Beyond Cynical Theories • Part 2: The Problem of Group Identity Essentialism


This is part 2 of the “All We Are” series. These writings explore theories of ideological conditioning, ideas in the book “Cynical Theories”, the doctrine of “lived experience” (in which I explore my own lived experience of losing a close sibling to a tragic death), and reflections around Dr. Erec Smith’s argument for using empowerment as a basis for teaching, as laid out in his book, “Critique of Anti-racism in Rhetoric and Composition: the Semblance of Empowerment”.

In recent years, the term “racial essentialism” has become common in social justice activist spaces and in some academic circles. The word “essentialism” has also been used for thousands of years by philosophers in the East and West in both secular and spiritual systems of thought with very different meanings, so it’s necessary to define the word as it is meant in the context of the social justice ideologies that are analyzed in this series of essays and in the book Cynical Theories.

I want to speak briefly to the problem of group identity essentialism, which is an umbrella category that includes racial essentialism, gender essentialism, and other categories of essentialism related to group identities. Group identity essentialism is a term I’ve taken to use over the past few years because of a pattern of behaviors I have observed in social justice activist circles and both far left and far right social media environments where group identity theories are fundamental to the culture. To my knowledge, the term “group identity essentialism” has not yet come into vogue, but I hope it will spread soon because I think this term can be useful in naming a widespread problem that has been exacerbating the large scale cultural conflicts and inter-group hostilities that have deepened since the beginning of the 2010’s when the rhetoric of the “culture wars” began to rapidly escalate far beyond the levels they had ever been at before. 

What the Scholars Say about Essentialism

Recent decades have seen a growth of interest in the problem of group identity essentialism, which has gained recognition as an area of study in a variety of fields.

In her 2005 article “Essentialism in Everyday Thought”  written for the American Psychological Association (APA), Dr. Susan A. Gelman, a professor of psychology and linguistics, defines essentialism in the following way:

“Essentialism is the view that certain categories (e.g., women, racial groups, dinosaurs, original Picasso artwork) have an underlying reality or true nature that one cannot observe directly. Furthermore, this underlying reality (or "essence") is thought to give objects their identity, and to be responsible for similarities that category members share.” 

Citing other authors and psychological studies, Gelman further asserts that believing individuals who belong to groups outside our own to have the same “underlying reality” (or inner thoughts or character), is a “reasoning heuristic”—a way in which our cognition takes mental shortcuts to deal with complex information expediently—that is common to people across all age groups and in all societies. Those who have essentialist beliefs, according to Gelman, “expect members of a category to be alike in non-obvious ways” and tend to treat members of “certain categories as having… an innate basis, stable category membership, and sharp boundaries.” 

She also indicates that essentialism starts in early childhood “with relatively little direct prompting”, which suggests that this pattern of perceiving the supposed “essence” of other groups is a normal part of human existence.

But, she poses a question that is central to the principal themes of this “All We Are” series: 

“To what extent is essentialism a single, coherent theory, as opposed to a disparate collection of beliefs?”. 

And, she poses a larger question that I will paraphrase for clarity:

Are people who believe in the separate natures (essences) of groups that are different from their own relying on an external authority like a charismatic leader or system of ideas or have they casually arrived at their essentialist leanings in a way that is “less committal”?

Though it’s true that people will always have their prejudices against outside groups—a disparate collection of beliefs that they casually arrive at from some of their experiences and partly from the unreflective absorption of outside influences—it’s also true that throughout history, there have always been powerful factions of people, developing and teaching coherent theories that actively teach us these collections of beliefs.

Though the authors of Cynical Theories don’t use the term group identity essentialism, their book offers some evidence that the rapid spread of group identity essentialism in recent years has been anything but casual. Lindsay and Pluckrose contend that the spread of the behavioral patterns around what I am calling group identity essentialism has been intimately connected with the equally rapid spread of the formal authority of the system of ideas that Lindsay and Pluckrose analyze in their book. Over time, this system of ideas has coalesced into group identity theories that possess enough moral coherence, academic polish and intellectual respectability to be taken as timeless, unquestioned truths about the true nature of the inner life of all human beings—including the inner lives of human beings who belong to groups that we consider different from our own.

Many will agree that there are unsettling implications for a society in which the belief in the shared character traits of people from the same group identity category has been formally legitimized through systematic instruction (education), relentless exposure (traditional media and social media), and official public policy (government). But, some scholars argue that there is value and validity in acknowledging the differences between different group identities, and that it can be legitimate to exploit group identity essentialism by exaggerating those differences when there is a need to remove a specific identity group from political power so that we can therefore remove that identity group’s ability to oppress other people.

