about the choices they make.

This "scale" would suggest that the helpfulness of a category is tied to how voluntarily it was adopted by anyone. At one end of the scale are labels such a political party or even something very specific in religious circles (these are subject to abuse with broad strokes: i.e. "All Muslims think...") that demonstrate someone's voluntary choices. At the other end of the scale are much less helpful labels because someone could not have chosen it, so it does not demonstrate their thinking, their preferences and possible choices (i.e. "All blacks think...").

Again, to concede your point ever so slightly, someone might possibly make an accurate statement that liberals or conservatives think or would vote a certain way, for indeed people choose to adopt those philosophies. But I still maintain that it is essentially demeaning for politicians to seek to attract the "Black vote," or the "Hispanic vote," or the female vote, supposing that they know what those voters want simply because they fit in those groups.

If one does not fit into a category by virtue of chooses they have made, how can that category account for the choices they WILL make? I cannot assume that I know how someone will think, act or speak by looking at them. What fundamental difference can I claim in my thought process if I assume "all Hispanics are family oriented," than if I assert "all Hispanics join gangs and smuggle cocaine?" One assumption might be complimentary and the other denigrating, but I've still assumed to know something about Hispanic people by virtue of a label they could not have chosen.

This seems to de-humanize people and reduce them to the mere product of environments and ancestry. The impact of volition is lost, as is the veneration of virtue and responsibility for vice.

Vocational labels are somewhere in between, for while one might "choose" their vocation, the label does not tell me how they "choose" to execute it. "All bankers make greater than average incomes:" this might very well be an accurate statement because of the standard market salary for such positions, the education necessary to qualify for it, and the initiative needed to succeed. "All bankers care nothing for people:" this statement is more easily inaccurate because the "banker" labels tells me nothing about the bankers motivation, ethics, virtues or vices.

I'm very careful to make broad statements about "what women want or think." An accurate statement might be made, but it needs to be approached with care. If I say, "Women are more emotional than men," you might concede, "OK. I'll grant that." If, however, I say, "women are too emotional to make sound decision," your disdain would not be entirely uncalled for.

So the helpfulness of certain labels rests on a scale. But because of the frequency with which these are so easily abused, I hold their use by political figures suspect.