Saturday, November 23, 2013

In the Land of Individualism

There are some 19 posts on “collectives” on Ghulf Genes, accessible under that word in the Labels section in the left column. Our ability to think in general categories and the shortcuts that generics provide in communication have a very serious drawback, especially when applied to humans. We project collectives of people and then pretend that they are and behave as if they were individuals. Now a word signifying a collective, say United States, or say Dallas—when what we mean is the people that these words can legitimately reference—certainly has an actual reality behind it. The population of the U.S. or of Dallas is at least theoretically present for verification. In actual practice, to be sure, a scientific verification is not possible. To take a census of such collectives takes time; it cannot be done in an instant. Therefore some people will be dead by the time the count is finished; others were not yet present when it began. Cohabitation on a landmass does not meant that every individual on that landmass has exactly the same views. Therefore speaking of these people as if they had some fundamental commonality at the specifically human level is obviously wrong. Yet our ability to generalize—and our love for simplification—make us write headlines like the one that appeared in the New York Times this morning: On Day It Can Never Escape, Dallas Tries To Heal. What the headline actually meant is that 5,000 people met in Dallas (of a total of more than 1.2 million) to commemorate the assassination of President Kennedy.

Complaining of sloppy use of language, and therefore distorted projections of reality, makes me think of Bernard Shaw who naively (or perhaps tongue-in-cheek) hoped to reform the spelling of the English language. Not likely. The assignment of collective guilt on the one hand (Dallas still healing from one assassin’s deed) and collective glory on the other (Boston sharing the Red Sox’ baseball prowess) will continue as ever before. Yes, here, in the land of individualism.

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