So, group identity essentialism has its defenders among scholars.

In her 2010 paper What’s wrong with essentialism?, published in Distinktion, a Scandinavian journal of social theory, scholar Anne Phillips points out that we can’t realistically avoid all kinds of essentialism, as this tendency has always been with us as both a political strategy and as a basic part of our all-too-human psychology. But, when we consider the question of whether an assertion we make about other groups of people is true, we also have to consider the question of whether our assertion should be considered as somehow more true simply because the system of ideas we follow has formally authorized our assertion to be true.

Phillips’ ideas around the political expediency of using essentialism as a tool raises the specter of moral relativism when the system of ideas we follow formally invites us to treat our assertions about the inner lives of individuals who belong to disfavored groups as strategically true enough to justify our using it to make forward strides in the political project we have committed ourselves to. But, while Phillips acknowledges some practical value in essentialistic thinking—such as emphasizing the negative traits of men to achieve a more equal footing for women and other genders—she notes that essentialism creates problems when it attributes “particular characteristics” to everyone identified as a member of the group that is essentialized. Even though she acknowledges the probability of some generalizations to be accurate for a large enough number of people in a group, this can lead to stereotyping and discrimination because of the “resulting inability” to even notice individual group members’ characteristics that do not fit with our preconceptions.

Phillips acknowledges that the essentialist beliefs we might hold about individuals from different identity groups are often “category mistakes”, where we have simply “drawn boundaries between people and things in the wrong place”, but she also reminds us that there is not much point in wishing them away for their analytical wrongness, “because once in existence”, she warns us, “they become part of our social reality.”

Of course, we should not take lightly the idea that essentialist beliefs can become merely a part of our social reality. 

There are dangers.

Over time, different forms of group identity essentialism, such as racial essentialism and gender essentialism, can develop into formal theoretical models that prominently feature stereotypes about specific identity groups. They can also become the central sense-making framework for the shared social reality of a society or community.

And if the essentialist ideas have been systematically taught and/or legitimized by those who are considered to be the authorities on the scale of that society or community, the essentialist ideas are likely to mutate into a culture of hostility against the essentialized group and to the adoption of concrete measures that are likely to discriminate against that group. Put differently, once people of authority formally endorse prejudice against a specific identity group (or groups), they have opened the way for the formal endorsement of the creation of social hierarchies that assign higher or lower status levels to different groups on the basis of that prejudice.

This should concern us all because we have seen the consequences throughout history—and in present day realities that have been directly impacted by historical patterns—when social hierarchies based on essentialist ideas come into being.

And, as many of the theories analyzed by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay in Cynical Theories have their basis in the full embrace of group identity essentialism, and the equally full embrace of social hierarchies, it will be helpful to turn our attention to what scholars are saying about the outcomes of this embrace.

Group Identity Essentialism and the Endorsement of Social Hierarchies

In the 2017 paper, “Essentialism Promotes Racial Prejudice by Increasing Endorsement of Social Hierarchies”, researchers shine a bright light on the connections between and among group identity essentialism, prejudice, and social hierarchies through several controlled studies. 

The focus of the study was on anti-Black attitudes, examining the links between group identity essentialism, social hierarchy endorsement, and how they are linked with “negative attitudes toward lower status social groups”. The study involved both Black and white participants.

In the earlier phases of the study, the authors discovered a connection between essentialism and “belief-based prejudice”.

Essentialism causally increased prejudice by enhancing endorsement of social hierarchies. Among all participants, the induction of essentialism led to greater endorsement of social hierarchies, and, in White participants, to stronger prejudice toward Blacks. These findings provide new evidence that the manipulation of essentialist thinking can alter belief-based prejudice. Furthermore, the effect of essentialism on prejudice in White participants was mediated by changes in hierarchy endorsement, providing initial support for the hypothesis that essentialism increases prejudice toward Blacks by increasing endorsement of existing social hierarchies.

These findings seem to indicate that when group identity essentialism is formally introduced as a legitimate belief on any scale, the justification for the existence of social hierarchies is thus also introduced, and for those who already have essentialist beliefs about a specific identity group, the justification for the existence of social hierarchies is further reinforced.

