The Fallacy of the Monolith

Seeing Other Cultures as Monolithic Is Wrong--and Dangerous



There’s been a disturbing trend in the US, particularly–but not exclusively–on the right of grouping whole swaths of people together based on a single identifier.  Generally this signifier is Muslim although it is occasionally black or Hispanic.  Once everyone who shares that identifier is grouped together, usually a member of the chattering class or a politician will then make some grand, sweeping statement about what “Muslims ought to do” or “how Hispanics will vote” or “black families,” as if the literally millions of different people who share a single cultural or ethnic identifier form some sort of monolithic cultural block.

The fallacy of reducing people–or even groups of people–to one dimension of their identity gets a lot of things wrong about humanity and, even more insidiously, can actually force people to view themselves through the lens of that one dimension, which, if history is any guide, is a brilliant recipe for violence and what the news media often euphimistically terms “long-standing ethnic tension.”

First, though, why the monolithic idea of culture doesn’t make sense.  For an understandable object lesson, perhaps the easiest place to look is Canada.

On September 4, 2012, an white Anglo Quebec citizen named Richard Henry Bain shot two and killed one during a failed assassintation attempt on the then-just-elected Pauline Marois.  As police dragged him away, he shouted “The Anglos are waking up!”

Interestingly, there was no general outcry for Canadians, Candians from Quebec, Anglo Canadians, or any combination of the above to somehow respond to what “one of their own” had done.  There was no demand that “Anglos” denounce violence as a method of political speech nor any attempt to portray all Canadians as violent people hellbent on overturning an election with rifles.

That many people in the US know Candians and share a lot of the same cultural signifiers (white, Anglo heritage, English speaking) probably had a lot to do with the generally measured response.  In a discussion about the fallacy of treating cultural identifiers monolithically just a few days after the event, I joked to a white, Anglo Canadian from Quebec that he should be glad I know so much about him because I can see all the things that set him apart from the shooter–but that if I didn’t, all I’d be able to see were the things that made them the same.

And that, in a nutshell, is what makes the idea of monolithic culture so easy, so appealing, and so dangerous.  With just a simple quick analysis, it is easy to group what are actually very diverse people and groups of people into a single heading and then quickly make moral and political–and increasingly policy–judgements off that heading.  To me, the white Canadian of English descent I know doesn’t look or sound or act much like that other white Canadian of English descent who shot at an incoming politician in 2012.

But what if I was in Saudi Arabia?  What if I were in China?  What would separate one white Canadian from another?

Of course, what is happening in US politics isn’t really about white Canadians–it’s about Muslims.  And while most politicians in the US would never be so idiotic as to lump all Canadians together, they seem curiously indifferent to the idea that lumping all Muslims together into one monolithic cultural bloc is just as stupid.

And it is willful stupidity to group Muslims together without bothering to understand their differences, not just as people, but as Muslims.  One only has to watch a handful of Lebanese music videos to understand the truth that the average Lebanese Muslim likely has more in common with someone living in Coral Gables than they do in someone living in Kabul.  A politician would only have to go see Christmas lights in Malaysia to have their binary world fractured into a thousand pieces.  But instead, we hear Al Quaeda and the Ayatollahs of Iran mentioned in the same breath when discussing “Muslim violence” or the “Muslim threat.”  This is ignorance on a scale that borders on the cosmological–a vast concentration of ignorance that approaches an infinite mass and density and forms an ideological black hole, from which no sane thought can escape.

It is as if some Americans and the politicians who pander to them, fully familiar with the dizzying array of Christian denominational differences, are unable fathom that the world’s other major proselytizing religion might have similar doctrinal complexity–and that these differences, just like during Europe’s great religious wars, are important to understand what is going on in the regions of the world where Islam is the dominant religion.

And yet, there are still US political figures that want to hold off on accepting refugees because they are Muslim–based on that one single, cultural signifier–while ignoring the fact that those same refugees being Muslim has not saved them from a brutal civil war in which both sides are Muslim.  The amount of cognitive dissonance in such a position is staggering.

And what are the results of lumping everyone sharing a single cultural identifier into one group?  What are the long term effects of so easily dividing the world into “them” and “us”–into seeing a large group of people who have a single unifying characteristic but are otherwise dissimilar as the “Other?”

There is no need to speculate, because history has provided plenty of examples.

First, witness the plight of the Jews.  For generations in Europe, they served as the “Other,” a racial boogeyman to be conveniently blamed, slighted, and persecuted across the Continent.  As a people, they were subjected to everything property confiscation to deliberate massacres long before the 20th Century, which saw both destructive pogroms in Russia and the Holocaust under Nazi Germany.  In many cases, they had lived alongside those who turned them in for decades, if not longer–but this was not enough to overcome the stigma of being “them.”

Then, persecuted on the basis of their ethnic identity, they founded their own state based on that same ethnic identity.  Which leads directly to history’s second warning, the Palestinians.

The Palestinians are also the “Other” and have suffered for it.  Neither Jews, nor sufficiently Arab, they are a group of people who are Muslims and Christians seen through the lens of a single cultural identifier as Palestinians, but never just people.  Sandwiched into small enclaves in Gaza and the West Bank, they do not enjoy the same rights as Israelis–because they are not Israeli–but neither do they have a state of their own.

Persecuted for so long based on their ethnic identity, they have struck out at Jews in both Israel and elsewhere, sadly reaffirming the deepest fears the Israeli state was founded on while encouraging Israel to strike back with a similar lack of discernment.  And so the cycle of bombings and stabbings and drone strikes and wall building and block-bulldozing goes on.

There is now so much blood between these two historical “Others” that peace seems impossible–not so much a dream as a hallucination.

Similarly, there are the Kurds.  Too Muslim–itself a generalization–to be supported by the West until very recently, but also not Arab or Turk, which has led to violence at the hands of thier Sunni Arab or Turkish neighbors, with whom they share a religious but not ethinic identity.

They too, in recent years, have rallied around their ethnicity, overlooking their own internal differences (after the Kurdish peace agreement in 1998) to retake what they see as historically theirs, and have since been accused of non-genocidal ethnic cleansing in places like Iraq’s Kirkuk and Eastern Mosul.

Nothing good comes from grouping people into a cultural monolith, for the people doing the grouping nor the people being grouped.  There is no time in history where the long term consequences of prejudging people and setting them apart based on a single identifier has not come back to haunt both sides.

The only proscription–whether based on morality, common decency, or even mere results–is to resist the fallacy of the monolith and evaluate each group, person, and situation, in the context of their situation and with as full an understading of their historical and individual uniqueness as is possible.


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