This is the mentality that is tearing us apart
The world is complex, and our minds have a limited capacity, so we create categories to help us make sense of things. We divide the social world, for example, into types — hipster, evangelical, nerd, white or black — and associate traits or characteristics with each.
These provisions involve simplifications and generalizations. But we can’t make sense of the everyday storm of sensory data if we can’t put things, situations, and people into some form of conceptual square. As our old friend Immanuel Kant has argued, perceptions without perceptions are blind.
It becomes a serious problem when people begin to believe that these mental constructs reflect basic facts. This is called intrinsic. It is the belief that each of the groups we identify by our nomenclature actually has an “essential” and immutable nature, rooted in biology or in the nature of reality. In the worst case, the belief was that Hutus were fundamentally different from Tutsis, and that Christian Germans were innately superior to Jews.
Intrinsicity can produce certain common mental habits. Fundamentals may imagine that people in one group are more alike than they really are and that they are more different from people in other groups than they actually are. Fundamentalists may believe that the boundaries between groups are clear and difficult and that anyone who adopts another group’s culture is guilty of possessiveness. Fundamentalists might see the world divided into Manichaean dichotomies, and history as a struggle between collective versus group power struggles—clashes that demand absolute collective solidarity and give meaning to life.
America is steeped in essentialism. As New York University philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah, who writes the moral column for The Times, noted, before World War II, not many people thought about identities as we do today. But it now seems that contemporary politics is more or less about identity – about what kind of person will dominate.
At some level this is necessary. The great project of the past seventy years or so has been to rectify the injustices that historical fundamentalists have imposed on the groups they have described and persecuted.
The problem comes when people repeat the mentality they are fighting against. Johns Hopkins Professor of Political Science Yasha Monk notes that there are at least two great social movements in American life in different areas of the basic spectrum. On the right, there is the “ethnic nationalist and white nationalist position that race is real and always will be, and societies will prosper insofar as the supposedly superior group can remain in a position of responsibility.” On the left, there is a tendency that “this race is so essential and deeply baked that it will always define societies and societies, and instead of having a liberal democracy seen primarily as individual citizens with the same rights and duties, we should be seen primarily as that we are members of our ethnic or perhaps religious communities.”
When basic groups conflict with each other, sweeping generalizations tend to fill in the blank. You run workshops on topics like “What’s Up With White Women?” As if all the white women in the world were somehow one class. You get a Trump-supported Arizona gubernatorial candidate pledging to take a sledgehammer on a class of people called “corrupt media” and accuse the “corporate media establishment” of using “outside the rules of the communist game”. Politics is no longer about controversy. It’s just blurring a bunch of frightening categories about people who are allegedly corrupt to the core.
Even worse, you find yourself in a society where dehumanization is rampant, where people are stacked with primitive stereotypes that increasingly detach from the complexities of reality and make them feel invisible as individuals.
Some people say the thing to do is to let go of the group mentality altogether. Judge people as individuals only. This seems unrealistic to me, and even undesirable as ambition. I don’t want to live in a world without collective 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 intrinsic, and we can become more intolerant of immanent mind. It begins with acknowledging, as Appiah notes, that all of our stereotypes are wrong to some degree. I would add that they are always somewhat painful. We should be more skeptical of our ratings, and much quicker to admit that they are sometimes useful but always simplistic fabrications.
That could mean constantly switching between seeing groups and seeing people. People are surprisingly quick to drop stereotypes when they meet a real individual. You may not trust lawyers but Mary, the lawyer, seems very nice. In general, I would say that people are more subtle, complex, and complex in terms of seeing people than they are in seeing groups, and the more personal a people’s perspective is, the wiser and kinder they become.
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 fundamentalism and turn it into a flow. The people in conversation are not beings, but persistent storytellers of their own lives, navigating their multiple identities, channeling certainty and doubts, and refining their categories through contact with others.
We are a large and diverse country. Whether we see this diversity through a fixed mindset or a growth mindset makes all the difference.
David Brooks is a columnist for the New York Times.