Thursday, June 24, 2010

Beware Collectivism, Part 1

(I call this "Part 1" not because I have a specific series planned, but because I have more to say on this subject than one blog can cover, and I know I'll be revisiting it.)

When I teach Freshman Composition, I start by asking my students what, in their view, separates a good essay from an okay-to-bad one. After they give me some of their opinions, I give them mine, and often they coincide beautifully. One thing they always bring up is "specific details," whereupon I explain that specificity is achieved through the kinds of examples used. Okay-to-bad essays rely entirely on the collective, the plural, the hypothetical. Good essays balance the collective with the individual, the plural with the singular, the hypothetical with the actual. As a result, good essays linger in our memory, while okay-to-bad essays dwindle into darkness about fifteen minutes after we have read them.

Individual, singular, actual examples have a greater hold on the memory for a simple and obvious reason: readers relate to them. Confronted with statistics and percentages, we may nod our heads and think about them for a minute or two, but we quickly move on. Confronted with a specific situation involving an individual with a name, we pause long enough to consider, "What if that were me?" or "What would I do in that same situation?" It's easy to dismiss statistics and collective examples as if they had nothing to do with us; with a well-told and on-point example involving an individual, that individual's problem -- momentarily, at least -- becomes ours. This difference in response offers a hint of the problems with collectivist thinking.

Collectivist thinking is fairly easy to define. It's synonymous with "Groupthink," the tendency to think of ourselves and others in terms of age, gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, class, religion, etc. To put it more concretely -- every time you see a T-shirt or a bumper sticker that reads, "It's a [fill-in-the-blank] thing; you wouldn't understand," you're looking at collectivist thinking.

When we're reading an essay and the writer backs up her point with a specific, individual example, and we relate to that example regardless of the age, gender, or race the individual comes from, that example gives us an inkling of the similarities that bind the human family together. Collectivist thinking is in the business of highlighting differences rather than similarities, discord rather than harmony. "We're over here; they're over there. We have our problems; they have theirs."

Worst of all: We -- the people of the same age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, etc. -- come in all kinds; we vary. But They -- the people from The Other Generation, Gender, Race, etc. -- are All The Same.

The biggest problem with collectivist thinking is that it's impossible to avoid. The hilarious Muppet musical Avenue Q tells us, "Everyone's a little bit racist"; sadly, it's true that everyone's a little bit collectivist. Collectivism is our defense mechanism against the often overwhelming complexity of the human race; it's our misguided attempt to give sense to inexplicable behavior. "Oh, she expects me to guess what she's feeling because that's what women do," or "He's attracted to the gangsta lifestyle because he's a black teenager," may be easier for us to understand than the fact that these people make questionable choices because of a myriad of factors and variables that have gone into making them the individuals they are. Also, collectivist thinking comes from a dangerous place: our experience. Let's say, for argument's sake, that everyone over seventy whom we have gotten to know well has turned out to be quick-tempered and narrow-minded. It's easy, then, to think all people over seventy must be the same. If we meet a new person over seventy, even though that person may be brilliant and sweet-tempered, our low expectations color our experience with this person; we're likely to see narrow-mindedness and bad temperament even where there is none, because that's what we think we'll find.

I've seen this kind of self-fulfilling prophecy in action: an acquaintance of mine, some years ago, was distressed because her boss, with whom she got along well, had resigned, and she was worried about who might replace him. Her biggest worry, she confided, was that her new boss might be a woman. She had clashed with every female boss she'd ever had, and as far as she was concerned, if the new boss turned out to be female, a clash was inevitable. The new boss was indeed female, and, sure enough, my acquaintance clashed with her. I had to wonder how much of this clash was due to the new boss's short-sighted personality, and how much was due to my acquaintance's low expectations.

When we form our expectations based on collectivist thinking, we make trouble for ourselves, and the stereotypes on which our expectations are founded perpetuate themselves. Yet we continue to think collectively -- to attempt to understand people in monolithic group blocks rather than on a case-by-case basis -- despite the fact that sooner or later, we should figure out that any attempt to understand a group, without accounting for the marks of individuality within that group, is doomed to failure.

I'm not innocent in this. I recall the day the O.J. Simpson verdict was announced. I had forgotten all about the timing of the announcement (I'd gotten sick of this story some months ago and was trying to ignore it), and I'd gone to the store to pick up groceries. As I was driving through the parking lot, I caught sight of two young black women shouting for joy and high-fiving each other. Immediately I remembered that the verdict had just been announced. My next thought: "They acquitted him."

Why did I assume at once that these two young women were celebrating O.J.'s acquittal? What evidence did I have for this assumption? One of them could have just gotten engaged, or one could have been congratulating the other on a promotion at work, or they might have been old friends who hadn't seen each other in over a year. The potential reasons for their behavior are infinite. But I concluded that it was about O.J., because months and months of media coverage had convinced the collectivist part of my brain that every single African-American believed O.J. was innocent and wanted him acquitted, or simply wanted him acquitted regardless of his innocence or guilt.

Yes, the announcement had just been given, and yes, Simpson was acquitted. But I will never know what those two young women were celebrating about. All I'll know is that when I saw them, collectivist thinking came first, and common sense later. Though I try to keep myself aware of it and to curb it whenever I can, I'm just as prone to collectivist thinking as anyone else. And it scares me.

Those Muppets in Avenue Q are on to something. So, what can we do about it?

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