Online rhetoric with a face in mind

If you’ve spent at least a semester at Williams, you’re probably familiar with WSO discussions that advance at the speed of light, increasing in absurdity as they unfold. While I’m neither quick nor clever enough to participate in this virtual world, I do my best to absorb its most outrageous moments. Fortunately, my talent for procrastination is indiscriminate, so I usually stay up-to-date. Most recently, the flurry of comments triggered by a poorly chucked snowball, as well as the outpour of theories about alcohol consumption, inspired me so much that I decided to write my first op-ed for the Record.

Because many WSO bloggers subscribe to thorough standards of argumentation, I’ll begin with a definition or two. On the most basic level, to generalize means to express something general on the basis of particulars. In common parlance, generalizations signify sweeping statements, or supposed truths derived from limited evidence.

These days, we often link generalizations to everybody’s favorite word: stereotype. If I stereotype an individual according to his race, I see him through the lens of generalizations that I’ve made about his racial group. I project a whole constellation of simplified ideas about this category of people onto my new acquaintance, with the assumption that they apply to him. This probably leads me to form judgments about him before I become familiar with the particulars of his story.

Generalizing is a part of everyday life. Even if the ideas associated with a group of people respond to changing social circumstances, it will never become possible to read someone absent of any mental or physical context. Ultimately, a project that aims to abolish the practice of stereotyping once and for all is lacking a nuanced understanding of human behavior. Instead, we might try to break through the surface of our stereotypes in order to examine the tangled mass of generalizations in which they are rooted. We might question the origin of our generalizations and think critically about their function. By cultivating a deeper awareness of our social tendencies, we can learn to construct more useful conversations about issues like race. Otherwise, we tend to get wrapped up in modes of interaction that contribute to obscurity rather than alleviating it.

I want to jumpstart this dialogue by considering one type of exchange I noticed on the recent WSO threads. In certain discussions, students invoked categories of people in order to formulate broad claims. For example, “rich people” or “poor people” were presented as general groups in order to consider the way class might influence our behavior at Williams. When we compare the experiences of two groups, we hold sets of circumstances up next to one another, in the hopes of examining similarities and differences. Often, this leads to abstraction. In striving to place the privileges of “the rich” next to the travails of “the poor” for further study, we tend to place our categories above the realm of variegated individual experience. Presented at a distance from real people and articulated in the service of an abstract argument, descriptions of “what it’s like to be rich” and “what it’s like to be poor” lose the nuance that makes them real.

Generalizations based on group identity certainly have their time and place: sociological claims rarely proceed on the narrow plane of individual experience. Still, it’s important to consider the implications that analytic abstraction might have for discussions about race and class. Only then can we determine the most productive forum for this type of conversation.

Generalized descriptions of a group can easily become the symbolic playing field for internal ambivalence and personal grudge-bearing. Someone may identify as Christian, but this does not mean her association with Christianity is easy to simplify. It’s likely that at least one generalized conception of the way “Christian people” behave will not match the particulars of her experience. This disjunction may place her in the uncomfortable position of feeling either included but misidentified, or excluded from a prior identification.

Face-to-face interaction is an indispensable corollary to the kind of theoretical generalization employed by many respected academic arguments – I’m talking about WSO, of course. Non-virtual conversations solidify our positions as real people with particularized biographies. In other words, discussing race or class in person helps to situate us within a context of individual bodies with personal histories, even if these particulars are not the basis for our general argumentation.
Built into the very practice of group identification is a tension between individuals and groups. The inherent abstraction of an online forum like WSO can further complicate a web of associations that is already quite complex. Of course, we can always click on those hyperlinked names to reveal the identity of a WSO blogger, but this hardly substantiates a person. There is a simple but important value, for instance, in facial expressions that might hold us accountable. Plus, most of our WSO pictures are really ancient and awkward, and a lot of them just link to smiley faces or purple cows anyway.

Samantha Demby ’10 is a political science major from Brooklyn, N.Y.