Sunday, June 06, 2010

The Flipside Of Group Identity

Michael Chabon's opinion piece in yesterday's NYT reminded me of an argument I got into when I was part of the froshling orientation program at my alma mater. One of the ideas that we were supposed to discuss with/inculcate in the incoming class was the notion that it was insufficient to merely tolerate a diversity of views. Rather, members of the student body should actively seek to include specifically identified groups whenever there was including to be done. This struck me as a bad idea which caused more problems than it solved, since it rested on the assumption that these groups could be treated as monolithic units that spoke with a single voice. I argued against this practice on the grounds that it was nothing more than group stereotyping dressed up in progressive garb. Needless to say I didn't get many takers for that position; my peers didn't share my enthusiasm for theoretical arguments.

So it was reassuring to hear the same argument coming out of Mr. Chabon's mouth, specifically this bit about Jewish group identity being a two-edged sword:

For we Jews are not, it turns out, entirely comfortable living with the consequences of this myth, as becomes clear from the squirming and throat-clearing that take place among us whenever some non-Jew pipes up with his own observations about how clever and smart we are in our yiddishe kops. These include people like the political scientist Charles Murray, author of an influential essay titled "Jewish Genius," or Kevin B. MacDonald, a psychology professor at California State University at Long Beach who argues that Jews essentially undertook a centuries-long program of self-breeding, selecting for traits of intelligence, guile and skill at calculation, as a kind of evolutionary adaptation to the buffetings of history and exile.

Such claims, in mouths of gentiles, are a disturbing echo of the charges of the pogrom-stokers, the genocidalists, the Father Coughlins, who come to sharpen their knives against the same grindstone of generalization on which we Jews have long polished the magnifying lenses of our self-regard. The man who praises you for your history of accomplishment may someday seek therein the grounds for your destruction.

Absolutely; making categorical assertions in the form "group X is Y" can lead to a world of hurt in the long run even if those assertions are generally regarded as positive. To make such assertions is to engage in a form of essentiallism which, as Michael explains, can come back to bite you in the ass.

This leads to a larger thought about group identity (and its associated politics) which has been kicking around in the back of my head for awhile. It is wholly appropriate for historically marginalized groups (or others working on their behalf) to agitate for an end to discrimination, the protection of their civil rights, and so on, but in doing so they risk running afoul of the hazard which Chabon highlighted. It seems to me that such movements rarely confine themselves to asking for those rights to which they are entitled by virtue of their status as persons. Rather they tend to assert (perhaps as an incidental byproduct of necessary group solidatiry) a collective identity above and beyond that which is strictly necessary to secure such rights. And therein lies the problem; it seems to me any substantive assertion of group identity creates a legitimate basis for discrimination against the group as a whole.

For example, one trope that I've often heard applied to various groups at various times is that they are "family-oriented". Who can object to that? It's right up there with baseball and apple pie. But such seemingly innocuous statements have a pernicious effect for several reasons:

  • They set a bad precedent: If members of the group so identified allow such positive attributions to stand unattested it validates treating the group as a unit rather than as the varigated collection of individuals it probably is.
  • "Positive" is in the eye of the beholder: If we establish that a group has some trait, even a positive one, that trait may then legitimately be utilized when making judgements about the group as a whole1.

So how does this apply in the case of our "family-oriented" group? Let's say that I genuinely dislike people who exibit a family-centric orientation (it's patriarchal, heteronormative, collectivistic... whatever); am I not then perfectly justified in discounting this group as a whole? Or, even worse, what if I'm just looking for a pretext to provide cover for a nefarious agenda? Can't I just say "Look, I'm sure they're great people and all, but... you know... they're family-oriented" even though my real objection might not stand up to scrutiny.

You can see how that might play out; positive sterotyping can boomerang back on you. Moreover, "positive" is open to interpretation; one person's welcomed attribute might be anathema to another.

Anyhow, that's a thought I've been wanting to get down on paper for awhile now. Thank you for your patience.

1 This assumes, of course, that the reason we find group-based discrimination to be objectionable is because it generally relies on unfounded stereotypes. Of course it's also the case that some people object to discrimination of all types, even if such discrimination is fact-based.


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