In the ever-dissolving acids of our postmodern days we have certainly arrived at an ironically unexpected place, a place where I am We and You are They.
In one sense, the subjective individualism we usually associate with PoMo is alive and well. If “your truth” tells you something that is contrary to “my truth,” so the thinking goes, then who am I to invalidate you? Different strokes for different folks. (Unless, of course, your “truth” is deemed to be inherently toxic by the powers at large–then we become as unyielding as steel).
But, in another sense, individualism is being slowly melted away. Or at least, slowly bastardized into something else. The autonomy, agency, responsibility, and creativity that we usually associate with the individual has met a strange nemesis in a new kind of collectivism. A fascination with group identities is taking us by storm. I am no longer Marc, defined by my character and choices. I am a straight white evangelical middle-class cisgender male. These intersecting group identities are what really make up who I am and have explanatory power for why the individual “Marc” acts the way he does and believes what he does.
And, apparently, my kaleidoscope of identities is basically a “Yahtzee” of privilege and power. Whereas someone who would be, for example, a black transgender woman would have relatively little inherent privilege or power, since their intersecting group identities align them with an infinitesimally small minority of the population. It will likely be easier for me than her, for instance, to get a bank loan, find myself represented in pop-culture, or land a job interview. Thus my group identity is directly linked to the power I possess.
While there has been an exponential increase in pop-culture’s desire to highlight minorities, to give them platforms, and to push against prejudices that have barred them from access to power (think of the role large corporations or Hollywood have played in the social justice movement), the history in America still disproportionately favors what is now referred to as “majority culture,” (straight, white, male, Protestant). And it is against this privilege and exclusion that the social justice movement of our day is looking to correct–to create “equity.” Which requires individuals within majority culture to change, to work to promote minorities, and at times be made an example of for their abuse or unwillingness.
But what is central here is how people are not treated primarily by their individual actions, but their individual actions within the context of their group identity. A person acting like a racist is a terrible thing. But when it is someone from a majority culture? It is unforgivable. When it is someone from a minority culture? Well, it isn’t that bad–maybe even impossible. What matters most is the group identity because group identity grants power. The moral mission that has now gripped the conscience of the West has taken aim at one thing: correct/punish the abuses of power of the majority.
Those who have abused their power and privilege will now find themselves under a metaphorical blade of justice: publicly humiliated, fired, barred, cancelled, censored, harassed, fined, and shamed.
But is this way of thinking–groupism, collectivism–a helpful analytical tool for actually helping victims and minorities, for actually bringing about justice?
We should not be too quick to wholly dismiss these accusations. There are certainly helpful insights to glean from seeing how those in majority culture can and have excluded minorities, unknowingly take advantage of them, or ignorantly act as if their dominant culture is the culture by which all others are to be judged by. There also is much help in realizing that historical oppression of minorities can have real, long lasting effects on generations that proceed from them, which requires creative thinking for how to provide help to those living downstream from that kind of systemic oppression. Lastly, no one should be so arrogant to assume that they may not harbor some prejudice in their hearts for those who are different than them.
But that being said, the extreme emphasis of our day has a number of detrimental consequences that we are seeing play out before our eyes, consequences that will actually lead to a less just, less fruitful society.
1. Increased Polarization
If we are fundamentally defined by what groups we belong to then our culture will continue to fracture into smaller and smaller splinters. And I am not simply referring to the divide between conservatives and liberals. Each of those camps is breaking apart into ever more divisive factions. The result of which leaves less and less shared common fabric for our nation to rest on, which will result in more polarization and less individual responsibility. The individual can dissolve into the larger collective of their tribe, so that any one attack on a member of the tribe can be interpreted as an attack on the individual personally. This is why college students, people living in the most prosperous, educated, and wealthy generation the world has ever known, can speak as if they have personally suffered generations of oppression. I am We.
Further, others who do not align with my tribe are fundamentally different than I am. And since group identity is the most important determining factor, then you are held responsible for the rest of the group’s sins, you are now suspect for being a possible perpetrator of the same crime. You are They.
2. The Death of Diversity
So, when a member of the minority meets a member of the majority, it is not two individuals approaching each other. It is two tokens, two representative heads who are accountable for the wrongs of everyone else who looks like them. Think I am exaggerating? Imagine a white man wearing a MAGA hat trying to talk to a black man wearing a BLM shirt. They don’t need to get to know each other, don’t need to invest the hard work into learning about what this other person believes, or loves, how they raise their children or what they fear. All is known: You are They. Relationship cannot happen in this context, only polemics, only battle.
And with this death, our ever-fracturing sub-cultures will become more sterile, less creative, and more ugly. All true greatness in culture and science comes from diversity of perspectives. But what will happen when we no longer are willing to interact with those who are different than us? Our problem-solving capabilities will shorten, our artistic endeavors will become tired and mimetic, and our scientific pursuits will become stunted. All the while we will grow ever more fearful and anxious of what They are plotting against us. Our society will devolve into pockets of Fundamentalism, culturally impoverished, suspicious, and self-righteous. How will a representative Democracy function in this atmosphere?
3. The Fetishization of Victimhood
Further, if being a victim is the gateway to power, empathy, acceptance–heck, even if it is simply a shield to protect you from being “cancelled”–will this not become a self-fulfilling prophecy? If people are actively desiring to become a victim–think of the teenage girl who pretends to have a mental health disorder because she sees the attention her friend now gets–won’t this lead to (1) real victims and their real plights being ignored and (2) the creation of a generation of less resilient individuals, a generation of people actively searching for how they can be marginalized? And, of course, if you go searching for ways you are oppressed, offended, and slighted, you will always find it. See Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff’s excellent book The Coddling of the American Mind for the danger of overemphasizing victimhood and fragility.
Resist the I am We; You are They thinking. Do not rob the individual of their personhood nor assume all is known–let the crooked tree of Truth grow where it wills. While membership in certain majority or minority culture can help us understand some about people, who people are is not fatalistically determined by it. People are complex, the world is complex, and people can change.
Further, telling people that their group identity makes them inherently guilty is counter-productive. What incentive is there to change if my race or sexual orientation or religious belief necessarily makes me guilty of oppression? Won’t this kind of rhetoric simply lead to people who are in majority culture to circle the wagons and further demonize minorities, stalling any real progress towards true equality and justice in our society? Further, if I am told that because I belong to a minority culture that necessarily makes me a helpless victim, incapable of succeeding in the world because the system is rigged against me, then what incentive do I have to actually try, to do my homework or fill out the job application?
Attempting to fix the problem between majority-minority cultures by cementing those tribal disparities even further is like trying to put out a fire by smothering it with gasoline. This will do nothing but stoke the blaze of animosity, victimhood, suspicion, fear, and ironically will likely result in fewer minorities having access to opportunities.