What’s Wrong With Essentialism

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Steven J. Lawrence:

"In her 2010 paper What’s wrong with essentialism?, published in Distinktion, a Scandinavian journal of social theory, scholar Anne Phillips points out that we can’t realistically avoid all kinds of essentialism, as this tendency has always been with us as both a political strategy and as a basic part of our all-too-human psychology. But, when we consider the question of whether an assertion we make about other groups of people is true, we also have to consider the question of whether our assertion should be considered as somehow more true simply because the system of ideas we follow has formally authorized our assertion to be true.

Phillips’ ideas around the political expediency of using essentialism as a tool raises the specter of moral relativism when the system of ideas we follow formally invites us to treat our assertions about the inner lives of individuals who belong to disfavored groups as strategically true enough to justify our using it to make forward strides in the political project we have committed ourselves to. But, while Phillips acknowledges some practical value in essentialistic thinking—such as emphasizing the negative traits of men to achieve a more equal footing for women and other genders—she notes that essentialism creates problems when it attributes “particular characteristics” to everyone identified as a member of the group that is essentialized. Even though she acknowledges the probability of some generalizations to be accurate for a large enough number of people in a group, this can lead to stereotyping and discrimination because of the “resulting inability” to even notice individual group members’ characteristics that do not fit with our preconceptions.

Phillips acknowledges that the essentialist beliefs we might hold about individuals from different identity groups are often “category mistakes”, where we have simply “drawn boundaries between people and things in the wrong place”, but she also reminds us that there is not much point in wishing them away for their analytical wrongness, “because once in existence”, she warns us, “they become part of our social reality.”

Of course, we should not take lightly the idea that essentialist beliefs can become merely a part of our social reality.

There are dangers.

Over time, different forms of group identity essentialism, such as racial essentialism and gender essentialism, can develop into formal theoretical models that prominently feature stereotypes about specific identity groups. They can also become the central sense-making framework for the shared social reality of a society or community.

And if the essentialist ideas have been systematically taught and/or legitimized by those who are considered to be the authorities on the scale of that society or community, the essentialist ideas are likely to mutate into a culture of hostility against the essentialized group and to the adoption of concrete measures that are likely to discriminate against that group. Put differently, once people of authority formally endorse prejudice against a specific identity group (or groups), they have opened the way for the formal endorsement of the creation of social hierarchies that assign higher or lower status levels to different groups on the basis of that prejudice.

This should concern us all because we have seen the consequences throughout history—and in present day realities that have been directly impacted by historical patterns—when social hierarchies based on essentialist ideas come into being." (https://groundexperience.substack.com/p/group-identity-essentialism)