Thursday, 23 April 2015

Essentialism

Yesterday, I was walking behind a woman pushing a buggy. “You’re a naughty boy” she said, leaning down towards the (invisible) child. Maybe the child cried a bit or said something and she repeated “You’re a naughty boy”. As I passed them by on the pavement, she repeated, “You’re a naughty boy”. No further words.

I was uncomfortable. No, no - I thought - You don’t say that. You say ‘That was a naughty thing to do’. If you want him to understand what is and isn’t allowed, you criticise the act - not the boy. You don’t essentialise things, making them manifestations of some essence he possesses as if it was like fair hair or brown eyes.

My mind wandered over the subject. It bumped up against something that happened before I was born. My mother had gone to full term and was then delivered of a still born child. In the depression which followed, she went out to the backyard toilet of her mother’s house and cut her throat. One of her sisters found her. “You wicked girl!” she exclaimed, confirming exactly what my mother at that moment felt about herself.

Essentialising to the person is a characteristic move in religious ways of thinking - at least, in many of its varieties. But it’s not exclusive to religion.

Of course, do enough things in some category X, Y or Z and then it is hard to avoid the conclusion that you are a naughty boy or a wilful boy or a stupid boy. But the conclusion should be withheld as long as possible – most certainly in the case of children.

Someone makes a racist remark and gets called a racist; someone says something sexist and they are a sexist. That’s far too hasty. They may have just been thoughtless or saying what everyone says or feeling spiteful at that moment or feeling thoroughly miserable. 

In the absence of more knowledge, it’s right to say “That was a racist remark” – and if the person replies, “Yeah, that’s because I’m a racist” then you know where they are coming from. But in the absence of further knowledge, you shouldn’t jump to that conclusion yourself. If they say, “I didn’t mean it like that” or “I didn’t realise”, then the answer may well be truthful and true and ought to be accepted as such.


If you condemn other people the first time they put a foot wrong you simply deprive them of the chance to make moral progress in their lives. And you may also imply that you yourself have no further moral progress to make. Without sin, you go around casting the first stones.