Thursday, November 02, 2017

That Wide Group Guilt, Again

The horrible terror attack in New York City has provoked all the usual social media debates. I want to address one particular one, exemplified by this troll comment from Eschaton

This day a Muslim murdered 8 NYC people. Liberals everywhere will not comment much because 8 dead is a minor nuisance in their quest to excuse anything that religion's proponents do.

Note the use of two generalizing terms in that quote  "Muslims" and "Liberals".  Thus, according to this troll, all Muslims are responsible for this latest atrocity, and Liberals "everywhere" are abetting that crime.

These kinds of generalizing comments are nothing new, of course.  They are very much the basis of certain types of racism and sexism, in particular stereotypes about how African-Americans are assumed to be, in general, how women are assumed to be, in general, and also about how, say, African-American women are assumed to be, in general.  Thus, it has often been the case that something one person does is attributed to that person's demographic group, to a general tendency shared by all in the group.  All people of the same type are then responsible.

And that is what the above comment about Muslims and Liberals reflects.

Sadly, the generalizing tendency that I describe is not limited to the right side of the political aisle or to those with anti-Muslim bigotry.

It's every bit as alive on the other side of the aisle, where vast demographic groups* are seen as guilty for what some percentage of their members do or have done.

Note that we can't choose the demographic group others decide we belong to, and that's what makes the apparently very easy generalizations** problematic, unless the accusation truly can be shown to apply to every single member of that group.  After all, most concepts of justice require more than sharing some  culprit's very loosely defined demographic grouping.

None of this means that institutional forms of racism and/or sexism do not provide obvious advantages to some demographic groups (such as white men, men or whites) and obvious disadvantages to other demographic groups, and those institutional forms, as well as the explicit sexism or racism of individuals, must be strongly addressed and corrected.

Neither does it mean that theological interpretations of some concepts inside the more extremist types of interpretations of Islam aren't something that needs to be addressed, preferably inside the religion, or that we shouldn't debate more the impact of petro-Islam and its radicalizing influence in the world.

What I write about is something different from those points.  It's also different from memberships in narrowly defined ideological groups, such as the KKK or ISIS, where the group indeed deserves guilt for the actions of individuals carrying out the group's commands.  But belonging to ISIS is very different from being a Muslim, just as belonging to the KKK is very different from, say, being white and living in the American South.

I believe that the rhetorical uses of group or genetic guilt are counterproductive and can even be dangerous.

To see how the latter might work, simply think of those American Muslims who are now afraid of a yet another backlash after the New York terror attack.

To see how the former might work against the intended goals of those who employ the device, observe how difficult it is to know what to do when your whole demographic is viewed as guilty for something you (as an individual) had no role in creating (even if you benefit from it), then observe how nothing you can actually do is likely to stop those accusations.

This is an opinion which I seem to hold pretty much on my own.  Most people are perfectly happy with false generalizations, as long as they are done by their own side, but very grumpy when they are done by the other side.

And I even understand the reasons for that comfort with one's own false generalizations.  After all, if all the abuse one experiences comes from some wide group "x," then blaming x feels right, even if not all its member (as in #notallmen) engage in that abuse, and if x is a group with much more societal power,  demanding that they take responsibility for that institutional edge they command also feels right.  Besides, it's a lot more powerful to write "x" than "the y% of x who voted for candidate z."

Nevertheless, I still believe that assigning wide group guilt is counterproductive and unlikely to result in the kinds of changes we wish to see. 

*  "Muslims and "Liberal" are a religious and political group, respectively, but many other commonly employed generalizations blame the types of groups which one cannot choose to enter or leave, even in theory.

Examples I have seen used in this way are "white men," "whites", "blacks, "trans people," "cis women," "trans women."   In all the cases I have noticed, the generalization were applied to arguments by one or a handful of individuals or written articles, each by one author.  Yet the views those individuals or articles expressed were generalized to much larger demographic groups.

It's clearly true that "punching upward" is better than "punching downward," that those who have more societal power can do more to change institutional racism and sexism.  But it would be more effective to simply demand that those with more societal power work to remove institutionalized bigotry of all kinds and to ask them to speak up when they observe racism and/or sexism from others inside their demographic group.

**  This practice is so common that I suspect it is part of how we humans parse the world.  I wish we paid more attention to this tendency in ourselves.