My personal philosophical Giant’s Drink—the thing I think about a lot and never find a way to adequately address—is the tension between what people are and what they do (or say). I usually refer to it as Essentialism versus Phenomenology1.
It’s my belief that this contrast has become an intellectual minimal pair, a distinction with a difference, in the aftermath of the Victorian increase in social mobility. The tool to parse the difference is the acceptability of discrimination against someone on a given basis. Once some circumstances of one’s life could change, there emerged a difference between discriminating against them on variant and invariant grounds2. It’s taken some time to work through; even in 1950’s America, for instance, blatant racism was unremarkable in many parts of polite society.
But here we are now, in a culture where it is no longer acceptable to discriminate against people on the basis of what they are3. And yet the temptation remains, as long as we are human. No one has enough time to deal justly with everyone they run up against; prejudice and discrimination are low-energy ways of figuring out and fixing one’s place in the world, and using them in combination with immutable traits means one only makes a judgment once. We work hard to avoid doing these things, to find other ways of coping, because they’re easy.
One strategy is to focus on more mutable characteristics: the way people dress, the way they look at us and talk to us, the people they associate with. It’s certainly more flexible: to get another reaction, a person merely has to change their accidents rather than their essence.
Still, the easy impulse remains, and people blur the line in many ways. Patrick posted a link the other week about race and the recession from a British perspective. The article is going somewhere else, but it sideswipes what I’m talking about here on the way:
Today, in place of rigid schemas assigning people to races based on some supposed ‘bloodline’ or ancestry in an original human family - Aryan, Semitic or Hamitic as the case may be - we increasingly have a slightly less static, less schematic, but nonetheless essentialist hierarchy of cultures: we have moved from colour to culture, from body to belief…
And that shift has facilitated a certain amount of confusion about what racism is, and has provided an alibi not merely for anti-Muslim racism, but for more traditional forms of racism that single out, for example, young black men. The latter were the subject of a short screed by the Spectator’s in-house provocateur and shock-commentator Rod Liddle last year. The basis of his attack was that these men were responsible for the overwhelming majority of robberies, muggings and violent crimes in the capital. The statistics for convictions did not actually back this up […] However, the empirical claim was almost secondary. When challenged on his claim, Liddle explained that he wasn’t talking about ‘race’, but about ‘culture’. He suggested that there was a particular culture among these men that valued and encouraged anti-social attitudes and behaviors.
Of course, the deprecated cultures often turn out to have the very people in them that can’t be acceptably discriminated against on an essentialist basis. But even when they don’t, there’s an assumption that giving up one’s culture, one’s phenomenological characteristics, is easy—or even possible.4
I happen to disagree with this assumption, and the argument I’d use is the I coulda been a cheerleader argument. See, I was a geeky teenager, a little overweight and with bad skin. I read a lot of books and talked about weird things like Greek comedy and space travel. In theory, if I had started dieting in middle school, worn a lot of foundation (or makeup at all), stopped reading science fiction and ancient stuff, learned to converse in a manner more in tune with Seventeen magazine and made the right friends thereby, I could have been a cheerleader in high school.
But I would have had to abandon my values and the things I valued to do that. Those are the things that define me inside my head, the same way that my appearance defines me to others. They’re essential. And I couldn’t decide to do that at fifteen, sitting in the amphitheater watching the tryouts. I had to have decided that four or five years earlier. So it is with many phenomenological arguments: they require people to become something they don’t identify as truly themselves, and they require the process of transformation to have begun long since.
Where does phenomenon end and essence begin? Is there a simple bright line? I used to think so. I don’t any more.
The two places where I bump against this in my current intellectual life are both political: the implications of sexuality, and the tribal aspect of party affiliation.
In my adulthood, the vocabulary around sexuality has changed markedly, moving from a phenomenological assumption to an essentialist one. The distinction between heterosexuals and homosexuals5 is no longer “sexual preference”, but rather “sexual orientation”. But apart from the “God hates fags” gang, and the “this is your cross to bear, sucks to be you” crowd, that presents a problem, because essentialist discrimination is Not Cool anymore.
I think this is the argument that will finally win marriage equality among people who don’t know6 any gays. Here’s a video of what happens when phenomenological heterosexists are given an essentialist perspective. A certain proportion of the people shown will not retain the satori7, and others will find a phenomenological excuse to retain their bias. But what I see in the video is that the person on the street’s belief that essentialist discrimination is morally wrong is stronger than their xenophobia.
(The battle isn’t won yet. There’s plenty of essentialist distaste carefully disguised as phenomenological criticism, usually involving the word “lifestyle”. But note how much of it is deployed to prevent gays from living the same lifestyles as straights: marrying, adopting, serving in the armed forces.)
Political party affiliation is a messier and weirder thing. There’s a subset of people who think that party affiliation is a phenomenological manifestation (subject to change when someone gets mugged/loses their job8), but act as though it is essentialist. This is the source of much of the defensiveness around political dialog: the feeling that disagreeing with someone’s beliefs is tantamount to discriminating against them. Essence also influences phenomenon in the area of symbolic beliefs, which are markers of what people are masquerading as things they think are true.
This stuff gets everywhere. Is Deafness defined as something some people (don’t) do, or something they are? Should Asperger’s Syndrome be cured, or embraced as neurodiversity? Should felons be able to vote after they’ve finished their sentences? Should kids (or their mothers) avoid conspicuous differences to protect them from being teased? Is bullying something people do, or something they are?
Is anyone a stabber? Or do people just stab?