Essentialism is antithetical to secular ethics.
As a scholar in the humanities and social sciences, I teach my students about essentialism when I teach about identity. Essentialism, neatly defined by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic in Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, is the “search for the unique essence of a group.” They further discuss essentialism as “paring something down until the heart of the matter stands alone.”
Obviously, essentialism has a political dimension; we can use it to think through the treatment of groups based on their group identity, whether those groups are advocating for fairer treatment (when under the law, this is a key premise in critical race theory, as well as feminist and queer theory) or for better representation in the arts and culture, or in medical studies or treatment.
Teaching about essentialism is always a bit uncomfortable, though, because when I ask my students for examples, I acknowledge that I’m asking them to paraphrase some nasty stereotypes in the classroom. This is because essentialism and stereotype have a firm relationship: if you believe that someone in an identity group partakes of unchanging, universal, fixed essences or traits, that will lead to stereotyping and oversimplification of that group. I make sure to reassure my students that I’m not trying to trick or trap them into saying mean things, and I give a few innocuous (ish) examples myself: women are reputed to be bad drivers, Asian students are particularly good at math, and so on.
Essentialism is inherently reductive. When you boil a group down to its internal, shared essence —women are nurturing, men are driven and independent; white kids do better in school than black kids because they’re smarter—you ignore the complex reality of group identity and all the contextual factors that go into it. You ignore nurture in favor of nature, or as I call it in my classes, cultural constructionism or just constructionism. This refers to how our environments and our cultures influence who we become; it doesn’t just come down to genes or chromosomes or skin color or whatever.
I would hope that all secular folk are already on board with striving for anti-essentialist views. I’d imagine that many of us have been on the receiving end of stereotypes: the godless, immoral atheist; the wishy-washy agnostic, and so on. And if we don’t like being stereotyped, why would we do that to others?
Further, while many essentialist viewpoints try to erroneously root themselves in science (see: horrid eugenics beliefs of the last century), the more research I do, the more it becomes clear to me that chromosomes and skin color, and other physically-ingrained traits don’t actually do that much to shape an individual’s identity, except insofar as society treats that identity as essential.
This leads me to my concept of anti-essentialist ethics. Does advocating against essentialist and stereotyped views mean we treat all people the same? Of course not. From a social justice perspective, there are still many groups that are marginalized, and we should address and rectify those oppressive forces.
Right now, I’m thinking about anti-essentialist ethics less in terms of what people are than what people need. As a feminist, I’m obviously against gender discrimination, which can range from overt to subtle. And even as a very constructionist-leaning feminist, I’m not here to deny that there are often some physical differences between sexed bodies… but applying the “what people are vs. what people need” concept really just means that bodies with cervixes probably need cervical cancer scans, and bodies with prostates probably need prostate exams. Bodies that can give birth need accommodations for that process, which is one reason I’m annoyed that the U.S. continues to drag its feet when it comes to parental leave.
From an anti-essentialist viewpoint, I choose to reject the junk science of today that is racist, sexist, and transphobic, just as the junk science of a century ago was obviously those things but also glaringly homophobic in ways that are cringe-worthy now (here I’m thinking of criminal profiling attempts discussed in Jennifer Terry and Jacqueline Urla’s edited collection Deviant Bodies, wherein the scientific search for “homosexual bodies” was not just bad science but also full of inaccurate generalizations and gender norms projected onto bodies).
We are social creatures who live in a world built of language as well as physicality. Thus it’s not always easy to see beyond our imported ideas about identity, many of which ideas are quite essentialist in nature. But I plan to try.
One of the series I plan to run on this blog is about applying this notion of anti-essentialist ethics to various cultural and pop-cultural phenomena that intrigue and appall me. For instance, I know that the book Women Who Run With the Wolves is quite popular, and I read it over a decade ago…but its insistence on some uniquely feminine essence rubs me the wrong way. Why does this appeal to people? Whom does it exclude? What does an anti-essentialist lens give us in these conversations?
So, stay tuned for more probing essays on anti-essentialist ethics. I think it’s a worthwhile perspective for nonreligious people to add to our toolkits.