Sarah Hoyt and the individual

Sarah Hoyt recently posted about the circular thinking of the intellectual elite and how so many people are convinced that we should be defined by one specific aspect of our being. It’s an excellent post, and I encourage you to read it. But here is one key point:

The essential failure of making individuals go through groups with which they share a characteristic, is that ultimately groups are too amorphous for the representative to represent anything but himself. The last irreducible group is one.  Which is why our system establishes rights of the individual and equality under the law.  ANYTHING else, no matter how “progressive” it sounds is a shambling step back into the mists of tribalism and irrational group think.

I similarly bristle at people who would suggest that I must act (or worse think) a certain way because of one single trait of all the traits that make up “me.” I immediately dismiss anyone who tries to oversimplify anything. And I find it bitterly ironic when the supposed champions of diversity insist that everyone with a particular common feature should all believe the same. The bottom line is, no matter how smart you think you are, you don’t really know anyone–at least not until you’ve taken the time to get to know someone. And you never will get to know someone if you charge in with a fistfull of assumptions to bludgeon them with: “You’re a man, so you must believe X”, “You’re a woman, so you just feel a kinship with Y”, ” You’re a Catholic, so you must think Z”.

Even if you’re right, chances are you’re wrong. I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, so you may think you know how I feel about certain topics. And since I am a believing and practicing member, you’d probably be right–to a degree. You may be able to guess the end-point of my stance on a particular issue, but if you thought that was the only reason I feel that way you would be wrong more often than not. You would be insultingly foolish to assume that the extent of my reasoning on any issue is “Because God says so.”

And I doubt anyone would be any more flattered if I were to assume similarly about one of their core beliefs.

The bottom line is that while it may make life easier trying to lump people into categories, it doesn’t make life better. Explain to me why it’s wrong to judge blacks by their ethnicity, but then turn around and make assumptions about women based on gender. So often we hear that someone who others identify with a particular group has “sold out” or “turned traitor” because they don’t stay within the convenient little box others try to put them in, like it should be impossible for any intelligent black person to be conservative, or for a Mormon to be liberal. Even if it is true that members of particular groups feel similarly 99% of the time, why is it “selling out” for that 1% to think differently? Why can’t they simply be being true to themselves? Isn’t that the diversity we claim we cherish?

Now I know it is impossible to not judge others. It happens constantly and unconsciously. We make thousands of judgments every day just to get through the basic tasks. If we see a person in the next car talking on their cellphone we drive differently around them than we would if they weren’t. But why? We’re making an assumption that they’re not paying attention. We’re judging. It’s instinctive. Our brain is constantly trying to assess what it perceives. It’s just that certain judgments carry different weight than others.

If I see a driver on a cellphone and assume they’re not paying attention I may be wrong. But since the negative consequences of being wrong are pretty high, while the negative consequences of being right are minimal, why not act on that single piece of information? In fact, it’s almost always a good idea to assume the other drivers are not paying attention. It’s called defensive driving, and it has many benefits.

But the negative consequences of seeing, for example, a woman and not assuming you know her politics because she is a woman are negligible in most circumstances. If indeed there is a reason to even make assumptions about such a thing, there is no reason why we shouldn’t withhold judgment until we’ve gathered more data points that support a particular hypothesis. But even then we would do well not to read too far into the data.

In short, most of the time we don’t really know–and we don’t need to. Unless we’re looking for particular people to hate or pick on (which doesn’t say anything good about us), there’s really no reason to assume the worst about anyone. We don’t need to start every interaction with someone we sense is on the opposite side of a given issue as if they were stupid, the devil incarnate, insane, or one drugs. Nor should we assume that everyone within the sound of our voice or the reach of our social media believes exactly the same way as us simply because of that proximity.

When it comes right down to it, most of us don’t even know ourselves well enough to predict how we’ll respond in any given situation, and far too many of us haven’t thoroughly examined why we believe many of the things we believe or act the way we act. Yet we assume to know others based on a single point of data? It’s not only likely to be wrong, it’s a recipe for disaster.

I’m not going to tell you not to judge. But please, judge responsibly.