Bangkok Post


- David Brooks David Brooks is a political and cultural commentato­r who writes for The New York Times.

The world is complicate­d, and our minds have limited capacity, so we create categories to help us make sense of things. We divide, say, the social world into types — hipster, evangelica­l, nerd, white or Black — and associate traits or characteri­stics with each. These judgments involve simplifica­tions and generalisa­tions. But we couldn’t make sense of the blizzard of sensory data each day if we couldn’t put things, situations and people into some form of conceptual boxes. As our old friend Immanuel Kant argued, perception­s without conception­s are blind.

It becomes a serious problem when people begin to believe that these mental constructs reflect underlying realities. This is called essentiali­sm. It is the belief that each of the groups we identify with our labels actually has an “essential” and immutable nature, rooted in biology or in the nature of reality. In the worst kind of case, it’s the belief that Hutus are essentiall­y different from Tutsis, that Christian Germans are innately superior to Jews.

Essentiali­sm can produce certain common habits of mind. Essentiali­sts may imagine that people in one group are more alike than they really are and are more different from people in other groups than they really are. Essentiali­sts may see the world divided into Manichaean dichotomie­s, and history as a clash of groupversu­s-group power struggles.

America is awash in essentiali­sm. As the New York University philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah, who writes the Ethicist column for The Times Magazine, has noted, before World War II few thought about identities the way we do today. But now it feels that contempora­ry politics is almost all about identity — about which type of person is going to dominate.

At some level this is necessary. The great project of the past 70 years or so has been to right the injustices that historical essentiali­sts imposed on groups they labeled and oppressed.

The problem comes when people replicate the mindset they are fighting against. The Johns Hopkins political scientist Yascha Mounk observed that there are at least two large social movements in American life on different spots on the essentiali­st spectrum. On the right, there is “the ethnonatio­nalist, white nationalis­t position that race is real and it will always be there, and societies will thrive insofar as the supposedly superior group manages to stay in charge.” On the left there is the tendency that holds “that race is so essential and so deeply baked in that it will always define communitie­s and societies, and rather than having a liberal democracy in which we primarily are seen as individual citizens with the same rights and duties, we should primarily be seen as members of our racial or perhaps religious communitie­s.”

When essentiali­st groups go at each other, sweeping generalisa­tions have a tendency to fill the air. You run across workshops on topics like “What’s up with white women?” as if all the white women in the world were somehow one category. You get a Trump-endorsed gubernator­ial candidate in Arizona pledging to take a sledgehamm­er to a category of people called the “corrupt media,” and charging the “corporate media establishm­ent” with employing methods “right out of a communist playbook.” Politics is no longer about argument; it’s just jamming together a bunch of scary categories about people who are allegedly rotten to the core.

Some people say the thing to do is to drop the group mentality entirely. Judge people as individual­s only. That seems unrealisti­c to me, and even undesirabl­e as an aspiration­al ideal. I wouldn’t want to live in a world that didn’t have group consciousn­ess, a world without Irish people singing about Irish history, without black writers exploring different versions of the black experience.

But we can have groups without essentiali­sm, we can become more intolerant of the essentiali­st cast of mind. That begins by acknowledg­ing, as Appiah has observed, that all our stereotype­s are wrong to some degree. I would add, they are always hurtful to some degree.

It also requires social courage, crossing group lines to have conversati­ons. When we have conversati­ons with people in other groups, we take the static world of essentiali­sm and turn it into flux. In conversati­on people are not objects, but ongoing narrators of their own lives, navigating between their multiple identities, steering through certaintie­s and doubts, and refining their categories through their contact with others.

We’re a big diverse country; whether we see that diversity through a fixed mindset or a growth mindset makes all the difference. ©2021

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