An important aspect of the study’s findings is that, depending on the context, the recognition and adjustments for the causal relationships between all three elements—essentialism, prejudice, endorsing social hierarchies—can be applied to a wide variety of identity groups.

On the impact of these relationships on the continuation of oppressive systems through the perpetuation of existing social hierarchies, the authors conclude the following:

These results revealed a causal effect of essentialism on social hierarchy endorsement, which in turn explained the effect of essentialism on prejudice. These findings suggest that by leading individuals to view social hierarchies as objectively determined and natural, essentialism increases the tendency to endorse, and perhaps perpetuate, existing hierarchies through continued prejudice toward lower status social groups.

Most interesting of all in terms of the major themes in the book Cynical Theories, this study confirms the presence of “Black in-group devaluation” among some Blacks and how this self-devaluation is related to anti-Black attitudes on the societal level.

The authors of this study make it clear that the distinctions between what I’m calling group identity essentialism and prejudice (negative attitudes) are real. One can conceivably believe something negative about an entire identity group without having negative feelings towards that group. This also means that one can conceivably believe something negative to be true about their own identity group without having negative feelings towards their own group. 

But, the key components to recognize are that:

a) the endorsement of social hierarchies effectively leads to negative attitudes (prejudice) towards other groups and/or one’s own group and

b) the endorsement of social hierarchies is directly caused by the essentialist beliefs themselves, which means that essentialist beliefs always carry potentially negative consequences.

The authors put it this way:

Our research additionally offers a new explanation for why Black individuals sometimes express negative attitudes toward their own group. That is, essentialism—a domain-general cognitive tendency that does not directly pertain to attitudes—can be readily applied to beliefs about race in a way that may lead Black individuals to devalue their racial group through endorsement of social hierarchies. 

In the end, the authors conclude that this study can provide some insight into the actual mechanisms through which group identity essentialism perpetuates itself, including the anti-Black prejudice that is expressed against Blacks from outside groups, and the way that this essentialism is experienced by some Blacks against their own group. 

The chief mechanism is the endorsement of the concept and practice of social group hierarchies, which the authors suggest can help us understand the negative attitudes some people hold against other social groups:

By elucidating the role of [social] hierarchy endorsement, our findings identify an unexamined source of Black in-group devaluation and suggest a new approach to buffering Black individuals from its effects. Moreover, while this study focused on anti-Black attitudes, the links between essentialist beliefs, hierarchy endorsement, and negative attitudes toward lower status social groups suggests that this general framework might explain negative attitudes toward other social groups perceived to be low status as well. [Italics and bold emphasis, mine]

Looking at the long view, in light of these studies, and with regard to the rapid proliferation of identitarian ideologies across the political spectrum in recent years, it has become clear to scholars and to the general public that group identity essentialism has become a big problem that we must all acknowledge and work together to find solutions for.

And given the accelerant of social media rage and the tribal in-group signaling that comes with that rage, it’s fair to say that our world is in serious trouble. What potentially makes this so much worse is the shallow thinking that has resulted from social media rage and addiction and the loss of the kind of concentration and deep cognitive study that genuine understanding has always required. It is not an overstatement to say that if we do not find a way out of this problem, we may eventually find ourselves and our societies well past the point of return as we fall ever deeper into the rabbit hole of scorched earth politics and extreme protest in place of collaboration, hope, charity and human kindness.

A Way Out of the Cynicism of Group Identity Essentialism

It’s not all cynical though. 

There is an emerging movement of thoughtful advocates who envision a much better world than the future that is envisioned by advocates on the extreme edges of political and social thought. This movement does not go along with the ideas of the side that can be called the “Extreme Identitarian Left” , and it does not go along with the side that can be called the “Extreme Nationalist Right”. The movement is decentralized, but there are oases of clarity and free thought everywhere. People are beginning to listen to those who have decidedly removed themselves from the extreme ends of the political spectrum. The Chemist and Nobel Laureate, Illya Prigogine once said that “when a system is far from equilibrium, small islands of coherence in a sea of chaos have the capacity to lift the entire system to a higher order.” And from the looks of it, we just might see the emergence of a higher order in the coming years when the yearning for society’s return to the appreciation of shared mutual reality (truth) and grace reaches critical mass.

But, we’re not out of the woods yet. We will need to amplify the voices that have eschewed totalist ideologies—voices that champion compassion, truth, sincerity and hope. Chloe Valdary is such a voice.

Continued in Part 3: How Chloé Valdary's "Theory of Enchantment" Transcends Cynicism