The Individuals-as-Groups Fallacy

Acropolis of Athens. Photo G. Larson. Public domain.

Democracy: It is the best system we know to take group decisions and it has a very strong and positive ‘brand’. But is it possible that we use it too much? By that I mean that there are many things that we decide democratically that actually don’t require group decisions to achieve the best results — there are many areas of life where individuals would be best positioned to decide what is best for themselves, but others force their decisions on them.

Humans have a tendency to see groups everywhere, and democracy can compound the downsides of that flaw. Liberals, conservatives, people of various religious beliefs, atheists, whites, latinos, blacks, arabs, jews, Americans, Chinese, Frenchmen, environmentalists, rich, poor, middle-class, urban, rural, majority, minorities, etc. Within that framework, people start to actually identify with their group and to dislike others, especially those they are in a power-struggle with. It’s a rational reaction because within a democratic system, some groups hold power over others and nobody wants a group they dislike to impose decisions on them. No, they’d rather impose their truth on others. This allows power-hungry politicians to play identify politics and try to have groups identify with them and thus overlook things that they would never accept on an individual basis. It’s all very tribal-like (you can also observe that phenomenon in sports).

When people stop seeing individuals, it can quickly lead to dehumanization and polarization (and we know where these can lead). They see caricatures and don’t take the time to get to know people who are in groups that they dislike: as soon as a label comes up, their minds shut down and whatever their reasons (based on reality or not) for disliking that group, they project them on the individual. “Surely if I hate jews, I’ll hate that jew.” “Surely if Frenchmen are annoying, I’ll be annoyed by that Frenchman.” Then confirmation bias kicks in…

Opposite factions rarely make the effort to really understand the positions/culture/etc of the other side(s) (liberals read liberal blogs, conservatives read conservative blogs), which means that few people change their minds and even fewer pick rational positions based on the best available information that can be gathered from all sides.

Free yourself from these shackles. Force yourself to see people as individuals, because that’s what they are. And so are you, and I’m sure you wouldn’t want others to look at you as some insignificant part of a larger over-simplistic monolith.

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