A Difference Without a Division

With the increasingly documented genetic reality of human biodiversity washing over the gunwales of Utopian universalism, there’s a word on the rise in liberal circles: essentialism. It’s used to make a retreat from discredited Lewontinian denial of genetic differences, without really ceding any ideological ground. In effect it says:

“OK, OK — we’ll admit that there actually are genetic differences between human groups. [Soon, as the evidence becomes completely overwhelming, we’ll be denying that we ever denied it!] But you’re still racist to think that genetic differences would have any sort of real-world consequences.”

The foundation is cracking a little here, because the Left is terribly fond of “born that way” arguments when they can get any traction from them. But if that’s the case — that some human characteristics are inborn, and therefore not the product of culture or “nurture” — then the only way to argue consistently against salient statistical variation of innate characteristics among distinct human groups is to deny that those groups are really genetically distinct at all. But it’s becoming more and more obvious that that’s no longer a defensible position — an obvious refutation of it is the fact that companies like 23 and Me can pin down your race and ancestry very well indeed from a DNA sample.

So: what’s a goodthinkful Progressive to do? Easy: concede genetic diversity, but call thinking-that-it-matters “essentialism”, and squint your eyes and Hope Real Hard.

Here’s a good example from The Forward:

…the evidence that HBD proponents adduce shows only that different genetic populations are just that: different. That’s certainly not news to geneticists, and it’s rather intuitive for the rest of us.

“Rather intuitive”, is it, now? Funny, I’ve been paying attention long enough to remember the idea being received rather differently, not so long ago. But as Schopenhauer explained, “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”

A little further on:

The weight of scientific evidence supports the reality of relative genetic difference, but not the essentialist divisions that form the basis for race theory — and the racist agenda of the alt-right.

There it is, nature-lovers: the squid, retreating, emits a puff of ink. The differences, we must reluctantly admit, are real, but not the “essentialist divisions”.

“Essentialist”. Keep an ear out for it!

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4 Comments

  1. JK says

    Funny, I’ve been paying attention long enough to remember the idea being received rather differently, not so long ago.

    “Not so long ago” as in, give it three days and it’ll be a month funny?

    http://www.theroot.com/articles/politics/2016/07/the-alt-right-debutante-ball-how-a-racist-group-hijacked-the-gop-and-rnc/

    Posted August 17, 2016 at 9:36 am | Permalink
  2. I’ve been hearing “essentialist” used as a criticism since the early 1980s – which corresponds to my move from Baylor to Berkeley – and I could at times scarcely get a word in edgewise during a discussion without being accused of “essentialism”!

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted August 17, 2016 at 7:25 pm | Permalink
  3. Kevin Kim says

    Jeff et al.,

    Like an ancient devil, it has gone by different names in postmodernist circles: essentialism, foundationalism, reificationism, “metaphysics of presence.” My original attraction to PoMo had much to do with its anti-essentialism, which I saw as a bridge to Buddhism, which is also anti-essentialist in tone and rhetoric. Eventually, I realized PoMo and Buddhism weren’t saying the same thing at all: one of them was garbage. This new focus on essentialism is garbage, too.

    Posted August 19, 2016 at 3:14 am | Permalink
  4. Kevin,

    If it flows from Leftist ideology, it’s garbage by definition. Because Leftist.

    Posted August 19, 2016 at 5:17 pm | Permalink