Friday, February 17, 2012

The One and the Many

Ancient philosophical issue. A social and political tension as well.

One of the themes of liberal moralism is that people should be taken as individuals. To even think of humans in groups --except of course, when it suits the liberal drama of oppression and liberation-- is noxious. The reductio ad Hitlerum would arrive very soon. Yet Barry Hussein O remarked that his grandmother was "a typical White person". Were I write something as egregiously racist as "a typical Latino", well, that would not as be kindly received as the opinions of the half-Black incumbent of the White House. It tells you what the real Rules of the Game are.

So thinking about groups must be done very carefully indeed, in certain cases. If you wish to expatiate on the greater likelihood of men, males, to engage in criminality compared to women, that is ok. The facts and the numbers and everyone's experiences makes this clear. Plus, men are an Oppressor Group, so they have no claim to complaint in any case. Even if were one to assert that this criminality is predominantly a younger men's game, no heads would roll. The facts and stats are there. Linking male youthful criminality and economic status...well, there you might get away with it because it might serve the dogma that crime is caused by poverty.

But supposed one were to venture into the terra prohibita of criminal males by, say, race or ethnicity. And to notice that some groups of young males engage in criminality at a rate far outstripping their demographic representation. Well, here verily there be dragons. We would instantly move from obvious, even helpful, facts to hateful bigotry. I have noted several times on this blog news stories which report crimes and where the sex and the age of the perpetrator is happily given. But how often do we read of "youths" and suspect what the writer will not say?

Well, it's not relevant, is it? Although age and sex somehow are...

Fiery neo-con Midge Decter once wrote a famous takedown of homosexual men in her 1980 article about gays on Fire Island, The Boys on the Beach. It is considered by many to be the epitome of right-wing homophobia, provoking a riposte by no less than Gore Vidal. (Talk about Scylla and Charybdis).

At one point she writes
“Know them as a group. No doubt this will in itself seem to many of the uninitiated a bigoted formulation. Yet one cannot even begin to get at the truth about homosexuals without this kind of generalization.”
Know them as a group. Is Midge correct? Is that how we have to look at groups? (One is impishly led to wonder how Mrs. Podhoretz --her married title-- would think about her paragraph if "Jews" were substituted for "homosexuals".
Know them as a group. No doubt this will in itself seem to many of the uninitiated a bigoted formulation. Yet one cannot even begin to get at the truth about Jews without this kind of generalization.”

But she's right. How can you begin to get at the truth of any group, any group of anything whatsoever, without generalization? How can you know what any particular tree is unless you know what the group of organisms called trees are? As Aquinas said, aside from universals, particulars are unintelligible.

Well the question is a stupid one, and it is a testament to the cognitive looniness of our culture that it even arises. And it is indicative of the associated agendas around various groups, whether you can generalize about them or not, and in what ways, and to what ends. As one Black colleague in my graduate psychology program put it, "If you want to be my friend, you have to forget that I'm Black. And never forget that I'm Black." (Gosh, who wouldn't want sign up for that gig?)

In any case, desired or not, everyone speaks in terms of groups. One man's bigoted generalization is another man's obvious statistical fact.

When I used to teach psychology interns I had to lay out some definitions before I spoke, schooling these supposedly educated people in the differences between typical, archtypal and stereotypical. Speaking about Protected Victim Groups provokes complexes that drain the brain of electricity and reduce people to ideobots.

But what about the individual? Well, at the risk of seeming thick, I think you have to look at individuals as individuals related to all the groups they belong to. Take those generalizations away and you will in fact not see the individual, or much of anything beside your anxiety. Just a cipher.

And for those of you who are interested, a generalization and a universal are not the same. Generalizing describes characteristics that fit many or most, most of the time. Universal means all without exception. All men die is a universal. Men die younger than women is a generalization. Both are true.

So to think about a group at all is to think about a group.

That may be comfortable or uncomfortable, allowed or discouraged, even forbidden by law or social convention. Like Midge or not, she was right: you don't really have a choice, if you want to investigate the truths about groups.

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