Friday, February 9, 2018

Essentializing (Yitro)

I’ve recently had a few experiences related to the practice of essentializing, which have touched me. Essentializing a racial or religious group, in the context of this discussion, involves two main aspects: firstly, seeing a group as being defined by certain characteristics and, second, thinking of cultures or religious communities in either/or terms (1). 

Last Monday I felt enraged by the petulant, defiant expression on the face of the young man who gave a gun to a fifteen year old boy to murder the Sydney police accountant, Curtis Cheng. The accused man refused to stand before the judge hearing his case. The young man in the photo is holding up one finger. I understood this to symbolize his view that he is on the team of the one God while the rest of humankind is the evil undeserving “them”. I was furious.

One of the spiritual masters of my faith taught people to look within when feeling outraged. He argued that anger about others’ faults is actually a reaction to seeing something ugly reflected in the other, that we are trying to deny in ourselves (2). This explanation is not accurate in this case as I have very little in common with this young man.  However, I still reflected on my reaction to this incident. I think that it stirred me up because it forced me to confront residual essentialising tendencies I was not aware of.

Of course, I understand that the evil behaviour of an individual does not represent the nature of 1.6 billion Muslim people. I also know that even the complimentary phrase that “Muslims or Jews are good people” is a generalisation. Research found that even complimentary comments (based on being part of a group) can be experienced as being expected to conform to a stereotype rather than being seen as an individual (Czopp 2008) (3). Despite this knowledge, this image rankled me. I realise that, although I reject the essentialist stance, it still has some residual place in my thoughts. This made me feel ashamed, which then probably triggered my anger. 

The themes of essentialism and shame also came up for me in a movie parable, Zootopia, that I watched this week. The hero is a liberal, little rabbit named Judy Hopps, who becomes a police officer. The setting is a world in which a lion works in the same office as a lamb. Yet, all is not well in la-la land. The minority of animals that used to be predators, face discrimination and suspicion from the “prey” majority. When a few predatorial animals revert to being aggressive animals, Judy explains it based on biology. Judy's friend, the fox, is hurt and feels betrayed by Judy, who, herself, feels ashamed.

As a viewer, the premise of the Zootopia message can be inferred to be ‘that, like animals, humans of certain groups, eg Arabs or blacks, might have a different and savage DNA, but we can all be whatever we want to be, so let's get along’. I feel offended in solidarity with my fellow humans who are not like wild animals and should not be essentialized by implication (4). On the other hand, I think it invites the viewer to examine whether we too have a bit of Juddy Hopps’ fear lingering in our psyche.

The third confronting moment was reading commentaries on the Torah reading of the week. First, let me give the context. A convert to Judaism (5), named Jethro, was told about the punishments that God inflicted on the wicked Egyptian slave-masters of the Israelites, and the salvation of the Israelites (6). While Jethro gave thanks for the relief enjoyed by the Israelites, he didn’t show much enthusiasm about the punishments (7). The Talmud suggests that Jethro was pained by the suffering of the Egyptians because he felt empathy with them, despite his strong identification with the Israelites and their triumph. It advises people not to denigrate an Aramean (or non-Jewish people in general) in front of a convert up to 10 generations (8).

Jethro’s complex set of sympathies and the advice of the Talmud about sensitivity are interpreted darkly as evidence of his ‘non-Jewish nature’. It is linked to the assassination of Gedlia Ben Achikam, a Jewish governor of the holy land, in ancient times, by a descendant of a convert, and a caution against trusting the descendants of converts even after 10 or 24 generations! (9).

The essentialising of people of non-Jewish ancestry by attributing violent tendencies to their genealogy, is deeply troubling. Fortunately, there is an alternative more positive interpretation of the Talmud’s statement about 10 generations. Instead of a message of mistrust, it is taken as a lesson in compassion. With this approach, the 10 generations is not about the ancestry of the convert, who might be the audience of a derogatory remark, but about the target of the remark (the Arameans). It provides guidance about a situation like that of the Egyptians, where a nation has engaged in evil acts such as enslaving people, but it has not lasted 10 generations. In that case, we must not rejoice in their punishments as “their measure of evil is not full”. God, Himself, is also saddened by the punishment of people not entrenched in multi-generational evil. We should be, too (10).

The tendency to essentialise people as this or that, is a strong and harmful one. We need to be alert to it and seek alternative ways of thinking about people when these kinds of thoughts arise. No matter what our background is, we all have positive and negative qualities, and we should each be judged on our individual merit.      

1)     Armstrong, J, (2003)  Power and prejudice: Some definitions for discussion and analysis Jan Armstrong, University of New Mexico (3/24/03)  “Essentializing means attributing natural, essential characteristics to members of specific culturally defined (gender, age, ethnic, "racial", socioeconomic, linguistic...) groups. When we essentialize others, we assume that individual differences can be explained by inherent, biological, "natural" characteristics shared by members of a group. Essentializing results in thinking, speaking and acting in ways that promote stereotypical and inaccurate interpretations of individual differences. For example, feminists note that people essentialize women when they assume that girls and women are naturally emotional (versus rational), nurturant, docile, weak, vain, dependent (and so on). Essentialist thinking is often anchored in dualistic (two-category, either this - or that) modes of thought. Classic and contemporary social theorists identify and challenge essentialist and dualistic ways of thinking about the social world (...civilized/barbaric; masculine/feminine; intelligent/not intelligent; rich/poor; white/non-white...psychological/cultural...)”.
2)     Toldos Yaakov Yosef, in an interpretation of the teaching of the Baal Shem Tov.
3)       Czopp A.M. (2008) When is a compliment not a compliment? Evaluating expressions of positive stereotypes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 44 (2008) 413-420.
4)     Matt Zoller Seitz, gives a fuller expression of my concern at
5)     Talmud, Sanhedrin 94a
6)     Exodus 18:8-9
7)     Alshich, and Torah Temima on Exodus
8)     Sanhedrin 94a
9)     Jeremiah 41:1-2
10)  Radak on Jeremiah 41:1, Rabbenu Tam, cited in Torah Shlaima on Exodus
11)  Maskil Ldovid, R. David Pardo, on Exodus 18:8-9  in Otzar Meforshei Rashi