The danger of categorical thinking

Simon Glücklich, <em>Paar im Gespräch</em> (Wikimedia Commons)
Simon Glücklich, Paar im Gespräch (Wikimedia Commons)

Last week, Suzanna Danuta Walters, a professor of gender studies at Northeastern University, published an op-ed in The Washington Post titled, “Why Can’t We Hate Men?” It turned out that the piece’s appalling title was an accurate distillation of Professor Walters’s extraordinarily simplistic thesis: women the world over have suffered for millennia, and men are categorically to blame. The concluding paragraph, in particular, articulates this sentiment to the point of caricature, asking men to: “Pledge to vote for feminist women only. Don’t run for office. Don’t be in charge of anything. Step away from the power. We got this. And please know that your crocodile tears won’t be wiped away by us anymore. We have every right to hate you. You have done us wrong. #BecausePatriarchy.”

It brought to mind another disturbing op-ed that took a similar rhetorical line in The New York Times last November under the title, “Can My Children Be Friends With White People?” In it, Cardozo law professor Ekow N. Yankah wrote: “Donald Trump’s election has made it clear that I will teach my boys the lesson generations old, one that I for the most part nearly escaped. I will teach them to be cautious, I will teach them suspicion, and I will teach them distrust. Much sooner than I thought I would, I will have to discuss with my boys whether they can truly be friends with white people.” He continues, “these recent months have put in the starkest relief the contempt with which the country measures the value of racial minorities.” The ridiculous thing, he concludes, “was thinking friendship was possible in the first place.”

How the election of Donald Trump with a minority of the popular vote can possibly count as proof of how the country as a whole “measures the value of racial minorities” is the most obvious flaw in the argument. But the argument—like the blanket case against men above—is not so much about precision as it is about emotion: specifically, the catharsis of condemnation. I understand that editors run arguments like these to challenge readers’ opinions and inspire fresh thought (and, of course, to attract clicks). What is far less clear, though, is who could ever be persuaded by them.

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Thomas Chatterton Williams is the author of a memoir, Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man’s Escape from the Crowd. He lives in Paris with his wife and daughter.


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