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It’s time to have a better debate.
Political commentary in online news and social media has become obsessed with defining the inner nature of different groups. Huge amounts of time, effort, and verbal wind are spent arguing about whether Islam is inherently violent, whether the Republican party is inherently racist, whether feminism is inherently about hating men, or whether liberalism is inherently about policing language and censoring opposing ideas. It’s a bizarre obsession that seems to have ramped up in recent years, to the point where it is supplanting actual constructive political discourse.
A recent article, “Not a very P.C. thing to say: How the language police are perverting liberalism,” by Jonathan Chait is a perfect example of this trend. Throughout the article, Chait presents “political correctness” as inherently authoritarian: “a style of politics in which the more radical members of the left attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate.” Citing example after example of people using the “politically correct” banner as a way of imposing linguistic norms on people, he argues that this movement is antithetical to the true spirit of liberalism, which is about freedom and diversity.
This prompted reactions both from the political left, who insisted that Chait is mischaracterizing political correctness by conflating it with language policing, and from the political right, who insist that political correctness can’t be perverting liberalism because it is an inherent part of liberalism. The entire debate on social media then became nothing more than a conceptual tug-of-war over who has the right to define what political correctness really means or what liberalism really is.
There is a name for this phenomenon: It is what psychologists study as “essentialist thinking.” Essentialist thinking is the assumption that the categories that we use to talk about the world are defined by some kind of immutable essence that gives them their uniqueness and their character. Essentialist thinking is a process of reasoning: It basically comes down to the belief that our conceptual categories are defined by a “true nature” that we must—as thinking human beings making our way in the world—divine or uncover.
There is a name for this phenomenon: It is what psychologists study as “essentialist thinking.”
Essentialist thinking emerges in early childhood and is probably innate. There is also good reason for it to be innate: It is incredibly useful and leads us to reason correctly much of the time, especially when reasoning about real world objects. Dr. Susan Gelman, at the University of Michigan, has done a great deal of research on the development of essentialist thinking in children and found that from a very early age children will hypothesize that the internal essence of a thing matters more than outward appearances.
Some of Gelman’s research has shown, for example, that by the age of four children will reason that a “leaf bug” (a bug that looks like a leaf) will behave more like a bug than a leaf, based just on the fact that it has the word “bug” in the label. Young children will assume that kangaroo that is switched at birth and raised by goats will grow up to hop, even though goats can’t hop, because they see hopping as part of the essence of being a kangaroo. These conclusions are correct and show that importance and validity of essentialist thinking in day-to-day reasoning.
But essentialist thinking can also go very wrong. Dr. Gelman even suggests that the same innate mental processes that help children to reason about leaf bugs and displaced kangaroo babies might also be responsible for the early formation of gender-based essentialist beliefs, like the idea that women can’t be firefighters.
Since the 1980s feminists and cultural critics have argued that the cognitive benefits that we get when we apply essentialist reasoning to simple categories like bugs and kangaroo break down when it is applied to complex and nuanced concepts such as gender, race, and politics. Instead of helping people to make correct inferences, it can lead people to believe more strongly in the power and reality of arbitrary cultural divisions.
Essentialist thinking can also go very wrong.
Because of this, the debates between politicians and pundits over the essential character of different group is strategic as well. If you are a conservative, then it serves your purpose for people to think that all liberals share a common underlying essence, rooted in closed-mindedness, language-policing, and other bad behaviors. Similarly, if you are liberal then it serves your purpose to push the narrative that being conservative is somehow essentially bigoted or ignorant. Neither side is served—from a political standpoint—by acknowledging that both liberalism and conservatism are amorphous socially constructed categories with fuzzy boundaries that are continually evolving.
So perhaps it isn’t surprising that our political discourse is caught up in essentialist debates. The problem is that these debates do not actually accomplish anything. They don’t change anybody’s mind, and they don’t produce ideas about how to fix problems in the world. They are merely arguments about labels. Political discourse about definitions and what different groups “really are” is metaphysical navel-gazing: It is not merely silly and pointless, but it also sucks all of the air out of the room so that there is none left for productive conversation.
But even if essentialist thinking is deeply ingrained in us from childhood—even if it is innate—we don’t have to give in and let it take over our entire political discourse. In the end, it simply doesn’t matter whether language policing is an intrinsic characteristic of liberalism, or whether racism is inherent to being a conservative. We need to move our political rhetoric away from definitional navel-gazing, and toward conversations about what we can actually do to change the world, if anything is to ever get done.
The problem is that these debates do not actually accomplish anything.
We should be having conversations about how we can be considerate of other people and reflective about cultural differences, not about whether political correctness is or is not inherently censorious. We should be having conversations about how to recognize signs of anti-woman biases in our culture even when it’s not tied to overt prejudice, not about whether feminism is or is not “really” about hating men. And we should have a conversation about how to give Muslims, and the members of any religion, the space to be judged on their own beliefs and actions as individuals, rather than pretending that the character of a religion can be computed based on the number of violent extremists who commit crimes in its name.
Otherwise, all of this is inherently pointless.
Greg Stevens is a data scientist with over 20 years of hands-on experience with machine learning, predictive analytics, and related statistical methods. His research-driven essays tackle issues in pop culture, politics, and science. He also hosts a YouTube channel.