Individuals, Groups, and Hate Crimes

Posted By Sherry F. Colb

In my column for this week, I discuss an anti-abortion billboard that asserts that "Black Children Are An Endangered Species."  I compare this assertion to the notion that African-American men are endangered, and I explain both the strengths and weaknesses of the analogy.  One small part of my critique of the billboard takes up the poverty of the "endangered species" metaphor, for humans and nonhumans alike, on the grounds that to speak of a "species" as endangered is to ignore the inherent worth of the individuals who happen to be members of that "species" (whether metaphorical or actual).  In this post, I want to explore further the difference between valuing individuals as individuals, on the one hand, and valuing them only as exemplars of their groups, on the other.

One common feature of fetishizing a group, whether it is a species, a racial or religious group, or a cultural community, is that it tends to treat each individual member as less important than the group as a whole.  If the group will benefit from the sacrifice of the interests of one or more individuals, then it becomes acceptable -- and even laudable -- to sacrifice those interests, however weighty.  To place the group's interests above those of the individual, in other words, is to view the individual in instrumental terms rather than as an end in himself or herself.

This sort of thinking is very much on display in discussions of endangered (nonhuman animal) species.  The purpose of prohibiting the killing of a particular kind of animal, on this approach, is to ensure that we humans can live on a planet that contains that kind of animal.  If an individual wolf or sea mammal benefits from this, the benefit is only an incidental one that will, moreover, end as soon as there are enough exemplars of that animal's DNA to take the group off the "endangered" or "threatened" list.

Does such thinking similarly degrade discussions of racism?  Some might argue that it is in the interest of African Americans to have people focus on the group rather than on the individual.  Reactionary political maneuvering, for example, will sometimes hold up a particular African-American individual who has "beaten the odds" (whether educationally, economically, or otherwise) as a means of condemning other African Americans who have not been so lucky.  The implicit message is "she made it; why can't you?"

Such cynical tactics, however, are destructive because they ignore the circumstances in which so many individual African Americans find themselves.  Invoking the success of other individuals, fewer in number, serves to erase the struggles of most and to attach responsibility for their predicament to the particular individuals.  This is less a matter of attending to the individual than it is of ignoring structural forces by emphasizing outliers and thereby disregarding the differential challenges that face people on the basis of race.  The move is comparable to what a tobacco company does (or did in the past) when it showcases a heavy smoker who never developed lung cancer or emphysema in support of the claim that smoking is consistent with good health.

Invoking the experience of an individual who defies the odds to deny the validity of (and reasons for) other' experiences does no honor to the individual.  When I speak of focusing on groups, I do not refer to gathering facts by looking beyond the individual -- this is how we get a more complete picture of what is going on, as a descriptive matter.  I mean to refer to practices that identify groups rather than the individuals within those groups as the relevant body to consider in making judgments and policy choices.

To value the group at the expense of the individual is to negate the particular worth and entitlement of each individual.  Accordingly, it is the perpetrator of a hate crime (or a genocide) who overlooks the individual and sees every member of the devalued group as merely an exemplar of the enemy, to be enslaved or assaulted or killed on that basis.  The racist fails to see how much he or she shares with the object of racism and instead views an individual as "one of them" and therefore outside the circle of concern.  The same is true of speciesism, the practice of dismissing the inherent value of an individual sentient being, by virtue of the fact that the being is not human.

Consider an argument that sometimes surfaces when the topic of abolishing animal use comes up.  People assert that farmed animals (including cows, pigs, sheep, chickens, ducks, turkeys, geese, goats, and fishes) have been the most "successful" at survival because people choose to consume them.  That is, the species with the largest numbers of members are those whose flesh and bodily fluids we eat and whose skin we remove (or "de-hide", often -- because of the sheer numbers -- while animals are still alive) to use for clothing or accessories.  The fact that every individual animal undergoes terrible pain and emotional trauma (including routine and wrenching separation from loved ones so the latter may be killed) and is slaughtered when she is still a baby or adolescent is beside the point in discussions of how "successful" the species have been.

This "success" argument takes as its premise the idea that the more of a particular kind of DNA exists, the better it is for those beings who possess that DNA.  On this reasoning, if one group of human beings were to enslave and breed another group of human beings until the latter became ten times more numerous than the former, the enslaved humans would have proved to be more "successful" than the slave-masters.  This would be true even if -- as in animal agriculture -- the enslaved humans were kept in captivity, subject to torture, made to lose everyone who cared about them, and were finally led in a "kill line" to their deaths at a slaughterhouse as children or young adults.  To call this existence success would be strange indeed, and it is no less so when the supposedly successful beings happen to be cows or chickens.

To use an individual being as a thing -- to inflict suffering and death on a living creature to obtain a tasty snack -- is wrong.  (And the fact that such snacks are easily replaced with tastier and healthier vegan food only makes the wrong more incomprehensible).  And when one commits that wrong simply because the individual belongs to a devalued group, then that wrong is akin to racism, misogyny and other forms of hate crimes.