To be a decent human being, you have to treat people like they’re special; but to be a decent sociologist, you have to remember they’re not.
“When people are reduced to their identities of privilege (as white, cisgender, male, etc.)
locations stand in for the total systems those parts of our identities represent.
Individuals become synonymous with systems of oppression,
and this can turn systemic analysis into moral judgment.”
—Asam Ahmad, “A Note on Call-Out Culture,”
Briarpatch Magazine (March 2, 2015)
To study people as a group, we have to place them into categories. This is the sine qua non of sociological thinking: individuals must cease to be individuals. They must become representatives of this or that category. If you want to know humanity the way an entomologist knows butterflies, you’ll have to learn how to see forests not trees. But if you want to know love and friendship, you’ll have to learn how to see trees not forests. Because people are not butterflies. And few things are more dehumanizing than being treated like the representative of a category. Individuals want to be treated like individuals. Alas, what makes the life of a sociologist so existentially challenging is that you’ve got to live with this paradox: to be a decent human being, you have to treat people like they’re special; but to be a decent sociologist, you have to remember they’re not.
Like many of the sociology professors I know, my wife can talk to her students about systemic social problems—like sexism and racism—without making any of them feel like group representatives. She can do this because she’s an intellectual, first and foremost, and intellectuals are adept at dealing—gracefully and effortlessly—with the paradoxical nature of reality; they’re good at binocular thinking, at seeing “the forest” and “the trees” at one and the same time. But alas, professors who aren’t intellectuals aren’t nearly so good at this, especially if they’re ideologues. For instance, a former student of mine who wears the hijab told me that one of her professors—a progressive who, as she put it, “talks about privilege all the time”—often calls upon her in class when they’re discussing things like Islamophobia, I.S.I.S., women in Islam, etc. As you might expect, this makes her extremely uncomfortable. The professor means well, very well actually, but that doesn’t make her pointed questions any less offensive. She has apparently called on black students for “the black perspective” a few times too, and, of course, systematically silenced any young white man who dared to “take up too much space.” She never seems to remember her students’ names. Why does this not surprise me?
–John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2015)
Originally published at Committing Sociology. Reprinted with permission.
p.s. A friend of mine, who I respect a great deal, recently argued (with the Tim Hunt fiasco in mind) that “social media morality and call-out culture” constitute a stage “in our collective evolution and a very necessary one.” She readily concedes that “there will be unfair casualties,” but nevertheless maintains that “the result is that casual racism and misogyny now have consequences.” As such, she concludes that, on balance, the ends justify the means and she’d “rather not pedal backwards on that one.” Much as it pains me to admit it, I must confess that I strongly suspect that she might be right. But I really REALLY hope she’s wrong. Because this is getting ugly, really ugly. We’re throwing out a whole lot of innocent babies with that putrid bathwater!
Photo courtesy of author.