Friday, July 16, 2010

Beware Collectivism, Part 2

At the end of my last blog on this subject, I left you with a question: what can we do about the human tendency to think of ourselves and others in collective terms? If we all think collectively on occasion, if we can't help ourselves, why should be bother trying to do anything about it?

Becuase collectivist thinking threatens constantly to compromise our belief in God's most precious gift to humankind -- free will.

Our relationship with free will is ambiguous. On the one hand, free will means we have choices, and we like the sound of that. on the other, it means we are responsible for those choices and must bear the blame if they lead to bad outcomes. We don't care so much for this. So we manufacture collectivism, one of our most effective and convenient little devices for relieving ourselves of this responsibility. If certain virtues and flaws are programmed into our group identity, they are neatly beyond our control.

I should note that not all collectivist thinking is created equal. It's all flawed, but some more seriously than others. Often we make judgments about individuals based on a group affiliation they have chosen -- profession, political party, etc. "Lawyer jokes," for instance, are quite common. Greg Smith may not conform to all these negative stereotypes, but his choice to enter the legal profession may indeed say something important about him. Likewise, when we find out Betty Jones is a Republican, certain assumptions about where she stands on the economy, the war on terror, or abortion might not fall too wide of the mark. Of course, not all lawyers or Republicans are alike. No group, even a chosen group, thinks entirely in a monolithic block. But these judgments based on chosen group memberships are not as threatening to the concept of free will as those judgments we base on gender, race, age, or nationality of birth -- matters in which we have no say.

If we do not choose our gender, age, or race, we cannot be blamed for them, and it makes no sense whatsoever to hold an entire gender, age, or race accountable for the misdeeds of a few or even a majority. Likewise, we cannot justly be credited or praised for our gender, age, or race, and the virtues of a few or even a majority cannot be attributed to all. Why should anyone expect to be rewarded or honored for something he or she neither earned nor accomplished?

We expect it all the time. We seek out that cheap rush of pride that comes with the accomplishments of "someone like us." I'm as guilty of this as anyone. It delights me to see women nominated for Academy, Emmy, or Tony Awards in the writing or directing categories and winning Nobel Prizes for science and literature, confirming that women can and do excel in these areas -- as if I had any claim to their brilliance. How often do we settle for this cheap pride, rather than making the effort to accomplish something of our own?

Similarly, when we decide that gender, age, or race are somehow blameworthy qualities, we can let ourselves off the hook. The most dangerous negative stereotype is the one we believe about ourselves. Young men who convince themselves that Bill Clinton and Tiger Woods committed adultery not because they are flawed individuals but because they are male and "that's just what men do," no longer have to make the effort to be faithful; they've decided that their "playing around" is a foregone conclusion. A young black woman who believes that people of her age and gender are "naturally" bad at math need not put time and energy into her math homework; when she fails, she can always claim that being black and female, she couldn't help it.

With every such notion, we kill our belief in free will by degrees. We don't even realize that at the start of it all, we chose to believe the collectivist lies, and afterwards we will reap the negative consequences of that choice.

The best way to start combatting collectivism is to own our choices, good and bad. We can claim both our accomplishments and our mistakes, without seeking to pilfer other people's. When our achievements reap reward, we can tell ourselves and others, "I did that -- not because of any gender or race I happen to belong to, but because of the individual I am, with a mind and soul unlike any others."

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