Over the past few days we’ve seen what happens when you assign someone a single identity. Pollsters assumed that most Latinos would vote only as Latinos, and therefore against Donald Trump. But a surprising percentage voted for him.
Pollsters assumed women would vote primarily as women, and go for Hillary Clinton. But a surprising number voted against her. They assumed African-Americans would vote along straight Democratic lines, but a surprising number left the top line of the ballot blank.
The pollsters reduced complex individuals to a single identity, and are now embarrassed. But pollsters are not the only people guilty of reductionist solitarism. This mode of thinking is one of the biggest problems facing this country today.
Trump spent the entire campaign reducing people to one identity and then generalizing. Muslims are only one thing, and they are dangerous. Mexicans are only one thing, and that is alien. When Trump talked about African-Americans he always talked about inner-city poverty, as if that was the sum total of the black experience in America.
Bigots turn multidimensional human beings into one-dimensional creatures. Anti-Semites define Jewishness in a certain crude miniaturizing way. Racists define both blackness and whiteness in just that manner. Populists dehumanize complex people into the moronic categories of “the people” and “the elites.”
But it’s not only racists who reduce people to a single identity. These days it’s the anti-racists, too. To raise money and mobilize people, advocates play up ethnic categories to an extreme degree.
Large parts of popular culture – and pretty much all of stand-up comedy – consist of reducing people to one or another identity and then making jokes about that generalization. The people who worry about cultural appropriation reduce people to an ethnic category and argue that those outside can never understand it. A single identity walls off empathy and the imagination.
We’re even seeing a wave of voluntary reductionism. People feel besieged, or they’re intellectually lazy, so they reduce themselves to one category. Being an evangelical used to mean practicing a certain form of faith. But “evangelical” has gone from being an adjective to a noun, a simplistic tribal identity that commands Republican affiliation.
Unfortunately, if you reduce complex individuals to one thing you’ll go through life clueless about the world around you. People’s classifications now shape how they see the world.
Plus, as philosopher Amartya Sen has argued, this mentality makes the world more flammable. Crude tribal dividing lines inevitably arouse a besieged, victimized us/them mentality. This mentality assumes that the relations between groups are zero sum and antagonistic. People with this mentality tolerate dishonesty, misogyny and terrorism on their own side because all morality lays down before the tribal imperative.
The only way out of this mess is to continually remind ourselves that each human is a conglomeration of identities: ethnic, racial, professional, geographic, religious and so on. Even each identity itself is not one thing but a tradition of debate about the meaning of that identity. Furthermore, the dignity of each person is not found in the racial or ethnic category that each has inherited, but in the moral commitments that each individual has chosen and lived out.
Getting out of this mess also means accepting the limits of social science. The judgments of actual voters are better captured in the narratives of journalism and historical analysis than in the brutalizing correlations of big data.
Rebinding the nation means finding shared identities, not just contrasting ones. If we want to improve race relations, it’s not enough to have a conversation about race. We also have to emphasize identities people have in common across the color line. If you can engage different people together as Marines or teachers, then you will have built an empathetic relationship, and people can learn one another’s racial experiences naturally.
Finally, we have to revive the American identity. For much of the 20th century, America had a rough consensus about the American idea. Historians congregated around a common narrative. People put great stock in civic rituals like the pledge. But that consensus is now in tatters, stretched by globalization, increasing diversity as well as failures of civic education.
Now many Americans don’t recognize one another or their country. The line I heard most on election night was, “This is not my America.” We will have to construct a new national idea that binds and embraces all our particular identities.
The good news is that there wasn’t mass violence last week. That could have happened amid a civic clash this ugly and passionate. That’s a sign that for all the fear and anger of this season, there’s still mutual attachment among us, something to build on.
But there has to be a rejection of single-identity thinking and a continual embrace of the reality that each of us is a mansion with many rooms.