Saturday, 1 December 2018

Mistaken Group Identity

Why do people project unpleasant characteristics to a whole group when that simply cannot be justified? In some cases, it’s because people are angry and upset, and they want to lash out at everyone who resembles someone who has wronged them. In other cases, there are people who deviously want to stir up resentment and hatred against a targeted group that can then be treated as scapegoats for the offences committed by a few with similar characteristics.

But whatever the motive, it is unacceptable to accuse any group of wrongdoing when that is only true of some who possess a number of features associated with that group. Just think of the groundless reproachful generalisations fired off against: “All you foreigners …”, “All you women …”, and the same can framed around people with a certain religion, having to claim benefits, stranded as refugees, etc., when there is absolutely no basis for suggesting that all who fall under the group description in question behave like a number of individuals who happen to fit that description.

It is disingenuous as it is obnoxious to attach blame to every member of these groups. And to recognise this means we should be aware that it applies to all group generalisations with equally shaky foundations. Take phrases that open with “All you white people …”, “All you men …”, “All you police …”, and countless others; unless there is a firm basis for attributing a negative characteristic to all who can be classified under the group cited, such an attribution should not be made.

Women or men; black/white/any ethnicity; one nationality or another; it is as fallacious to claim that some vile feature is to be found in all the members of one or the other of these broad groups. Furthermore, any attempt to criticise people for the violations committed by others is likely to have at least three unfortunate consequences. First, attention is diverted from the real wrongdoers, who are either merged in public perception with others who have actually done no wrong at all, or they escape censure altogether. Secondly, it breeds resentment from the innocent who, quite rightly, are riled by innuendos, or even direct attacks, that they are at fault. Thirdly, and worst of all, it will push some of those who are groundlessly lambasted towards a sense of misguided solidarity with those who are actually guilty. It is not unheard of that some people repeatedly grouped with others as convenient targets end up feeling they should stand together against such targeting – even with those who deserve to be censured.

Of course, there will be cases where membership of certain groups is a ground for collective criticism. For example, voluntary membership of a group dedicated to intimidating and hurting vulnerable people is enough for indicting anyone belonging to such a group. But with most of the critical generalisations around, rarely is there much evidence at all that ‘All the Xs’ are disposed to commit the same wrong as this or that individual X.

If we genuinely want to tackle prejudice, discrimination, and thoughtless abuse, we should start by avoiding them ourselves when it comes to applying mistaken group identity.


Woodman59 said...

Whilst concurring with all the above, I find that in order to understand the individual person that we wish to engage with in depth it is almost always necessary to have some understanding of the larger group identity (or identities) that they are part of.

Sociology is after all the study of groups of people - their characteristics, tendencies i.e. their psychology as it has been shaped by their history.

What I have come across is people SO concerned about potential prejudice that they simply cannot tolerate the sociological reflection required to enable deep personal understanding - so undermining this all important aspect of human relations.

It is essential, I feel, to allow people to identify what they see as aspects of particular group identities - which are inevitably going to be far from complete at first, as we strive for a genuinely fuller understanding - and not to confuse this with shallow accusatory condemnation of the type described.

Henry Benedict Tam said...

It can indeed be helpful to understand an individual by understanding the groups to which that individual belongs and genuinely share the characteristics of those groups. And that is the critical issue, whether or not we are correct in attributing the characteristics of any group to someone loosely, or even mistakenly, associated with that group. Generalisations are valuable to aid comprehension if they are well-founded. But flawed generalisations are the roots of prejudice and much groundless animosity.